On October 25, 2005, ESPNU named the Kansas University men’s basketball team as one of the country’s top seven Division 1 “powerhouse programs”. UCLA, Michigan State, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky and Indiana were the other men's team's honored.


This, of course, is due to the fact that KU has won the NCAA championship twice, in 1957 and 1988, been in the Final Four 11 times, and won it’s conference championship 43 times, not to mention the fact that KU was crowned national champions in 1922 and 1923 by the Helms Foundation.


However, had it not been for several season-ending losses in the years since the NCAA started holding an annual tournament, KU would probably be viewed as THE powerhouse.


The difference between a point or two, a bad call, a key injury, or an errant pass in the NCAA tourney can sometimes change the whole complexion of a season, a team, or even a player.  Take, for example, the historic battle in 1957, which has been referred to many times as the ‘greatest NCAA championship in NCAA history’.


1957  The championship game featured North Carolina and Kansas, teams that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, although the betting line was on KU which featured the incomparable Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain.

In the game, North Carolina held a 29-22 lead at the half, but the Jayhawks came out strong and quickly built a 5 point lead.  The Tarheels then started a stall (there was no shot clock then) and managed to tie the game 46-46 at the end of regulation.  All-American Lenny Rosenbluth fouled out with 1:45 to go, after scoring 20 points.  In the first overtime, both teams only scored one basket each and KU missed a last shot.  Both teams played for the unmissable basket in the second overtime, but neither scored.  In the final OT, KU went in front 53-52 with 31 seconds to go.  However, with six seconds left, Carolina center Joe Quigg was fouled, and he made both free throws.

KU then had the ball out of bounds at half court, and everyone knew what was coming:  Wilt was going to get the ball.  Johnny Parker threw the ball in to Ron Loneski, who dribbled a couple of times before throwing a soft pass high to Chamberlain.  But North Carolina center Joe Quigg jumped in front of Chamberlain and deflected the ball to teammate Tommy Kearns, who heaved the ball high into the rafters as the buzzer sounded.

The loss cost the Jayhawks the championship, and it would be nine more years before KU won 20 games in a season. In Wilt’s autobiography he later wrote about the game:  “I’ve always been more bitter about that loss than almost any other single game in my whole college and professional career.”  Although he stuck around for another year, he didn’t come back to Lawrence for 40 years, feeling that “he had let down the KU fans”.


1991  Three other times, KU has been in the national championship game and lost.  In 1991, with just one starter back, the Jayhawks were noticeably absent from most preseason polls. However, the team brought third-year coach Roy Williams his first conference title. But Jayhawk faithful had little reason to believe that they would take Williams to a Final Four.

Although Kansas didn't exactly enter the NCAA Tournament with a head of steam, the team built momentum, edging New Orleans, 55-49 in the first round, followed by an 11-point win over Pittsburgh. At the regionals, KU jumped on Indiana early and won, 83-65. Suddenly the Jayhawks were the darlings of the tournament. Next up was No. 1-ranked Arkansas and its "40 minutes of hell" defense. At halftime, the Jayhawks were down 12 points and things didn't look good. But the second half was all Kansas. With Mark Randall and Regional MVP Alonzo Jamison leading the way, the Jayhawks emerged with a 93-81 win and a Final Four berth.

Kansas beat North Carolina, Williams' alma mater, in the national semifinals, 79-73. But Duke, behind Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley, beat Kansas 72-65 in the finals, ending a memorable run by the Jayhawks.

1953  In 1952-53, expectations were not high, as the Jayhawks returned only one of the top seven players from KU’s 1952 national championship and Olympic Gold Medal team.

Senior Dean Kelley anchored the backcourt, coupled with Gil Reich, a transfer from West Point.  B. H. Born, a 6’10 junior had the unenviable job of replacing 3-time All-American Clyde Lovellette at center.  Filling the forward spots were juniors Harold Patterson (who doubled as an end on the football team) and Al Kelley, Dean’s younger brother.

This group of over-achievers led KU to first place in the Big 7 with a 10-2 record. Born led the team with 18.9 points per game and the league with 280 rebounds. In the NCAA tourney, KU won handily over Oklahoma City, Oklahoma State and Washington. Kansas wasn't supposed to be in the NCAA championship game for the second straight year. Not without Clyde Lovellette and most of the starting cast from the 1952 title team.
But there the Jayhawks were, playing Indiana in the championship game, just as they had done in 1940.

It was close all the way, but Born fouled out early in the second half. Indiana  took a one-point victory when Born's replacement Jerry Alberts, missed a jumper with five seconds left.  Kansas felt injuries kept it from winning. Charlie Hoag, a top reserve on the '52 team, did not play because of a knee injury from football season and Born suffered sinus problems the entire game.  It took KU five years to get back to the NCAA tournament.

