NCAA hoops: Another Kansas letdown on the big stage
By Bob Lutz
OKLAHOMA CITY — Add Northern Iowa to the list no Kansas fan wants to read.
To Bradley, Bucknell, Rhode Island and UTEP. To the teams that shocked Rock Chalk in the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas is going home two weeks early. Sherron Collins’ college career is over and it ended in the frustration of a loss to a team from the Missouri Valley Conference, the league that sneaked nobody but its champion into the NCAA Tournament.
By the way, in its last three games against Valley teams, Kansas has lost to Bradley and now Northern Iowa and survived a scare against Southern Illinois. All of those games were played in the NCAA Tournament because the mighty Jayhawks would never, ever schedule a regular-season game against a Valley team. That would be beneath them.
Well, I suspect the MVC is just fine with meeting up with Kansas on the biggest stage and underneath the brightest lights given the result.
Listen, I’m not saying Northern Iowa is a better basketball team than Kansas, which spent most of this season as the country’s top- ranked team and was this tournament’s No. 1 seed. That would be ludicrous.
What isn’t “out there” is to contend that Northern Iowa is a tougher, more disciplined and even a smarter team than KU. The Jayhawks spent most of the game trying to find a way to exploit the Little Engine That Could, only to watch that engine flatten them like a pancake.
Collins, who Kansas coach Bill Self called “the face of the program” for the past two seasons, didn’t even show his face during the postgame news conference, leaving Tyrel Reed and Cole Aldrich to take the slinging arrows. Both of them talked about the pain of not being able to advance farther for Collins. So did Self.
Collins usually puts Kansas on his shoulders during times of stress. Against Northern Iowa, he was too busy engaging in immature antics with UNI point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, who found an entry into Collins’ head early and stayed there the whole game.
Ahelegbe made 1 of 11 shots and scored five points. Yet even with those nasty numbers, he played Collins to a standstill because Collins waited too long to assert himself physically because he was so compromised mentally.
He often complained to officials that he was being pushed or held. He shoved Ahelegbe as the teams were walking to the bench for a timeout. But late, after Northern Iowa had finally been able to put the game out of reach, Ahelegbe just laughed at Collins.
Collins played 38 minutes, most of them spinning his wheels. He scored 10 points, eight in the second half, but turned the ball over five times.
Kansas spent forever trying to discover a way to exploit the Panthers, but wasn’t able to until pressing UNI full-court during the final couple of minutes. That resulted in mass panic for the Panthers, but they were able to avert a disaster and hold on thanks to an amazing shot by guard Ali Farokhmanesh, who is becoming one of those March heroes this tournament thrives on.
After a hot first half, Farokhmanesh was 0 for 6 from the three-point line in the second half before making the biggest shot of the game, a trey, with 34 seconds left. It stopped the bleeding for the Panthers and gave them a 66- 62 lead.
Farokhmanesh took the shot with a bunch of time — about 28 seconds — left on the shot clock because no KU defender stepped up to guard him. Still, it was a courageous shot that came after a thought process that probably went something like this:
“I’m wide open. I can’t believe it. But I haven’t made a three-pointer in the second half and we’re up by one and there’s a lot of time left on the shot clock. If I miss this, they’re gonna revoke my scholarship and escort me out of Cedar Falls. Ah, what the heck? I’m a senior.”
And he fired away.
KU had no such heroics. It appeared the Jayhawks’ late full-court pressure might make up for a halting performance in every other area. It forced three turnovers and sparked a 6-0 run that brought them to within 63-62 with 44 seconds left.
But there were no more Northern Iowa turnovers, only Farokhmanesh’s three-pointer and three late free throws to seal the win.
Kansas’ players, of course, were distraught. Marcus and Markieff Morris fell to their knees after the final buzzer and cried. There wasn’t a dry eye in the locker room, where Collins did talk to reporters after exchanging emotional hugs with his teammates.
“I don’t get another chance at it,” he said. “It hurts so bad. Kansas is a place I call home. Going back to Chicago (his hometown) is fun, but (Kansas) is home. I wanted to go out the right way but I wasn’t able to.”
It’s impossible to quantify how much the Kansas players were hurting. But if you hear any of them talk about how it was a fluke, please correct them.
Northern Iowa’s win wasn’t a fluke. The Panthers have played their style of basketball all season and only four teams have figured out a way to beat them. They make it really difficult to score and they don’t make many mistakes of judgment.
You have to beat Northern Iowa to beat Northern Iowa, and Kansas wasn’t able to pull it off.
Self said the Panthers were the first team he looked at in the Midwest bracket, the first team that made him to a double-take. It wasn’t Georgetown, Michigan State, Maryland, Tennessee, Oklahoma State or Ohio State. It was Northern Iowa.
“There were things that happened during the game that I felt like wasn’t poor play by us, moreso Northern Iowa really making plays,” Self said.
He was asked if it was the toughest loss he has had to endure. Surely the Bucknell and Bradley losses came to his mind, but this defeat is the freshest. The KU teams that lost to Bucknell and Bradley were a 3-seed and a 4-seed.
These Jayhawks were a strong favorite to win it all, to win Kansas’ second national championship in three years. From the time the basketballs were rolled out in October, Kansas was the team to beat.
And Northern Iowa beat them. Fair and square. For 40 minutes.