DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)Kansas’ best two players were neutralized for long stretches, its point guard played on a sprained ankle in the second half, and the Jayhawks once again were without their Hall of Fame coach.
It was all too much to overcome, even for a No. 1 seed desperately trying to keep alive its bid for a second straight national championship.
The Jayhawks’ 72-71 loss to No. 8 seed Arkansas on Saturday marked the third time in four NCAA Tournaments they have failed to make it out of the first weekend.
Defending their 2022 title was always going to be extremely challenging. Only point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. and All-America forward Jalen Wilson were starters on the title team, and only four other returning players from last year played significant minutes.
The season started with Self serving a self-imposed four-game suspension stemming from the 2017 NCAA investigation into the program, and it ended with him sitting out the last five games recovering from a procedure he had on March 8 to clear blocked arteries in his heart.
“One thing about all year, no one is going to feel bad about anything that Kansas goes through,” Wilson said. “We have rallied through with each other and understood that it’s really us against everybody else.”
Freshman Gradey Dick, a possible NBA lottery pick in June who had his first career double-double against Howard in the first round, was held to seven points and only got off three 3-point attempts against Arkansas’ smothering defense.
“We’ve dealt with that all year, but they have some long athletes that made it tough on him to get shots,” acting coach Norm Roberts said. “I don’t think we screened as well as we wanted to for him. Maybe we could have ran a few more things for him, but they did nullify him a little bit.”
Wilson scored two baskets in the first four minutes of the second half and didn’t make another field goal. He still finished with 20 points but had difficulty getting the ball in good position to score and collected nine of his points at the free-throw line.
Harris sprained his right ankle going for a loose ball late in the first half. He returned for the second half to score eight of his 12 points but only had one assist after the break.
The Jayhawks won the Big 12 regular-season title and lost by 20 points to Texas in the conference tournament championship game.
Next year’s roster is uncertain with Wilson and Dick likely heading to the NBA and others considering their options in the offseason.
Self continues his recovery from having two stents placed in his heart to help treat blocked arteries. He went to the emergency room the night of March 8, shortly after watching the Jayhawks hold a final shootaround ahead of their Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal. Kansas went 3-2 in Self’s absence.
“Our guys have been terrific all year,” Roberts said. “They fought to the very end, made huge plays. It was tough not having Coach here, but we don’t make any excuses. We have to line up and get it done, and we came up a little bit short today.”
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