SAN ANTONIO – And the Big 12 Conference championship drought continues.
Well, the Texas men’s swimming program won its fourth consecutive NCAA national championship a week ago, so there’s that. And Oklahoma’s women’s softball team won the national championship last season, so there’s that.
But the last “meaningful” – as in either football or men’s basketball – championship game was 10 years ago when Kansas defeated Memphis in overtime.
Before that, in football, it was Texas winning the BCS championship in 2005. In the interim, Texas lost a national championship game in football in 2009 and Kansas lost the 2012 title game in 2012.
Oklahoma has twice lost in the semifinals of the College Football Playoffs. The Sooners also made the 2016 Final Four but lost in the semifinals. And Kansas followed that path Saturday as the top-seeded Jayhawks made an inspiring run to the Final Four only to have No. 1 seed Villanova shoot the lights out – literally, the ribbon board at the Alamodome was shut down after it malfunctioned.
The Wildcats advanced to the title game, where they’ll face No. 3 seed Michigan, but also “won” the Big 12 title. Villanova’s last three victims in the NCAA Tournament have been West Virginia, Texas Tech and now the Jayhawks, the regular-season champions (for a record 14th consecutive seasons) and tournament champs.
The last time a team knocked off Big 12 teams in three consecutive NCAA games was 2003 when Syracuse beat Oklahoma in the regional final, Texas in the Final Four semifinal and Kansas in the championship game.
Villanova players can “claim” a Big 12 title and if they beat Michigan, the school’s second title in the last three seasons.
Villanova also ended KU’s season in 2016, beating the Jayhawks in the regional final. In the 2016 Final Four semifinal, the Wildcats eviscerated Oklahoma, 95-51 – the biggest margin of victory in Final Four history. Coach Jay Wright’s team made more history against the Jayhawks. Villanova was 18-of-40 from 3-point range, setting a Final Four record for made threes and equaling the record for 3-point attempts.
In its last two Final Four semifinals vs. Oklahoma (2016) and Kansas (2018), Villanova is 72-114 (63.1 percent) from the field and 39-58 (67.2 percent) from 3-point range. If the Wildcats are the opponent for a Big 12 team in the Final Four semifinals or final, Wright’s team will likely be exceedingly confident about its offensive production.
Kansas has one championship to show for its last seven trips to the Final Four but the Jayhawks’ appearance at least gave the Big 12 a representative for the final weekend. The analytics and computers have placed the Big 12 on top of Division I conferences in recent years but that numerical dominance has not translated into March Madness success. For the first time since 2002, the Big 12 placed three teams in the Elite Eight but Kansas State and Texas Tech couldn’t advance further.
After losing in the regional finals each of the last two seasons, the Jayhawks victory over No. 2 seed Duke in the Midwest Regional final was a stunning accomplishment. The Blue Devils had a decided size advantage but somehow KU’s four-guard lineup was able to gain a 47-32 rebounding edge.
Villanova can shoot and make 3-pointers from all five positions. That put Kansas in a difficult situation because 7-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike had rarely spent time defending opponents who weren’t playing close to the basket. The Jayhawks had six days to prepare.
“We tried to devise a ball screen defensive plan which, we thought, would eliminate some of the (Villanova) actions,” said Kansas coach Bill Self whose team got behind 22-4 in the first seven minutes as Villanova made six triples. “It looked good in practice, though, but it certainly wasn’t very good. My gosh, we’re seven minutes in and this thing is — we’re going to have to play just about perfect to get back.”
Self, who a year ago was announced as one of the inductees to the 2017 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, had a hall of fame effort coaxing a flawed team to a 31-8 record while maintaining the remarkable streak of regular-season Big 12 titles.
In defeating Duke, Kansas was able to spackle its vulnerabilities and play to its strengths.
It wasn’t a case of lackadaisical defense against Villanova. The Wildcats’ accuracy from deep was simply impossible to counter. With 14:16 to play, Villanova’s Donte DiVincenzo made a three to give the Wildcats a 62-42 lead. At that point, Villanova was 16-of-32 from three while Kansas was 16-of-37 … from the field.
“To me it would be a sour ending if you lost on the last possession,” Self said. “Do you feel better losing the way we did today or losing on the last possession? Getting here was obviously special and the way Villanova played, we would have had to play a perfect basketball game in order to put ourselves in a position to win. And obviously that didn’t occur.”