Believe it or not, a time existed when Kansas didn’t always make the NCAA Tournament. Such was the case in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, during the Dick Harp and Ted Owens eras.
Even teams coached by Phog Allen, whose name appears on the building the Jayhawks play, missed an occasional Tournament.
That hasn’t been the case lately, however. Since the 1983-84 season, the Jayhawks have missed the NCAA Tournament just once and in that same time frame the won two national titles with eight Final Four appearances.
For this edition, we focus on the one year that Kansas DIDN’T make the NCAA Tournament during its current, historic run. That would be the 1988-89 college basketball season.
It’s weird to imagine a team that won the national title the previous season not making it the next. It happened, but not for the reasons you might think.
Before the season, the NCAA came down hard on the basketball program, imposing a one-year postseason ban and placing the program on three-years probation. This was in the same era as the SMU Death Penalty, a variety of sanctions against Houston football, and concurrent with the Jayhawks’ Big 8 rivals, Oklahoma, facing severe sanctions on the gridiron.
On the hardwood, the NCAA made a harsh example of Kansas due to recruiting violations under head coach Larry Brown, who left for the NBA shortly after winning the national title.
Postseason bans are obviously common. However, it’s rare for a national champion to be denied an opportunity to defend its title in the very next season.
The key violation took place during the offseason in 1986 when the team was looking into recruiting Memphis State’s Vincent Askew as a possible transfer. According to the NCAA, Brown and a few boosters spent $1,244 on Askew. Ultimately, Askew stayed at Memphis State.
What’s amazing is that because the football team was on probation years earlier, there was a chance that the death penalty could be used for the basketball program.
As David Berst, the NCAA assistant director for enforcement said at the time, Kansas was indeed “on the bubble” (When have you ever seen “Kansas” and “bubble” together?). The NCAA didn’t pursue the matter further than the punishments handed down.
The investigation took some of the burdens off of new head coach Roy Williams and his Jayhawks team. There wasn’t much the team could do at that point other than play basketball. Unfortunately, because of the circumstances beyond the team’s control, it also meant the season would end sooner.
Coincidentally, the Jayhawks started their season with a tournament. They played in the Great Alaska Shootout, picking up wins against Alaska-Anchorage and Cal.
The run ended in the championship game when PJ Carlesimo’s Pirates of Seton Hall took them down 92-81. Pookey Wigington, a 5-4 point guard, was the star with his effort for Seton Hall, scoring nine points and recording seven assists.
Kansas rebounded by winning 11 straight, including a 127-82 blowout in their conference opener over Iowa State. At 13-1, the Jayhawks were rolling.
The run for Kansas came to an end January 12 at Miami. Joel Warren scored the go-ahead free throw with two seconds left to give the Hurricanes an 87-86 victory.
Kansas struggled to score in the final minutes of the game. Milt Newton sank the game-tying free throws to make it 86-all with 11 seconds left.
The Jayhawks won three of their next four games. However, the losing streak arrived. It all started January 28 when Kansas took on Kansas State for the second time in recent weeks.
In the first meeting in Manhattan on January 14, Kansas walked away with a 75-74 victory in overtime. This time around, it was Kansas State getting the one-point win, defeating the Jayhawks 71-70.
What made the difference this time? Rebounding! Kansas won the rebounding battle the first time 32-29. This time around, however, Kansas State won out over Kansas, 41-28.
The loss was tough for the Jayhawks; not only was it their first at home, but they also had a 37-28 lead at halftime.
It got worse for Kansas, as a losing streak of eight games dropped the team’s record to 16-11.
The low point came February 15 in a home game against top-ranked Oklahoma. Kansas lost to the Sooners in overtime 94-89. Foul trouble plagued the team. Newton and Mark Randall, who had 29 points, both fouled out of the game, as did Mike Maddox.
Kansas would win its three remaining games to finish the regular season with a 19-11 record and 6-8 in Big 8 play. The last win came March 4 in Stillwater at Oklahoma State. Newton hit the go-ahead three-pointer with eight seconds left to help the Jayhawks defeat the Cowboys 79-78. Randall meanwhile blocked Thomas Jordan’s shot attempt at the buzzer.
The season for Kansas officially ended in the opening round of the Big 8 tournament in Kansas City. They lost once again to Kansas State 73-65. However, the end wasn’t without controversy.
Steve Henson, a guard for Kansas State, sank a 35-foot three-pointer with 1:02 left. There was also no time on the shot clock.
A scorer’s mistake just seconds earlier led to Kansas State retaining the ball with two seconds on the shot clock. Henson made the three and that was the difference in the game.
Kansas would finish its season with a 19-12 record. Considering they had 11 losses in each of the two previous seasons, 12 was the most for the team since the 1982-83 season when they had 16.
For the first time in a long time, Kansas basketball would get itself a spring break.
Since that point, Kansas hasn’t missed the NCAA Tournament. The next season, the team went 30-5 and the season after that the Jayhawks made the Final Four where they were runners-up to Duke.
Will there ever come a point when Kansas doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament? Who knows! I wouldn’t expect it to happen anytime soon, though.