Kansas Jayhawks win 2022 national championship amid controversies, comebacks
Throughout the past 14 years of turbulence and allegations, victories and successes, Kansas coach Bill Self carried his father’s lessons with him. From the last all-of-college-basketball title he won in 2008 through every season before this one, he pulled his beloved Bill Sr. alongside, past a defeat in the last championship game held in New Orleans (’12) to the first NCAA tournament erased by a pandemic (’20).
Bill Sr., who died in January at 82 due to undisclosed reasons, taught his son that the soul of any coach is formed from two important tenets: relationships, all the nurturing and teaching that crafted individual players into a greater whole; and constitution, how leaders carried themselves in times of crisis. Senior was furious at the boy for seemingly minor mistakes like not mowing the lawn straightening or giving a poor effort in a drill. Senior stepped in when something was more serious and comforted his son. He also helped Self to assess the situation. Because fixing minor problems helped build a foundation that could handle any major ones.
Friends Of Bill Self laugh about his broad shoulders, oil-town ethos, and upbringing in Okmulgee (Okla.), as well as the fact that he was attached to a no-nonsense coach who passed on far more than just a name. Self, now 59, also carried them with him back to another Final Four in New Orleans. He wanted to win for his family, friends, and loved ones.
He also carried a burden of his own to town, beyond the championship droughts and personal grief. The NCAA investigation still hangs over Kansas like a dark cloud. The storm started gathering nearly three years ago, when the program received a notice of allegations that included five Level I violations and the heavy charge of “lack of institutional control.” (Self and Kansas have refuted the allegations, their counterargument grounded in what they called “a lack of supporting evidence.”)
Barry Hinson, who worked with Self and Kansas’s men’s basketball program from 2008 to ’12, came to view the coach as an onion, with new layers peeled away each year to reveal a more, ahem, true Self. The coach didn’t blame the transfer portal, the rugged Big 12 conference, the investigators who started digging, the other coaches who cast doubt with potential recruits, the COVID-19 pandemic or anything else for those ringless campaigns. He kept coaching, knowing that if he maintained enough lawns over the season, he would be able to get it right again.
After the Jayhawks beat Villanova to reach their national championship game, it seemed only fair and pertinent to wonder if Self had ever considered whether he might not be able to return to the pinnacle in his sport. After acknowledging the stretch, he quickly shifted to the team and the experience of his players. He claimed that his players had tipped Kansas basketball back to its birthright, the national champions.
And so, in several relevant and perhaps stomach-churning ways, the 2021-22 Kansas Jayhawks present the perfect NCAA champion for these scandal-marred times. This team may be the best representative of the era of college sports asterisks. Perhaps it will be the one that is remembered the most from all the candidates.
Kansas shouldn’t be seen as a major outlier. It is not the only university, or even one of a handful of powers, to plow through a special season with a backdrop awkward fails to capture in full. Just look across the court at North Carolina, a university not far removed from an academic fraud controversy. The current Jayhawks shouldn’t be tied to past sins that remain unresolved. They persevered through this season. They overcome injuries. They won those games. They were the champions of their sport and conference. They are still champions of their conference and sport. Yes, the anvil is still hanging over them, ready for Kansas to take the trophy. But they still won something the past teams since 2008 had lost.
And yet, while perfect captures the juxtaposition of the scandal and a championship, it extends to everything else, too. It frames this Kansas season in relation to the lost one, the ever-crowded transfer portal and, amid a sea of uncertainty unrelated to the investigation, the value of experience in modern college basketball. Kansas is imperfect in its imperfections which makes it the ideal champion for the worst stretch of human history, sports and all.
Just like its recent seasons, and much like throughout most of this season, the desired result for Kansas would not come easy. Self wouldn’t have predicted that.
Trailing North Carolina by 15 at the half, teammates asked forward David McCormack why he was smiling. He said, “Keep your head high.” “We’ll all be alright.” The Jayhawks then surged back into Monday’s national championship game at the Superdome. That’s why. They kept it tight, tense, and the kind of affair that leaves no trace of nervousness.
The final minute of game clock unfolded over what seemed like an hour of This Is Us-level drama and suspense. McCormack–who else?–had given Kansas a late 70-69 lead. He did not see his two teammates on the perimeter when he took an errant shot. But even with his adrenaline surging, he remembered something Self often reminded him: Snatch the rebound with two hands … keep the ball high … go right back up. He did exactly that.
