There weren’t 30 better college basketball players than Kansas stars Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson in the shortened 2019-20 season. But at least that many prospects from the NCAA ranks and overseas are expected to get selected before the pair of Jayhawks in this year’s NBA Draft.
Although Dotson hasn’t yet officially reached a decision on entering his name into the pool, the latest mock draft from ESPN is assuming, just as KU coach Bill Self has, that Dotson will declare.
At this point, ESPN draft experts Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz project that both Dotson, KU’s speed-bursting point guard, and Azubuike, the Jayhawks’ defensive-minded center, will be second-round picks.
Still, the KU teammates both are thought of highly enough that they barely missed out on the first round. The newest mock draft slated them as back-to-back picks to open round No. 2, with Azubuike going first in the second and final round, and Dotson getting drafted right after him.
Point guards such as LaMelo Ball, Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton, R.J. Hampton, North Carolina’s Cole Anthony, Theo Maledon, Arizona’s Nico Mannion, Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr. and Michigan State’s Cassius Winston are projected to go in the first round, ahead of Dotson, KU’s AP second-team All-American.
The latest first-round projections don’t include many traditional centers, what with the game trending away from low-post big men. The mock draft had one going early, with Memphis center James Wiseman at No. 2. The first round also featured two players listed at both forward and center: USC’s Onyeka Okongwu, Memphis’ Precious Achiuwa
Only two other players who are strictly considered centers, Washington’s Isaiah Stewart and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr., were listed as first-rounders, but they were in Azubuike’s neighborhood, between picks No. 26-30.
The forecast provided by Givony and Schmitz displayed what they thought teams were most likely to do with their draft picks. But they admitted it’s also an even more inexact science than usual at this juncture, because the NBA hasn’t even yet sorted out its final standings for the season, which remains on pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Nor has the league held its lottery to determine the order for the top 14 picks.
The uncertainty also stretches to the pre-draft process itself. It may well prove difficult for prospects such as Azubuike and Dotson to improve their stock, because they still don’t know when or if they will be able to work out for NBA teams.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the league informed its 30 franchises that in-person workouts and interviews with prospects are off until further notice.
Per Wojnarowski, teams can only conduct interviews via video conference, and are limited to four hours total for those interactions with a given player. What’s more, Wojnarowski reported teams aren’t allowed to request video of recent workouts from prospects and can only watch video footage of games or practice sessions that occurred before the NBA suspended its season on March 11.
So whatever relatively recent action general managers, coaches and scouts want to view of Azubuike and Dotson will have come from the Jayhawks’ truncated 28-3 season for the time being.
A 20-year-old 7-footer from Nigeria, Azubuike shot 74.8% from the floor playing inside, while averaging 13.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots.
Also 20, and actually a smidge older than Azubuike, Dotson, a 6-2 point guard, put up 18.1 points per game, with 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals to go with 30.9% 3-point shooting and an 83% mark at the free throw line.
If the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are correct, the second season of the Les Miles era at the University of Kansas won’t be that much more successful than his debut run with the Jayhawks in 2019.
Consider the key players KU has lost from last season’s 3-9 team and you quickly realize why Caesars Entertainment placed the Jayhawks’ over/under at 3.5 wins for the 2020 season.
Miles and his staff will have to replace such key contributors as quarterback Carter Stanley, left tackle Hakeem Adeniji, receiver Daylon Charlot, defensive backs Hasan Defense, Mike Lee, Jeremiah McCullough and Bryce Torneden, linebacker Azur Kamara and center Andru Tovi. And because the COVID-19 crisis wiped out spring practices, Miles and his assistants won’t have their typical assessment and development periods this offseason to get all those and other roster decisions figured out.
Let’s assume that the college football season starts on time and features its normal 12-game schedule. What’s KU’s path to a better record in Year 2 for Miles?
Here’s a ranking of KU’s games, from most to least winnable, to provide a clearer picture:
• New Hampshire (Sept. 5): Season openers tend to provide KU football with its best chances at victories and this year is no different. UNH is the Jayhawks’ lone FCS opponent on the calendar, and KU has actually won three of its last four openers thanks to that scheduling — KU beat Rhode Island in 2016, Southeast Missouri State in 2017 and Indiana State in 2019, but lost to Nicholls in overtime in 2018.
• At Coastal Carolina (Sept. 26): No, the Jayhawks still don’t win Big 12 road games, but they have proven the past couple of years they can actually travel and head home with a victory in nonconference play. They will look to make it three years in a row of winning on the road in September when they head to Conway, S.C., for their nonconference finale versus the Chanticleers. Throw in the revenge factor for the KU veterans who lost at home to Coastal Carolina last season and you’re looking at a very winnable road game.
