They were the perfectly constructed team, built for a deep March run with a salty senior floor leader, a dominant presence in the middle and a cast of supporters with NBA futures. Certainly, nobody thought the Kansas Jayhawks would finish this season looking for answers.
But after a shocking 69-67 loss on Saturday to Northern Iowa in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks had plenty of probing questions about themselves. The most pressing one had to do with their falling behind 12-4 at the beginning of each tournament game, a deficit that proved too much to overcome against the Panthers' stingy defense.
"We never wanna get down," Jayhawk guard Tyshawn Taylor said, "but I guess we find a way to get down every time. We fight our way back. We always have confidence, because we know what we got."
Kansas figured it would always have an answer, and, for the most part this season on the way to a 33-3 record, it did. The Jayhawks did not blow teams out. They played along with opponents until it got a little too close for comfort and then hit the gas. It appeared Kansas could do what it wanted whenever it chose to flex. If point guard Sherron Collins and center Cole Aldrich weren't the driving forces, someone else would pick it up.
On Saturday, Collins dealt the Jayhawks a dud, and Aldrich was taken out of play because Kansas had to use a full-court press during the final 12 minutes. That scenario is why KU coach Bill Self traveled to Oklahoma City this summer to make sure highly touted wing recruit Xavier Henry would keep his plans to become a Jayhawk. Henry, a 6-foot-6 guard with a more developed body than former Kansas guard Brandon Rush,
would be the ultimate answer, the literal X-factor.
Henry did not step into that role often this season, and he didn't against Northern Iowa. He took six shots, making three, and had eight points and eight rebounds. It was an acceptable showing for a freshman playing in his first NCAA Tournament, but it was not enough to move KU into the second weekend.
Henry, like Taylor, couldn't get his mind around the Jayhawks falling behind again.
"You just can't rely on second-half runs," Henry said. "We kind of relied on it (Saturday). It brought us back, but it didn't bring us back far enough. We just had another sluggish start. I don't know how to explain our start."
Henry, Taylor and Marcus Morris all saw where they could have made a difference. Morris had a team-high 16 points but kicked himself for relinquishing a defensive rebound opportunity to Northern Iowa's Adam Koch, who dunked and gave the Panthers a seven-point lead late in the second half.
"I feel like I let my team down at certain points," Morris said. "I will challenge myself over the summer to become the best player I can be and bring a national championship to KU."
Taylor went 0 for 5 from three-point range and 0 for 6 total. The game before, he missed all three of his three-point attempts.
"I gotta make some damn threes, man," Taylor lamented. "It's so frustrating. Because I was (zero) for three the game before, I told myself I won't go (zero) for three. I warmed up hard, I was making my shots in warmups, I knew my shots were going to fall today, and they didn't."
The Jayhawks were a team built for perfection that rarely approached that level. But they always assumed their time would come, that they could erase their mistakes.
"I didn't expect to lose in the postseason," Henry said. "I never even thought about losing. I don't think we felt invincible, but we thought we'd play better than this. We thought we'd come out harder. We thought if we played our best ball, nobody could play with us."
Morris echoed Henry.
"I just knew that championship was ours," Morris said. "We wanted it more than anybody. We worked harder, we had the best player in the country (Collins) on our team, the most dominant players in the game. They just outplayed us."