The loss of the NCAA Tournament and March Madness got you down? At Heartland College Sports, we get it. We’re down about it too. Well, leading up to the night that would have been the 2020 national championship game, April 6, we will rewind what happened to the Big 12 in March Madness for each year of its existence. Today, we dissect 2018.
THE BIG 12 IN 2018
For the previous two seasons the Kansas Jayhawks had been trying to get back to the Final Four. In both the 2016 and 2017 NCAA Tournaments, the Jayhawks fell short in the regional final. The 2017 loss to Oregon stung. Head coach Bill Self had a deep team, teeming with NBA-level talent and had a favorable location for the game — Kansas City. Practically in Lawrence’s backyard. And, yet, the Jayhawks fell to the Ducks.
Self knew going in that his 2017-18 team would be depth challenged. Still, he had an experienced core returning — Devonte Graham (17.3 points per game, 7.2 assists per game), Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (14.6 ppg) and Lagerald Vick (12.1 ppg). Sophomores Malik Newman (14.2 ppg) and center Udoka Azubuike (13.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg) rounded out a starting lineup that played more than 33 minutes per game most nights. The season proved challenging for the Jayhawks. They lost five league games. They lost at home twice in Big 12 play, a development almost unheard of at Allen Fieldhouse. But, by the time the Big 12 Tournament rolled around, the Jayhawks remained at the top of the Big 12 for the 14th straight season. The Jayhawks finished the season at No. 4 in the final AP Top 25.
West Virginia remained among the upper echelon in the Big 12, winning 26 games overall and going 11-7 in Big 12 action to tie for second with upstart Texas Tech.
The Mountaineers shot as high as No. 2 in the nation before settling at No. 15 at season’s end. This was a senior-led bunch featuring Jevon Carter (17.3 ppg, 6.6 apg) and Daxter Miles (12.9 ppg). Sophomore forward Sagaba Konate came into his own, too, as he scored 10.8 ppg and grabbed 7.6 rpg. With Lamont West and James Bolden, the Mountaineers were out to get head coach Bob Huggins back to the Final Four after two straight Sweet 16 trips.
The Red Raiders kind of came out of nowhere, improving by nine overall wins under second-year coach Chris Beard. The Red Raiders surged into the Top 25, getting as high as No. 6 before finishing at No. 14. Beard had managed to build a team blending some veterans leftover from the Tubby Smith era, like Keenan Evans (17.6 ppg) with a pair of his recruits — Zhaire Smith (11.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Jarrett Culver (11.2 ppg) to form a core that was highly competitive every night in the Big 12.
Kansas State was the only other Big 12 team with a winning record in league action (10-8), but the Wildcats ended up winning 25 games overall. Surprisingly, Bruce Weber’s team never peeked into the Top 25. No matter. Those that watched the Wildcats knew they were dangerous and led by a trio of talented juniors — Barry Brown Jr. (15.9 ppg), Dean Wade (16.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Kamau Stokes (9.0 ppg). Injury problems in the starting lineup allowed Xavier Sneed (11.1 ppg) to slide into a key role, along with Cartier Diarra (7.1 ppg).
TCU worked its way up to a .500 finish in Big 12 action, going 9-9. Since joining the league for the 2012-13 season, the Horned Frogs’ best conference record was the 6-12 record from the previous season. So second-year coach Jamie Dixon was having a huge impact. The Horned Frogs even got as high as No. 10 in the AP Top 25 before dropping out. Dixon had a tremendously talented team, led by Vladimir Brodziansky (15.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg), Kenrich Williams (13.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg), Desmond Bane (12.5 ppg) and Kouat Noi (10.2 ppg). Alex Robinson was truly coming into his own as a point guard, too, as he averaged 6.1 assists to go with 9.7 ppg. The Horned Frogs were no longer an easy win.
Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State all finished in a dog pile at 8-10 in league play. But, all four finished above .500 for the season. Manu Lecompte (16.2 ppg) and Jo-Lual Acuil (14.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg) led the way for the Bears. Texas had a huge presence in the middle with Mo Bamba (12.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and a talented transfer in Dylan Osetkowski (13.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg). Guard Kerwin Roach Jr. also averaged 12.3 ppg.