North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, the 6’10” forward who filled March and April with NCAA tournament heroics, took the ball, drove inside, drew contact but not a foul and missed an off-balance lay-in. Bacot didn’t rise immediately, and when he did, it was difficult to stand. But officials did not stop the clock at first, not until 38.5 seconds remained. Kansas had both possession and the lead at that point. McCormack pushed McCormack’s defender further into the paint, and McCormack then threw the ball back in to Kansas. McCormack then swung in the most important jump hook of her life.
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UNC sped back down court, trailing by three points, and proceeded to hoist a pair of attempts from beyond the arc that met rim rather than net. However, forward Brady Manek managed to grab another offensive rebound but lost control of the ball and Kansas was given the possession. Before KU could make any more foul attempts, guard Dajuan Harir accidentally stepped out of bounds with the left foot. With 4.3 seconds remaining
North Carolina had another chance. Caleb Love won the ball, but he failed to make a triple. Christian Braun switched onto him, and put a hand in his mouth. The Jayhawks were able to celebrate this victory with a long-awaited celebration. The final score read 72-69, with five KU players in double figures and the greatest comeback in NCAA tournament title game history in the books–but it failed to account for the ending of a title drought that spanned more than a decade. The Jayhawks’s actions were sufficient to end that drought. Ochai Agbaji ran about the court looking for someone to hug. He eventually settled for the KU radio crew. Many Jayhawks stumbled around trying to gather loose strands of Confetti, which was thrown at them by the Jayhawks. Some Kansas players fell backward onto their court (McCormack), while others shouted at ghosts who had ostensibly tallied them (Braun), while others searched for relatives who made this possible (Remy Martin who kept asking, “Where is my dad ?”
For those who remained inside the Superdome, who cheered and hollered and hugged, how the rest of college basketball might feel about this Kansas title had been shelved, for now. The champions were cutting into nets with the scissors in their hands. That was all that mattered. The perfectly imperfect NCAA champions refused any attempt to dampen their joy.
Hinson arrived at Topeka in the spring of 2008, shortly after the Jayhawks toppled Memphis to ensure Self would join college basketball’s championship tier. The KU team featured seven players who would make it to the NBA, including starters Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush, and Cole Aldrich. They won 37 games, lost only three times and leaned on balance rather than one star, pairing four scorers in double figures with an elite defense. The new assistant was almost embarrassed at his experience: three stints at Oklahoma high school, Oral Roberts and Missouri State. Hinson was not self-conscious about his administrative roles, first as director of external relations, and then later as director of operations for Self’s program. He wanted to know how the heartbeat of a major power works. Self opened another season of great promise with a highlight montage highlighting his one shining moment. Hinson cried more than any of the returning players. He said, “Like a child.”
He was finally part of the institution known as Kansas basketball, its grand tradition summarized by that phrase. There was nothing more to say. Hinson studied the championship teams behind the banners that hung in Allen Fieldhouse (2008, 1988, ’52). Hinson learned more about luminaries such as James Naismith and Phog Allen than he knew. Hamilton. It is rare that any other program could claim that its original basketball coach invented basketball. With Naismith, Kansas could.
Hinson was quick to notice what Self considered his primary duty: to preserve a long-standing and historic tradition. The coach never expected his players to be such players. He expected them to be the best version of themselves. Mount Self erupted with remarkable regularity, but this was a sign of what lingered deep within. Self was his father’s child. He was always his father’s son.
More layers. More peeling.
In the 11 seasons after Kansas won that championship, the Jayhawks lost in the Sweet 16 (2009), the second round (’10), the Elite Eight (’11), the national title game (’12), the Sweet 16 (’13), the third round (’14 and ’15), the Elite Eight (’16 and ’17), the national semifinals (’18) and the second round (’19). Many programs would love to see that kind of postseason failure. But Kansas is different.
After 11 seasons of so-close-but-so-far chances at another championship and everything else (like the notice of allegations), Self and his Jayhawks rounded into top form in early 2020. They had a dominant, explosive guard in Devon Dotson, a shot-swatting center Udoka Azubuike and plenty of size in Azubuike and McCormack; as well as Agbaji, a young talent who hails from Kansas City.
