Salt Lake City — Thursday afternoon inside the Kansas locker room, shortly after the Jayhawks opened their path through the NCAA Tournament with a first-round victory over Northeastern, head coach Bill Self had a question for his players.
“Good job. Hey, guys. One down and how many to go?” Self asked.
A mixture of responses followed, with “five” being the overriding reply.
“One,” Self quickly corrected them, as seen in a video posted on KU’s social media accounts. “One down. One to go. Hey, hey. One down and one to go, OK? All right, good job.”
When it comes to March Madness, Self always prompts his teams to look at each stop along the way as its own, four-team, two-game tournament. If the Jayhawks win the first two-game tournament, they get to go somewhere else and try to win another.
Apparently at least a few players who grew up watching The Big Dance and came to KU with dreams of chasing a national championship got caught up in the moment, knowing six wins is what it takes to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
“That tells you the impact I’ve had on their lives, as far as them paying attention,” Self would joke after the fact.
So who was to blame? Who said five?
“I think I said five,” a smiling Dedric Lawson admitted Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, ahead of KU’s second-round matchup with Auburn. “I forgot it was a two-game tournament.”
And with that response, Lawson didn’t hesitate to use the conversation as an opportunity to mess with nearby teammate Charlie Moore, teasingly throwing him under the bus.
“It was really Charlie’s fault. Charlie, he play too much. He’s the one that made me say five,” a grinning Lawson continued. “But we all know it’s a two-game tournament, one game at a time and things like that, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Why was Moore at fault? What did he do?
“He play too much, man,” Lawson replied. “I ain’t even gonna say what he did.”
Learning that Lawson had just placed the blame on him, Moore provided his version of the story.
“That was definitely Dedric. I wasn’t gonna say nothing. But Dedric said five. If you’re listening closely to the video you’ll hear Dedric say it,” the smiling Moore insisted.
With Moore and Lawson cracking themselves up with their accusations, Moore’s assertion continued.
“Everybody said one. Dedric yelled five,” Moore argued. “He over-yelled everybody, ’cause he thought he was right. But he really wasn’t.”
Why did Lawson say it was Moore then?
“I was next to him. I don’t know why he said that,” Moore retorted.
As the allegations flew back and forth, the reactions from David McCormack, sitting in the locker stall between Lawson and Moore, indicated he knew something.
Asked for some insight, McCormack provided his opinion.
“I mean, you can never tell with these two. Between them, Marcus (Garrett), all of them, they all like to joke around,” McCormack said. “Maybe Charlie might have tapped Dedric … I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. He probably told him the right answer was five and everybody else said one.”
What was McCormack’s response to Self’s question?
“I took the smart route and I didn’t say anything. I just whispered to myself,” the freshman big explained, “and said one after the fact. So right or wrong, I just didn’t get called out.”
Whomever was to blame, McCormack said Lawson was “by far” the loudest to give the incorrect answer. But he wasn’t sure if there were others on Team Five.
“I just know I was standing next to Dedric, so he definitely said five,” McCormack said.
Surely veteran Mitch Lightfoot didn’t fail Self’s postgame locker room test, right?
“I don’t know what I said, to be honest,” Lightfoot claimed. “I’m not gonna self-incriminate, either. The next time he asks, we’ll be locked in on one.”
Of course, in order to do that the Jayhawks will have to get past Auburn on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to lock in for our second game of this one,” Lightfoot said, “and hopefully get to the next one.”
You can’t knock any of KU’s players for having large scale goals this time of year. The vibe the Jayhawks gave off in their locker room was one of confidence. They believe in themselves and their ability to make a deep run.
The incorrect “five” response that popped to the front of some players’ minds allowed them to have some fun along the way, too. But they all understand the crux of Self’s one down, one to go message.
“You can’t win five games if you don’t win one game,” Lightfoot said. “Slight issue.”
On Saturday night in Kansas City, Mo., shortly after Kansas lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game, freshman point guard Devon Dotson sat in the Jayhawks’ Sprint Center locker room answering questions about what went wrong.
As he detailed both the positives and negatives of the defeat from KU’s perspective, Dotson emphasized that the disappointing result came with some important lessons, especially when it came to defending a team such as ISU, which plays four guards and one big man.
“They ran some stuff that I think got us tricked up a little bit, but for the most part, I feel like we can learn from this — how to defend four guards better,” Dotson said. “And how we can score on the other end easier when our shots aren’t falling. We can find other ways to get the ball in the basket.”
Thanks to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the Jayhawks don’t have to wait long for a do-over.
Five days after their four-guard counter failed to topple the Cyclones, they’ll take on Northeastern’s four-guard attack in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday afternoon.