Oklahoma lit up the league and the country with freshman guard Trae Young, who helped fuel the Sooners to a No. 4 ranking at one point before they dropped out of the Top 25 entirely. Young averaged 27.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game and was a highlight reel most nights. He overshadowed another talented freshman in Brady Manek (10.2 ppg) and junior Christian James (11.9 ppg).
Oklahoma State had a new coach in Mike Boynton Jr., who replaced Brad Underwood. Boynton was Underwood’s top assistant. Underwood left the program after one year in a pay dispute with athletic director Mike Holder. Underwood ended up taking the job at Illinois. Boynton, a first-time head coach, inherited a solid trio of players in Jeffrey Carroll (15.4 ppg), Kendall Smith (13.1 ppg) and Mitchell Solomon (8.5 ppg). Boynton also continued the development of Cameron McGriff, Lindy Waters III and Thomas Dziagwa.
Iowa State was talented but bitten by the injury bug, most notably losing guard Nick Weiler-Babb in the second half of Big 12 play. Despite that, led by freshman Lindell Wigginton and forward Solomon Young, the Cyclones staved off falling under-.500 for the season until mid-February.
The regular-season award winners included Graham (player of the year), Carter (defensive player of the year), Newman (newcomer of the year), Young (freshman of the year), Baylor F Terry Matson (sixth man) and Self and Beard (co-coaches of the year). The All-Big 12 First Team included Graham, Wade, Young, Carter and Evans. Carter was also selected to the conference’s all-defensive team and became the first player to earn that honor four years in a row.
At the Sprint Center in Kansas City, the Big 12 Tournament went to script until the semifinals. At that point, No. 1-seed Kansas defeated No. 4 Kansas State, while No. 3 West Virginia scored the mild upset over No. 2 Texas Tech. So the Mountaineers would shoot for a Big 12 Tournament title for the third straight year, and would once again come up short. Kansas won the game, 81-70. Newman was the tournament’s most outstanding player, while Graham, Carter, Miles and Kansas State forward Makol Mawien were on the all-tournament team.
On Selection Sunday the Big 12 received seven invitations to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years — Kansas (No. 1), Texas Tech (No. 3), West Virginia (No. 5), Kansas State (No. 9), Oklahoma (No. 10), Texas (No. 10) and TCU (No. 11).
The goal for Kansas was clear — the Final Four. I mean, that’s ALWAYS the goal in Lawrence. But when the Jayhawks lose two straight Elite Eight games, the pressure mounts. So the Jayhawks sought an easy first-round win and got it when they defeated Penn, 76-60. Kansas’ top rival, Kansas State, found itself facing Creighton the first round and scored the mild upset, defeating the Blue Jays, 69-59. The bigger news was the Virginia loss to Baltimore-Maryland County, which made Virginia the first No. 1 seed to be upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That opened up the bracket for the Wildcats. Could they take advantage?
Texas Tech got a plum locale for its first- and second-round games, as the Red Raiders just had to go to Dallas. But, the Red Raiders would have to deal with Stephen F. Austin, which two years before had sent West Virginia home in the first round. This SFA team was just as formidable as the Lumberjacks of two years ago. But the play of Keenan Evans, Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver held off the Lumberjacks, as Tech won, 70-60.
West Virginia also won, beating Murray State easily, 85-68. The Mountaineers were not too happy about having to zip all the way across the country and San Diego for its first- and second-round games. And they probably weren’t all that thrilled with their second-round opponent, either. But we’ll get to that.
Three Big 12 teams lost in the first round. Turns out Trae Young can’t solve everything, as the Sooners fell to Rhode Island in overtime, 83-78. Young had 28 points and 7 assists, but it just wasn’t enough. Jamuni McNeace had 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Kristian Doolittle had 12 rebounds. Nevada had four players in double figures, led by E.C. Matthews, who had 16 points. Young would declare for the NBA Draft shortly after the loss.