• Boston College (Sept. 19): The Jayhawks delivered one of their signature performances in Boston last year, and while that 48-24 trouncing will be difficult to duplicate, any type of win against a Power Five opponent will suffice for Kansas. As usual, KU will need as many wins as possible out of conference, because the Big 12 has proven brutal for the program the past 11 seasons.
• TCU (Nov. 28): The Horned Frogs dismantled the Jayhawks in 2019, but it’s just hard to put any road game higher on this list considering KU hasn’t won a Big 12 game in an opponent’s venue since 2008. Kansas gets TCU on Senior Day in Lawrence this season. And for whatever reason, the Frogs’ trips to KU have been accompanied by drama in recent years.
• Iowa State (Oct. 3): Kansas actually led late in the fourth quarter at ISU last season in one of the the Jayhawks’ better Big 12 showings. But, according to Caesars, coach Matt Campbell’s Cyclones project as an eight-win team in 2020, so this looks like no easy matchup.
• Oklahoma State (Oct. 17): Is this game actually all that winnable? It’s hard to say so far out from the season. But with KU’s defense a major question mark and the Cowboys bringing back star running back Chuba Hubbard, it seems like the Jayhawks could be significant underdogs in this one.
• At West Virginia (Oct. 24): The way the schedule broke this year, KU actually has to face all of what Caesars projects as the seventh- through ninth-best teams in the Big 12 on the road. The longest trip KU makes in conference looks like the most winnable, though. WVU coach Neal Brown didn’t take on as massive of a rebuilding project as Miles did at KU, but the Mountaineers went 5-7 in 2019, including a 29-24 win in Lawrence. Vegas set WVU’s over/under at 5.5
• At Texas Tech (Nov. 14): The Red Raiders were the only Big 12 team to lose to KU in 2019, Matt Wells’ first year as Tech’s head coach. But the Jayhawks would have to win in Lubbock for the first time since 2001 to make it two in a row in the series. Tech’s over/under is 6.
• Texas (Nov. 7): Last year’s 50-48 shootout between KU and Texas in Austin was epic. It was also the Jayhawks’ first game with offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon and the UT defense was dealing with a number of injury issues, so going toe to toe with a program that is in such better position than KU would be quite a feat in 2020. UT is projected as the league’s second-best team, with 9 wins.
• At Baylor (Sept. 12): The Bears won’t be as impressive this year as they were in Matt Rhule’s third and final season. But it’s difficult to think of KU facing the Bears and dismiss the way BU eviscerated the Jayhawks in the 2019 finale, 61-6. Plus, this one — in Week 2 oddly enough — is on the road and KU never has won in Waco. The Bears’ over/under was set at 8.
• At Kansas State (Oct. 10): Bill Snyder finally retired in late 2018, but the Wildcats’ emphasis on beating KU didn’t depart with the legendary head coach. K-State’s new leader, Chris Klieman, and his staff showed they plan to keep that trend alive. The final score for the first Sunflower Showdown between Miles and Klieman read K-State 38, KU 10, but the game wasn’t even that close. The Jayhawks haven’t won in this rivalry series since 2008. K-State’s over/under is 6.
• At Oklahoma (Nov. 21): The Sooners, as usual, should be the class of the Big 12, even in what would qualify as a down year for OU if it hits Caesars projection of 10 wins. Kansas hasn’t defeated the Sooners since 1997 and it will probably be a long time before anyone enters a season expecting the Jayhawks will have much of a chance of knocking off the Sooners.
Without any NBA games or March Madness to discuss, the crew from ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” decided to take a nostalgic approach earlier this week and have former players, including 1997-98 Kansas All-American Paul Pierce, assemble their all-time teams.
The task was an easy one for Pierce and his colleagues, Jalen Rose and Jay Williams: go back through the history of the program for which each played and take any players to build a starting five.
“I’m gonna go big with my squad,” Pierce warned, during the stay-home edition of what’s typically a studio pregame show. “We’re going old school, 6-8 and up pretty much except for the point guard.”
Indeed, Pierce’s all-time KU team turned out imposing, even if nontraditional, with centers Wilt Chamberlain and Joel Embiid down low, Danny Manning at small forward, Pierce on the wing and Mario Chalmers at guard.
“You can’t leave off Mario Chalmers — Super Mario,” Pierce said. “He won the national championship at Kansas with big shots.”
Williams was impressed: “That’s a squad right there,” he replied. “Ain’t nobody outrebounding y’all.”
Williams, a two-time All-American at Duke just after the turn of the century, also put himself on his Blue Devils all-time team, along with Kyrie Irving, J.J. Redick, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner.
Rose, a member of the fabled Michigan Fab Five in the early 1990s, put the three most prolific players from those Wolverines teams — himself, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard — on his squad, along with Glen Rice and Trey Burke.
(KU fans might remember Burke’s 30-footer to force overtime versus Kansas in 2013. Rose definitely did, sharing he recalled watching the game and spilling hot sake on himself while celebrating.)
