THE BALL floatedthrough the air, its pebbled surface spinning softly, as serene and peaceful asa space capsule in a low-earth orbit. At 10:29 p.m. CDT on Monday at theAlamodome in San Antonio, the fate of a college basketball season rested onKansas guard Mario Chalmers—or, to be more precise, on his last-ditchthree-pointer, a make-or-break heave with 2.1 seconds left that would eithersend the NCAA title game into overtime or give Memphis, clinging to a 63--60lead, its first championship in school history. ¬∂ In his mind's eye Chalmershad been here before. As a four-year-old in Anchorage he and his father,Ronnie, would set up a makeshift basketball arena in their family room,complete with two Nerf basketball goals, couches for team benches and evenspace for Mario's mother, Almarie, to perform The Star-Spangled Banner. Mariowould often skip to the finish and (three, two, one!) launch a bomb with thechampionship on the line. In those days, as on Monday night, Super Mario wasmoney. "As soon as it left my hand it felt good, and I knew it was goingin," Chalmers said after his miraculous trey from the top of the key hadcompleted KU's rise from a nine-point abyss with 2:12 left in regulation."I just waited for it to hit the net."
The Jayhawks'75--68 overtime victory was a rare fantastic finish in college basketball'scrown jewel, the most riveting final since Connecticut upset Duke 77--74 in1999, and it showcased the remarkable balance of Kansas, the only Final Fourteam not to have an All-America. If the hero wasn't Chalmers, the Final Four'sMost Outstanding Player, it was forward Darrell Arthur, who overpowered Tigersforward Joey Dorsey with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Or swingman Brandon Rush,whose two overtime buckets crushed Memphis's hopes. Or maybe the entire Kansasdefense, which slowed the Tigers' dribble-drive motion attack and held them tojust 40.3% shooting.
But Memphis had ahand in its own demise. All season long the Tigers had claimed that theirwoeful 60.7% free throw shooting wouldn't be their undoing when the gamescounted most, and sure enough, the Tigers had made 50 of their last 59 foulshots entering Monday's final. But against Kansas their confidence finallyfailed them at the worst possible moment. Guards Chris Douglas-Roberts andDerrick Rose, Memphis's two best players, sank only 1 of 5 from the line in thefinal 1:15 of regulation, opening the door for the Jayhawks' comeback. "Ilet them down by missing those free throws," said Douglas-Roberts, whoapologized to the team in the locker room and blamed himself for the loss.
Rose hadn't actedlike a freshman all night, scoring 18 points and leading a second-half charge,but with that 63--60 lead he cracked, failing to heed coach John Calipari'sinstructions to foul Kansas point guard Sherron Collins before he could dish toChalmers for the equalizing three-pointer. Afterward Rose was inconsolable,crying outside the locker room as the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the team'sunofficial spiritual adviser, held him up. "Don't look like a freshmancrying. It looks pitiful," Jackson whispered into Rose's left ear."Smile through your tears and speak above your pain."
On the other sidethe emotion was just as raw, courtesy of Chalmers's last-second lifeline."It will probably be," said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, "the biggestshot ever made in Kansas history."
IN PRESENTINGKansas with its third NCAA basketball championship, the 45-year-old Self laidto rest any remaining doubts that he couldn't win the Big One. But it was theJayhawks' stomach-churning 59--57 defeat of 10th-seeded Davidson to reach SanAntonio—Self's first Elite Eight victory in five tries at three schools—thatliberated not just the coach but also his entire team from paralyzingSelf-doubt. "I believe in some weird way that the Elite Eight game was thebest thing that could have happened for us," Self said last week during aquiet moment in his hotel aerie overlooking the Alamodome. "We had to playout of our comfort zone, and we didn't play great, but we found a way to win.It was a relief for our guys. Now they could just go have fun andplay."
By the timeDavidson guard Jason Richards's last-second shot that would have won the gamecaromed off the backboard, Self had fallen to his knees, bowled over by theweight of the moment. Survival, not celebration, was the prevailing sensation.But Self was a new man once he returned home that night with his wife, Cindy,and their children, Lauren, 17, and Tyler, 14. At 2 a.m. the family gathered onthe sofa of the sprawling basement game room and watched the replay of thevictory with a new outlook. "Our house had been full for weeks, and now itwas just us," Cindy said later. "Everybody was so excited, but Bill wasthe only one awake at the end. The rest of us were zonked out. I think it was3:30 when he finally said, 'O.K., everybody, go to bed.'"
