KU’s season goes kaboom

OKLAHOMA CITY – Northern Iowa’s 69-67 victory over top-ranked Kansas shocked the college basketball world, ruined millions of NCAA tournament brackets and devastated a group of players who left the court in tears.

But those who follow the Jayhawks closely could see it coming all season.

Sherron Collins' college career ended a lot earlier than he planned.
(Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

It’s been clear since early fall that something was missing with Kansas. With five future NBA players and two All-Americans in the starting lineup, the Jayhawks – at least on paper – seemed like a squad built for a national championship.

Still, even as they amassed a 33-2 record, the Jayhawks rarely played like it.

Their talent helped them eke out close wins against mediocre teams and only on a few occasions did Bill Self’s squad exhibit that mean, aggressive style that helped Kansas capture the title two years ago.

Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Darrell Arthur weren’t happy unless they won by 20 points. Those guys threw down tomahawks and laughed in people’s faces and took pride in slaughtering their opponents.

This year the Jayhawks settled for layups and squeaked by Colorado in overtime.

Although it was surprising that it hadn’t happened already, everything caught up with the Jayhawks on Saturday. Kansas fans probably should’ve seen this coming back in September, when the Jayhawks opened their NCAA title quest with a walk.

More specifically, a perp walk.

That’s certainly what it looked like when Sherron Collins, the Morris twins and others were escorted out of an academic building on Kansas’ campus following a brawl with members of the football team. No one was arrested, but as news cameras captured the Jayhawks covering their faces as they climbed into a waiting van, they hardly resembled guys capable of leading a team to college basketball’s promised land.

The clash with the football team muddied the Jayhawks’ image, and Tyshawn Taylor took things a step further when he posted racial slurs on his Facebook page along with cryptic messages about his frustrations over playing time.

Brady Morningstar was suspended for the first semester following his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, and the Morris twins – who were among the key players in the aforementioned fights – already had a bad reputation for shooting a pedestrian with pellets from an air rifle the previous year.

Kansas fans will always support their teams but, under their breath, most of them will tell you they didn’t love this group as much as the 2008 squad that won the national title. Frankly, who could blame them?

The one player who garnered undying affection was Collins, the team captain who ended his career as the all-time winningest player in school history. Off the court, Collins made a lot of strides as a person during his four years at Kansas and should be commended for it. But he also had shortcomings as a leader that contributed to the Jayhawks’ failure to attain their goal of a second championship in three years.

Collins gained nearly 30 pounds during the offseason and spent most of the fall trying to lose weight. Instead of helping his teammates steer clear of the fights with the football team, Collins was right in the middle of them.

Collins also had a mildly disappointing season on the court. He shot just 38 percent from the field in Big 12 play, when his weight problem became an issue once again.

Nearly a year after crumbling in the waning minutes of a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State, Collins turned in another brutal performance in Saturday’s setback against Northern Iowa, missing 11 of his 15 shots – including all six of his 3-point attempts – while committing five turnovers.

“This was it,” Collins said. “I can’t come back next year and get another chance at it. It hurts so bad.”

As much as it stung the Jayhawks, Saturday’s loss was also devastating for Self, whose legacy will certainly be tarnished by the setback. The first-round loss against Bucknell in 2005 was bad and so was the opening-round defeat to Bradley the following year.

Another early loss in the tournament will have lasting impact on the Kansas program.
(Tony Gutierrez / AP)

But make no mistake: Saturday’s loss was the worst of Self’s career, mainly because this team boasted so much more talent than the 2005 and 2006 squads.

Self has only himself to blame.

He made a questionable decision during the offseason to sign wing Xavier Henry, who made Self look terrible by stringing him along during the recruiting process before finally committing to the Jayhawks late last spring. A few months later Henry threatened to change his decision when he and his father, Carl, became upset because of a less-than-flattering newspaper article on the Henry family.

Self had to fly to Henry’s native Oklahoma and practically beg him to stay. It was a bad look for Self – and it got worse Saturday when Henry missed the front end of a one-and-one during a key moment down the stretch.

Henry will likely enter this summer’s NBA draft, making him the first one-and-done player in school history. His legacy will be remembered as one big headache for Self, who may not be so quick to grovel over the next touted recruit with a stage dad.

Those kinds of players put up nice statistics, win a few games and end up making millions in the pros.

But – unlike Rush, Chalmers, Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson – they’re not cut out to win national titles. Not unless they have a strong supporting cast of leaders around them, which Henry didn’t.

The bottom line with this Kansas team: The Jayhawks had the talent, but not the intangibles. That was the elephant in the room all season. It’s not anymore.

Self is as good of a coach as there is in America. He built a national champion from scratch two years ago and will likely do it again. Until that time he’ll work to enhance a reputation that was damaged in Saturday’s loss.

The Jayhawks have the deepest team in the country, with 10-12 players who are capable of contributing quality minutes. But throughout the season he refused to employ a full court press.

“Only in an emergency,” Collins said.

One would think that Saturday would’ve been one of those “emergency” situations, with Kansas falling behind by eight at halftime. It trailed by as many as 12 points after intermission.

Still, the Jayhawks didn’t turn on their press until the 12-minute mark of the second half. The switch helped Kansas get back into a game it likely would’ve won had it revved up its defensive intensity earlier.

Instead the Jayhawks faltered Saturday and looked bad doing it. Collins got in an official’s face at halftime and complained until assistant coach Brett Ballard tugged him away. He continued to gripe during a free throw with less than a minute remaining and Kansas still in the game.

In some ways the season was ending just as it had began back in September, during that perp walk, when the flaws that would eventually spell doom for this team were there before our very eyes.

Anyone who didn’t see it then certainly had to recognize it after Saturday’s game, which included a rather telling moment as the final seconds ticked away. With 19 seconds remaining and Kansas trailing 67-62, the Jayhawks ran the exact same play that led to Chalmers’ famous 3-pointer against Memphis in the 2008 national title game.

Taylor dribbled to the wing and then handed off to Collins as he streaked behind him. Just like Chalmers two years earlier, Collins pulled up for a shot that would’ve kept his team in the game.

The difference was that Chalmers’ shot swished through the net. Collins’ – much like Kansas’ 2009-10 season – was just a little bit off.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Mar 21, 2010