Kansas had created its next champion, the title almost certain, at least according to the collective mind of a program that would. The Jayhawks upset top-ranked Baylor on the road in mid-February of that year and finished their regular season with 16 straight wins, the last on the road against stingy Texas Tech. They were ranked No. They were ranked No. 1 in the polls, and had taken over the top spot in KenPom analytic metrics by a large margin. The gap between them and second-ranked Gonzaga was as wide as that between the Zags’ and the seventh-rated team. Conference tournaments started, but only briefly. Soon, however, the spread of the novel coronavirus would stop them from continuing and wipe them out. McCormack has never forgotten the worst moment, when he took that fateful phone call inside his hotel room, already in full uniform, ankles taped for the Big 12 tournament opener. The Jayhawks, all dressed up and with nowhere to go went downstairs. As they realized how serious the pandemic was, they took team photos, while crying, lamenting, and hugging. The season was canceled soon after. All their hard work was for nothing.
Throughout this week, Self fairly pointed out that COVID-19 had impacted every team in every sport on every level. For his veterans, who can now compare then and now, questions lingered. What number of college basketball teams had the country’s best big, guard, and defender that season? How many teams maintained the late-season momentum that often defines a title run, and how many did they lose it? How many would have been the No. Which overall seed would have been the No. 1?
McCormack finally got rid of all pleasantries. He said, point blank, that team was better than this team, adding the 2020 Jayhawks “would have won it.”
Last season, Self continued to nurse an environment that focused his players’ viewpoints on front windshields rather than rearview mirrors. He refused to allow himself to dwell on the “drought” that surrounded his efforts. He kept coming back, kept coaching, and assembled another team in March.
Surely, some of the seeds Self planted in 2020-21 grew into this season’s championship stalks. However, there was very little to no immediate payoff. Nine games were lost by those Jayhawks, including five of seven at the end of the regular-season. They didn’t win the Big 12 regular season (won by Baylor), conference tournament (won by Texas) or national title (Baylor, yet again), and were flat-out flatlined by USC in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The lopsided 85-51 result didn’t do justice to the caliber of rout the Trojans delivered on national TV.
Self acknowledged this on that night. He gave an honest assessment of his team’s weaknesses and highlighted the strengths. Kansas needed to be more athletic, larger, and longer in order to survive. It was difficult enough to win another championship with these elements already in place.
So began the most recent Kansas rebuild. Agbaji and McCormack were his true seniors and could be kept in the starting line-up and imprint the physical, relentless style of basketball Self wanted to see the Jayhawks play. Self brought their class to Kansas. The hype was not about Dotson and Quentin Grimes, but two future program pillars. Other key players returned via different routes related to the pandemic and the increased activity in the transfer portal. They would be indispensable to one’s own well-being.
Forward Jalen Wilson originally committed to Michigan and stuck with the Wolverines until his future coach, John Beilein, left for the NBA in 2019. Beilein’s departure made the four-star recruit one the most sought-after. He visited only two programs out of all the options: North Carolina and Kansas. He chose KU because he “always wanted Kansas to play for him.” This made an immediate impact and grew each season. Wilson said, “It’s amazing how it all worked.” It really is .”
In the same year, late-developing guard Dajuan Harris played at the EYBL PEach Jam. Braun, Harris’s AAU circuit teammate, was already a Kansas player. Between Braun’s lobbying, Self’s ability to redshirt Harris in 2019-20 and what the coach saw on film, he took another chance.
Self entered this season with better versions than all of those players. The coach realized that he had much more than he thought his teams lacked. “Bigger” came in the advanced role of McCormack, who played like a giant at a muscled 6’10”, along with size at key positions in Wilson (6’8″), Braun (6’7″) and Agbaji (6’5″). His team’s collective experience, highlighted with two seniors and five “super senior” players granted an extra season due to the pandemic, could make him “tougher”.
Beyond developing his current players, Self also addressed the “more athletic” concern by adding Remy Martin, a dizzying guard from Arizona State who had made All Pac-12 first or second teams in each of the previous three seasons. Martin was a senior, and had turned down the NBA and a few millions to play for Kansas. He was perfect for Harris to complement his athleticism to give the Jayhawks an athletic backcourt. They could drive at a faster pace, score in torrents of twists, drives, and shots when the set offense was stalled.
As Self observed Martin in his early practices, he could see the player who made everything and everyone work together. Self could also see the faint signs of a championship roster starting to form.
Experience came to matter more than anything to Self. As college basketball evolved, he joined elite coaches in trying to secure the services of high school players. Despite the pandemic-specific adjustments and the transfer portal, even the most talented teens seemed to struggle in March. However, programs with more experienced players were primed for late-season runs.
KU team outsiders might not have pegged this as a national-championship-caliber team, and perhaps that’s the reason these Jayhawks did the unexpected. Perhaps that was the whole point.