As Kansasprepared for the Final Four, memories of their long journey to get there cameflooding back for Bill and Cindy, sweethearts since their days as OklahomaState students. At a tip-off event in San Antonio last Thursday night, Bill satonstage with the other three head coaches and recalled how in 1984 he injuredhis knee before his senior season while working at the Kansas basketball camprun by then Jayhawks coach Larry Brown. "Coach Brown felt terrible,"said Self, who was a four-year letterman at guard for OSU, "and the worsehe felt, the more I limped." When Brown asked Self what he could do torepay him, Self's reply was direct: Hire me as your graduate assistant nextyear. And Brown did, tapping Self to replace a departing GA named JohnCalipari.
The mosttroublesome memory for Self was one from the end of his second season atKansas, in 2005, after the Jayhawks had been upset in the first round of theNCAAs by Bucknell. A few weeks later he sat in a private room at a St. Louisrestaurant watching the previous team he had coached, Illinois, lose in thenational title game to North Carolina, which was coached by his predecessor atKansas, Roy Williams. "I was happy that Illinois was there, but I was also,to be quite candid, jealous," Self says. "Because those were the guysmy staff had put together. Then you had the Kansas contingent that was jealousbecause Roy was playing and we were not. It was the most frustrating time forme as a coach that didn't have anything to do with winning or losing."
There would beanother first-round defeat, to Bradley, the next year followed by a loss in theElite Eight last season, this time as a No. 1 seed to UCLA. Says Cindy, "Itwas like, Ugh, are we going to get over this hump?"
IT SEEMED asthough Self had yet another high-talent, low-mettle team destined for an earlyMarch exit when the Jayhawks lost for the third time in seven games, on Feb. 23at 13--12 Oklahoma State. At a time when the coach had hoped his players wouldclose ranks—in addition to the late-season stumble, both senior forward DarnellJackson's cousin and senior guard Rodrick Stewart's adopted brother had died onFeb. 20 after having been shot in unrelated incidents—they failed to do so."When's the last time you had a players-only meeting?" Self asked histeam after the game. "Have you talked about how you're going to rallyDarnell and Rod?" The players shook their heads. "Well," Selfreplied, "I thought you guys cared."
The seniorsorganized a private team meal at Henry T's, Jackson's favorite restaurant,where they expressed support for their teammates and allowed each one to airhis grievances. "We really laid down in that [Oklahoma State] game,"guard Russell Robinson said last week, "and we were pointing the finger andnot taking responsibility for our own mistakes." Thanks to the return ofsenior leadership, Self said in San Antonio, "this has been a totallydifferent team."
Yet nobody wouldhave predicted the no-that's-not-a-misprint score line with 6:48 left in thefirst half of last Saturday's second semifinal: Kansas 40, North Carolina 12.While the major theme heading into the game had been Williams's first gameagainst Kansas since he had famously departed Lawrence in 2003, the storyinstead was the Jayhawks' suffocating defense, which nearly made the proud TarHeels cry UNCle. "Good defense should beat good offense any day," Selfsaid last Thursday, and Kansas provided plenty of evidence. The Jayhawks sentwaves of double teams at national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough, forcedpoint guard Ty Lawson into uncharacteristic mistakes and slowed NorthCarolina's vaunted secondary break.
For all thatdefensive mastery—the Tar Heels shot only 35.8% from the field—it didn't hurtthat Kansas hit 53.1% of its shots. And while UNC roared back, cutting the leadto 54--50 midway through the second half, KU finished with a 30--16 run for acomfortable 84--66 victory. The upset of the tournament's overall top seed wasa powerful validation for the Jayhawks' contention that they play better on therare occasions when they're underdogs. Whether that's an admirable trait in achampion is debatable, but Kansas clearly benefited from avoiding thefavorite's tag in an unprecedented Final Four that had all the No. 1 seeds."There was so much pressure on us to get here, but now we've made it andall the pressure's off," Collins said after the North Carolina game.
In that case, noJayhawk showed more grace under (no) pressure on Saturday than Rush, whoselevel of aggressiveness is monitored as closely back home as the winter wheatharvests. "Brandon can get comfortable, and I don't think that's the bestway he needs to play," said Self. "I think he's the best wing in thecountry, but my message to him is the same all the time: attack, attack,attack." Asked before the semifinal if he was tired of the questions abouthis game intensity, Rush said that he didn't mind at all. "I love beingquestioned about it," he said, "because I think I've got a pretty goodanswer to it." He certainly did against the Tar Heels, scoring 10 points inthe Jayhawks' 25--2 first-half run and finishing with a game-high 25.