March moments aside, the consensus between the “NBA Countdown” crew and host Maria Taylor was that Pierce put together the most impressive lineup.
“I think Wilt, once you start there… it’s tough,” Pierce said.
Added Williams: “That ain’t fair, man.”
However, both Rose, who played in back-to-back national championship games in 1992 and 1993, and Williams, who won a national title in 2001, were able to beat Pierce when it came time for the former players to discuss their personal best March Madness moments.
During Pierce’s three years at KU, the Jayhawks twice earned a No. 1 seed and were a No. 2 seed when he was a freshman. However …. well, just let “The Truth” explain.
“It’s kind of hard to find something memorable, being that we got upset pretty much every year and never made a Final Four,” Pierce said.
His freshman year, KU, as the No. 2 seed in the West regional, lost to No. 4 Syracuse in the Elite Eight, in 1996.
When Pierce was a sophomore, he played on what is still considered one of the best teams in KU history. The Jayhawks finished 34-2 but lost to No. 4 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16.
Pierce’s college career ended in 1998 when No. 1 seed KU got knocked off by No. 8 Rhode Island in the second round.
“There’s not many favorite moments but my favorite game was probably against Arizona,” Pierce said. “We beat Arizona one year to go to the final eight (1996), and then we lost to Arizona the next year (1997) and they ended up being the national champs. But those were two great battles.”
In a Sweet 16 matchup in Denver in 1996, KU beat Arizona, 83-80, and Pierce scored 20 points, going 4-for-6 on 3-pointers.
In the 1997 rematch in the same round, this time in Birmingham, Ala., the Wildcats prevailed, 85-82, despite a 27-point outing for Pierce in which he went 9-for-13 from the floor and 3-for-3 from long range and pulled down 11 rebounds.
College basketball stars such as Kansas point guard Devon Dotson didn’t get to take advantage of the NCAA Tournament as a showcase in front of potential NBA employers this March. And the way everything is trending, future opportunities between now and the 2020 draft — whenever that happens — could be scarce.
According to a Tuesday report from ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA sent a memo to NCAA basketball coaches letting them know players could begin submitting applications to get feedback on their draft stock from the league’s Undergraduate Advisory Committee.
That’s good news for potential early draft entrants such as Dotson, a sophomore, because they can at least start thinking about their basketball future and preparing for what’s next, just days after the unforeseen early conclusion to the college basketball postseason, due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the ESPN report also included some foreboding details about a potentially unrecognizable new normal for draft hopefuls. Per Givony and Wojnarowski, NBA executives “widely agree” that the typical procedures used to evaluate prospects will be “severely limited, if not lost altogether,” because the idea of players and scouts being able to travel all over the country for workouts, pro days and the NBA combine seems “extremely unlikely” at this juncture.
Amid all this unpredictability, the outcome of Dotson’s looming stay-or-go decision looks far more obvious. A year ago, Dotson took a prolonged look at his draft stock before returning to KU. And from the day he decided to play for the Jayhawks as a sophomore, a spot in the 2020 draft looked inevitable for the 6-foot-2 point guard from Charlotte, N.C.
What’s more, Dotson’s current head coach, Bill Self, was discussing during a media teleconference how to properly commemorate the Jayhawks’ 28-3 season when he all but said Monday — without naming Dotson specifically — that the second-year guard will enter the draft.
“You’ve got a couple players — or three players — that will not be back. Two of them are seniors,” Self said, referencing Udoka Azubuike and Isaiah Moss. "One, I’m sure will declare, even though it hasn’t happened yet and he hasn’t made that decision. But the reality is at today’s time that that would probably happen.”
So when Dotson officially declares for the draft, he and other potential draftees, it seems, might not get to go through the usual pre-draft process, bouncing from city to city for workouts and interviews with coaches and general managers.
The annual NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is scheduled for May 21-24, but as ESPN reported, nothing is certain at this point. The NBA season is on hiatus for the foreseeable future, too, so the league might have to cancel the combine, because Wojnarowski has reported a mid- to late-June return to action for the league is currently considered a “best-case” scenario.
If teams aren’t even back to practicing by late May, there’s no way the NBA would be able to have its combine at that point. Like most everything tied to sports during these unsettled times, pre-draft normalcy looks very much in doubt. Will the draft even take place on June 25, as scheduled? Who knows.
At least Dotson can enter his name into the draft pool — if he so chooses (spoiler alert: he will) — with confidence that what scouts saw from him during the Jayhawks’ season has him in much better position than he was a year ago.
If Dotson was considered a lock as a first-round pick for the 2019 draft after his freshman year, he wouldn’t have returned to KU. He still might not be quite at that level, so that’s where the loss of workouts and a combine could hurt Dotson a little.