Iowa State’s guards possess their specific strengths and weaknesses and it’s overgeneralizing to say the Huskies will challenge KU in exactly the same fashion. For one, Northeastern’s top four guards rely even more on 3-pointers. According to hoop-math.com, among NU’s four starting guards, three take more than half of their shots from downtown, while the other came up just shy of that cutoff.
Jordan Roland takes 66.7 percent of his shots from 3-point range, Donnell Gresham Jr. comes in at 60.6 percent, Bolden Brace is at 58.7 percent and even Vava Puscia attempts 47.3 percent of his field goals from behind the arc.
After the brackets revealed KU (25-9) would play as the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, head coach Bill Self was asked Sunday evening whether the previous day’s matchup with ISU would help the Jayhawks in any way against No. 13 seed Northeastern (23-10), the Colonial Athletic Association’s postseason champions.
"In theory, yes. But we prepared to play Iowa State with one walkthrough, so it wasn't like we practiced to play Iowa State,” Self noted. “We practiced last week for Texas, with actually a thought we would play Texas Tech (in the Big 12 semifinals, instead of West Virginia, which upset the Red Raiders). It will probably help more than it would hurt, but hopefully we'll be better prepared to be better at it with three days of practice."
Against Iowa State, KU began the game as it usually does, playing with two bigs, Dedric Lawson and David McCormack. But the Cyclones gave KU too many issues and Self went with four guards during much of the title game.
Don’t expect to see Self start Marcus Garrett in the NCAA Tournament’s first round just because Northeastern plays four guards, though. The Jayhawks figure to stick with two bigs to have an advantage inside offensively. And then if and when necessary they can play four guards and do so comfortably after having days to go over actions and strategies designed to overcome Northeastern.
Before the Jayhawks had much time to get into scouting reports or watch video of Northeastern, Lawson indicated Sunday night KU could play with four guards or three against Northwestern in its tournament opener.
“Coach, he already talked about he’s been in the business a long time and he knows what it takes to win. So he basically talked about sometimes play two bigs, sometimes play one big,” Lawson related. “Whatever the case may be, we all just have to buy into that role and that scouting report.”
Should the game dictate that McCormack spend less time on the court and more minutes on the bench, the 6-foot-10 freshman won’t get his feelings hurt. He explained after KU’s loss to Iowa State why logging 8 minutes didn’t catch him off guard or greatly trouble him.
“We have a full understanding of knowing how the other team plays and that they might want to play small — well, not even might — they’re gonna play small. You’re a big man and when you want to play to the advantage of your team, you understand that. It’s not an individual sport. It’s about the team and what we can do to win,” McCormack said. “So the variation in minutes didn’t affect me.”
If McCormack is forced off the floor, it won’t be because of any shortcoming of his, but the result of Northeastern’s shooting and KU’s need to have Lawson on the court as much as possible.
Between 6-foot-1 redshirt junior Roland (.408 3-point shooter), 6-1 redshirt junior Gresham (.393), 6-5 redshirt senior Puscia (.401) and junior Brace (.415), the Huskies may prove to have the fire power to force an adjustment.
If KU spends any time using Garrett, Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and Lawson as its lineup, the Jayhawks are confident in that group, even though it couldn’t rally past the Cyclones this past weekend.
“I felt like we rebounded the ball good for having four guards out there,” Garrett said of one positive, after KU had a 41-36 advantage on the glass against ISU. “We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board, and just learn how to defend at the end of the shot clock.”
Immediately after KU lost to a four-guard lineup in K.C., Lawson predicted the Jayhawks would handle any opponent of that ilk better in the NCAA Tournament.
“Just keep the competitiveness,” he said. “I think guys definitely competed. We keep that competitive nature we’ll be good.”
The Jayhawks obviously have the personnel to handle the Huskies, and by the time the game tips off on Thursday afternoon they’ll be well versed in what each member of the potential Cinderella team from Boston brings to the floor.
KU’s players seem confident. And they’re saying all the right things. Now they just need to prove that they absorbed the wisdom ISU’s four guards made available to them.
If Selection Sunday is any indication, the Kansas Jayhawks should enter the NCAA Tournament feeling lucky.
While it’s true this team experienced way too many valleys during an at times rocky regular season to make any assumptions about what’s in store for the Jayhawks this week in Salt Lake City, Utah, their potential next stop was too massive to ignore.
A nine-loss KU team that is seeded fourth has no business playing in Kansas City, Mo., in the Sweet 16. But if — and this “if” should be deciphered in a font size 10 times larger than this — the Jayhawks handle their business against No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday and are then able to advance past either No. 5 Auburn or No. 13 New Mexico State, they’ll be right back at Sprint Center less than two weeks from now.
That hardly seems fair for the No. 1 seed in the region, North Carolina, and its leader, former KU coach Roy Williams, should the two blue bloods advance out of the opening weekend.
