Tomorrow is the National Semifinal round of the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament…or as most people call it, the Final Four. This year, the 2021-2022 NCAA Division I men’s basketball national champion will be crowned in New Orleans at the Caesars Superdome, which was formerly known as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome before then and the Louisiana Superdome before that. Sponsorships of sports venues definitely suck at times but that’s a story for another post. The Final Four is back in New Orleans for the first time since 2012 when Kentucky defeated my Kansas Jayhawks to win the national title. I was disappointed that night as New Orleans dealt me yet another L but it wasn’t as painful as the experience of a big game in New Orleans on April 7, 2003. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: the 2003 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Game.
How I first came across this moment? I’ve been a Kansas fan since 1992. In following them, I ended up watching the national title game. To be honest, though, I probably would’ve watched even if Kansas wasn’t playing since Duke wasn’t in the picture.
What it meant to me then? Advancing to the 2003 national title game was all about redemption for me as a Kansas fan. The year before, they went 33-4 in advancing all the way to the National Semifinal, where they fell to eventual national champion, Maryland. I always felt that the loss to Oklahoma in the 2002 Big 12 Tournament Championship Game doomed us in seeding. The 2002-03 season represented new hope…and I felt good about it with Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich leading the team as seniors. A 24-6 regular season and a semifinal bounce-out in the Big 12 Tournament meant Kansas had to settle for the 2-seed in the West, where the path to New Orleans included tough games against Utah State, Duke, and Arizona. We made it through the region and thrashed Marquette to advance to the Monday night showdown with Syracuse. That 1st half by Syracuse, they could do no wrong. The basket had to be like an ocean for them with Gerry McNamara hitting 6 3-pointers in helping them take an 11-point lead to the locker rooms. Kansas battled back in the 2nd half but the comeback attempt was derailed by a sensational block by Hakim Warrick of Michael Lee’s corner 3. Syracuse claimed the title in an 81-78 triumph. I was sick to my stomach at the loss because Kansas missed 18 of 30 free throws…Nick Collison, despite a 19-point, 21-rebound effort missed 7 of his 10 attempts. The next day was very depressing for me at school. Heck, the next week was depressing as I sulked miserably. I remember Valorie Drew trying to cheer me up to no avail.
What it means to me now? That was nearly 19 years ago…literally half my life ago. In that time, I’ve seen Kansas win a national championship and lose another one. I’ve seen some disappointing finishes like the back-to-back First Round losses to Bucknell and Bradley in the 2005 and 2006 Tournaments or the Northern Iowa and VCU losses in 2010 and 2011. Still, the loss in the 2003 national title game stands above all. Those f’n free throws still haunt me. And here we are, back to the scene of the nightmare…New Orleans. This is my last dance as a Kansas fan as I’ll commit 100% to Ohio State starting in November. It would mean everything to me for Kansas to right the wrong of 2003 by cutting down the nets on Monday night with a win over Duke or North Carolina. First, we’ll have to dispatch Villanova but I actually think that we might run them out of the gym like we did the Dwyane Wade-led Marquette team in the 2003 National Semifinal. If Kansas is successful in winning the title, the win—regardless of the circumstance—will automatically become my Best Moment as a fan and it’ll erase my Worst Moment.