KANSAS CITY, Missouri -- Here’s a scene no one thought they’d see from a monstrous Elite Eight upset no one thought they’d see:
Walk with me, into the bowels of the Sprint Center. A certain 79-year-old global brand, marketing and apparel icon was making his way toward the Oregon locker room.
That would be the locker room that Saturday night housed his brawny, confident Ducks who had shot, bumped and swatted their way to the school’s first Final Four in 78 years.
The black-clad curmudgeon smiled through a ball cap pulled low over his weathered face.
“It tells us where the program is,” said a smiling Phil Knight. “It’s really playing with the big boys now.”
There were plenty of possible storylines to come out the Midwest Regional final. Third-seeded Oregon pushing top-seeded Kansas off its de facto home court with such authority definitely wasn’t one of them.
Winning is one thing. Oregon did that in shockingly easy fashion, 74-60.
The Jayhawks not being those big boys with a Final Four berth on the line in what amounted to a home game is another.
It turns out Oregon didn’t have to play a building. The pulsating Sprint Center alone -- 40 miles from Lawrence -- was worth a few points in Vegas beyond the obvious. Kansas was supposed to roll.
The Ducks didn’t have to defeat a legacy or enough All-Americans to fill a press guide.
They had to play these flesh and blood Jayhawks, and this being the Elite Eight they weren’t good enough. Again.
It was hard to picture a clearer path for a superpower in this setting Saturday night. But here’s the thing about all that legacy and history and those hall of famers. Sometimes Kansas forgets there is another team on the court.
Sometimes even royalty has to bow.
The big boys wore green.
The explanation is complicated for a top-five program that has 13 consecutive Big 12 titles. Kansas is as historic as Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke. But in the here and now, the Jayhawks are lacking by the standard they set for themselves.
During those 13 years, KU has been two Final Fours winning one. This was Coach Bill Self’s seventh Elite Eight at Kansas. He’s batting .285 in those games (2-for-7) swinging for the Final Four.
Even the verified Twitter account of the Lawrence police is getting used to the Jayhawks obeying the stop sign this time of year.
“Sure, it’s going to stick with us,” Self said. “But the one thing that did happen today, it’s hard to admit, the best team did win today.”
And to reiterate, no one thought they’d see that.
“In the tournament, my experience is there’s usually one game you gotta get by, where you don’t play your best,” Self said. “The game this year was Oregon. You have to find your way to grind through that.”
Kansas didn’t because Oregon grinded harder. Forward Jordan Bell probably made himself some NBA money with a near triple-double. Guard Tyler Dorsey (27 points) shots the lights out.
But more than that, Self painfully observed, “They got every 50-50 ball. They didn’t, but it seemed that way.”
That’s a credit to the Ducks, having won at least a share of consecutive Pac-12 titles. That’s an indictment of the Jayhawks.
“We have a chip on our shoulder, everybody on the team,” Dorsey said. “We don’t need no hype. We like to be underdogs. I think they really sleep on West Coast basketball in my opinion. Hopefully they woke up after this game.”
It’s hard to put the Kansas’ tournament failings in perspective. This wasn’t losing to eventual champion Villanova last year in the Elite Eight in Louisville. This loss was one of the worst ever with the Jayhawks on the cusp of a Final Four.
Fate, the NCAA and excellent basketball had put them in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City in the same year for the first time in 22 years.
Home-court advantage doesn’t begin to describe it. The 10-year old Sprint Center was filled with enough Crimson and Blue to start a souvenir store. Since 1899, Kansas is 138 games over .500 in this city.
If you weren’t intimidated, you didn’t have a heartbeat. But the Ducks were able to limit the runnin’ Jayhawks with a slower tempo. When Oregon came out and made 60 percent of its first-half shots, Kansas faced its biggest first-half deficit of the season (11 points).
“We have played against Arizona before in their house and I thought it was louder in there,” Bell said. “It was nothing new for us.”
No, it wasn’t. But not realizing who these Ducks were was inexcusable for Kansas.
Bell is a wide-shouldered bruiser who shoots 63 percent. His line Saturday fell two blocks short of a triple-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, 8 blocks).
Dorsey dropped in six 3s. KU’s Josh Jackson called a couple of Dorsey’s long-range bombs “fluky.”
“They just fell,” Jackson said.
So did a college basketball superpower. Kansas (and Duke and Kentucky and North Carolina) will continue to live -- and die -- with the one-and-dones. Jackson -- KU’s superstar freshman -- may have a 15-year NBA career. But he probably won’t be able to live down Saturday.
Two-and-half minutes into the game, Jackson picked up his second foul, putting him on the bench. Jackson didn’t score until there were less than 12 minutes left in the game.
He ended with 10 points and five turnovers, reminding more than a few folks of freshman Andrew Wiggins’ ignominious final game in 2014. The current Timberwolves star played timid against an average Stanford team in the tournament, taking six shots, scoring four points and committing four turnovers.
“The lid wouldn’t come off for us,” Jackson said. “Shots that we normally make didn’t fall.”
This was a KU tragedy played out in painful stages. The Jayhawks trailed 44-33 at half. Oregon’s lead grew to 18 in the second half. KU never could find a rhythm and when they threatened to, a glorious chance slipped through its hands.
With Oregon leading 66-60 and the shot clock running down late in the game, Dorsey heaved up some slop that barely caught the rim. The rebound slipped off the hands of Jackson, off Frank Mason and into Bell’s waiting hands.
A few seconds later, Dorsey buried his final three to put it out of reach at 69-60.
The Ducks happily waddled off to the Final Four for the first time since 1939, the year of the first NCAA championship tournament decades before they even called it the Final Four.
Meanwhile, Kansas senior Landen Lucas sat slumped in his chair, used to it, contemplating his final game.
“You hear the same thing every year,” he said.
Knight practically skipped down the hall to the winners’ locker room. His big boys were waiting.
“Exactly on plan,” he said.