But this isn’t about fairness. It has much more to do with fortuity, at least on the Kansas side. On the NCAA Tournament’s master list of seeds, Nos. 1-68, KU landed at No. 13 — considered the best No. 4 seed in the field, ahead of No. 14 Florida State, No. 15 Kansas State and No. 16 Virginia Tech. And in that spot, the Jayhawks ended up in their preferred regional, the Midwest.
Good for Kansas. Bad for UNC.
Imagine if the sneakers were on the other feet — and we’re not talking Nike and Adidas. What if KU was a No. 1 seed and playing against a No. 4 seeded UNC team in Charlotte, N.C., in the Sweet 16? Those who wear crimson and blue might have been too livid to even fill out a bracket.
So is it really fair for a No. 1 seed to potentially have to travel to Kansas City, Mo., and play KU in an arena 43.3 miles away from Allen Fieldhouse?
“I’m not going to get into that,” Bill Self said Sunday evening, after the brackets were unveiled. “But I would say that, to me, if you win two games in the tournament, you know you’re going to play a really good team. And you know it’s probably going to be a neutral deal in a situation like that (the Sweet 16). But this won’t be a neutral deal if everyone advances.”
Self’s right. If the bracket were to go chalk, KU supporters could be rock-chalking it up in K.C. next week in a year when the Jayhawks didn’t win the Big 12 regular season or postseason titles.
Dedric Lawson admitted that possibility didn’t even hit him at first as the Jayhawks watched the selection show, until an on-air analyst brought it up.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ We’ve just got to win these games and get back home,’” Lawson shared.
According to Self, even if KU, UNC and Kentucky were to move on and get to K.C., all of those blue-blood fan bases could be outnumbered if the region’s No. 6 seed, the Big 12’s postseason champs, can stay hot.
“If you throw Iowa State in, if they advance, I mean they’ll have more fans there than anybody,” Self predicted.
Of course, as Self said while discussing such scenarios, we’re all getting way ahead of ourselves. But ’tis the season.
“I still think what wins more than anything is talent and talented players playing together at the right time,” Self said.
Still, even KU’s head coach couldn’t think about the possibility of a KU-UNC Sweet 16 game without recalling the last time the two programs met up, in 2013.
“Certainly we had an opportunity to play Carolina the first weekend in Kansas City and that was a pretty significant advantage for us at that particular time,” Self remembered of a 70-58 victory for No. 1 KU over No. 8 UNC in KU’s home away from home.
The Jayhawks weren’t wearing green when Selection Sunday happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, but they’ve got to be feeling a little charmed.
Good thing, too, because sometimes when March Madness comes around, it’s better to be fortunate than proven.
Kansas City, Mo. — For much of the regular season, those who follow Kansas basketball wondered when freshman Quentin Grimes might turn a corner and become the steady shooter and scorer the Jayhawks needed in the backcourt.
Perhaps turning the page to the postseason will do the trick.
Grimes shot 2-for-10 in his Big 12 tournament debut against Texas, when he scored 12 points in a quarterfinal victory, but he quickly moved on from that performance to set the nets ablaze in the semifinals. Grimes’ 5-for-8 3-point shooting led to an 18-point night for the freshman and the sense that he may finally be trending upward.
Even so, Bill Self wasn’t ready after that showing to place Grimes in the same stratosphere as a recent KU guard who caught fire just in time for March Madness.
One reporter asked Self whether the coach could compare Grimes’ uptick to what Malik Newman pulled off a year ago, during the 2018 postseason.
“No, not yet,” Self said.
“If the guy goes off and gets 30 (in Saturday night’s final versus Iowa State),” the KU coach added, “and is the most valuable player of the tournament, then, yeah, you could say that.”
You may recall that Newman, like Grimes this year, had an up-and-down regular season before turning into “Postseason Leek.” Newman went off for 30 points in his Big 12 tournament debut versus Oklahoma State, then followed it up by pouring in 22 against Kansas State and finishing his three-day run with 20 more in a title game victory over West Virginia.
So Grimes would need to put on an extra-spectacular shooting display in the championship game to give the Newman comparison more weight.
“But what did he get today, 18? What did he have, 12, yesterday? So probably not quite that level, but it is a nice addition,” Self said Friday night at Sprint Center. “And to win three games in a row, especially the situation that we’re in, you’re going to have to have some guys step up that maybe haven’t been asked to do it in the past because they’re so young, and maybe play beyond their years. And Quentin did that today.”
Despite some rough patches as a scorer over the past few months, Grimes has now produced double-digit points in four of KU’s past six games. During that span he’s 17-for-35 on 3-pointers.
Self didn’t think there wasn’t a specific moment when he noticed Grimes shooting the ball with more confidence.
