Can Kansas repeat as national champs? Recent history says no.
March 15, 2023 Updated Wed., March 15, 2023 at 9:29 p.m.
Now here comes Kansas, hurled atop the roughhouse West Region and told to function as best it can. It will try to repeat as men’s national champion, a faint prospect the nation barely discussed during a regular season muddled beyond muddled. Maybe the nation has given up on such matters. Maybe the nation should.
It’s not just that only two programs have repeated in the past 50 years – Duke in 1992 and Florida in 2007. It’s that the past 14 defending champions haven’t reached the Final Four or even the Elite Eight, so nobody’s had a chance to yak much about the idea.
Four of the 14 have gasped to the Sweet 16, four to the second round, two to the first round (Virginia in 2021 while defending two years later) …
… and four to the NIT.
None of those four even won the NIT.
“I don’t know if people truly understand how hard it is but also how rewarding it is,” a great coach once said, and that was Billy Donovan of the Chicago Bulls, upon arrival at the 2007 Final Four in Atlanta with his Florida Gators. As he spoke, they hadn’t repeated yet.
“Every time you win and you get a chance to advance (a round), cherish it,” a great coach once said, and that was Jay Wright, after the second round in Buffalo in 2017. His Villanova, a No. 1 seed at 32-3, had just taken a 65-62 thud into the barbed wire known as Wisconsin, ending the careers of the great Josh Hart and the historic Kris Jenkins.
“Oh, I think I care a lot,” Kansas point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. said of the idea of repeating. “You know, we’ve got a great team, great role players; we’ve got a star player, Jalen (Wilson). So if we just keep staying together and do what we do, keep playing hard and have a lot of energy out there, nobody in the country can play with us.”
While he spoke without arrogance, he also spoke the night before Texas beat Kansas 76-56 in the Big 12 championship game. Then again, seven of the past 10 national champions did not win their conference tournament that year. Then again, 55 of Kansas’s 72 points from the 2022 national title game, and 30 of its 35 rebounds, went on to other places, be those places Denver or Utah or Greece or Turkey or Germany.
It’s something of a feat, then, that Kansas (27-7) just became the fourth defending national champion since Florida to snare a No. 1 seed. Duke in 2011 went barreling into the West Region semifinals at 32-4 before running into Derrick Williams and Arizona’s 55-33 blitz of a second half, which brought a 93-77 loss. Asked about how the Wildcats’ energy overran the Blue Devils’ during that astounding second half, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski might have spoken for so much of this event through so many of the years when he said, “I can’t explain that.”
No. 1 seed Villanova in 2017 smacked into its second-round fence. No. 1 seed Baylor in 2022 reached the East Region’s second round, saw a 25-point deficit against North Carolina, made up that deficit to force overtime and lost 93-86.
The other Sweet 16-goers of the 14 included Kansas in 2009 (No. 3 seed, lost 67-62 to No. 2 seed Michigan State), Louisville in 2014 (No. 4, lost 74-69 to No. 8 seed Kentucky), and Duke in 2016 (No. 4, lost 82-68 to No. 1 seed Oregon). After that, the Madness started on its current five-tournament run with defending champions trapped in the first weekend: Villanova in 2017, North Carolina in 2018 (an 86-65 pelting by Texas A&M in the second round), Villanova in 2019 (an 87-61 mauling by Carsen Edwards and Purdue in the second round), Virginia in 2021 (a 62-58 loss to No. 13 seed Ohio in the first round) and Baylor in 2022.
Gauging the puzzle in prehistoric 2007, Donovan presented a formula almost mathematical: “The biggest thing: You’re spending more time in areas of your life maybe you didn’t have a year ago, outside influences, people trying to talk to them about things that have no bearing on our team.” He spent the late spring of 2006 trying to “work on a distraction list, so to speak,” so as to bring that list to light and then try to quash it.
By 2022, Baylor coach Scott Drew spoke of updated hindrances: “Because in this day, if you win it all, probably you have a lot of pros that leave. And then with the transfer portal, people leave. And it’s hard to have enough talent or chemistry or experience to repeat.”
So, 16 years.
“Really?” Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts said, as he filled in as head coach for then-hospitalized Bill Self at the Big 12 tournament.
“It’s a motivator,” he said, “(but) we want to just play as well as we possibly can play. We don’t really talk about that, repeating, but we know we have an opportunity to, and you know, we’ve got to take it game by game because when you’re at Kansas, we know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot.”
It’s No. 16 seed Howard (22-12) to start, then either No. 8 Arkansas (20-13) or No. 9 Illinois (20-12), then maybe No. 4 Connecticut (25-8) if the seeds hold, then maybe No. 2 UCLA (29-5) or No. 3 Gonzaga (28-5).
“But I think now that we’ve kind of tasted that sweetness of getting there,” Kansas sophomore forward KJ Adams Jr. said, “I think we know how good that tastes and just try to get there a little more than other teams.
“I think just that the bulk of people that were veterans that we had last year, they really shared a lot of knowledge with us and were kind of just good leaders and good teachers, and it kind of rubbed off on everybody, all the newcomers and all the freshmen last year.” He said the idea of how elusive repeating has become helps “a lot” as an enticer.
Two seats down, freshman Gradey Dick said, “I’d say more that fans think about that, and obviously it’s out there.”
It’s out there but not buzzing much out there, not as it was when, say, UNLV won the 1990 national title 103-73 over Duke and went to the 1991 Final Four at 34-0 with a team largely intact and then played a final possession of startling disorder and lost 79-77 to Duke. Or when Kentucky of 1996 to 1998 almost went three straight, going 17-1 in the tournament, winning in the bookend years and reaching the final in the middle. And it’s not as it was 16 years ago when Donovan said of his big men not leaving after the first title, “It’s very, very rare,” and said of March Madness, “I don’t know if it crowns the best team.”
As he knew well, that’s crucial to its allure.
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