As the national title game drew closer, the greater Kansas City area wrapped its collective arms around Agbaji, their favorite son and homegrown talent, the Jayhawks’ latest superstar. Oak Park High dedicated a day to Agbaji’s memory. Staff and students from the North Kansas City School district were asked to wear Kansas colors. This included blue, crimson, and Jayhawks yellow, as well as gray. They also held rallies and viewing parties. Orie, Orie’s sister, reminded her younger brother not to lose in a national championship game, just like she did when she played volleyball for Texas.
Her brother might have the most unlikely Kansas story. His family moved to Missouri after he was born in Milwaukee. He played basketball and soccer before he grew nine inches between his junior and senior years of high school. Then he switched to basketball full-time. He did not receive a Power 5 scholarship offer before his final semester and chose Kansas over Texas A&M or Wisconsin. He had intended to redshirt, but he didn’t. Self laughs about the year of eligibility he “burned for Agbaji” when he looks back. Agbaji would surely have left the country if he had not. He would have been en route to becoming a NBA player. Agbaji is the embodiment of this Kansas season, from Agbaji’s win against Michigan State to his national championship victory.
All year, Braun said that the Jayhawks looked up to Agbaji and his unwavering pursuit of a title as a way to drive them. Kansas was able to see its star perform in the Arizona heat during private workout sessions. KU observed that he didn’t try to shift the spotlight on himself and how he helped his teammates through their problems. He also noted how he was a distributor when injured players returned to the rotation. The Jayhawks returned to Kansas after defeating Kentucky in January. Two games later, Agbaji scored 18 points and grabbed nine boards in a shellacking of defending national champion Baylor.
Self continued to remind his players: Every goal they wanted to achieve remained in front of them, still possible, but they would have to fight for each and every one. After he urged his team to play better defense during practices, he watched as his seniors, Agbaji, and McCormack, lined up behind him. It looked like they were ready for battle for the rest of the season.
McCormack was focused on dictating how his team would play. He described it as “a game, aggression, bullying, of how bad your really want it to be.” This meant tight defense, never taking steps backwards, and imposing a collective will. McCormack wondered for years about Self’s intentions. He had been struggling with the pandemic, a foot injury, and unrealized potential. This realization came late in the season.
As February turned to March, Kansas dropped back-to-back road contests against Baylor and TCU, each by 10 points. The Jayhawks won back and overtook Kentucky for the most wins in college basketball history. They also established themselves as a legitimate contender and No. 1 seed.
Agbaji, a player who teammates insist deserved to win everything, actually won pretty much anything a college basketball star can in a single season: Big 12 Player of the Year, the Big 12 regular-season and conference tournament crowns, and tournament MVP honors. He was a first-team All-American, and a true national player-of-the-year candidate. Self was reminded of Danny Manning, the archetype of Kansas basketball, who, in 1988, won all Agbaji has and more–most notably a national championship. Self said Agbaji had “a chance to have Kansas’ best year since Danny” and could Agbaji do the same.
The first half of the national title game featured Kansas’s progress and its lingering flaws. The Jayhawks jumped to early advantages behind McCormack and Agbaji scores that put them ahead, 9-3 and 11-5. However, Kansas’ potential double-digit win quickly turned against them.
With 10: 28 left in the half, KU led 18-14 after Martin sank a three-pointer that momentarily stopped the reeling. By halftime, KU trailed 40-25. The Jayhawks had six turnovers and missed almost 70% of their shots. In those 10 minutes and 28 seconds, UNC outscored the Jayhawks by a staggering sum of 26-7. Self said to his team at halftime, “Be better.”
Hinson sent a text message to Sports Illustrated at halftime, unprompted: [Self is] not panicking right now. … He’s calming those kids … just like his dad would have. … Just watch it’s going to be a great second half. Kansas won the title game thanks to that missive. Harris increased his defensive pressure and his teammates followed his lead. McCormack scored a dunk. Braun smashed in a putback. Wilson drove for a layup. On and on it went, the deficit slimming over the first five minutes of the second half, until North Carolina’s lead had shrunk to 45-38. Harris’ jumper quickly reduced the gap to four points. It was not one player who pushed Kansas. It was all of them. A team that needed every piece right up to the end.
More layers, albeit of the comeback variety. More peeling.
Here came Kansas basketball in a single sequence: Harris steal, outlet to Agbaji, slick pass to Braun, bucket. When the Tar Heels called a timeout with 12: 41 remaining, they led by a single point.