“I think everybody goes through phases like that. If you look at numbers, he’s shot it better in league play than he has for the season. But it’s been a gradual thing,” Self said.
What had stopped Grimes from getting going, Self pointed out, was that he would maybe have a decent night from 3-point range, 2-for-4 or something along those lines, and then go 1-for-6 the next game.
“He hasn’t really been in a real rhythm,” Self said. “We’re saying he’s shooting it better, which he is. He looks better shooting it. He looked better shooting it (Thursday) night, but he was 1 for 6 (Thursday) night, from 3 — is that right?”
“I agree. He’s playing with more confidence, and good shooters shouldn’t remember their misses, they should only remember the makes,” Self concluded. “And I think he’s going through a phase right now where he actually feels that way.”
Grimes enters the Big 12 title game averaging 8.3 points for the season and hitting 35.9% from 3-point range.
Kansas City, Mo. — During his close to 16 seasons at the University of Kansas, Bill Self has coached teams bound for Final Four glory and others that crashed and burned as victims of the Madness known as March.
Sometimes, even the man who has a better feel for the state of a given group of Jayahwks, their trajectory and potential, has no idea how they will respond once they hit the postseason.
Even the most keen observers have found it difficult to gauge how this KU team will play from day to day, let alone week to week. The Jayhawks have only been consistent in their inconsistency away from Allen Fieldhouse.
Though Self jokingly boasted about his team’s 3-0 neutral court record Wednesday afternoon, while speaking with media members outside of KU’s Sprint Center locker room, the truth of the matter is, those victories over Michigan State in Indianapolis, and Marquette and Tennessee in Brooklyn may as well have occurred in another season, not just a different calendar year.
Now-injured center Udoka Azubuike and now-permanently absent shooting guard Lagerald Vick helped — in varying degrees — KU win those games. Even more relevant right now, both Azubuike and Vick also have postseason experience under Self as starters.
When Self looks into the eyes of his Jayhawks before Thursday night’s Big 12 quarterfinal matchup with Texas, he’ll only see two players who know what it’s like to put on a KU uniform and take on the stage that is March and the postseason. And as Self would point out, it’s not as if junior Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore Marcus Garrett were in prominent roles during KU’s most recent tournament runs.
The Jayhawks (23-8), theoretically, could come out against Texas and play on a higher level than seemed possible during the past couple of months. Maybe freshmen Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack, and junior forward Dedric Lawson — who watched from the sidelines during his redshirt year as KU reached the 2018 Final Four — will find themselves injected with new life. Perhaps they’re ready to author their own redemption stories by leading Kansas to its third Big 12 tournament title in the past four years.
If they are, Self wasn’t about to project as much. And why would he? The hall of fame coach has witnessed — in agonizing fashion — how this month can chew up and spit out even a team on the rise.
After agreeing that having a rotation featuring seven Jayhawks who have yet to play a postseason game for the program makes it challenging to assess how they’ll respond to what awaits them, Self recalled a set of March circumstances from much earlier in his tenure that proved how unpredictable college basketball can be this time of year.
“I thought we were as prepared as we ever could be when Mario (Chalmers) and those guys were freshmen, and we win the Big 12 tournament, beat LaMarcus (Aldridge, a standout big at Texas) and those dudes. And then we go to the NCAA Tournament, I promise you we looked good in practice and everything was great,” Self recollected.
The year he was referencing was 2006. And if you’ve followed KU long enough you know what happened next.
As a No. 4 seed, the Jayhawks played in the late Friday game of the first round, having spent at least parts of the two days leading up to a matchup with Bradley seeing or hearing about double-digit seeds such as George Mason, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Montana and Northwestern State pulling off upsets.
“You could see the body language and everything change in the locker room,” Self shared nearly 13 years later. “In fact you could almost cut it with a knife, because they got tight waiting. So who knows if that’ll happen agin. I certainly hope not.”
KU will play a late game against Texas (16-15) to open this postseason, and it won’t be until then that Self learns a little bit about how this group will handle all that comes with being a blue blood program every opponent would love to knock off.
“I do think when you’ve never been through it,” Self said, “there’s a lot of firsts, and, certainly, I think getting through a first game I think is important, whether it be this week or next week, to allow you to have a good tournament.”
Unknowns abound for this KU team, predominantly unschooled in the mayhem lurking around the corner.
And as Self learned back in 2006, even three wins in three days at the Big 12 tournament don't guarantee Kansas a successful Big Dance. Good or bad or somewhere in between, no one knows what will become of KU this week and next. Not yet. Not even Bill Self.
A path through March that could either redeem a Kansas basketball team dissatisfied with the way the past couple of months turned out or further expose the Jayhawks’ flaws begins at the Big 12 tournament.
