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Kansas’ season ends in Final Four loss to Villanova

April 1, 2018

Kansas' Mitch Lightfoot (44), Marcus Garrett (0) and Udoka Azubuike (35) sit in the locker room after a semifinal game against Villanova in the semifinals of the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 31, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Bill Self insisted all season long that the Kansas team he put on the court night after night was different from those of the past, its margin for error thinner than perhaps in any other season.

Even when it was busy winning a 14th consecutive Big 12 title.

So he was just as surprised as anybody when the Jayhawks, led by Devonte Graham and Malik Newman, went on a memorable March run. They rolled to another Big 12 Tournament title, breezed through the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament and knocked off Duke en route to the Final Four.

Did they play over their heads? It sure looked so on Saturday night.

The Jayhawks were run right out of San Antonio by fellow No. 1 seed Villanova, falling behind 18-4 in the opening minutes and never getting within single digits again. Every run was answered, every dunk offset by a 3-pointer, and the result was a 95-79 loss to the Wildcats one lamentable step short of playing for their first national championship since 2008.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” Self said. “We did not have the perfect roster in many ways to probably win 31 games and win the league in a great league, and the conference tournament and get to the Final Four. And to be honest with you, it felt like it kind of just caught up to us.

“The kids laid it out there,” he said, “and it seemed to catch up to us.”

The problem with playing for Kansas is the sometimes otherworldly expectations. The kids that took Loyola-Chicago on its own unforgettable Final Four run will go down in history there, remembered by generations to come. But while Graham and Co. will be remembered every time someone stares at the Final Four banner that will hang in Allen Fieldhouse, only titles result in legendary status.

So call it a successful season. Just not a perfect one.

“I’m not going to think sour about this at all,” Self said. “We’ve been in enough Elite Eight games and lost them. So getting here was obviously special, and everything would have had to go (right) the way Villanova played. We would have had to play a perfect basketball game.”

The Jayhawks now look toward their future with equal sense sadness and optimism.

The sadness rests in the fact that Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk, the rarest of breeds these days as legitimate four-year stars, will be headed to the NBA. They could be joined by Newman, whose superb NCAA Tournament no doubt sent his stock soaring, and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, whose raw skills make him a tantalizing prospect but would improve by leaps with another season in Lawrence.

“It’s not the way you want it to end,” Graham said Saturday night. “I just knew it was my last time coming off the court in a Kansas uniform and just got really emotional. But it has been a great ride, great journey. These last four years have been a blessing.”

The optimism lies in the fact that Kansas could be far more talented next season.

Azubuike returning would provide the anchor for a team that would go from a four-guard nightmare to a post-powered crew. Silvio De Sousa provided a nice late-season punch after graduating high school in December, and he’ll have a full summer under his belt. They’ll also get eligible 6-9 forward Dedric Lawson and his brother, 6-8 swingman K.J. Lawson, after their transfer from Memphis.

Throw in 6-10 forward David McCormack, a five-star prospect, and the Jayhawks will have the size to tangle with anybody in the Big 12 — or the country, for that matter.

Even if Newman leaves early, there is plenty of talent in the backcourt, too.

Charlie Moore will be eligible after transferring from California, while the trio of Lagerald Vick, Marcus Garrett and Sam Cunliffe are expected back. They’ll be joined by five-star prospects Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, a one-two punch to rival any backcourt in the country.

Kansas also is a finalist for Romeo Langford, the top uncommitted prospect left in the nation.

Regardless of whether he commits, the Jayhawks have the talent, depth and experience to be favored to win their 15th consecutive Big 12 championship. They may even be the preseason No. 1, favored to take the last couple of steps in March that they failed to this season.

“We should keep our heads up,” Grahams said. “We had an unbelievable season. You know, it’s not the way you want it to end. But even if you lost by one point it will still hurt. And we all just — we just need to keep our heads up, and it’s going to hurt now but we’ll be all right.”

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