Picking a Bracket Is Hard, But We Should’ve Seen Kansas’ Title Run Coming

Another March Madness has come and gone. But for me, 2022 was a bit more personal than usual. That’s because the Kansas Jayhawks won the NCAA Tournament for the first time since I enrolled there in 2012.

We spend our spring days filling out bracket upon bracket, hoping for the slim chance that one of our brackets doesn’t get busted. Yet, we typically end up with the shards of our picks in our trash can, frustrated over the inevitable fact that keeping a bracket intact is practically impossible.

To nobody’s surprise, trying to predict the future is a futile exercise.

It’s an interesting scenario, then, when your favorite team – your alma mater – wins the tournament, and the dripping frustration of failed analytics and the ultimate crapshoot of predicting sports fades into the pure beauty of rewarded fandom. This isn’t the first time the Jayhawks have won the tournament during my lifetime, and it probably won’t be the last.

But with this championship, I can’t help but think about fate, the way things end up after weeks of unknowns. There’s a level of inevitability to Kansas’ title, Bill Self’s second since arriving in Lawrence in 2004, and it’s one that mirrors the runs of previous NCAA Tournament champions.

Kansas came from 15 down at halftime to beat North Carolina. It wasn’t the way the ‘Hawks envisioned winning their fourth championship in program history, but it was a testament to their offensive firepower and confident composure. (Associated Press)

Sure, the field narrows from 68 to one, but that one follows a plan, and everything must fall into place for this plan to work. Kansas’ plan wasn’t perfect, but its execution was as sound as can be.

Pick a number one seed, but not the top-ranked seed

Kansas joins a group of 13 one seeds to win championships in the past 18 seasons, meaning it’s highly likely that a one seed will come out on top nowadays. But of those 13 one seeds, only three of them were the number one overall seed since top seeds became a thing in 2004 – this year’s Jayhawks not included.

In fact, of those three teams, you’ve got the repeat champions in Florida in 2007 and Anthony Davis’ Kentucky in 2012 – two of the 2000s’ most talented and obvious picks to win it all.

Only three number one overall seeds have won the national championship in 18 seasons. During that time, Kansas (2010), Villanova (2017), and Virginia (2018) didn’t even make it out of the first weekend.

This means that the number one overall seed wins it all less than a quarter of the time, which isn’t very good odds. Kansas has been this unfortunate squad multiple times since 2008, getting upset by Northern Iowa in 2010 and worn down by the eventual champion Villanova in 2016.

Clearly being the top-ranked team isn’t the high honor it’s made out to be: Having that target on your back clearly adds more pressure, and sometimes that pressure can break even the best teams.

So, what does this mean? Well, Kansas was not the number one overall seed this year, and I knew all along that boded well for them. They’re now the fifth-straight tournament champion to be a number one seed but not the number one overall seed, joining a crew of champions from the right side of the bracket (either the number two or number three team).

That doesn’t mean Kansas was the obvious choice all along. I fell in love with another one seed, Arizona, from the second they started obliterating opponents in the Pac-12 this year, and they were my (embarrassingly wrong) choice to win the tournament. I should’ve known better, but I also was afraid of jinxing my Jayhawks.

Look out for experienced squads

When I say I should’ve known better, I should have kept in mind this: Arizona was one of the least experienced teams in college basketball this season, led by mostly sophomores (Bennedict Mathurin, Kerr Krisa, Azuolas Tubelis, etc.) who had never played in the tournament before, plus a coach in his first season (Tommy Lloyd).

Kansas, on the other hand, came in with tons of experience. Sure, they got manhandled by USC in the tournament last season, but they boasted one of the strongest inside-out combos in college basketball, with both Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack returning for their senior seasons. Add super senior Remy Martin to the mix, and this collective was seasoned and driven.

Tyus Jones got hot in the 2015 national championship game, leading Duke to its fifth title against Wisconsin. In a battle of young guns versus seasoned veterans, sometimes the young guns are simply too talented. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Experience is clearly key, with just a few exceptions. Since 2004, only two champions featured more than one freshman in their lineup, and the 2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke teams were loaded with future NBA talent. But since 2015, every champion has been guided by players that had been there before, often overcoming adversity along the way.