Texas saw its NCAA Tournament end in the first round with an 87-83 loss to Nevada, a loss that also came in overtime. Kerwin Roach II had 26 points and Matt Coleman had 25 points, while Jase Febres had 13 points. Mo Bamba scored 13 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, while Dylan Osetkowski had 11 rebounds. Texas just couldn’t overcome Nevada in overtime. And that was the end of the line for Bamba, who like Young declared for the NBA Draft.
TCU was making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998 under Billy Tubbs. The Horned Frogs drew Syracuse and, in a low-scoring affair, fell to the Orange, 57-52. Kenrich Williams had 14 points and Vladimir Brodziansky had 13 points, but the Horned Frogs needed just one more big game from one more player and couldn’t get it.
In the history of the Big 12 the league had sent three teams to the Sweet 16 on a few occasions. But the league had never seen four advance through to the second week of play. Could Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and West Virginia pull it off?
Kansas won, but Seton Hall didn’t make it easy, as the Jayhawks had to pull away, 83-79. Kansas shot a blistering 50 percent from the floor while Malik Newman had 28 points. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk had 16 points and Lagerald Vick had 13 points. Devonte Graham only had 8 points, but he dished out 9 assists, while Udoka Azubuike had 10 points.
Kansas State ended up facing No. 16 seed Maryland-Baltimore County in the second round. The Retrievers, coming off their history-making upset over Virginia, couldn’t make it two in a row, as the Wildcats moved on to the Sweet 16 with a 50-43 win. Barry Brown Jr. led the Wildcats with 18 points, while Makol Mawien had 11 points. The Wildcats played without Dean Wade for the second straight game of the NCAA Tournament due to an injury the forward suffered before March Madness. But, still, the Wildcats marched on to their first Sweet 16 since 2010.
Texas Tech hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 since 2005 when Bobby Knight led the program. Head coach Chris Beard was a part of that staff and wanted to add to the history. All that stood in the way was Florida. The Gators and Red Raiders played a compelling second-round game, with Texas Tech escaping with a 69-66 victory.
Keenan Allen had a tremendous performance, scoring 22 points. Zhaire Smith had 18 points and 9 rebounds and Jarrett Culver had 11 points and 9 rebounds. Tech forced a key turnover late in the game to secure the win.
West Virginia sought its second straight trip to the Sweet 16. In its way was in-state rival Marshall, and the Thundering Herd would have loved nothing more than to send the Mountaineers back to Morgantown on a national stage. But, WVU came away with a 94-71 win, as Jevon Carter led the way with 28 points, 5 assists and 5 steals. Esa Ahmad had 10 points, Lamont West had 18 points and James Bolden added 11 points.
The Big 12 had four teams in the Sweet 16. In your dreams you couldn’t come up with a better scenario. But, if the Big 12 was lucky enough to max out for the Final Four, only three teams would go. Texas Tech and West Virginia were in the same region and would meet in the Elite Eight, if both could get past their respective opponents.
Kansas was on a mission and Clemson stood in the way, and the Tigers were hard to put away. The Jayhawks eventually pulled it off, winning 80-76 behind 17 points from Malik Newman. Devonte Graham added 16 points, Udoka Azubuike had 14 points and 11 rebounds while Lagerald Vick had 13 points. Kansas had a 40-27 lead at halftime and had to hang on as Gabe DeVoe masterfully led a comeback, scoring 31 points for the Tigers.
But, still, mission accomplished for the Jayhawks, who were in the Elite Eight for the third straight year.
Kansas State ended up with Kentucky in the Sweet 16, and the Wildcats could have really used Dean Wade, who had missed the first two games of the tournament with an injury. The good news? Wade played eight minutes. The bad news? Wade only played eight minutes. But Xavier Sneed picked up the slack, scoring 22 points and grabbing 9 rebounds as the Wildcats outlasted Kentucky, 61-58.
And that Brown drive to the basket for the go-ahead score was a thing of beauty.
Texas Tech hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 in 13 years. What’s worse is the Red Raiders had never been to the Elite Eight. Entering their game with Purdue, the Red Raiders were out to do something unprecedented.
The Red Raiders did it dominantly, beating Purdue, 78-65. Tech had a 30-25 lead at halftime and kept building from there, led by Keenan Evans, who had 16 points. Zhaire Smith had 13 points and Justin Gray added 12 points and 7 rebounds. Zach Smith came off the bench to add 14 points. That all helped the Red Raiders overcome the 30 points of Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, as the Red Raiders marched to the Elite Eight.
