ST. LOUIS — All across the locker room, amidst the stillness and the sadness, the Kansas Jayhawks’ freshmen sat in near silence.
Andrew Wiggins, a speck of blood near his heart, spoke softly. Wayne Selden slumped against the wall. Joel Embiid sat on a bench on the far side of the room, still wearing his Kansas sweatsuit.
Together, they had arrived on campus last summer, the most impressive collection of freshmen talent in the history of the program. Six in all. Future lottery picks, and five-star recruits, ready to build another bridge on which Bill Self would sustain his glamour program’s run of excellence.
But this locker room inside the Scottrade Center — the jerseys still soaked in sweat, the wounds still fresh — was now the end of the road.
For Kansas, and for the freshmen, the end was a 60-57 loss to No. 10-seed Stanford on Sunday in the NCAA Tournament. For Kansas, a No. 2 seed, a season was over before the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010.
For Wiggins, a college career was two-and-done in the NCAA tourney.
“I let a lot of people down today,” Wiggins said. “I didn’t play like I should have played. … I blame myself for this.”
For nearly 30 minutes after the game, Wiggins sat and shouldered the burden. He finished with four points on 1-of-6 shooting. He took three shots in the second half. He was, like most of his teammates, discombobulated and flustered by Stanford’s zone defense and length in the frontcourt.
“We didn’t play bad against the zone,” Wiggins said. “I just played bad against the zone. … Wherever I went, I’d just see three Stanford bigs.”
This was how it was. Someone would asked Wiggins what went wrong, and he would point to himself.
“Today I just laid an egg,” Wiggins said. “I didn’t bring it for my team. I let a lot of people down.”
When Wiggins arrived at Kansas City International airport last summer, some KU fans had tracked his flight and were waiting for him at the airport. His arrival on campus was unlike anything seen in Self’s 11 seasons. But Sunday’s loss brought a harsh bit of closure for a team that finished 25-10 and captured a 10th straight Big 12 title.
Sometimes, the ball doesn’t go in. Sometimes young teams fail in March.
“It’s a little bit different pressure,” said Self, who fell to 7-2 in round of 32 games. “We’re a young team, and we certainly played young.”
The Jayhawks shot 32 percent in the first half, but still led 24-22 when freshman guard Conner Frankamp drilled a pull-up three-pointer at the halftime buzzer. They led by five early in the second half before Stanford — a double-digit seed that started three juniors and two seniors — began to take control.
Sophomore forward Perry Ellis, who finished 3 of 10, couldn’t finish in the lane. As a team, Kansas made 9 of 22 on layups and dunks. And the Jayhawks were hesitant to launch from deep.
“Their length bothered us the whole game,” Self said.
Senior forward Tarik Black, who could have returned home to Memphis, Tenn., if Kansas had advanced to the South Regional, was the only player that played with the urgency of a senior, finishing with 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting before fouling out with 5:25 left. Black thought his hands were straight up. The whistle still blew.
“My mind is just a complete blank,” Black said. “It’s over now. That’s all I can say.”
For Kansas, the end would come after a desperation comeback fell short. Frankamp drilled two late threes, pulling KU within 59-57 with 16 seconds left. A missed free throw by Stanford provided hope, but Frankamp’s final, rushed three-pointer barely grazed the rim.
“I knew when that left my hands,” Frankamp said. “I was off.”
For Kansas, the end was Self in the locker room, telling his players he knew how much it hurt.
“This team is never going to be together again,” Ellis said. “Every year, it’s a new team, a different team. People are going to be gone. The seniors are going to be gone. It just hurts.”
Maybe it could have been different if a few more shots would have fallen, or the stress fracture Embiid’s back would have healed quicker. One more victory, Embiid said, and he believed he would have been able to play next week in the Sweet 16.
But here inside the Kansas locker room, one future lottery pick was still in his sweatsuit. So the other sat in a crowd of cameras, embracing the blame.
“I didn’t bring it,” Wiggins said.
“It’s not his fault,” Black said.
“That wasn’t the guy we’ve seen the majority of the year,” Self said. “A lot of it will be put on him, or me, or whoever and I guess that’s the way it should be. But the kid had a great year, but I hate that the last game he labored like this. Because he’s obviously better than what he showed today.”
For Wiggins, the end was a final scene: His one year in college was over, and a KU equipment manager quietly asked him to take the temporary NCAA patch off his jersey.
“It’s over,” Wiggins said. “There’s no more chances.”