  • 2016 Villanova: upset in the third round the previous two seasons
  • 2017 North Carolina: lost on a buzzer-beater in the championship the year before
  • 2018 Villanova: returned several previous championship players who were upset as the top seed the year before
  • 2019 Virginia: overcame the infamy of being the first one seed to lose to a 16 seed the year before
  • 2021 Baylor: lost one of their program’s greatest seasons due to the pandemic and struggled with coronavirus stoppages during their championship season

Kansas overcame plenty of adversity in 2022, including the fact that they lost a great season of their own. They were the number one team in the nation going into the conference tournament in 2020 – the year everything came to a halt due to the pandemic. (I still stand by my belief KU wouldn’t have won the tournament, considering my wariness of picking a number one overall seed.)

Experience has proven key for many national champions over the past decade. With the exceptions of Anthony Davis and Tyus Jones, every Final Four Most Outstanding Player since 2012 has been an upperclassman.

Teams like 2017 North Carolina and 2019 Virginia didn’t always look like the best team in the country, even in the tournament. But they knew how to close out games, making clutch play after clutch play – including making their free throws late.

Free throw shooting played a big part in this year’s tournament, too, aiding Villanova and North Carolina’s runs to the Final Four (both teams ranked in the top 50 in the nation in this category). That’s a surefire way to close out a close game.

This year’s Kansas team followed a similar blueprint, winning games in a multitude of ways – from low-scoring physical affairs to massive second-half offensive onslaughts (including the all-time greatest halftime comeback in the championship game against North Carolina).

Comebacks are familiar territory for Self, too. His first title came off the back of a frenetic rally late against Memphis in 2008. So you know he was keeping his players composed in the locker room last Monday night. After all, it was just another hurdle this team was ready to face.

“I said ‘Which would be harder, being down nine with two minutes left or being down 15 with 20?’ And they all said being down nine with two minutes left. So we can do this.”

-Bill Self

Bottom line: Championship teams win, no matter what it takes. No one lucks their way into six straight victories in the NCAA Tournament.

The best teams get better

Kansas relied on the leadership of three seniors: David McCormack, Ochai Agbaji, and Mitch Lightfoot (a sixth-year senior). All three provided key contributions throughout the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Kansas is a prime example of a team that gradually improved leading up to April 4. Last season, they struggled their way to a 21-9 record and a first weekend tournament exit. This season, they looked better from the start, but it was after a home loss to Kentucky (only Bill Self’s 16th home loss in 19 seasons!) that the Jayhawks caught fire.

Kansas scorched their way to Big 12 Tournament regular season and tournament championships and a number one seed. But even with an impressive 28-6 record, the success didn’t come easy.

McCormack and Agbaji had enormous ceilings going into this season, yet both had struggled with inconsistent play the previous two seasons. But Agbaji, an underrecruited Kansas City native, toiled his way to being a first-team All-American. McCormack turned in an All-Big 12 season of his own, growing stronger as a scorer and rebounder as the season went on.

Bill Self joins a rare club of college basketball coaches with multiple national titles. 16 coaches all time hold this honor, and three current coaches (not including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, who is retiring after this season).

What I loved most about this Kansas team was their mental toughness. Unlike previous Bill Self squads, this team was not loaded with NBA talent from the start – Agbaji and fellow local guard Christian Braun were not McDonald’s All-Americans coming out of high school. But they’ve made strides to get better each season.

For a while, Self had been recruiting big-name high school talent that would stay a year or two before darting for the pros, and we saw how that worked out for their team chemistry and style of play. But since Tyus Jones and Jahlil Okafor suggested the get-rich-quick scheme works, winning it all as one-and-dones with Duke in 2015, college basketball has moved in the other direction – and Self’s Jayhawks have followed.

His first group of national champions was led by seniors Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson, as well as juniors Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers. The experience was key, especially in the backcourt.