All that was left was for West Virginia to make it an All-Big 12 regional final. But the Mountaineers couldn’t get it done. West Virginia ran into an old friend from the Big East, Villanova, and the Wildcats took care of business, 90-78. Jevon Carter ended his WVU career with 12 points and 8 assists. Daxter Miles ended his WVU career with 16 points. Sagaba Konate added 12 points and Esa Ahmad had 11 points. Jalen Brunson led the Wildcats with 27 points. Bob Huggins would have to wait at least another year to take his alma mater to the Final Four.
Imagine a Final Four with three Big 12 teams. The conference had imagined before, of course. They league had seen three teams reach the Sweet 16 before. But three teams in the Elite 8? And in different regions to boot? It had happened twice, in 2002 and 2003. In 2002 Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma all reached the Elite Eight, and Kansas and Oklahoma advanced to the Final Four. In 2003 Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas reached the Elite Eight. Kansas and Texas advanced to the Final Four, with KU reaching the national title game against Syracuse before losing. Syracuse also defeated Texas in the national semifinal.
That was the zenith of the Big 12’s dominance in the NCAA Tournament. Now Kansas, Kansas State and Texas Tech had a chance to turn the NCAA’s Final Four into their own personal playground.
First, Kansas. The Jayhawks faced Duke in a battle of two of the country’s top programs. Duke had a 3-point lead at the break. The game was tied at the end of regulation. When overtime ended, Kansas won the game, 85-81. Malik Newman torched the Blue Devils for 32 points. Lagerald Vick had 14 points. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk had 11 points and 10 rebounds. Devonte Graham had 11 points and 6 assists. Kansas had finally broken back into the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
That celebration was sweet, wasn’t it Jayhawk fans?
Next, Kansas State. The Wildcats were in their first Elite Eight in eight years, and in 1988 the Kansas Jayhawks ended the Wildcats’ hopes of reaching a Final Four for the first time since 1964. The Wildcats were still stuck on that last Final Four appearance, and all that stood in their way was a No. 11 seed in Loyola-Chicago. The path was clear. But the obstacle was too great to overcome.
The Ramblers rolled to a 78-62 win over Kansas State. Dean Wade didn’t give it a go this time, but the offensive performance that had carried the Wildcats to that point without him didn’t materialize. The team shot 34.8 percent from the floor. Xavier Sneed led the Wildcats with 16 points, while Barry Brown Jr. had 14 points and Kamau Stokes had 13 points. The Ramblers shot 57 percent from the floor and were up 36-24 at the break. There was no catching up.
That left Texas Tech, and as well as the Red Raiders had played in this tournament they ran into a buzzsaw in Villanova, which had a 36-23 lead at halftime and rolled to a 71-59 win. Keenan Evans had just 12 points in his final game at Texas Tech. Jarrett Culver added 11 points. Zhaire Smith scored 7 points and had 7 rebounds and declared for the NBA Draft shortly after.
So it would be Kansas, and only Kansas, that would head to the Final Four.
Kansas’ trip to the Final Four in 2018 marked the 15th Final Four appearance for the Jayhawks, and their third under head coach Bill Self. Kansas had put together a remarkable run. The question was whether the Jayhawks had two more wins in them?
Standing in the way was Villanova, which had become a familiar foe to the Big 12 in this tournament. Villanova had sent both West Virginia and Texas Tech home in the second weekend of the tournament, as the Wildcats attempted to win their second national title in three years under head coach Jay Wright. The Wildcats had been dominant against both WVU and TTU. And the same held true against Kansas.
Villanova hit 13 3-pointers in the first half to build a 47-32 lead, one that Kansas was unable to overcome. The Wildcats won, 95-79. It was the end of the line for Devonte Graham, who led the Jayhawks with 23 points. Malik Newman, who had 21 points, declared for the NBA Draft shortly afterward. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk also exited the program as a senior and scored 10 points in the national semifinal.
Self and the Jayhawks were left wanting more, as was the Big 12 Conference, once again.
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