Awaiting them at Sprint Center for Thursday’s last quarterfinal will be a Texas team that, though imperfect in its own right, handled KU the last time the two clashed, in Austin, Texas, six weeks ago.
In the fifth of KU’s eight road losses this season, the Longhorns’ front line of Jaxson Hayes (6-foot-11, 220 pounds), Dylan Osetkowski (6-9, 250) and Jericho Sims (6-9, 240) generally made life miserable for the Jayhawks’ go-to big, Dedric Lawson.
But the first-team all-Big 12 forward feels like he has some reinforcement on his side this time. In the midst earlier this week of praising UT’s front court players, Lawson brought up how during KU’s double-digit loss at Frank Erwin Center the Jayhawks were still using a four-guard lineup, and Marcus Garrett had to defend one of UT’s bigs.
Lawson’s eyes lit up when that train of thought led him to referencing how different KU’s lineup looks now, with 6-10, 265-pound David McCormack staring next to him.
“With the way Dave is playing, I’m excited to see that matchup,” Lawson said. “And I’m looking for a very fun game.”
An ankle injury suffered by Garrett a few days after the loss at Texas forced Bill Self to adjust his rotation. He would have to tinker yet again just a week later, when Lagerald Vick left the team. And that’s when Self landed on starting two bigs instead of one, and chose McCormack over Mitch Lightfoot for that role.
The Jayhawks are 6-2 since McCormack became a starter, and, as these things so often go, the more comfortable he gets on the court, the more impactful he’s become. The industrious first-year big man said this past week he feels like he set himself up for more minutes and a larger role.
“I think I’ve just been working and listening to coach and proving myself to gain more opportunities,” McCormack said.
At first, even after joining the starting five, McCormack wasn’t playing a ton. And he looked a lot more like a bit performer than someone who could be counted on to deliver in a pressure situation. As recently as the penultimate week of the regular season, McCormack logged only 7 minutes against Kansas State and 11 at Oklahoma State.
However, in the two games that followed, McCormack produced 18 points in a loss at Oklahoma and 12 points in a home win over Baylor, shooting 14-for-20 combined.
The No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament this year, KU (23-8) needs an effective McCormack to counteract a Texas front line that, according to Self, includes “arguably the best” NBA prospect in the conference, Hayes (averaging 10.3 points per game and 5.3 rebounds in league games).
| KU SPORTS HOUR PODCAST: A look at Kansas' chances at the Big 12 tourney and beyond... |
At Texas on Jan. 29, McCormack played all of 9 minutes off the bench. He wasn’t close to the same player then what he is now. And Self expects the freshman big man to prove himself to be a much greater factor on Thursday night.
"I watched the second game where we played Texas, and we were awful offensively. Awful,” Self said. “But we also tried to play four guards the vast majority of the time and we weren't getting really great production in what we were trying to do.”
Self thinks KU has played better since it began sticking with two bigs — some combination of Lawson, McCormack and Lightfoot. And he said those three will have to make their counterparts in UT’s front court respect them defensively.
“I don't think we did that at all the second time we played them,” Self added. “I think they had free traps — we didn't make them pay for trapping — a lot of things that allowed them to be rim protectors when we didn't get them away from the goal. There's a lot of things we didn't do very well, which hopefully we'll be able to combat and do quite a bit better this time."
KU — and Lawson in particular — could look completely overmatched inside earlier this season, with just one big man on the floor and not much help for Lawson off the bench.
As the Jayhawks enter the postseason, though, they’re better equipped to handle teams with long, strong and athletic front court players, because Lawson won’t be going it alone. Many have wondered all season when — or if — McCormack would reach a point where Self trusted him enough to make him a part of the rotation. Necessity forced the coach’s hand, and it took some time for McCormack to acclimate. But he has arrived.
And for the Jayhawks, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
David McCormack stats - February vs. March
February: 3.7 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 8-for-13 FGs, 6-for-10 FTs, 14.0 minutes a game, in 6 games (DNP at K-State)
March: 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 15-for-24 FGS, 5-for-7 FTS, 16.7 minutes a game, in 3 games
Anyone who has spent spare time during the past couple of months checking in on the always fluid NCAA Tournament bracket projections by now knows the destinations by heart.
First- and second-round games will be played next week in San Jose, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Okla.; Columbia, S.C.; and Salt Lake City, Utah.
So where will the University of Kansas men’s basketball team be sent? That all depends on what happens in a few days in Kansas City, Mo.
As of Monday afternoon, ESPN projected Kansas as a No. 4 seed in the East region, playing in Hartford. CBS Sports also forecasted KU on the 4 line in the East, but had the Big 12’s third-place team opening the tournament out west, in San Jose. The Athletic, meanwhile, deemed the Jayhawks a 4 seed in the West regional, with their March Madness road beginning in Des Moines.
