From the outside looking in, the Big 12 regular season championship looks far less attainable than usual for Kansas.
While only a game back of first place in the loss column, the Jayhawks are in third place. They could win the final three games on their schedule by 50 points a pop without such a dominating finish being enough to make up for their various road clunkers in conference play during the past two months.
If either or both of Kansas State and Texas Tech can navigate the next week and a half without another loss, the league title will be one — or both — of theirs, and KU’s streak will finally come to a close.
This may be too much for even Bill Self, kingpin of Big 12 basketball, to overcome.
“We’ve had some success with it. And I don’t know that I can remember a time where we didn’t control our own destiny,” Self said earlier this week.
“I think that there’s been years where we were five games out and maybe be behind a game or something. Going into the last three,” Self continued, “I don’t know that we’ve ever been in a situation where we didn’t control it; if we won out, we would win it. And we haven’t always won out, but we at least put ourselves in the position if that was the case.”
Hey, when you’ve won the damn thing 14 years in a row, it can’t be easy to call to mind all the minutia from each season on the fly. So you’ll have to forgive Self for not remembering off the top of his head that his Jayhawks actually have been in a similar position with three games to go. After all, it has been eight years since KU trailed in the standings at this late stage of the season.
In 2011, the Jayhawks were 11-2 with three games to play, but looking up at 12-1 Texas in the Big 12 standings. A veteran KU team led by Marcus and Markieff Morris, Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed extended the program’s streak of conference titles to seven by winning it outright, without even facing Texas in the last three games.
The Jayhawks finished 14-2 by defeating Oklahoma and Missouri on the road and Texas A&M at home. A Longhorns team led by Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson, Gary Johnson and Cory Joseph dropped a road game at Colorado and a home matchup with Kansas State to pave the way for another KU crown.
The only other year in which the Jayhawks found themselves behind with three games left turned out to be one of the most memorable seasons in program history. The eventual national champions were 10-3 in 2008, trailing 11-2 Texas by 1 game. With Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers, Darnell Jackson, Sherron Collins, Russell Robinson, Sasha Kaun and Cole Aldrich, the Jayhawks had little trouble beating Kansas State and Texas Tech in Allen Fieldhouse, as well as Texas A&M on the road.
Those three victories allowed Kansas to share the Big 12 title with the Longhorns, as both teams finished at 13-3 in 2008. A UT team led by D.J. Augustin, A.J. Abrams, Damion James and Connor Atchley did the Jayhawks a favor by faltering at Texas Tech.
The path to a 2019 Big 12 title, though, is decidedly unique from the previous two that worked out for KU. The Jayhawks don’t need just one team to slip up this time, but two. They’ve got to hope and pray and cross their fingers and toes and maybe find some K-State and Texas Tech voodoo dolls and watch from afar — and, oh yeah, win two more road games — as other Big 12 opponents help determine KU’s title hopes.
Then, there’s the matter of the anatomy of KU’s roster. That 2008 Kansas team was phenomenal and filled with veterans. The Jayhawks had lost three times all season, all by single digits, when they trailed UT late in that season. The 2011 Jayhawks seemed to be on a similar trajectory with the Morris twins dominating and the role players around them usually clicking. That team was 26-2 entering the final three games of the regular season.
This year, at this juncture, Self’s nine-man rotation includes just two Jayhawks who have played for Big 12 title-winning teams: junior forward Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett. That’s it.
And is it realistic to think this KU team (21-7 overall, 10-5 Big 12), which has gone 2-7 in road games this season, can win two road games in a four-day span, at Oklahoma State and at Oklahoma?
Self has said for weeks that his Jayhawks are playing with no margin for error. Now that reality is all the more magnified.
“Yeah, you kind of feel that way after the game with Tech,” KU forward Dedric Lawson said following a must-win over K-State on Monday. “There is no room for error. But at the same time, you know, we’ve got to take baby steps and just control the things we can control. At the moment, it’s just like taking one game at a time.”
While there’s no doubt Self wants to extend KU’s incredible run of success to 15 years, he’s not pressuring the Jayhawks with talk of the program’s conference title streak. His message has focused on this team’s present and its immediate future, not the past.
