Former Jayhawk Earns Trip to Final Four

February 2, 2010

Former Jayhawk walk-on Joel Branstrom knows firsthand that getting to the Final Four is never easy.

As senior squad member of the 1996-97 Jayhawks, Joel saw No. 1-seeded KU fall in the Sweet 16 to a four-seeded Arizona. Arizona went on to defeat Kentucky for the National Championship.

“Chalk me up as biased, but there is no doubt in my mind that our Jayhawk squad was the best team in the nation in 1997,” said Joel, now a women’s basketball coach for Olathe Northwest High School.

“Every possession, every opportunity counts when you are marching to the Final Four. We came up two possessions short against a hot team that stayed hot and won it all. Talent can take you a long way. But it is not always about being the best and doing your best. It’s about doing what’s necessary.”

That bit of sports wisdom certainly is one Coach Bill Self embraces. It also has proved especially a propos for Joel in recent days.

The Kansas High School coach and his family finally will be making that trip to the Final Four – and Joel has to chalk it up to “doing what’s necessary.” And maybe a wee bit of luck.

Late last month, blindfolded and standing at half-court as part of a good-natured student prank, the popular Ravens basketball coach calmly sank a 47-foot nothing-but-net set shot, sending students into a frenzy and propelling Joel into almost overnight celebrity status on the airways and the Internet.

Joel later told an ESPN reporter that he thought the applause and screams following the January 22 shot were just part of the joke. “I’ve been around long enough and have done these kinds of practical jokes. I figured they were trying to punk me.”

It wasn’t until the former Jayhawk took off his blindfold that he realized what an improbable shot he had made. The only downside: a “promised” trip to the Final Four made by the pranking students could not be fulfilled. “I happily settled on a free meal at a local restaurant,” he said.

But the NCAA had another idea. They awarded him tickets, travel and lodging, thus fulfilling a life-long dream.

“The next best thing to actually playing in a Final Four is to experience it as a fan. My family and I are really excited to be a part of the greatest sports weekend of the year,” Joel said.

Joel’s soft touch and follow-through on the shot can be attributed to a lifetime of practice and playing time starting as a schoolyard athlete and culminating in his years as a walk-on with the Jayhawks.

Originally from California where he was a starter at Canada Junior College in Redwood City, Joel followed his brother, Craig to KU. Craig was the Big 8 Conference Champion and earned All-American status as a decathlete in 1988.

Joel first arrived in Lawrence for the 1994-95 season and then red-shirted in 1995-96. That year he worked alongside Coach Roy Williams in the basketball offices. “I really wanted to be a coach and Coach Williams was gracious enough to let me be around the offices to see what goes on day to day and to learn from him.”

In 1996-97, as a senior forward, he played alongside Jacque Vaughn, Scot Pollard, Jerrod Hass, Steve Ransom, and B.J. Williams on the Jayhawk team that set a school record by winning its first 22 consecutive games. They finished the season 34-2, won the Big 12 Conference and Tournament Championships and reached the NCAA Sweet 16.

“I played in 24 of those 34 games,” Joel said, “not because I was that good, but because I was playing on a great team that scored lots of points, which gave me the opportunity to play. It was a great thrill.”

Joel has taken his experiences at KU and become an outstanding biology teacher, as well as a basketball coach, first at Lawrence High School’s boy’s program and now at Olathe.

Joel and his wife, Christiane (formerly Watkins, a 1997 KU grad) have four children – Jaiden 7, Noah 5, Emma 3 and Bryan 2.

To catch up on Joel, his family and team go to and click on the “Coaches” tab.