WHILE KANSAS fanswere partying on the San Antonio Riverwalk at 1 a.m. on Sunday, the coachingstaff (Self, assistants Joe Dooley, Danny Manning and Kurtis Townsend, andRonnie Chalmers, who is the team's director of basketball operations) wasassembling in room 2124 at the downtown Hilton for a Memphis game-planningsession. In a fitting nod to KU's last national title team, the scouting reportfor Memphis was prepared by Manning—the Sunflower State legend whose 31 pointsand 18 rebounds against Oklahoma had led the squad known as Danny and theMiracles to the championship 20 years earlier. After a 15-year NBA career,Manning joined Self's staff in 2003, starting as the director ofstudent-athlete development and working his way up to full-time assistant thisseason.
How many collegebasketball greats have had the humility to return to their alma mater and paytheir dues under a new regime? Manning shied away from media requests allseason, directing the spotlight to the players, but his impact on the team wasundeniable. It was Manning's focus on footwork and positioning that helped turnJackson into one of the nation's most improved frontcourt players this season.And it was Manning's embodiment of past glory that gave the Jayhawks addedincentive. "He has a big influence because he has been here before, and hehas won it all," said Rush last week. "He's always remembering thespeeches he gave in the big games."
In the wee hoursof Sunday morning, though, Manning was just another bleary-eyed assistantbreaking down the Memphis tendencies as video clips from the Tigers' NCAAtournament games flashed on the plasma screen in front of the Kansas coaches."Fast-break points, points in the paint—that's the bottom line,"Manning said, noting his biggest concerns about Memphis's hard-driving attack.For his part, Self was floored by the Tigers' ascendant freshman point guard,Derrick Rose, marveling at his quick first step and the way he used hischiseled 6'3", 190-pound body to overwhelm UCLA's Darren Collison for 25points in the first semifinal on Saturday. "When did he get to be such agood shooter?" Self asked, adding that the 5'11" Collins might have ahard time matching up against Memphis's taller guards despite his competitivedesire to do so.
But the Kansascoaches also saw weaknesses they could exploit. Mississippi State had used aneffective 2--3 zone to slow the pace and clog the driving lanes in Memphis'shard-fought 77--74 second-round victory. And while Rose and Douglas-Robertswould command plenty of help defense to stop their penetration, Memphis'soutside shooters—guards Antonio Anderson, Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack—had beeninconsistent from three-point range all season. "We have to make them shoot[outside] shots, cut off the lanes and make it look crowded [inside]," Selfsaid, sounding a lot like Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose willingness to letMemphis shoot (and miss) threes had led to the Tigers' only loss of the seasonbefore Monday night.
Yet thelate-night session wasn't all about X's and O's. The defense-obsessed Selfwould occasionally stop and blurt out his continued astonishment over histeam's takedown of the Tar Heels. ("We held Carolina nine minutes without afield goal!") The coaches also took a 15-minute break to welcome severalformer Jayhawks—Scot Pollard, Ryan Robertson, Greg Gurley and T.J. Pugh—whogathered with their girlfriends and wives around Self, the coach holding courton the semifinal win while perched on the countertop of the room's bar. Thatthe alums had all played for Roy Williams was one sign of how Self has won overthe fan base.
Shortly after 2a.m., Manning took a call on his cellphone. "I got him! I got Manning!"shouted the young caller to his friends before hanging up. After the guy dialedManning's number two more times in the next five minutes, the other coacheschuckled. "Danny Manning! Danny Manning!" they teased.
ON MONDAY night,however, Self and his staff were all business, and their game plan accomplishedsomething UCLA's couldn't two days earlier, obstructing the Tigers' fearsomedrives with a sagging man-to-man defense. Although Kansas didn't shut down Roseand Douglas-Roberts (22 points), the Memphis backcourt couldn't match its usualefficiency, shooting a combined 14 for 33. "I think I did a pretty good jobon [Douglas-Roberts]," said Rush. "In the second half I tried to buckledown and sit down on his left hand. Then my team helped me out, too."