“I’m worried about this team trying to compete for it,” Self said. “And we’ve been so poor on the road. We just need to try and get a win in Stillwater. And if we get a win in Stillwater, then we can talk about (the streak) a little bit. But we’ve got to go prove ourselves away from home before we should even talk about it.”
If the Jayhawks somehow pull it off, 2019 will go down as their most improbable Big 12 title season in the streak yet. And, should that happen, neither Self nor anyone who watches such a preposterous scenario play out will have any trouble remembering it in a few years.
The Wildcats may yet dethrone the Big 12’s seemingly forever reigning champions, but they missed out on the opportunity to shovel a substantial amount of dirt on their rivals’ graves on Monday.
A Kansas State victory in Allen Fieldhouse would have all but officially put an end to the Kansas basketball program’s 14-year run as kings of the conference.
And that fact wasn’t lost on the Wildcats following KU’s 64-49 victory, which put the Jayhawks 1 game back of first-place K-State with three games to go in the regular season.
“We talked about just keeping our emotions in check,” Barry Brown said of the players’ plans entering the marquee Sunflower Showdown, in which they understood they had a chance to knock KU out. “And I think throughout the game (K-State’s emotions) kind of went high and low and then high again. I think they kind of played a factor into it and some of the shots that we took and some of the things that went on throughout the game.”
The spiritual and mental well being of the Wildcats (21-7 overall, 11-4 Big 12) will be monitored closely by their coach, Bruce Weber, in the days ahead. Unlike the Jayhawks (21-7, 10-5), they control their own destiny in this frenzied league title race.
“We are a first-place team,” Weber pointed out after Monday’s loss at KU. “We’ve got a three-game season in eight days. You know, what are we about? Are we about leadership, toughness, discipline? If we’re about those things we’ll be fine.”
That schedule mentioned by Weber is one of great interest to the Jayhawks, too, because they need K-State — as well as Texas Tech — to lose again at some point this week or next in order to have a chance at gaining a share of this year’s Big 12 title.
Here’s what’s left for the Wildcats:
• Baylor on Saturday
• at TCU on Monday
• Oklahoma on March 9
Weber has maintained since this past week, he shared, that he thought the upcoming Baylor game in Manhattan would be the “toughest” one among his team’s final four games — a stretch that began with Monday’s loss at KU.
It wasn’t that Weber thought the Bears (18-9, 9-5) were better than the Jayhawks or a more difficult matchup for his Wildcats. K-State’s coach just figured it could be difficult for his group to emotionally recover from its trip to Allen Fieldhouse in time to be thoroughly prepared for all that Baylor has to offer.
“Just because, no matter what, (KU versus K-State) is so big. And no matter what happened, win or lose, you’ve got to get ready for Baylor. And I just thought it was going to be — what do you call them? Trap games? You guys use different words. I don’t know,” Weber explained.
“And Baylor, the way they play and how hungry they are and physical, we’ve got to come ready to play. I knew it was going to be tough. I didn’t tell the players that. I told (reporters) that and I told our staff that. I said it to our staff probably a week ago,” Weber related. “And again I’m always worried. I was worried about Oklahoma State. And I cussed (the Wildcats) out at shootaround (before the game with OSU), and they responded. I guess I didn’t have the right message (Monday against KU).”
At face value, the Wildcats don’t look like a team that will suddenly begin reeling just because they lost at Kansas.
In the meantime, Weber hopes his postgame message to his team sets the stage for a successful final push to the regular season.
“It’s done and over with. We’ve got to worry about Baylor,” Weber said of his first point in the visitors’ locker room after the rivalry game defeat.
“And to hang together and being coachable. That’s the biggest thing,” Weber would continue. “We’re good and we’re in first place because we’ve got a great group. They’ve been very, very coachable. They listen. They want to do what we say. We’ve got great, great leadership, and that’s got to be the driving force down the stretch.”
Regardless of what KU does from now to March 9 or what becomes of Texas Tech’s last four games on the calendar, the Wildcats know if they go 3-0 the Big 12 championship is theirs — either outright or as co-champs with the Red Raiders.
That knowledge can either be empowering or overwhelming.
Following K-State’s loss, Kamau Stokes’ words leaned toward the former.
