Join Mario & Jalen Wilson live on REVEL Moments' interactive platform at 8 PM ET on Sunday, March 12 by claiming an RSVP here.
I still remember it like yesterday, my first visit to Allen Fieldhouse in 2004. I was a junior in high school, living in Alaska, and contemplating where I wanted to go to college. Looking out at all those red and blue seats as far as the eye can see, and then the rafters filled with all those banners.
The retired jerseys: Wilt’s ‘13’, Danny’s ‘25’, Paul’s ‘34’ and several more. Then I scanned to the other side of the Allen to the most legendary banner in all of college hoops, ‘Pay Heed All Who Enter. Beware of “The Phog”’. And underneath that large banner, 4 equal spaced national championship banners, 1922, 1923, 1952, and 1988.
Being in Allen Fieldhouse that day, staring at those banners, I felt the rich history of Kansas Basketball. I also felt the urge to etch my own name into this history. To hang a new national championship banner to the right of the ‘1988’. To have my jersey retired up there, right next to Wilt, Danny, Paul, and all the KU legends that came before me.
These dreams became reality on April 7th, 2008 in San Antonio, 15 years ago this month.
Man, thinking about our national championship team in 2008 and what we accomplished, it was truly a journey. I can’t help but recall the pain we felt losing in the Elite Eight to UCLA the year before. For me, I took it personal, well we all took it personal, but it was extra tough for me because that was my worst game EVER! They put a bigger guard on me, Josh Shipp. I have to keep it real, he was just more physical and stronger than me. So that whole off season my focus was getting in the weight room to get stronger to be able to take a bump.
The whole squad was locked in on what we needed to do to get better to bring our best to the team. Our motto for 2007-2008 was don’t talk about it, be about it. Everybody put the work in and if we do, we're going to get the results that we want. And, that’s just what we did.
B. Rush worked on his ball handling, Russell Robinson worked on his shooting, Sherron came back in the best shape of his life. Everybody did something extra over that offseason to get better, and once we got in camp, we all knew it was going to be a special year.
Even Coach Self knew it. I remember him telling us the work we put in was showing. We all felt like we were the team to beat, and Coach Self put us all in position to maximize our ability. More than anything Coach made sure we were a great defensive team. We all bought into the defense first mentality as we knew our offense would take care of itself. Getting buckets was never an issue.
We all knew our roles too, B. Rush was our shooter, Shady (Darrell Arthur) was our inside presence, I was our all-around guard, Russ was our defender, Sherron was our spark plug, and everybody else filled in and played their role. We had a bond, we were close as a team. The chemistry we had on and off the court was a major key to our success. Me and Shady were roommates, and our spot was the hangout for the team. We were heavy on video games back then, and we’d have two TV’s set up, one with Call of Duty and the other with Mario Kart. The whole team would kick it at our spot, and we’d go at it back and forth on both games. We genuinely rocked with each other, and that chemistry spilled over onto the court.
We started that season 20-0. In that stretch, we probably had one or two tough games.. The energy at Allen Fieldhouse was crazy, making our home games somewhat surreal. Every game was a sellout crowd of over sixteen thousand, plus more standing up no matter who we played.
Going into the Big 12 Tournament it was business as usual, and we dominated. It’s not even up for debate... We had a sixteen-year streak of winning the conference tournament, so for us to keep that streak going was big but our focus was getting to the Final Four and winning it all.
After winning the Big 12 tournament, we immediately locked in on making our run for a national title.
Our mindset as a team was no let downs, no regrets. Especially for me, because I regretted how I played the last game of the tournament the year before against UCLA. I locked in on making sure I was aggressive, keeping the team in rhythm, and that we made any necessary adjustments each game, because each round I knew teams were going to play us differently and a bit tougher. We rolled in the first two games against Portland State and UNLV, as we got our rhythm early and never looked back.
We kind of had our way until the Davison game. This one was a battle as Davison was led by Steph Curry. We played a great game with not too many mistakes, but they just wouldn’t go away. The thing about that game, our whole focus was to stop Steph, as he was having his way in the tournament, so we didn’t want him to get going. With us locked in on Curry, other players stepped up and they battled us down to the wire. We got two big shots that we needed, and we were able to go up by one. It put us where we needed to be, but it didn’t put the game away. They had the ball with like ten seconds to go and we knew we had to get it out of Steph’s hand. We doubled maybe even tripled him to force him to pass and they missed a three to end the game.
