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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Benton Smith: Inexperience catches up with Jayhawks as Big 12 title streak perishes

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) and Oklahoma guard Jamal Bieniemy (24) fight for the ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) and Oklahoma guard Jamal Bieniemy (24) fight for the ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, March 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Nate Billings)

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Norman, Okla. — It’s over.

The long-shot — probably a not-so-realistic chance if we’re being honest — hopes of the Kansas men’s basketball program extending its absurd run of Big 12 dominance died Tuesday night at Lloyd Noble Center.

Seventh-place Oklahoma put an end to KU’s 14-year reign as Big 12 champions, defeating the conference’s perennial trophy-winners, 81-68, and mathematically eliminating them in the process.

Here lies KU’s Big 12 title streak — 2005-18.

It had to end sometime, and this particular group of Jayhawks’ relative inexperience made it possible.

The longest run of consecutive league titles in NCAA Division I history, all with Bill Self at the helm, was something to behold as the Jayhawks extended it year after year, eventually tying UCLA’s historic 13-year stretch (1967-79) of PAC-10 supremacy under legendary head coach John Wooden in 2017 and then surpassing it in 2018.

The victories necessary to cut down nets, wear championship T-shirts and hats and live up to the program’s yearly standard haven’t been nearly as easy to come by in 2019, though.

Without a Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham or Perry Ellis-type veteran to get the Jayhawks through the difficult obstacles that inevitably accompany conference play, stretching the run for another season proved to be a formidable task for a roster that also lacked the type of surefire NBA lottery talent that could help offset the inexperience.

This year’s Jayhawks won’t get to hoist the Big 12 regular-season trophy like their long line of predecessors. That honor and the pleasure of being responsible for dethroning KU will go to either rival Kansas State or Texas Tech — or both — with the title to be decided, fittingly, on the final day of the regular season.

KU wasn’t supposed to have four freshmen in the starting lineup this season, but even after Tuesday’s loss at OU, that starting combination of Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack and redshirt junior Dedric Lawson owns a 5-2 record.

The end of the streak is not on the freshmen. Instability kept this team from defending the throne.

That is one of seven starting lineup combinations for KU this season. Without injured Udoka Azubuike, ineligible Silvio De Sousa and absent Lagerald Vick, Self’s current rotation includes just two players who own a Big 12 championship ring, and both of them are role-playing reserves, junior Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore Marcus Garrett.

There was no experienced veteran with Big 12 battle scars to show this young team along or put it on his back.

And it was fitting the defeat that ruined the Jayhawks’ reign atop the league came away from Allen Fieldhouse, because road trips so often proved to be too much for them to handle. A 3-6 Big 12 road record wasn’t going to cut it this season, with defensive-driven K-State and Tech possessing the tools to win more often as visitors than the Jayhawks.

As much as Brady Manek and Kristian Doolittle’s scoring show helped bury the Jayhawks in a must-win game for the visitors, it’s difficult to look back on this season without recalling the initial scoops of dirt shoveled onto the league’s marquee program in Morgantown, W.Va., where a down on their luck bunch of Mountaineers — still in last place six weeks later — foreshadowed what was to come by knocking off KU for their first league win of the year.

The Jayhawks’ youth continually showed up in their road losses.

“Yeah, I agree with that,” freshman Ochai Agbaji said. “We’ve got to come out hard when we’re on the road and all of that. I just think that’s something we’ve really got to focus on.”

Typically, the Jayhawks have go-to players with Big 12 experience leading them into their road challenges. Did the lack of those types of veterans catch up with them this season?

“I don’t really think that was an issue,” Lawson countered, after the loss at OU (19-11 overall, 7-10 Big 12). “It was about us personally going into opponents’ arenas with the mindset of being tougher than those guys.”

Too often, Lawson wenton, the visiting Jayhawks gave home teams momentum with their ineffectiveness.

“It’s not nothing about not playing in the Big 12 (before),” Lawson insisted. “At the end of the day it’s just basketball.”

Winning away from Lawrence was a rarity, when so often it’s been a given for Self-coached KU teams.

This version of the Jayhawks (22-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12), though perfect so far at Allen Fieldhouse, have put their flaws on full display every time they hit the road.

But the man who orchestrated those 14 other championship runs shot down the notion that the 2018-19 Jayhawks faltered because most of their rotation players had never before navigated that road to a title.

“I don’t think winning the Big 12 championship has anything to do with our inexperience on the road. If they had won it before would it be different? We’re putting too much emphasis on winning the league. What we need to be putting our emphasis on is: what is the ceiling of this team? And what does this team need to do to play better?” Self said.

“You can blame it on freshmen and whatnot. I’m not gonna blame it on anything,” Self added. “We’ve won the league when we stated three freshmen and two sophomores in a league where Texas had LaMarcus Aldridge and all those cats. So I ain’t buying into that stuff.”

Vick was not the senior KU needed him to be. And Lawson and Dotson, though they emerged as KU’s best players, proved to lack that Big 12 title-winning experience that typically fuels the most effective Jayhawks year after year.

