OMAHA, Neb. — By the time the blue-and-yellow Werner ladder was in position under the basket, about 20 minutes before seven here, Malik Newman had already sank a pair of key free throws in the final minute of overtime. He had already delivered a series of offensive haymakers to the national championship favorite in the biggest game of his college career. He had already shuffled his feet to stay in front of Duke senior guard Grayson Allen and contest his would-be-game-winner to force the extra session. He had already slipped on a white celebratory baseball cap, headed over to press row and extended his hand. “Give me some!,” he said, over and over, though it was fair to presume no one was about to leave Newman hanging.
It wasn’t long before he was standing at the top of the ladder, beaming, ready. One teammate, senior guard Devonte’ Graham, had just retrieved a piece of the net. Another one, senior wing Svi Mykhailiuk, had followed suit. Newman began snipping away at however much nylon was left, and after he was finished, he left behind a scene that would have felt outlandish, if not inconceivable, a little less than two years ago. “This is why you come to Kansas,” Newman said after he’d scored a career-high 32 points in an 85–81 win victory over the No. 2 seed Blue Devils at the CenturyLink Center to put No. 1 seed Kansas in its first Final Four since 2012 and its second since 2008, when it was also held in San Antonio. “To be in games like this, to be in moments like this.”
On Sunday, an Elite Eight game pitting two blue bloods led by Hall of Fame coaches—in a Midwest region that, after being whittled down to its two top seeds, offered a chalky contrast to the chaos erupting elsewhere around the bracket—served as the next step in a remarkable turnaround story. With a 2-3 zone scheme that had routinely stifled opponents since its implementation late in the regular season, Duke tried to contain Newman. It tracked him as he flitted around the perimeter and attacked the basket and rose up for jumpers, threw bodies in front of him. The Blue Devils wanted to keep him in check. They could not. “He made a lot of tough shots and a lot of timely shots for them,” Allen said afterward of Newman, who scored all 13 of Kansas's points in overtime. He added, “A lot of them, it just felt like, right when we felt like we were about to get a run he hit one.”
On Duke’s final possession of the second half, Newman bent down into a defensive stance, extended his arms and began moving side-to-side with Allen, girding for a basket attack that could have nullified everything he’d done to that point to put Kansas on the precipice. Allen crossed him up and darted to his right, but Newman shuffled to thwart his path. Allen doubled back near the free-throw line, head-faked, and tried to rush past Newman with a hard, left-hand dribble. Newman stayed with him and raised his left arm as Allen lofted a one-legged floater that bounced off the backboard, rebounded off the rim and hit the glass again before rolling out. “By far,” sophomore guard Sam Cunliffe said when asked whether Newman’s effort on the lockdown that forced OT was the best he’s seen Newman guard one-on-one. “Something’s gotten into him, on both ends. I don’t care—I don’t know what it is. I just want it to keep going.”
A little less than two years ago, Newman transferred from Mississippi State, the home-state program that beat out Kentucky, Kansas and Mississippi for his services with great fanfare. Newman was the local hero who twice won Mississippi’s Mr. Basketball award and averaged close to 30 points a game as a senior at Callaway High in Jackson—the one whose father, Horatio Webster, played for the Bulldogs in the 1990s, who was showing up on NBA mock drafts before logging a single college minute, who was rated the No. 8 prospect in his recruiting class, according to the RSCI, a composite that incorporates data from several services. Yet after one underwhelming season under head coach Ben Howland in Starkville, Newman decided to transfer.
After declaring for the draft and subsequently withdrawing, Newman opted for a brand-name program residing far higher on the high-major food chain than Mississippi State. Sidelined in accordance with NCAA regulations, Newman spent his first season at Kansas watching the Jayhawks win 31 games and another Big 12 regular-season championship, clinch a No. 1 seed and play their way into an Elite Eight matchup with No. 3 seed Oregon in Kansas City. Newman was reduced to a cheering spectator on that late March day in Kansas City, but about a year later, on Sunday, he was arguably the single biggest reason the Jayhawks were able to take down the team with a higher ceiling than any other that qualified for the NCAAs. “He was the best player here,” Self said afterward of Newman, to reiterate a point that should have been plain to anyone who was watching.
Newman was resplendent against Duke, but there were stretches of this season when most available evidence suggested that this—balling out in the moments when Kansas needs him most, against the toughest competition with win-or-go-home stakes—was beyond him. As a high school player, Newman had a reputation as a shot-hungry volume scorer who wouldn’t readily defer to teammates, an inefficient chucker who couldn’t play within the flow of a high-level offense. It took time for him to find his groove in Kansas’s perimeter-oriented attack. As late as March 3, the Jayhawks’ regular-season-ending game at Oklahoma State, Newman committed three fouls and three turnovers and needed seven shots to score seven points.