The man who will be coaching the Jayhawks in one of those cities or another hasn’t exactly come across as distraught about any of this.
"People have said that we may not be playing close (to Lawrence). To be honest, I don't care,” Bill Self said Monday during his press conference inside Allen Fieldhouse.
What Self is concerned with, though, is getting more out of his Jayhawks (23-8) this month than he did during an, at times, hectic regular season.
Asked if he had an idea about what KU would need to accomplish at this week’s Big 12 tournament to assure itself of a shorter trip for the opening round of the Big Dance, Self didn’t venture into specifics, but gave the sense that he expects the Jayhawks should be in good shape geographically if they avoid disaster in Kansas City.
“If you're a 3 seed, you’re going to be playing close. If you're a 4 seed, the chances are you're probably going to play close — now close meaning Des Moines or Tulsa — but it's not a definite,” he added. “If you're a 1 or 2, it's a lock.”
There are far too many teams in front of the Jayhawks for even a Big 12 tournament title to skyrocket them to such a favorable position. While seeding on Selection Sunday won’t be decided by the NCAA’s new NET rankings alone, KU enters this week at No. 20 on that list used to sort the nation’s best basketball teams.
Obviously that number — and KU’s NCAA seed line — could take a hit, too, should Kansas come out and drop its Thursday night quarterfinal versus Texas.
“So, we've got a lot of work to do,” Self stressed, while discussing his team’s postseason travels beyond this week. “We could certainly fall out of favor with that.”
If the NCAA’s selection committee still used the RPI as a go-to gauge, KU would be in great shape. That formula ranks Kansas No. 1 in the nation, with the No. 1 strength of schedule to boot.
The Jayhawks, of course, could help their standing in the eyes of the committee and in the NET rankings by adding wins to their resume in KC. Eight of the Big 12’s 10 teams rank in the top 50 of the NET, with the only outliers being No. 82 Oklahoma State and No. 110 West Virginia. And Kansas isn’t likely to meet either of them.
Big 12 teams in NET top 50:
No. 9 Texas Tech
No. 20 Kansas
No. 23 Iowa State
No. 24 Kansas State
No. 36 Baylor
No. 39 Texas
No. 40 Oklahoma
No. 47 TCU
A victory over any team not named OSU or WVU at Sprint Center would be what the selection committee refers to as a Quadrant 1 win — a home victory over a team ranked in the NET top 30, a neutral site win against a foe ranked in the NET top 50 or a road win versus an opponent ranked in the NET top 75.
Kansas entered Monday with a 10-7 record in Quadrant 1 games, ranking Self’s team behind only Virginia (11-2) and Michigan State (11-4) in Q1 wins, and tied with Kentucky (10-4) for third most.
“We have an opportunity to get, I think, three more quadrant one wins this week — so does everyone else in the tournament, as well,” Self pointed out. “It would be hard to put us too far down if we lead the country in quadrant one wins and, you know, have played the hardest schedule and all those things.”
Self could be proven wrong, he’s not buying the idea that the selection committee is planning on shipping Kansas to some first-round outpost that won’t be a manageable drive for the program’s fan base.
“I think whether or not we travel will be determined on how we play this weekend,” he said.
No matter how things go for the Jayhawks at Sprint Center on Thursday (and maybe Friday and Saturday), though, don’t count on them being able to return there two weeks from now for the Midwest Regional.
Self isn’t expecting the selection committee to reward the Jayhawks to that extent. Whatever seed line KU ends up on, it is far more likely to be in the South, West or East regions.
“Would I like that? Absolutely,” Self said of a Midwest assignment and potential Sweet 16 game at Sprint Center on March 29. “But the reality of that happening, that may not be. You wouldn't want to put us as a 4 seed in Kansas City where there's a No. 1 seed, potentially. That wouldn't be fair to the 1 seed. So I get that that's probably not going to happen. But we'll see. Who knows?"
If the only objective on the last day of the regular season was to pick up another victory, Bill Self would have been thrilled with the play of his Kansas basketball team on Saturday.
The truth is he was looking for more.
Self had no complaints about the way the Jayhawks handled Baylor’s zone defense in a 78-70 win at Allen Fieldhouse. In fact, the coach thought his players executed solidly for the most part.
With Devon Dotson attacking off the dribble and Dedric Lawson and David McCormack knowing exactly where to locate the Bears’ weak spots, the Jayhawks had few issues finding high-percentage shots.
On a couple of occasions, the Big 12’s third-place team even achieved near perfection in the half court, staging in unison the actions, screening and precise passing that allowed Quentin Grimes to lob alley-oop assists to freshman skywalker Ochai Agbaji.