1940  In 1940, the Jayhawks finished the Big Six season at 8-2, in a three-way tie for the league title with Missouri and Oklahoma.  A playoff series to determine who would represent the league in the fifth district title game was held in Wichita.  And KU prevailed, beating Oklahoma 45-39 after the Sooners had beaten Missouri.

In a contest billed as “The Game of the Year,” Kansas met Oklahoma A&M for the fifth District title.  The Jayhawks won 45-43 in overtime and headed for the Western Championships in Kansas City.

After defeating Rice 50-44, KU advanced to meet Southern Cal in the NCAA Western final.  The Jayhawks weren’t given much of a chance: “The midget University of Kansas basketball team was up against the sun-bronzed giants rated the best in the nation. The Jayhawks looked puny by comparison,” the Saturday Evening Post reported.  But KU hung close and rallied in the final 18 seconds for a victory as Howard Engleman swished a high, arching shot from far out on the right side as the timer’s gun went off.  The Jayhawks had won 43-42.  “It was another miracle in Kansas basketball.  Kansas fans should be getting used to them by this time,” the Post reported.

But the miracles were over, and KU fell to Indiana 60-42 in the NCAA final at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.  In the next dozen years, KU reached the NCAA tournament only once.

Thus, KU just missed winning four national championships.  Eight times in the past 14 seasons, the Jayhawks were the favorites to win the crown, but fell short earlier in the tournament.

2005  This was supposed to be the year that KU reclaimed the national championship. KU was loaded, led by senior All-American Wayne Simien, coupled with three other outstanding seniors, a strong supporting cast, and the best freshman class in the country. Many of the pre-season mags picked the Hawks to take it all.

Through the first 21 games they looked great, dropping only one game to Villanova. This stretch included nationally televised wins against highly ranked Georgia Tech and Kentucky (which KU won without Simien).


Something went sour, however, as the Jayhawks lost four of their final six league games to drop them into a tie for the conference title. A loss to Oklahoma State in the second round of the conference tourney dropped KU to a three-seed in the NCAAs, matched with Bucknell.


The team couldn’t shake the slump, lumbering behind Bucknell the whole game, and ended the season with a 63-64 loss to a no-name team from a minor conference.


2003  Even with a 3-3 start and missing Wayne Simien for more than half the season, the Jayhawks made an incredible run all the way to the national championship game. Lead by senior All-Americans Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, the Hawks pulled off a tough-fought Big Monday victory over Texas, a come-from-behind victory over rival Missouri in Columbia, a stunning 33-point victory over Marquette in the Final Four, and a crushing victory over Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament's second round.


With Simien healthy, the Jayhawks looked like a lock against under-rated Syracuse in the national championship game. This was a chance to avenge the heartbreaking loss Syracuse inflicted on KU in the 1996 Regional Final. However, playing one of their worst games of the season, KU faltered at the end, losing to Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse, 81-78.

It was so disappointing that a team that finished the year ranked first in the country in scoring margin (+15.8), second in rebound margin (+7.9), third in scoring offense (82.7), seventh in assists (17.2) and ninth in steals (9.8), could not pick up that final win. Arguably, this team, particularly Collison and Hinrigh deserved better.

2002  Three all-conference juniors returned, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Drew Gooden, along with three-year starter Jeff Boshee.  Add a top 10 recruiting class, and all the elements were there for a conference title and long run through the NCAAs.

Kansas took a 26-2 overall and 15-0 conference record into Columbia on March 3 -- a place where KU hadn't won since 1999 and where the Jayhawks had lost five of their last six games. Behind a career game from Nick Collison, however, KU held on to beat the Tigers, 95-92, to become the first team in the history of the Big 12 Conference to go 16-0 in league play.

KU got a number 1 seed in the NCAA tourney with a 29-3 record and was impressive in successive wins over Holy Cross, Stanford, Illinois, and Oregon, before taking on the Maryland Terrapins in the semi-finals. Despite jumping out to a 13-2 lead, Kansas trailed by as many as 20 points in the second half before making a furious comeback which fell just short. Maryland went on to claim its first national title by beating Indiana.

1998  Everyone knew that KU was a lock this year for the national championship this year.  They had everything, two All-Americans in Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce, a deadly gunner in Billy Thomas, a solid and smart point guard in Ryan Robertson, and a strong bench. 


Nationally ranked on top most of the year, they ended the regular season 34-3, finished the Big 12 conference with a three-game lead, took the conference tourney, and stormed into the NCAA ranked No.1.