In six games after that dud, Newman put up an average of 21.2 points, 2.5 assists and 4.8 rebounds while shooting 59% on 6.5 three-point attempts per game. Then came Sunday’s region-Most Outstanding Player clincher, in which Newman punctured Duke’s defenses with powerful drives to the basket, drilled corner threes and pulled down five more rebounds than a 6’10’’ big man on the other team projected to be taken in the top 10 of this summer’s draft (Wendell Carter Jr.). What’s changed for Newman is so simple as to strain credulity. “I was just—just thinking too much,” Newman said after trying to make his way to his locker, only to give up in the face of an immovable mass of camera and recorder-wielding media members. He added, “I wasn’t thinking about, you know, ‘I need the ball in my hands’ or anything like that. It was just more of me learning how to play off Devonte’ and Svi and [junior wing LaGerald Vick] and just learning how to play off those guys and also learning how to play with those guys.”
This is a tourney defined by mayhem, by Sister Jean, the University of Baltimore County bulldozing Virginia, Buffalo running Sports Illustrated’s preseason No. 1 team off the floor and one of the top defensive squads in the country squandering a 22-point lead in the second half. By the end of the first weekend, two No. 1 seeds, No. 2 seeds and No. 3 seeds had been sent home, only one No. 4 seed was still alive, and half of the No. 7, No. 9 and No. 11 seeds had secured spots in the Sweet 16. For the first time ever, one region, the South, had each of its top four seeds go down in one of the first two rounds.
As one high-major giant after another bowed out, Kansas and Duke plowed ahead, at a remove from the tumult. The Blue Devils mowed down No. 15 seed Iona and No. 7 seed Rhode Island and Pittsburgh. A familiar foe, ACC competitor and No. 11 seed Syracuse, offered more resistance on Friday, but not enough to deny Duke its 15th appearance in the Elite Eight under head coach Mike Krzyzewski. Kansas’s path here was more arduous. After handling No. 16 seed Penn in its opener, the Jayhawks skated by No. 8 seed Seton Hall, 83–79, and followed up by barely holding off Clemson in another four-point decision.
There is no need to play up the importance of an Elite Eight matchup, but both the prestige of these two programs and the illustrious résumés of their respective coaches heightened the big-stage feel of this Sunday evening meeting with a Final Four berth at stake. “It’s going to add juice to the game from y’all’s end, I know that,” Allen, a bench spark plug on the last Duke team that reached this round (2015), said on Saturday. “There’s going to be—if it’s possible, there’s going to be an even bigger atmosphere around this game just because, you know, it’s a battle between two big programs, two great coaches.”
For his part, Kansas head coach Bill Self had preached the importance, in such a high-wattage matchup, of his guys playing freely. As heavily as the desire to advance to the national semifinals can weigh on the squads taking part in the round preceding it, the best way to actually make it happen, in his view, is to try to avoid getting caught up in on what’s on the line. “There’s something about it that is Duke-Kansas on the biggest stage that allows guys just to go play for that one thing,” Self said on Saturday. “And not so much thinking about what’s next, which I think a lot of times, that’s what teams do in the Elite Eight game.”
The Jayhawks did not play like they were looking ahead. They didn’t get flustered against a zone populated by long, nimble, NBA-bound athletes. They convincingly outmatched the best rebounding team in the country on the boards, grabbing a higher portion of Duke’s (75% to 56.4%) and their own misses (43.6% to 25.0%) than the Blue Devils did. They gummed up Duke’s attack, thanks in part to Mykhailiuk, a 6’8’’ stretch-four, holding his own against one-and-done track freshman Marvin Bagley III, an agile, 6’11’’ interior-scoring engine and vigorous glass-crasher on both ends. And, maybe most importantly, they put the ball in Newman’s hands and let him cook. “I just think he settled into what his role was,” assistant coach Norm Roberts said of Newman's improvement of late.
Soon after rising from his seat at the dais for a post-game news conference, Graham to his left and Mykhailiuk to his right, the 6’3’’ redshirt sophomore started making his way down a hallway, flanked by a pair of media members hoping to get some insight into a star turn that was equal parts scintillating and surprising. Inside a cramped, victorious locker room where taking even one full step, in virtually any direction, necessitated violating someone else’s airspace, Newman settled for a black, mini refrigerator near the entrance. He found enough butt space amid the yellow Powerades, browned bananas and Clif bars lying on top to sit down before a clutch of reporters who wanted to speak to him right there, right then. “That’s fine,” Newman said. Then he began fielding a series of questions about a performance that, not too long ago, didn’t seem possible.