Still, KU’s 16th-year head coach didn’t think the Jayhawks were “anything exceptional,” he would say afterward.
“We executed OK. It was just that the game didn’t have any oomph,” Self bemoaned of the performance. “Which obviously is a little disappointing, being our last game this year (at home).”
The Jayhawks (23-8 overall, 12-6 Big 12) needed a springboard of a finale to launch them into the postseason on a high note. Instead, they got a ho-hum home victory that didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the idea that they’re about to take off and finally play to their ceiling.
At least during the immediate aftermath of the win, Self was tepid on the state of the Jayhawks’ play following the 31-game regular season.
“I don’t really think I’m in love with how we’re playing, but I also don’t think that I’m ultra-concerned with how we’re playing,” he said. “You’re gonna be concerned this time of year, because from this point forward it’s one-and-done, so to speak, if you lose in both tournaments.”
KU’s most recent three-game winning streak came in mid-January, when the Jayhawks bookended an overtime road win over TCU with home victories against Oklahoma State and West Virginia. You many recognize those three opponents as the Big 12’s eighth-, ninth- and 10th-place teams in 2019.
The Jayhawks also won three in a row in January, beating TCU at home, Baylor on the road and Texas in Lawrence.
Even though Sprint Center often turns into a de facto home game for Kansas during the Big 12 tournament, it’s hard to talk yourself into believing there’s a scenario in which these Jayhawks win three games in three days.
“It’s gonna be hard to do,” Self admitted. “We know that, with playing guys as many minutes as we play them. But we’ve done it before and we’ve done it last year, and certainly we’re capable of going over there and putting together a nice run. I think it’ll be good for us to kind of get our batteries recharged.”
Maybe the Jayhawks didn’t win emphatically versus Baylor because they were still experiencing the hangover of disappointment that accompanied them coming up short in the Big 12 title race.
A first-team all-conference performer as well as the league’s top newcomer, redshirt junior Lawson reiterated Saturday that Self never put pressure on this team to extend KU’s title streak.
“I just wanted to win a Big 12 title just for myself and things like that. Plus, you want to keep the legacy going,” Lawson said. “At the end of the day we fell short and it’s not the end of the world”
The current Jayhawks may not have dominated their peers like their predecessors so often did. But they should at least be able to put all of that behind them now.
“Going forward we’re just trying to be the best team that we can be, have the best year we can have,” Lawson said, “going into the Big 12 tournament and finishing strong, and March Madness from there.”
KU still has close to four full days to prepare for Texas and its postseason debut. We’ll find out Thursday night in Kansas City, Mo., whether the Jayhawks have found the “oomph” needed to outperform their irregular season.
In spite of the Kansas basketball team’s undefeated home record and the necessity for a Jayhawks victory against Baylor, what with Selection Sunday coming up in just more than a week, this season’s Allen Fieldhouse finale figures to lack the buzz and fervor of recent regular season closers.
Many KU students will already be hundreds of miles away basking in all the diversions spring break has to offer. There is no beloved senior to celebrate. No nets to cut. Nor a shiny new Big 12 championship trophy to wheel out and add to the collection.
And the relative lack of interest, at least compared to the full-blown zeal that typically accompanies the last KU basketball home game on a given year’s schedule, has everything to do with the Jayhawks’ shortcomings this season.
Bill Self has coached more than enough Big 12 title-winning teams at KU to notice some characteristics that this particular team lacked, the types of limitations that paved the way for either Kansas State or Texas Tech — or both — to dethrone the 14-time reigning champions in 2019.
“I think there's some reasons,” Self began. “I think maturity is one. I think distractions is another and, you know, those are things that you don't really change.”
The disturbances Self referenced may have been too unpredictable for the Jayhawks to avoid feeling at least somewhat blindsided by them.
“Now, if it was distractions on judgment and things like that, then that's another thing — you can eliminate (those). These are distractions, whether it be health, whether it be a decision is made by a third party, whether it be obviously some personal things, those things are hard to navigate and deal with,” Self said. “I think those are probably reasons why, as much as anything.”
Of course, losing 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury, the NCAA ruling Silvio De Sousa ineligible and Lagerald Vick presumably leaving the team for good four months into the season all played a factor in KU coming up short of a 15th straight conference title. But the Jayhawks also possess on-court imperfections that have kept them from overcoming those aforementioned obstructions.
“And the other thing is, guys, our margin for error isn't what it used to be,” Self would add Thursday, during his weekly press conference. “I mean, going to win on the road is a huge win. Like going to Morgantown, up six (points) with two (minutes) left, that's what we’re going to look back on — or that’s what I’ll look back on.”