“I don’t feel like our confidence is low at all. We talked about it in the locker room. At the end of the day we’re still in first place,” Stokes said. “In order to stay there we’ve got to worry about Saturday. The only difference is we’re sharing it now (tied with Tech in the loss column). I feel like our confidence is at a point where we don’t want to share first place with anybody. So we’ve got to get back in the gym, learn from this game and, like I said, get ready for Saturday, because that’s a big game.”
It’s one KU fans dreaming of the program’s historic streak living on should keep their eyes on, because Baylor is the best of K-State’s final three foes. Entering Tuesday’s games, KenPom.com ranked the Bears 32nd nationally, ahead of No. 40 OU and No. 42 TCU.
The Jayhawks, for a change, aren’t in good position entering the season’s final days. That upper hand belongs to the first-place Wildcats, who last won a conference title in 2013, when they shared it with, well, you know who.
When the Kansas Jayhawks left Ames, Iowa, on Saturday it seemed more likely center Udoka Azubuike would play Wednesday versus TCU than miss a second game in a row.
Bill Self described holding the 7-footer out at Iowa State as “precautionary,” until Azubuike had an MRI on his injured right wrist. The results, though, presented a worst-case scenario for both the big man and KU, and by Sunday evening Azubuike’s season was officially over, due to torn ligaments that require season-ending surgery.
Prior to that news coming out, this was supposed to be a post about how much KU needed Azubuike on offense — and in a way it still is — but the original idea was that we would soon see how much the Jayhawks benefit from his presence and how essential the center would be for their success.
It’s no coincidence that KU looked worse than it has at any point this season when Azubuike was in too much discomfort to suit up against the Cyclones.
What do both of KU’s losses so far this season have in common, other than that each happened inside an opponent’s arena? For one, both defeats came with Azubuike taking on the role of spectator instead of enforcer. Now the same will be true for KU’s final 17 regular-season games, as well as the postseason.
The Jayhawks went 9-0 with their big man from Delta, Nigeria, in the starting lineup. Some of KU’s best victories to date — over Michigan State, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Marquette — featured Azubuike. And even though the starting center didn’t dominate in every one of those wins, his presence was always felt by opposing frontcourts.
Explosive around the basket, despite his hulking, 270-pound frame, Azubuike is a special kind of post player, who can make an impact even on days when he doesn’t turn into an unstoppable scorer in the paint. Just the energy exerted trying to body up against Azubuike or deny him in the post wears on rival bigs. His value to KU (12-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) can’t be overstated.
Azubuike’s season reached a premature conclusion — 14 games in for KU and only nine games played for the junior — with him averaging 13.4 points on 70.5 percent shooting to go with his 6.8 rebounds per game in just 20.4 minutes. Azubuike, per sports-reference.com, led Kansas in player efficiency rating (29.9), true shooting percentage (64.9 percent), effective field goal percentage (70.5) and usage percentage (29.1 percent).
The 19-year-old is an offensive force at the college level. Without Azubuike Saturday at Iowa State, KU fell into its largest hole of the season (19 points with 2:46 to play) and finished with its smallest scoring total of the season (60) — the only other game in which the offense looked nearly as bad came in a 63-60 win over New Mexico State; another game Azubuike missed (ankle).
None of this, of course, bodes well for KU’s immediate future.
Unless this injury misfortune galvanizes the Jayhawks, this KU team won’t win many Big 12 games very easily. They needed Azubuike subduing defenders in the paint and catching lobs for emphatic jams. According to kenpom.com, KU (ranked No. 10) is one of six Big 12 teams ranked in the top 26 in the nation, joining No. 9 Texas Tech, No. 13 Iowa State, No. 21 Oklahoma, No. 25 Texas and No. 26 TCU. What’s more, most of those teams are ranked among the top 20 in the country defensively, per kenpom, with TCU being the lone outlier at No. 39.
Kansas doesn’t have the 3-point shooting (34.1 percent on the season) or multiple steady scoring options to roll in conference play without Azubuike. So a four-guard lineup surrounding redshirt junior forward Dedric Lawson is now a must — as is Lawson playing at an All-American level if KU wants to live up to its own standards of winning the Big 12 and making a deep March Madness run.
There is no automatic substitute for what Azubuike provided this team.
One can’t take the utopian jump to a conclusion that somehow KU will soon learn from the NCAA that 6-9 sophomore Silvio De Sousa has been cleared to play and the Jayhawks won’t miss a beat. We know as little about the likelihood of a De Sousa return now as we did the day KU announced it would hold him out of competition.
