NEW ORLEANS — Sports fans love to ponder what if. It's a lot less fun for the athletes who live the scenarios that leave many of us wondering what could have been had a few things gone differently.
Ochai Agbaji experienced just such a scenario as a member of the 2019-20 Kansas Jayhawks.
"There's always that what-if factor after that 2020 season," Agbaji said Sunday at Caesars Superdome, ahead of KU's national championship matchup with North Carolina. "Especially after the run that we had to close out that season."
Kansas rode a 16-game winning streak through the conclusion of that regular season and looked like the team to beat in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But one night before the Jayhawks were to open their postseason at the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, some 350 miles away in Oklahoma City, the world changed.
Officials called the March 11 game between the NBA's Thunder and Jazz after Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell tested positive for COVID-19, and nearly every sport around the nation immediately followed suit.
That included the cancelation of the NCAA Tournament, thus leaving one of the best Kansas teams in the program's rich history to wonder what if.
Now, one canceled postseason may seem like a relatively small deal for a blue-blood program. After all, Kansas has a run of 32 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, reached its 16th Final Four this season, and in the process extended a streak of six straight decades with at least one trip to the national semifinals.
But among college basketball's old-money programs — a group that varies depending on perspective, but invariably includes Duke, UCLA and North Carolina — the Jayhawks are the least wealthy.
KU has won only three national championships in its illustrious history, and endured long gaps between each. The surprise 1988 title team with Danny Manning going on one of the most legendary runs in March Madness history marked the first Jayhawks championship in 36 years.
Lawrence had to wait another 20 for Mario Chalmers' heroics in San Antonio to land the program its third. Ahead of the 2022 national championship game, only UCLA has a title drought longer than Kansas' 14-year dry spell among the undisputed blue-bloods.
No. 4 may have come two years earlier if not for the pandemic; David McCormack certainly believes so.
"I think we would have went all the way, just the way Marcus [Garrett] was playing, Doke [Udoka Azubuike] was playing, Isaiah [Moss], [Devon] Dotson, Och' — and the way we were coming off the bench, me, Silvio [De Sousa], CB [Christian Braun] — everybody was just kind of playing their best ball at that time."
There have been perhaps better Jayhawk teams than 2019-20, but the noteworthy contenders to that distinction — like the 1996-97 bunch with Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz, or 2002-03 with Kirk Hinrich and Zack Collison — had their opportunities to win it all.
That adds to the sting of 2020. Then, the next season, Dotson, Moss, De Sousa and Azubuike were all gone.
A new-look Jayhawks lineup had a good season, but not necessarily great. And it ended in an 85-51 face-plant in the second round against USC.
For Agbaji, it was an all-too-familiar scenario. He debuted in 2018-19, one season after the Jayhawks reached their 15th Final Four and harbored realistic national championship expectations with a stacked recruiting class coming aboard.
But things went awry that season. Agbaji, who was originally set to redshirt, was activated in January as KU made a futile effort to keep its regular-season Big 12 championship streak alive. The campaign then ended with a double-digit loss in the second round against Auburn.
"Getting bounced out the second round, just seeing those expectations from the year before when they made it to the Final Four, that's how it is here," Agbaji said of understanding the standard KU wants to meet following Saturday's national semifinal against Villanova. "We come to Kansas for games like this and games like Monday."
Agbaji did his part throughout 2021-22 to elevate Kansas back to the type of games that players like him and McCormack signed with the program to play. The 2022 All-American made Final Four history with a perfect 6-of-6 3-point shooting performance against Villanova, setting the tone early in a game the Jayhawks never trailed.
His 21 points, coupled with McCormack's 25 scored primarily on the interior, gave Kansas redemption for a blowout loss to the Wildcats in the 2018 Final Four. It also sets the Jayhawks up for some redemption from 2020.
"I just see this year as an avengement to that team and what they likely deserve," McCormack said on Sunday. "And now it's just our year to go get it."
This time, Kansas won't be left to wonder what if.