Self was back on this path with his second group of national champions, moving past the immediate gratification of Ben McLemore, Andrew Wiggins, and Josh Jackson – all great players who didn’t have enough experience to develop that killer instinct in the tournament.

Kansas’ 2008 squad flaunted more depth in 2008, but their 2022 featured a stronger backcourt. Still, the clutch play of Mario Chalmers (who hit the tying three at the end of regulation) helped them bring home Bill Self’s first title. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Experienced backcourts help teams weather the toughest storms during the postseason. No tournament run is easy, and you must win six games across three weekends – and this means playing against a variety of offenses and defenses.

Reliable ballhandling and scoring are vital: Just ask point guards Shabazz Napier, Joel Berry, Jalen Brunson, and Ty Jerome, all of whom carried their teams to titles in recent years. Last year’s Baylor team had a backcourt trio as good as we’ve ever seen in the tournament, and Gonzaga simply did not have an answer to their hot shooting.

Teams with balance are your best bet

It’s the combination of quality offense and quality defense that are the clearest signs that a team is prepared for a deep run. That should seem obvious, right?

Teams that rank near the top in offensive and defensive efficiency are the most prepared for whatever their opponents throw at them in the tournament. Baylor ranked in the top 25 in both last season, and Virginia ranked in the top six in both in 2019 – a massive offensive jump that I credit to their championship run.

I’ve been following these statistics all season, and that’s why I instantly fell in love with Arizona, who landed in the top 16 in both categories. These numbers could have helped us predict that Houston could beat them, a team that ranked even higher than Arizona on both sides of the ball.

Bennedict Mathurin averaged 17.7 points per game for Arizona season and came alive in their tournament win against TCU. But the Wildcats shot dreadfully and went home early against Houston. (Getty Images)

Efficiency ratings could quickly help us eliminate Purdue and Iowa (weak defensive teams) and Texas Tech and Tennessee (weak offensive teams). Kansas was just 47th in the country in defense, a far cry from the past few champions. But they got better on defense as the year went on, and their on-ball guarding and paint protection were key to opening up their transition game during the tournament. They don’t win it all without this aspect of their game.

Gonzaga was the most interesting storyline, since they actually got better on defense this season, following a lopsided national championship game appearance last year. They ranked in the top five in both offense and defense and looked like the strongest team in the country entering the tournament.

But the Bulldogs’ backcourt stuttered in March, with guards Julian Strawther, Rasir Bolton, and Andrew Nembhard shooting a dreadful 8-for-30 in their loss to Arkansas. Championship teams simply don’t do this when the pressure is on.

But remember what I said: Don’t pick the top overall seed (especially if it’s a team that plays in a weak conference like Gonzaga).

From a statistical standpoint, this was yet another dominant Gonzaga team, exceptionally strong on both sides of the ball. But some wonder if a weak conference schedule overrated them this year. (Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

Be wary of regular seasons and conference tournaments

I’ve often wondered why picking a bracket is so difficult.

How do people like me who pay close attention to the college basketball season – as well as experts like Jay Bilas and Seth Greenberg – get their picks so wrong, while casual fans who haven’t watched a game all season can get their picks so right?

Of course, predictions are irrational, hence why my friend’s wife picked Saint Peter’s to the Sweet 16 off of their mascot alone (who doesn’t love the name Peacocks?), while former players-turned-experts watched Final Four picks like Kentucky and Iowa lose in the first round.

But I know why the experts are always wrong: We’re just as biased as everyone else.

We fall in love with certain teams due to the way they play, certain players we’re impressed by, and certain wins (see: Kentucky winning at Allen Fieldhouse) that make us blind to their fatal flaws.

Often, we get distracted by regular season success, which doesn’t always translate to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what makes picking a bracket so much more difficult. A team can dominate their conference, but how do you know which conference is the best – especially when all you have is the eye test to compare?

Case in point: 2022 was considered a down year for the ACC, yet three of its teams made the Elite Eight and two made it to the Final Four.