The road wrecked KU’s chances at living up to the program’s absurd conference-championship-every-season standards this year. The Jayhawks went 3-6 in the arenas occupied by other Big 12 programs this season, blowing a late lead at WVU, not putting up much of a fight in defeats at Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma, losing late at K-State and showing no ability to match Texas Tech’s intensity or level of play in Lubbock, Texas.
As Self said of the nail-in-the-coffin defeat at OU earlier this week, the Jayhawks (22-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12) needed to play “great” to beat the Sooners that night. But winning on the road usually requires a gutty defensive effort.
“We couldn’t be great. We had to make them play poorly. That's what this team has not done,” Self said. “It's not so much how we play, it's how we make other teams play. That’s probably the reason why we didn't have a better opportunity to win the league this year, to be quite candid."
Defending the 3-point line proved to be an issue for KU in Big 12 road losses. Iowa State went 13 for 25, Texas 10 for 28, K-State 10 for 24, Tech 16 for 26 and Oklahoma 9 for 24.
Through 30 games, KU’s 34.3% 3-point field goal percentage defense ranks 177th in the nation. To make matters worse, per TeamRankings.com, KU is allowing opponents to attempt, on average, 25.6 3-pointers a game, which ranks 317th.
Junior Mitch Lightfoot, a part of two Big 12 title-winning teams during his first two years at KU, didn’t have to think long to point to a primary reason this season hasn’t been as successful.
“Like coach has always said, you’ve got to win on the road,” Lightfoot replied, when asked if there was a specific characteristic he saw KU lacking. “We haven’t done that too spectacularly with this team in particular. That is the reason that it happened (KU didn’t win the Big 12). We have to address that, because throughout the tournament, throughout the rest of all of our careers here, we’re going to have to win on the road. We’re going to have to win in opposing environments and we’ve got to figure that out.”
The clock is ticking on this KU basketball season, and its expiration date will come sooner than usual if the Jayhawks don’t find ways to demand defensive responses from themselves when facing an offense that’s clicking. Whether that’s denying shooters behind the 3-point arc or impeding driving and passing lanes on the perimeter, the Jayhawks will have to make their opponents more uncomfortable from here on out.
Otherwise they’ll be setting themselves up for the type of finish to a season that is viewed as intolerable among KU’s rabid fan base.
Just as the Big 12 title race has yet to be resolved with mere days to go in the regular season, this year’s conference player of the year award remains up for grabs, too.
There’s no one dominating the league the way Blake Griffin did at Oklahoma in 2009 or Kevin Durant did in 2007 — not even close. Nor is Kansas a shoo-in for the crown, making the Jayhawks’ most valuable performer an obvious choice for the honor.
So which player is the most deserving of the hardware in 2019?
Bill Self, who has coached five Big 12 Players of the Year during his 15-plus seasons at KU, doesn’t have a winner in mind quite yet. But he will by the time this wild race wraps up on Saturday.
This year, Self opined, the award should go to the candidate from the league championship team.
“I don't think anybody has separated themselves,” Self said this past week, when asked for his thoughts about a possible Big 12 Player of the Year. “Like, last year, Trae (Young) and Devonte' (Graham) separated themselves from everybody else. You know, you’ve got two first-team All-Americans. This year, we're not going to have that in our league.”
Using Self’s parameters, only three players entered the final week of the regular season in contention for the Big 12’s top individual honor, because only three teams headed into the final two games of league play with at least a somewhat realistic shot at the conference title. (Sorry, Baylor.)
There’s Texas Tech sophomore guard Jarrett Culver, Kansas State senior guard Barry Brown Jr. and KU junior forward Dedric Lawson.
“Whoever’s team plays the best down the stretch and wins the league, to me, that’s the most deserving in this particular year,” Self said.
Entering Monday’s games, here are the individual statistics in Big 12 play for arguably the three best players in the conference:
• Culver: 17.9 points per game, 6.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, .486 field goal percentage, 14 for 65 on 3-pointers, .706 free throw percentage and — per sports-reference.com — 21.1 Player Efficiency Rating in league games.
• Brown: 16.2 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.0 steals, .472 FG percentage, 25 for 75 3’s, .658 FT percentage and 21.1 PER vs. Big 12.
• Lawson: 18.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals, .479 FG percentage, 18 for 44 3’s, .782 FT percentage and 26.5 PER vs. Big 12.
All three candidates have proven to be crucial to their respective team’s success over the past couple of months, but not one of them has emerged as an obvious choice for player of the year in the conference.
And perhaps no separation will ever take place. What if there’s a tie for the Big 12 title this season? Should the existence of co-champions mean co-Big 12 Players of the Year, as well?
“I don’t know,” Self admitted. “Then, it would probably come down to stats or whatever if it’s a tie. But to me, if there is an outright winner, that guy deserves it.”