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March Madness: Elite Eight has not been kind to Kansas and Bill Self

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham, right, drives to the

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham, right, drives to the basket around Purdue guard P.J. Thompson, center, in the first half in the Sweet Sixteen round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, March 23, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City. Credit: TNS / Rich Sugg

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It is the college basketball equivalent of finishing fourth in your event at the Olympics. It means you are really good, but alas, no one really notices.

Such is the fate of teams that lose in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament, more commonly known as the Elite Eight, despite the fact that the true elite of a given college basketball season is the Final Four.

“I think it’s the hardest game of the tournament,” Kansas coach Bill Self said Friday as his top-seeded Jayhawks (31-4) prepared to face third-seeded Oregon (32-5) in the Midwest Regional final on Saturday at the Sprint Center. “It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the national championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and the type of publicity that it gets.”

All of the above could be said about any Elite Eight matchup, but it applies even more to this one.

For one thing, both schools lost at this point last spring, both as No. 1 seeds — Oregon to Oklahoma, 80-68, and Kansas to Villanova, 64-59 — and many of the players on both teams are back.

For another, this round has been a particular challenge for Self. In 13 seasons at Kansas, he is 2-4 in the Elite Eight. Before that, he lost once at Tulsa and once at Illinois.

“This will be our ninth one we played in,” he said, “and we haven’t experienced very much success to date.”

That is a particular problem at Kansas, where fan expectations are as high as anywhere in the country outside of Lexington, Kentucky.

“Everybody on the team is used to high expectations,” said Kansas senior center Landen Lucas, who is from Portland and whose father, Richard, played for Oregon. “I feel like we do well with the pressure of that.”

Those expectations have only increased based on how the Jayhawks have played, becoming the first team since Connecticut in 1995 to score at least 90 points in its first three NCAA games.

Kansas has won by 38, 20 and 32 over California-Davis, Michigan State and Purdue.

Oregon figures to pose a bigger challenge with a Kansas-like attack that is athletic, aggressive and guard-oriented, which should make for a fast-paced, high-scoring game.

The Ducks also use a multi-faceted defense that Michigan coach John Beilein said posed problems for his team.

“It can confuse us sometimes,” Kansas guard Frank Mason III said, “but Coach tells us all the time to let the mismatch come naturally . . . Still move the ball and just let the matchup come.”

Oregon has no choice but to play smaller after losing 6-10 senior Chris Boucher to a season-ending knee injury in the Pac-12 Tournament. He had been averaging 11.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.

“It definitely hurts sometimes to watch them,” Boucher said Friday.

Unlike many coaches, Self does not shy from questions about his NCAA failings, and in fairness, he won the national title in 2008 and reached the final in 2012. But he also has had some ugly early flameouts against lower seeds.

“I tell our guys all the time you would much rather be in the game than not, regardless of the situation,” he said. “But it hurts every year.”

Self ran down the list of possibilities and again found a loss at this stage the most hurtful of all.

Losing in the first round, he said, “stinks, especially at Kansas, but you were in the tournament. If you lose in the second round, at least you won a game. If you lose in the Sweet 16, we got to the second weekend.

“But the one you can’t rationalize is the Elite Eight game.”


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