Kansas City, Mo. — There will be basketball played at Sprint Center this week, but how big of a role fans and a couple of Jayhawks will play remains to be seen.
Roughly an hour before Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby announced a limited-access fan policy for the final seven games of the Big 12 Tournament, Thursday through Saturday, KU coach Bill Self provided an injury report on Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett.
“I think Dok and Dot are fine,” Self said. “Marcus, he turned (his ankle) yesterday. He’ll play. But I don’t think that by any stretch he’s close to 100% right now. But him taking off isn’t going to make him 100%, so you just have to hope that he doesn’t roll it again or something like that. He’s not going to feel great until a month after the season’s over probably.”
Asked to clarify which ankle was bothering the Big 12’s Defensive Player of the Year, Self said: “Which ankle? The bad one. Just that whole area is an issue.”
After last weekend’s victory at Texas Tech, Self said he had contemplated the idea of sitting Azubuike (ankle) and Garrett (foot/ankle) if they were not fully healthy.
But at this point, it seems like limiting their minutes might be the most likely route that Self and the Jayhawks take in their opening game of the Big 12 Tournament and perhaps throughout the week.
“If we played each one of those guys 30 minutes, it would be like us not even playing them because they’re used to playing 35-37,” Self said of Azubuike, Dotson and Garrett. “So it would be nice to be able to do that.”
No change of heart
With the NCAA banning fans from the upcoming NCAA Tournament and tourney officials discussing the idea of playing games in smaller venues, Self was asked Wednesday if he had given any thought to changing his pick of KU’s preferred path in the event that the Jayhawks wind up as this year’s No. 1 overall seed.
“I would probably say no, I wouldn’t change it,” said Self, who noted earlier this week that KU’s destination of choice, which he would not reveal, had to be turned in last Friday. “There’s a lot of reasons why you would pick a site that may not be logical if you just first looked at it. But I would say it would probably still be the same.”
KU’s 2020 NCAA Tournament run almost certainly will start in Omaha, Neb. After that, the Jayhawks likely choose between Indianapolis in the Midwest region and Houston in the South region as their regional of choice provided they win their first- and second-round games.
Who benefits from empty gyms?
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s announcement about fans being kept out of the NCAA Tournament, people theorized all over Twitter what that could do to the tourney games themselves.
Asked if he had considered whether the empty arenas would benefit the higher or lower seeds throughout the tournaments, Self said he had not given that “one second of thought until now” before offering his own theory on the matter.
“In an arena where there is a potential upset and 80% or 70% of the arena is not your own fans, I think the tendency is for those fans to pull for the underdog,” Self said. “So maybe that’s a home-court advantage for the underdog. I’ve never given it that much thought. I honestly believe when we play away from home, you can tell when it’s a really good atmosphere, but you don’t (notice) after the ball’s thrown up.”
Just win, baby
Despite the small crowds and unusual atmospheres that await the Jayhawks for as long as they’re playing this week, Self said he still thought his team could gain a lot from performing well in the Big 12 Tournament.
“What I hope that this week does for us is put us in a place, from a confidence level, from a motivation level, from a health level, that gives us the best chance to be our best next week,” he said. “And I’ve always thought winning does that. Winning gives you confidence, which can springboard you into the next week also.”
It’s KU vs. the Cowboys
KU’s quarterfinal foe at the Big 12 tournament was decided Wednesday night, when No. 8 seed Oklahoma State knocked off No. 9 seed Iowa State, 72-71 in the opening game of this year’s tournament.
With fans of both teams in attendance, the Cowboys (18-14) rode the hot hand of Isaac Likekele, who scored 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting and dished nine assists with five rebounds in 39 minutes.
Iowa State (12-20) led most of the second half and held a one-point lead (71-70) with 8.9 seconds to play. That’s when Likekele drove the length of the floor to hit the game-winning layup with 3.8 seconds remaining to send the Cowboys into the next round.
After opening Big 12 play with six consecutive losses, OSU coach Mike Boynton’s club now has won five of its last six games. The only loss during that stretch came on Feb. 24 in Lawrence, when Azubuike torched OSU for 19 points and 16 rebounds in an 83-58 Kansas victory.
The Jayhawks also defeated the Cowboys in Stillwater, Okla., earlier this season, 65-50 on Jan. 27.
Making his first career start, KU freshman Christian Braun led Kansas to victory that night with 16 points and 9 rebounds on 4-of-8 shooting from 3-point range.
In two games against the Jayhawks, Likekele averaged 10.5 points per game in 34 minutes, while shooting 7-of-19 from the floor.