OMAHA, Neb. -– Bill Self is a genius, Malik Newman is a revelation, Svi Mykhailiuk outplayed the potential No. 1 pick and this astounding Kansas team is somehow, some way heading to the program's 15th Final Four.
Give me all the superlatives, because Kansas' 85-81 overtime victory in the Elite Eight on Sunday deserves every single one of them. Malik and the Miracles didn't just win the most dramatic game of this tournament, a game that treated us with 18 lead changes, a score that always stayed within seven points, and a Grayson Allen buzzer-beater at the end of regulation that just baaaaarely rolled off the rim. The jayhawks won it the most unlikely way possible, too: By bottling up Duke's dominant lottery-pick big men, by grabbing 15 more rebounds than the best rebounding team in college basketball, and by riding the hot hand of a player who had one of the streakiest seasons in college basketball.
"I told the guys (beforehand), I said, 'I hope you guys can have as much enjoyment playing the game today as I will coaching it,' " Self said. "So many times when you're kind of the favorite throughout the season, the wins are relief as opposed to as much fun. And today was one of those games. I felt like it was one of those deals: No matter what happened today, it was going to be disappointing if you don't win, but you're just proud to be a part of that game, proud to be part of this, something that's bigger than just individuals."
"I would be proud to have coached in that game even if the outcome was different."
It wasn't just the Jayhawks who won Sunday. It was basketball fans, all of us. We have ridden the emotional wave of an utterly unpredictable March. Now, we have been rewarded with a game that, in its intensity and in its drama and in its matchup between two Hall of Famers at two of the sport's historic programs, was more worthy of being a national title game instead of an Elite Eight game.
Who could have seen any of this coming? Wendell Carter Jr., a soon-to-be lottery pick who has been Duke's most dominant player, getting in foul trouble early and ending the game by fouling out with only 10 points and two rebounds – plus a couple of easy missed shots late that could have proven useful for Duke. Trevon Duval, Duke's electric but mistake-prone freshman point guard, going off for 20 points and single-handedly keeping Duke in the game. Marvin Bagley, looking mortal: 16 points and 10 rebounds but getting manhandled by Svi Mykhailiuk – Svi Mykhailiuk! – for much of the game. Mykhailiuk as a force all game, with 11 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, a block and a steal, and most importantly being a pest to the bigger, more athletic Bagley.
"Anytime Marvin either had the ball or before he got the ball, they were just smothering him," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It was very difficult to get him the ball."
"All the time he was on the court I was with him, just pushing him a little so he could feel me every time," Mykhailiuk said. "Don't let him go anywhere without me actually just putting my hand on his body so he would get tired."
And most of all: Miraculous Malik.
In a game filled with NBA talent it was the redshirt sophomore who looked like the best player on the floor from start to finish. The Achilles' heel of Newman's basketball career has been a propensity to play hero ball. He can be, in the parlance of our times, a chucker.
But chuck it like he did on Sunday night and he in fact becomes the hero. Gracefully slashing to the rim, a step faster than any of Duke's defenders. Confidently jacking up 3-pointers, with five of them falling. Scoring every single one of Kansas' 13 overtime points. And calmly making 11 of his 12 free throws, including the ones that sealed the game.
"I had all confidence in the world we could pull it off," Newman said. "Going to the Riverwalk in San Antonio was the plan all along. I know what kind of group of guys we have, and I felt along we could win it. It's one and done this time of the year. I just feel like we are living in a dream."
A couple months ago, Self thought this team's chance at making it to San Antonio was between slim and none.
"We were winning," Self said, "but I didn't think we were a very good team even though we were winning. Sometimes when you win, that camouflages what you don't do well."
It seemed a flawed roster all year. Hell, halfway through the season, Self didn't even know what his March roster was going to look like. Billy Preston's uncertain eligibility status hung over the team until he decided to play professionally overseas. Self wasn't certain when Silvio De Sousa, the high schooler who reclassified in the middle of the season and gave Kansas a semblance of depth down low, would be eligible to play. Then Self tinkered with four-guard lineups and created one of the nation's most efficient offenses. Devonte' Graham has always been this team's rock, but Newman emerged as this team's most explosive force. Since the beginning of the Big 12 Tournament, the 21-year-old has been one of the most productive players in college basketball. He has averaged 22.7 points per game in the past seven games, shooting a sizzling 53.8 percent from 3-point range.
With every made 3-pointer on Sunday, Newman shoved his hands down the sides of his shorts as if he was holstering a gun.
Not too long after his fifth and final 3-pointer fell in overtime, Newman was climbing the ladder with a pair of scissors and snipping down the nets. Meanwhile, Allen sat at the podium, contemplating that his college career had just come to an end.
"No one wants to end with a loss like that," Allen said. "It's so abrupt. The end of the game comes, and it's over."
One team goes home to watch the Final Four on their couch; the other team keeps going. That's March. It's painful and beautiful at the same time.
But even though this Elite Eight game was over, I have a sneaking suspicion that it'll live on in our memories for a long time: The best game of this tournament, the highest drama you could ever hope for in an Elite Eight, between two of the iconic programs in college basketball. After cutting down the nets, Malik and the Miracles waited in the locker room. When Self walked in after his press conference, the players all jumped up and drenched him with water bottles. On to San Antonio, where Villanova awaits.