More drama, too. Agbaji missed a three point attempt to take the lead. Puff Johnson dunked at one end, and Agbaji ended the game with a drive and foul, as well as a free throw. If a tie at 50 seemed unexpected, consider the vertiginous nature in which Kansas pulled ahead: another Martin triple, another Wilson drive, another Wilson free throw. In a flash, KU was leading by six.
Michael Jordan sat in the Superdome, entranced. Paul Pierce and other KU royalty also watched. With only eight minutes left, everyone hoped for an epic finale that seemed possible.
Although Kansas seemed to be pulling away for a brief moment, North Carolina kept closing the gap. In the final seconds, everything happened: missed layups and missed free throws, turnovers, fearless attempts to splash through nets, an Air Ball, lead changes, momentum swings. Tears, anger, and maybe even all five stages. All of this set up an unlikely ending to the most unlikely championship season. What’s funny, revealing, and strikingly complete is this: Self’s top player (Agbaji), best one (McCormack), hardest one (Harris), who arrived on campus after his father, younger brother, and father were killed in separate incidents), and most steady (Braun) all remind the coach in exactly the same way of his father.
Self has long resented the one statement Senior made to him from his childhood. Don’t worry about the mules; just load the wagon. He loved being a coach and never regretted it. It was what made him happy, on and off the court, in each season and in this most unlikely year. Loading the wagon was the key to Agbaji’s rise, and McCormack’s development. Wilson, Braun, and Harris all experienced the same thing, regardless of how they arrived at Lawrence. Martin’s injury that occurred on that horrible night against Kentucky left Martin out of action for almost a month.
How was Kansas able to find its way in a season where other teams with more talent had lost theirs? How did Self, with sanctions looming and his father’s death ever-present, tell his team after its Elite Eight win against Miami that its best moments were yet to come? Because they all loaded the wagons and returned to load again. That’s why.
The wagon loaders, Martin said, “locked in” and continued loading until their collective goal became less about any particular moment during the season. Not the blowout defeat that sounded alarms; not Martin’s injury; the odd loss at TCU; the speech Agbaji made after that defeat, calling for more effort, pleading, we can’t let this happen again; his own late-season struggles; Coach K’s final year; the other fallen No. 1 seeds; Martin’s new role, sparking Kansas off the bench; or McCormack’s muscling Villanova right out of the Final Four.
They bonded with late-night video game sessions, or while taking in Chiefs home games or over meals with teammates. They were constantly reminded by their elders of what was lost two seasons ago and how it could be reclaimed.
McCormack was a human chorus that said “don’t take your basketball for granted.” Self joined him after a difficult year. The coach’s mom, Margaret, started to return to games, reminding her son of his father, the foundation they built together and how moments like those from 2008 are never guaranteed to happen again. This is the fragility that sports can be. Self stated that he had brief, random periods of self-reflection that he wouldn’t have allowed in other years. Self said that he saw these players “grow up”, and the team became better because of their experience. He couldn’t do anything about 2020 or ’21, or alleged transgressions that could soon be penalized, but he could elevate these Jayhawks to the finish they either deserved, in the eyes of the program and its fan base, or didn’t deserve at all, in light of the investigation.
The unexpected development lay within him. Self, Kansas’ basketball coach, saw the obvious. Self was changed by this group, despite its imperfections. It reminded him why he coached, what it meant and why it would always matter. As the on-court celebration was over, Self and his team climbed up to a platform and took a completely different kind of team photo. Only those who remained from 2020 truly understood the difference at that moment.
The key to another national title lay in the human element. It was the gap between what Kansas had accomplished and what it would do. Only Self and his current team could bridge that gap. The bridging would occur on a sensitive fault line for coaches, players, and anyone else who had been unmoored from two years of peak uncertainty.
Late Tuesday, early Tuesday, Self thought back to his dad, who was always there for him. He believed Senior would be “very proud of this team, because he knows, without question, they earned what happened tonight.”
“When Bill takes off his shirt, there’s no ‘S’ tattooed on his chest,” Hinson says. He’s not Superman. There will come a time when he has to deal with his grief. He will be alone at that time. But that is not now. Keep that feeling going. Forget basketball. Forget the accolades. Forget about the lost season, the long wait between championships and titles fumbled in New Orleans. Forget Self’s role in a new coaching landscape with Roy Williams retiring, Mike Krzyzewski resigning, and Jim Boeheim joining them.
Forget about the possible sanctions. Forget the framework, the perfect champion in these difficult times. Hinson claims that the story of this Kansas season is as old and relevant as time. The story of a father who loved his son and a coach who fought for him is one that will never be forgotten.
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The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.