Let’s assume KU will have to keep on working with the roster it has been, minus Azubuike. Though freshman David McCormack clearly possesses talent and potential, the 6-10 big man from Oak Hill Academy can’t easily step into and fill Azubuike’s adidas.
Self rarely has played McCormack (2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 7.2 minutes per game) so far this season. The move would be to gradually change that. Now that Azubuike is gone, McCormack’s opportunities should increase. And because he won’t be thrown into the starting lineup and asked to do what Azubuike did, McCormack shouldn’t feel too much pressure to live up to some unreasonable expectations.
Spend January and February grooming McCormack for a larger role and he’s likely to show far more during the season’s stretch run than he has to date. McCormack is a strong, athletic, high-energy big capable of running the floor. He just needs to get comfortable so when Lawson needs a breather or gets in foul trouble the offense doesn’t nosedive.
All of the sudden, this Big 12 title defense for KU won’t be nearly as straightforward as many assumed. Losing Azubuike may even prove to be the plot twist that wrecks the Jayhawks’ streak. How Self and his players handle this midseason disruption — and how quickly they adapt — will determine just how attainable that 15th Big 12 title in a row will be.
Some serendipitous timing, thanks to the schedule-makers for both the Kansas men’s basketball team and the NBA, allowed KU’s 2017 National Player of the Year and current Sacramento rookie Frank Mason III to take a courtside seat and watch the Jayhawks defeat Stanford Thursday night.
Seeing as how Mason knew the Jayhawks as well as anyone inside at the new Golden 1 Center not named Bill Self, the point guard slipped on a headset and joined the ESPN2 broadcast to discuss all things Kansas.
Although the Kings are his priority, Mason, averaging 8.6 points and 2.7 assists in 21.1 minutes this month, said he continues to follow the Jayhawks closely.
“I try to keep up with them as much as I can. I search Twitter, and if I can watch the game I definitely do that,” Mason said, before reiterating his Senior Night claim that he would’ve played more than four years for KU if possible. “But I’m always supporting my Jayhawks. I love them to death.”
ESPN’s Sam Farber and P.J. Carlesimo prompted Mason to explain what he misses about Lawrence and his time at Kansas.
“I miss absolutely everything. The amazing fans, my professors, coaches, teammates, the dormitory we live in — we called it a mansion,” Mason joked of McCarthy Hall. “It’s great, man. So I miss everything. And I miss the fans who come through Kansas. I miss playing in the fieldhouse — 16,300 fans every night, they bring unbelievable energy.”
For years to come, of course, Mason’s time with the Jayhawks will be associated with the program’s ongoing Big 12 title streak, currently at 13 years. He felt certain even though he won’t be contributing this season, as Self’s bunch attempts to break college basketball’s all-time conference title streak Kansas shares with UCLA, his former teammates know how much the run of excellence means to so many.
“Every player on the team don’t want to be a part of the team that ends that streak. So I think they’re all aware of that,” Mason said. “They worked really hard during the offseason and they take the responsibility to go out there and get a win every night.”
Asked about Oklahoma freshman phenom Trae Young and how the rest of the Big 12 stacks up this season, Mason wasn’t ready to assume the Jayhawks will make it 14 in a row with ease.
“I think that it’s definitely going to be a challenge. I think Trae is doing a great job over there at OU, and he’s doing more than scoring. He’s assisting the ball really well. They have a fantastic coach over there, too,” Mason added of Lon Kruger, “so I’m looking forward to Big 12 play. I think it’s going to be a really, really fun season.”
The former KU all-American hopes to get back to Allen Fieldhouse over the NBA’s All-Star break and said he is eying KU’s Feb. 17 home date with West Virginia. In the meantime, he’ll continue to enjoy watching his longtime backcourt running mate Devonte’ Graham take on a larger role as a senior.
“He’s running the show, I think he’s doing a fantastic job,” Mason began to say, before Graham dished one of his five first-half assists. “Look at that pass right there. What a pass by Devonte’ Graham.”
His air time couldn’t conclude without the ESPN crew asking Mason for his prediction on how the rest of the KU season will play out.
“That’s a rhetorical question,” Mason replied. “I think we’re going to win it all this year.”