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Sunday, April 8, 2018

A look behind the scenes of Kansas’ 2018 Final Four appearance

Kansas guard Malik Newman (14) watches as the Villanova Wildcats are introduced on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Kansas guard Malik Newman (14) watches as the Villanova Wildcats are introduced on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

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Beyond being the greatest stage in college basketball, the Final Four is also an incredible melting pot for fun, humanizing and quirky moments among players, coaches and fans. It's also the ultimate landing spot for little stories that have built their way up to the national stage throughout the month of March.

Surely, if given the chance, most KU basketball fans would take certain liberties in rewriting the script that ended the Jayhawks’ 31-8 season with a 95-79 loss to Villanova. But looking back, a Final Four run by a likable but at times shaky team that made it click in the end is an admirable achievement.

Here are a few of my favorite off-the-court stories and moments from the Jayhawks’ brief but eventful stay in San Antonio:

1: Bill Self meets Jay Wright in the hallway:

The greater the stage, the greater the amount of media obligations that the teams and coaches are involved in. To ensure that CBS and Turner get everything they need, the NCAA uses golf carts at the Final Four to shuttle the players and coaches from one interview to the next.

In this case, Self and Wright, arrived to a joint CBS interview earlier than the crew was ready for them. Stuck in the hallway with nowhere to go, the two started talking and cracking each other up in front of about 15 reporters and photographers. I’m not sure anyone witnessing was sure of what was being said, but the spectacle of the two coaching giants giggling like old friends made for great theater.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright, left, and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a laugh in the hallway while waiting to do a joint CBS interview on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Villanova head coach Jay Wright, left, and Kansas head coach Bill Self have a laugh in the hallway while waiting to do a joint CBS interview on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. by Nick Krug


2: Dance party:

Just across the hall from where Self and Wright were sitting down for their CBS interview, the Jayhawks were center stage in what, on first glance, looked like a scaled-down version of a Rolling Stones concert set. CBS was using a studio space at the Alamodome to record footage for the team introductions that were broadcast before tipoff of the Final Four games. Basically, the KU starting five were on a lit stage and surrounded on all sides by fans and spotlights. Cameras on large booms were sweeping around the room as the players danced and high-fived the fans.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham pump fakes with a ball as he dances on a stage before fans during a video recording with Turner CBS on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham pump fakes with a ball as he dances on a stage before fans during a video recording with Turner CBS on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. by Nick Krug


3: Sardines in a can:

At the Final Four, everything is bigger. Everything except the locker rooms, that is. And when the Kansas press corps combines with all the wire services and national TV networks, the locker rooms go from uncomfortable to intolerable pretty quickly.

It often seems pointless to me to try to battle the masses in search of a storytelling moment within a herd of storytellers. Usually, I’ll try to to wait for the room to clear out a little bit and hope for some player interaction in the final minutes while they’re still open to the media. In this case, with the room as packed as it was, it became pretty clear that things weren’t going to get any easier.

I quickly abandoned the idea of getting a clean image of any player interaction and just focused on trying to document the chaos of the Final Four. Sometimes I’ll find a chair to stand on to get above the tree line, which usually works well, but not as well as the view Jeff Jacobsen of KU Athletics got when he climbed on top of the lockers with a fisheye lens and slid his way to a position above where Devonte' Graham was sitting. I never got to see the picture, but I’m sure it looked pretty cool.

In a tightly-packer locker room, Kansas Athletics photographer Jeff Jacobsen steadies himself above the locker of Devonte' Graham to get a fisheye view as media members talk with Graham on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.

In a tightly-packer locker room, Kansas Athletics photographer Jeff Jacobsen steadies himself above the locker of Devonte' Graham to get a fisheye view as media members talk with Graham on Thursday, March 29, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. by Nick Krug


4: A warm welcome:

Little stories become big stories in a hurry as the tournament moves along. There was the lovable Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt of Loyola-Chicago for instance, who became an overnight sensation as the Ramblers heated up. Kansas had its own heartwarming little story — the arrival of center Udoka Azubuike’s mother, Florence Azuonuwu, who traveled from Delta, Nigeria to see her son play for the first time. The mother and son had not seen each other in six years.

Up until just before the Villanova game, no media members had seen Azuonuwu as her plane arrived in San Antonio late the night before. When she made it to her seat at the Alamodome, she was quickly welcomed and hugged by the KU fans and the other players’ parents seated behind the team bench. Just another example of the emotions the Final Four can stir.

Florence Azuonuwu, mother of Kansas center Udoka Azubuike gets a welcoming hug from a KU fan prior to tipoff on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Azuonuwu traveled from Delta, Nigeria to see her son play, whom she hasn't seen in six years.

Florence Azuonuwu, mother of Kansas center Udoka Azubuike gets a welcoming hug from a KU fan prior to tipoff on Saturday, March 31, 2018 at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Azuonuwu traveled from Delta, Nigeria to see her son play, whom she hasn't seen in six years. by Nick Krug

Comments

Henry Joseph Hofmeister 1 week, 3 days ago

i wish i loved another sport as much. this is always a bad time of year. maybe i'll start looking for new golf clubs.

Dirk Medema 1 week, 3 days ago

I'm forgetting the name of the reporter with bleacher report who was able to interview Dok and have him open up about life in Nigeria. It makes the opportunity for his mom to visit all the more special and should be required reading before any genius commentators through garbage his way.

Martin Rosenblum 1 week, 3 days ago

A blessing and a curse. The spotlight can be so bright that it can be temporarily blinding unfortunately. The spectacle of the games is on the court. Super Bowl, World Series, NBA All-Star Game and Finals...OK. Of course it would be a missed opportunity if such a huge sporting event didn't invite huge media attention. However, until these student athletes become a true part of the profit-sharing machine, it seems like they're being pimped out to ask them to dance on "tilted stages" to produce commercials and promos for the networks, etc. By the time the games are actually played, some of these 18-20 year old guys could be starry eyed from all of the reporters, "dance videos", etc. and the game mentality could be harder to focus on. True, some of them don't appear bothered. But, who wants to take a chance that has such a huge consequence? Tone it down at the Final Four! Let them concentrate on the games!

Bryce Landon 1 week, 3 days ago

Villanova's players had to do the exact same things as Kansas' players did for the Final Four promos, and it didn't make it hard to focus for them or make them starry-eyed. Bottom line is, Villanova was better. Nobody was going to beat them. The Golden State Warriors themselves could not have beaten Villanova that night.

P.S. I bleeping hate Villanova.

Craig Carson 1 week, 2 days ago

Nova is becoming a nemesis of KU..outside of 2008 it seems like they havent beaten them in a long time...Nova was on one of those hot streaks that was almost unbeatable.whoever could have beaten them was gonna have to match them shot for shot and hope for a TO in the closing seconds denying them a tying or game winning shot

John Strayer 1 week, 2 days ago

I remember when some KU fans were pegging Jay Wright to be the replacement for when Coach Self leaves KU...now the chances of that happening are not looking so good. Would KU be a step up from his current situation? Two national championships in three years...He's most likely a "lifer" at 'Nova now...

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