After easily polishing off Prairie View, the Hawks were then stunned by upstart Rhode Island, in what to me was one of the most disappointing, unbelievable losses ever incurred by a Jayhawk squad. KU came out cold and just never warmed up, while Rhode Island, led by two hot-shooting guards, couldn't miss.

1997  Armed with one of the most talented teams in Kansas history, led by All-Americans Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce, the Jayhawks finished the regular season 29-1 and ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for 15 consecutive weeks.


One could make the argument that this Jayhawk team could have been even better if not for injuries. Senior point guard Jacque Vaughn missed the first 10 games of the season with a wrist injury. In late January, senior center Scot Pollard sat out eight games with a broken bone in his foot. In addition, Jerod Haase played most of the season with a broken bone in his right hand.


Along the injury-riddled way, the Jayhawks captured the first ever Big 12 Conference title and conference tournament, landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. After easily dispatching Jackson State and Purdue, the Hawks met eventual champion Arizona in the semi-final. Haase could barely dribble because of a throbbing wrist, and KU barely lost, 82-85.


1995  The 1995 Jayhawks had a big and talented front line, with 7’2 Greg Ostertag, Raef LaFrentz, Scot Pollard, and sophomore B. J. Williams, together with one of the best backcourts in the nation, including JacqueVaughn, Jerod Haase, and senior three-point expert Greg Gurley.

The Jayhawks posted impressive non-conference wins over No.1 Massachusetts, No. 2 Connecticut and No. 6 Florida, and swept regular season series with Missouri, Kansas State, Colorado and Nebraska to win the conference title for the fourth time in five years.  KU finished 14-0 at home, marking the 10th time they have been undefeated at home since the opening of Allen Fieldhouse in 1955.

The Hawks entered the NCAA tourney as a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, where they won the first two games handily, before running into hot Virginia. Their 34% shooting against the Cavaliers did them in; a disappointing close to the season.

1993  Many of the preseason mags picked KU No.1, with four starters returning, including arguably the best backcourt in the country. Senior guards Adonis Jordan and Rex Walters were the leading scorers on last season's team, backed up by one of the nation's best sixth man, Steve WoodberryThe deep front line featured senior center Eric Pauley, junior Richard Scott, senior Patrick Richey, sophomore Greg Ostertag, and touted juco transfer Darrin Hancock.


From beginning to end, the season was one of the most memorable in KU history.
There was a win over Indiana in Indianapolis; a 21-point win at Louisville to give Kansas its 1,500th all-time victory; and a one-point win at Oklahoma State in the regular season finale with the conference championship already in the bag.

In the Midwest Regional, Kansas defeated Jason Kidd and California in the semifinals. In the regional finals, the Jayhawks knocked off No. 2-ranked Indiana, earning KU its 10th Final Four appearance, matched against No. 1 ranked North Carolina. Although Coach Roy Williams won one against his mentor, Dean Smith, in '91, it wasn't to be this year, as the Tarheels took KU 68-78.

I personally believe that, had not Ben Davis defected, he would have provided the muscle KU needed against North Carolina, allowing KU to move into the Championship game.

1992  As in Dicken’s immortal words, “it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times”, so was the 1991-92 season.  The best of times was when KU finished the conference season three games ahead of the pack, took the league tournament and were ranked second in the polls.  KU landed a first seed in the Midwest, and many pundits picked KU to take it all, or at least to have a return match against Duke in the final.  So ended the regular season.

Then the bottom dropped out.  Six Big 8 teams were picked for the NCAA tourney. Two league teams dropped out in the first round, three lost in the second round, including KU, leaving only Oklahoma State to defend the conference honor. The Cowboys did make it to the sweet sixteen, but ended their season losing to the Fab Five of Michigan. 

One of the highest scoring teams in the nation, KU only scored 60 against Texas El Paso, missing a chance to gain revenge for the loss to UTEP in the 1996 NCAA tourney.  Dick Vitale reported that “it was a surprise of parallel proportions in many quarters when No. 9 seed Texas-El Paso toppled No. 1 seed Kansas, 66-60 in the second round Midwest Regional”.

The 1996 loss to Syracuse, the ’91 loss to Duke, the ’90 loss to UCLA, the 1986 loss to Duke, the 1981 loss to Wichita State, the 1971 loss to UCLA, and the 1967 loss to Houston were other opportunities KU had to win in the NCAAs, but weren’t listed as favorites.

In total, 18 times KU had a chance to win it all, and lost.  Had the Jayhawks won only a third of those, they would have 6 more championship banners on the walls of Allen Fieldhouse, and ESPNU wouldn’t be listing those other six teams.