We were on our way to the Final Four, a dream come true. Man, that was the stuff we dreamt about as a kid, being in that moment, it’s hard to put into words the excitement but we knew we had to stay composed as possible because the job wasn’t finished. We had two more games to go and first up was North Carolina. That was like the game where the whole team was licking their chops. We didn’t know if we were ever going to play them that year, but we said if we ever got our hands on North Carolina we were going to destroy them. If you know the Kansas, North Carolina history then you know why we all had a chip on our shoulder for that game.
We came out and ran the score up forty to twelve in the first half. The second half, we relaxed, they made a run cutting the lead to like five, but we kept control and ended up winning by a big margin.
We had made it to the NCAA National Championship, with a match up against Memphis. Coach Self tried his best to keep us focused. He didn’t want us watching Sports Center, and hearing about how great we were. Even though we wanted to know what they were saying, we listened to Coach and stayed focused. We wanted to win that game badly for our seniors including Russell, Jeremy, Sasha, Darnell, Rodrick, and Brad. This was going to be our last ride together and we wanted to send them off the right way.
D. Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts were a problem that night. The first half was a battle as both teams went back and forth the whole half. Then in the second half, we hit a cold spell and things started to slip away. They started to run away with it going up by nine with two minutes to go.
And then something clicked. Our shots started failing, we were getting stops, and then Memphis kept missing their free throws.
Then that’s when “The Shot” happened.
In the timeout before the play, Coach Self said let’s get the ball to Mario. Everybody looked at me and said yeah let’s get him the ball. And that’s why I love my guys so much, there wasn’t one person that gave a side eye, looked away, mumbled under their breath, nothing. They all were all locked in, and their confidence gave me confidence.
As a player that’s the ultimate honor for your coach and teammates to trust you with the ball in your hands on the biggest stage ever, with it all on the line.
The play Coach called was a play we’d been running since my freshman year. Every day we ended practice working on that play. What most people don’t know is we ran the same play in the 2006 Big 12 Championship against Texas, and I hit the shot to send the game into overtime.
So, I was comfortable running that play in big situations because I practiced it so many times. In my mind it was easy... Just give me the ball, I’ll do the rest, let’s get it!
Coming off a screen with the clock approaching zero and down 3, I took a pass from my teammate, Sherron Collins, and let it fly from the top of the key. You know the rest.
My life has never been the same since “The Shot”.
We added that 5th banner right next to the 1988 team, and a few years later, I was humbly blessed to see #15 hung from the rafters. I’ve yet to pay for a drink in Lawrence since then (although I try, they won’t let me).
Now looking back, 15 years later, I have fond memories of that 2008 National Championship Team. But I’ve also come to this powerful realization…This Thing of Ours, Kansas Basketball, is special. Magical, really.
A legacy that dates to the founder of the game, Dr. Naismith, and a legacy that has only grown over the past 125 years. A legacy that includes has the longest streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances of all-time (32), the longest current streak of consecutive NCAA winning seasons (39), the most winning seasons in Division I history (104), and the most non-losing seasons (.500 or better) in NCAA history (106). The most wins in college basketball history, period (sorry Kentucky).
To the current team getting ready to begin its own March Madness journey, and to defend last year’s national title, I implore you to embrace this legacy and this magic. Fellas, enjoy the moment of every game especially the seniors, leave it all on the court.
You never want to walk away thinking I wish I could have done this, or I wish I could have done that, leave it all on the court and that way you can live with the results.... Don’t hold back!
Know when you step on the court, you are representing this legacy and have the full support of all prior generations of Jayhawks. And know if you win it all this year, you will undoubtedly go down as the most legendary team in KU’s vaunted history, back-to-back national champions. You are battle tested.
You’ve run the gauntlet of the Big 12 conference with a target on your back. You’ve battled adversity. You’ve won and lost close games. Bottom line, you are ready.
And if you believe in yourselves and tap into our legacy, this magic, I have no doubt that more banners will be hung. The years “22” and “23”, again side-by-by as back-to-back national champions. And the number “10” hanging from the rafters for our cherished captain, Jalen Wilson. Adding more rich history to This Thing of Ours, Kansas Basketball, and securing our place as the most storied program in college basketball history.
Lastly, Coach Self, you are the reason I came to Kansas and I’m so proud to be a part of your legacy.. It’s been 20 years since you took over as head coach and you have remarkably built on to the foundation of Kansas Basketball and made it even greater, with two national championships. I know what you’ve been through and what it has taken for you to accomplish your vision for our program. Now, let’s go win it all, again!
Proud Jayhawk & 2008 National Champion
P.S. Join me and Jalen Wilson on Sunday night at 7CT for a live discussion with fans on the legacy of Kansas Basketball and our championship journeys. RSVP below.