When it was over,as confetti cannons belched and chants of Rock Chalk, Jayhawk echoed throughthe Alamodome, Rush and Manning, player and assistant coach, met at half-courtfor a long embrace. Talk about your college hoops flashbacks. On a gloriousspring night 20 years ago in Kansas City, a transcendent number 25 in Kansasblue (Manning) led the Jayhawks to a national title. On Monday night in SanAntonio, another number 25 in Kansas blue (Rush) helped take over achampionship game that appeared lost and put KU back into the history books.The calendar may be different, and the uniform shorts a little longer, but thatchampionship feeling?
SI's 2008--09 Top 10
Before the stands had emptied at the Alamodome onMonday night, SI's Luke Winn was already looking ahead to next season
Assuming Memphis's Derrick Rose and ChrisDouglas-Roberts, Kansas State's Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, UCLA's KevinLove and Darren Collison, Kansas's Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur, USC's O.J.Mayo, and Texas's D.J. Augustin all turn pro ...
1. NORTH CAROLINA
Will leaving San Antonio empty-handed inspire key Tar Heels to stay? TylerHansbrough could become the first back-to-back Naismith Award winner sinceRalph Sampson's three-peat (1981--83)—and with Ty Lawson make another run atthe title.
The 87-inch question in Storrs is, Will Big East defensive player of the yearHasheem Thabeet (147 blocks) return and make the Huskies a title contender?Point guard A.J. Price (torn left ACL) is expected back for the '08 opener.
The next wave of Bruins backcourt stars—led by polished combo guard JrueHoliday—arrives as part of Rivals.com's No. 2--ranked recruiting class. Thepairing of Holiday with Russell Westbrook should keep UCLA atop the Pac-10.
Big Ten hegemony could begin here for coach Matt Painter, whose precocious bandof underclassmen—led by freshman guards E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel—camewithin one win of a conference title in '08.
Senior All-Americas are a dying breed, but KU should have one in point guardMario Chalmers—plus a breakout star in Sherron Collins, who finished aninjury-riddled season with a superb performance off the bench in the titlegame.
The Horns have nearly every piece of the championship puzzle: a three-pointmarksman (A.J. Abrams), a glue guy (Justin Mason), two versatile forwards(Damion James and Connor Atchley) ... but no tested point guard if Augustinbolts.
7. WEST VIRGINIA
If late-season sensation Joe Alexander, a 6'8" forward, sticks around forhis senior year and teams up with top recruit Kevin Jones, a 6'7" forward,the Mountaineers will have a potent one-two punch in the frontcourt.
Greg Monroe is no Greg Oden, but the 6'10" forward from Harvey, La., is theNo. 1 recruit in the class of 2008 and will help fill the void left by centerRoy Hibbert's graduation. Look for unsung point guard Jessie Sapp to emerge asthe Hoyas' MVP.
The Blue Devils lose DeMarcus Nelson (graduation) and Taylor King(transfer)—and Mike Krzyzewski could tire after coaching the U.S. team inBeijing—but the nucleus for a Final Four team, including versatile forwardsKyle Singler and Gerald Henderson, remains.
Junior-to-be forward Tyler Smith has All-America potential, but landing afive-star recruit—shooting guard Scotty Hopson—on April 1 was huge for theVols, who need scoring power after losing seniors Chris Lofton and JaJuanSmith.
THE REST OF THE TOP 25: Notre Dame, Michigan State,Pittsburgh, USC, Ohio State, Syracuse, Memphis, Florida, Kentucky, TexasA&M, Davidson, Marquette, Villanova, Baylor, Gonzaga.
The women's NCAA championship game between Stanfordand Tennessee was played after this issue went to press. Find complete postgameanalysis and predictions for next season by SI's Kelli Anderson and RichardDeitsch online.
Photograph by John W. McDonough
SELF-MOTIVATED The relentless inside play of Darrell Arthur (00) helped KU coach Bill Self (inset) achieve his sweetest victory.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
[See caption above]
JOHN BIEVER (RUSH)
BODY SHOTS Rush (25) tamed the Tigers with an early hoop, then Chalmers (15) delivered the three-point coup de gr√¢ce.
JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS (CHALMERS)
[See caption above]
BALANCED ACT KU's no-stars, all-for-one formula worked because of role players like Collins (right), who handed out six assists.
[See caption above]
DAVID BUTLER II/US PRESSWIRE
TALL ORDER If the 7'3" Thabeet returns to Storrs, a title will be within reach for UConn.
KAN-DO! After rallying from nine points down and then dominating Memphis in OT, the Jayhawks were justifiably jubilant.