Iowa powered their way through the Big Ten Tournament, beating Rutgers, Indiana, and Purdue to win the title. But Richmond, a defense-first who finished sixth in the Atlantic 10, created matchup nightmares for the Hawkeyes. (Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)
Michigan State was arguably the heaviest favorite to win the 2015 NCAA Tournament (they were my pick), even as a two seed. But Middle Tennessee pulverized their way to a shocking first-round upset, proving anything can happen in March.

It’s easy to see a team like Iowa beat several quality teams en route to a Big Ten tournament title and expect this to continue into the NCAA Tournament. But that’s not always a realistic expectation. There have been plenty of teams who flamed out in the national tournament after dominating their conference tournament, including Illinois in 2021, Michigan State in 2016, and Iowa State in 2015.

There is a caveat to this, though: Some conference tournament success is indicative of a team’s current standing. In the 21st century, no team has won the national title without getting to at least their conference tournament semifinals. So that should easily have helped you avoid picking Baylor, Auburn, Wisconsin, and Providence to win your bracket (Oh, you didn’t see this coming? Sorry for not warning you sooner).

I got to watch Kansas play in the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, and boy was I impressed with this team. Against TCU, they shot the ball well, they won the turnover battle, and they stayed one step ahead the whole game. The NCAA Tournament wasn’t this easy, but it was indicative of a team that knew how to win. You could just see it.

The Jayhawks conquered the formula

Kansas should’ve been the clear pick to win the championship based on their team’s DNA. I don’t know how I didn’t anticipate their title run all along, but maybe I was just in denial due to the fact the Jayhawks have made a recent habit of excellent regular seasons and falling short in the postseason.

Ochai Agbaji became the fourth Kansas player to be named an All-American and win a national championship during his career. He also won Big 12 Player of the Year and the Big 12 Tournament in his historically great senior season.

But this Jayhawks team was different. They may not have been Self’s most talented group, nor were they his most dominant team. But they had the makeup of a champion, including many of the traits we’ve seen in other recent national champions:

  • They were a one seed but didn’t have the pressure of being the top overall seed.
  • Their roster was loaded with upperclassmen, especially in their experienced backcourt.
  • They played great on both sides of the ball, with a historically good offense and a defense that got better throughout the postseason.
  • They looked locked in from the Big 12 Tournament on, winning games through a variety of playing styles.
  • They overcame inconsistent performances from half to half by being mentally tough and speeding up the pace of play.

It’s a special feeling to see my alma mater on top, but it’s also a weird feeling being a Kansas native myself. We’re the flyover state, the Midwestern locals who feel disrespected by both coasts. We live with that chip on our shoulders, with small-market sports teams like the Royals and Chiefs that have made a habit of defying expectations.

Kansas fans poured onto Mass Street in downtown Lawrence when the Jayhawks clinched a Final Four berth. For an 18-year-old student, they were just four years old the last time Kansas won it all. (University Daily Kansan | Tammy Ljunglad/Kansas City Star)

But Kansas basketball is different. This is a powerhouse program as good as any other in college basketball. They’ve now won four NCAA Tournament titles, and during the 2021-22 season became the winningest program in NCAA history. They’re one of the most-watched and most-touted teams year in and year out.

The prestige of this program is unlike anything else we have here in the Sunflower State (except world-class barbecue maybe). Watching Caleb Love miss as the buzzer sounded was an odd sensation, not because Kansas hadn’t been in this spot before but rather because winning a championship somehow felt overdue.

This national championship is one to savor, but it certainly won’t be a bygone era for Kansas. Fans will celebrate down Mass Street this weekend and root on their favorite players at the cathedral of college basketball for seasons to come, but I can’t see it being long before we see another group of Jayhawks cut down the nets.

To the fans celebrating the crimson and the blue after this well-earned storybook ending, one that we should’ve seen coming, all I have to say is this: Rock Chalk Jayhawk.

Featured Image Credit: David McCormack (Robert Deutsch/USA Today), Bill Self (Nick Krug), Big Jay (Tom Pennington/Getty Images), Ochai Agbaji (Associated Press), Jayhawks with the Trophy (Bob Donnan/USA Today)

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