If those two are back for 2020, it’s hard to see them finishing anywhere but first.

But for now, KU is flawed, and the regular-season finale with Baylor and the league tournament that follows will determine just how fondly this team will be remembered in Lawrence, where basketball is king, and the Jayhawks usually wear the Big 12 crown.

Comments

Rae Bricil 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Agreed came down to experience and leadership. The talent exists 3 MCD AA's and lawson starting is enough talent to win the league in a different time. Also, this team never really got any better--freshman usually develop and while there were moments of individuals getting better the team really didn't make progress in conference play in terms of their road capabilities.

Sucks these guys will always be remembered as the group that lost the streak but was going to happen to someone...

I think Jamari Traylor's tweet summed it up --"this is how we going out? that hurt" have to agree didnt see us getting run out the gym with the streak on the line this late in the season to a team that was below 500.

Stuart Corder 2 months, 3 weeks ago

It took the cloud of an NCAA/FBI corruption investigation, a suspension, a season ending injury and a “leave of absence” from the lone senior to end the record streak.

What concerns me is the lack of poise these young men showed, as our team consistently played somewhere between “subpar” and “embarrassing” on the road. It’s frustrating to witness the body language this squad revealed when encountering adversity while away from home.

The silver lining is that this entire team will be back next year, but with experience and hopefully a chip on their shoulder creating the passion and hunger that this team currently lacks. The talent is there, but the attitude and toughness are not.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but maybe carrying the label of “the team that ended the streak” will motivate these young men to reach a level they’ve only fleetingly tasted this season when March Madness arrives. The conference streak may be over, but the chance of a Final Four or a National Championship remains! We have a good team that is capable of playing great.

Win or lose - Rock Chalk Jayhawk!!!

Dave Miller 2 months, 3 weeks ago

The streak is over. Long live the streak. It had to end sometime. Nothing is forever. When this season is finally finished, then it is time to recruit, re-group, re-build, and re-dedicate to beginning another streak. It took the "perfect storm" to end it. Injuries, a suspension, an investigation, and a leave of absence. Now is the time for all Jayhawks to rally together! Rock Chalk Jayhawk KU !!!

Bryce Landon 2 months, 3 weeks ago

The streak had to end, yes. And realistically, we sometimes act like winning the conference 14 years in a row was the rule. It had never been done before, not even by UCLA; they won the Pac-8/Pac-10 13 years in a row. All blue-bloods have seasons like this eventually.

Andy Godwin 2 months, 3 weeks ago

Face it, this is not a great team (preseason #1 on paper to 3rd or 4th in Athens Big 12). A lack of the usual talent and/or game experience (only Vick, Mitch, Marcus, Udoka, and Silvio had played under Self in any real games starting the season), was their downfall. The team with 8 scholarship players demonstrated throughout the Big 12 that they are really not talented enough to win games when they are not playing at their best. Three and 6 on the road (including several blow outs and a horrible loss against West Virginia) in the Big 12 is the worst under Self. Their inflated national ranking has been based on early wins against Michigan St, Tennessee, Villanova, etc. and Self’s reputation. Ever since Udoka got hurt (9-0) KU’s interior play was substandard. Udoka is an amazing force - truly unstoppable. No one else could finish with contact at the rim and be a defensive force. His loss was the beginning to the end. David has a chance to be a solid post player, but unless your name is Joel Embiid, post players take time to develop. We have been amazingly spoiled and now KU fans get a chance to experience the disappointment most other Big 12 fans have felt for the past 14 regular seasons. Unfortunately I have not seem much that would suggest that this group will do much in the post season, just too inconsistent both offensively and defensively. Hopefully, I am proven wrong. Now on to the Spring football game.

Bryce Landon 2 months, 3 weeks ago

"We have been amazingly spoiled and now KU fans get a chance to experience the disappointment most other Big 12 fans have felt for the past 14 regular seasons."

Well said, Andy. To paraphrase former Texas football coach John Mackovic, we learned to live with 14 straight conference titles, and we can learn to live with this, too.

Bryce Landon 2 months, 3 weeks ago

They say you don't know what you have until it's gone, and I'll be the first to admit that I was that way. I didn't appreciate "The Streak" as much as I should have when it was ongoing because I was too busy bitching about our lack of Final Four appearances. Now that "The Streak" is over, looking back, I wish I had savored it more. To put this in perspective, the last time KU didn't win the conference, the Big 12 actually had 12 teams, Eddie Sutton was coach at OSU (the team that won it that year), Bush 43 was in his first term as President and was gearing up for a reelection bid against John Kerry, Facebook was in its infancy, and I was in 11th grade. "The Streak" is a feat that will probably never be duplicated again in our lifetimes, and no conference title KU wins from now till the end of time will ever feel as satisfying as any of the conference titles we won the past 14 seasons.

R.I.P. to "The Streak", 2005-2019

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