By Zachary Powell | @ZMPowell30
Sports Capital Journalism Program
NEW ORLEANS — The month of March and early April is all about teams staying locked into the moment and taking each game as it comes. The month of March brings basketball fans madness, but the month of April is about executing the game at the highest level. For the Kansas Jayhawks, the team is locked in now more than ever, both on and off the floor. As Jayhawks coach Bill Self refers to the team, he calls his team brothers.
“This team has probably stayed as locked in as any that I’ve ever had,” Self said in a press conference Sunday morning, after the 81-65 victory over Villanova that sent Kansas to 10th NCAA championship. “These guys legitimately like each other. I mean, they’re brothers. They want to do everything together, they spend all their time together, they love each other, they’re involved in their lives off the court. And I think that has certainly allowed us to stay more locked in.”
Being locked in as a team plays an integral role in a team’s success. This year for the Jayhawks specifically, having eight players from the 2020-21 roster return this season has contributed to their run to the national championship game. Outside of those eight players, six are freshman and only four are transfers. At this rate, the core of the Jayhawks team consists of returners who have experience playing with each other, which also gives way to on-court success.
“We’ve had some success at Kansas over the years, but the backbones of all our teams have been our experience,” added Self. “It hasn’t been our young kids. But the way this is going, I think one of the keys to college basketball is going to be how to get old and how to stay old. And we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to do that.”
One advantage that the Jayhawks embody along with their brotherhood off the court is experience. Since Kansas lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019 and in 2021, the core of the Jayhawks team has been together since then. Sophomore guard Dajuan Harris junior reflected on what it means for the Jayhawks to be locked in.
“I think we came into TCU thinking that we were just going to win and that’s not the case,” Harris said. “We’ve got to polish up on little things and not take things for granted. We have to go in playing like every game is our last because the last couple of years with COVID and everything the season could be cut tomorrow. So just having that mindset and embracing every game like it’s your last.”
Most of the current Kansas roster has gone through different experiences and adversities with different teammates. Much of the roster had experienced defeats in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in two of the last three trips for the Jayhawks. But this season, this team was able to learn from those defeats and use them to their advantage.
Lightfoot explained the lessons from those second-round defeats. “We’ve done that twice,” he said. “We lost to Auburn together, lost to USC together, and I think both of those brought us closer together. We understand how that stung and we understand how we don’t want that to happen again. This has been the closest group I’ve been a part of just from the fact that we’ve been together for so long, our locker rooms are so close, all these guys care about each other deeply, and it’s truly special to be apart of a group like this.”
One way that the Jayhawks use their bond and togetherness as a team is learning from their stinging defeat to Southern California in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Many players currently on the roster for the Jayhawks experienced that defeat and often think of that moment as motivation for the road ahead of them.
“Since that loss I’ve never been around a more locked in group of guys,” Lightfoot said. “We know how much it meant to us to go out there and play for this university and for us. I think we wanted it more for each other, for our teammates, than we wanted it for ourselves and that’s what makes this group of guys special.”
Often times, when stakes get high and the game flows up and down, many teams can get rattled. But with the experience of the Jayhawks, their players feel more sensitive to togetherness because of the prior adversity that the team has already faced. The willingness of not letting a game of runs get to them is a key to their success.
“I’ve been around groups that have gotten rattled in times of uncertainty,” Lightfoot added. “This group is not one of them. I’m so proud to be a teammate to these guys and to see how much they go out there and put their hearts on the line.”