ESPN’s list of top 100 prospects currently ranks Dotson No. 31 overall. In a 30-team, two-round draft, that could mean an early second round spot for Dotson, if teams value him the same way ESPN’s draft experts do.
Dotson proved while averaging 18.1 points, 4.0 assists and 2.1 steals, and shooting 46.8% from the field and 83% at the foul line during his shortened sophomore season that he’s speedy, strong and a tough finisher inside.
The biggest knock on him has been his 3-point shooting. While both teammates and Self say Dotson is a good shooter or has the potential to be one, he only connected on 30.9% of his 3-point tries (38-for-123) during his 30 games as a sophomore. He was more consistent as a freshman (33-for-91, 36.3%), so maybe this year was an anomaly, but teams would still prefer to see better percentages from a guard.
A strong 3-point shooting display during a deep KU run to the Final Four might have helped Dotson’s draft stock. Now he might not even get opportunities to prove himself as a shooter in pre-draft workouts either.
It’s an unfortunate reality for aspiring NBA players, but one Dotson and other could-be first-rounders now have to contemplate.
Life has a way of reminding people about what’s actually important and what’s ultimately of far less consequence.
On a Monday afternoon that many of us would’ve spent scrutinizing the still fresh NCAA Tournament bracket, and maybe even getting into occasionally heated debates about which teams could or should actually advance, many local media members dialed in to a teleconference to hear from Kansas basketball coach Bill Self.
The conversation, of course, had nothing to do with the Jayhawks’ upcoming path to a national championship, but rather the unforeseen and surreal way the postseason came to a conclusion before it even really got started.
The head coach of the No. 1-ranked team in the country spent plenty of time discussing how life has changed for his players and how the canceled tournament could impact what’s to come on a number of fronts. But Self diverted briefly to consider how sports actually might have played a momentous role in this country by getting people to recognize the seriousness of this COVID-19 pandemic.
“How big of a positive was it that Rudy Gobert tested positive?” Self said of the Utah Jazz center contracting the virus and essentially putting the entire NBA season on pause.
Gobert's diagnosis came this past Wednesday, which in its aftermath now feels like a month ago. The NBA suspending play became a tipping point for sports leagues throughout this country. And a worldwide story that might have seemed too far away for some in the U.S. to take seriously just a week ago suddenly became a lot more real.
Self marveled that sports as we know them getting wiped out actually became a driving force behind a movement, with more people paying attention to the virus and the possible repercussions of it spreading.
“I do think that could be a positive that came out of this — a very big one,” he said.
Indeed, this abnormal new reality for the Jayhawks and everyone else comes with some life lessons. According to Self, one that hit home for him is that everything is relative.
“No matter what we’ve got going on or no matter who we think we are, there’s always something more important actually taking place than what we’re doing,” Self said. “Sometimes we get caught up in our own world so much that we think what we’re doing is actually more important and affects more people than what it actually does.”
That’s been one of the most sobering aspects of existing in the sports world this past week. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be tied to the industry in one way or another have been reminded that the drama and intrigue surrounding sports may be captivating at times, but it lacks the gravity of these unpredictable days in which we now exist.
“I do feel so sorry for local businesses and people employed at local businesses,” Self said. “And how do they keep the doors open and stay in business? There are so many things going on in addition to health that it certainly got everyone’s attention. And I do think sports has helped create that.”
Maybe Self’s right, and this country is now a little further ahead of schedule in responding to this outbreak than it would’ve been without the sports world taking the lead. If sports helped just a little, it’s a nice reminder that they have the potential to make a far-reaching impact for good sometimes. Once in a while sports can be more than just a game.
The most crucial portion of the Kansas football team’s offseason was just days away from starting up when the entire sports world came to a breakneck halt.
The Jayhawks were scheduled to start their first spring practice of 2020 at 3:40 p.m. on St. Patrick’s Day. That was before the threat of the novel coronavirus began shutting down athletic competitions of all sorts worldwide.
Once word came down from the conference offices Friday night that all forms of team activities in the Big 12 were suspended, exactly when KU football players will be allowed to reconvene and start practicing became unclear.
Currently, uncertainty is the new status quo. On-campus classes are canceled at KU through March 22. After that, all classes will move online, and the university laid out a plan that anticipates the need for classes to remain in an online platform “for several weeks.” So KU football coaches at this point don’t even know when the players will be allowed back on campus and be able to go about their normal lives.
The Big 12, in announcing the suspension of both organized and voluntary team activities, including team and individual practices, meetings and other such gatherings, said the situation will be reevaluated March 29. On KU football’s original spring schedule, the Jayhawks were supposed to have six of their allotted 15 spring practices behind them by then.
In an absolute best-case scenario, KU and other football teams would get the go-ahead to get back to some normalcy and start spring practices by early April. The way this COVID-19 threat has developed over the past week, though, such an outcome reads like fantasy.
At the other end of this speculative spectrum is the worst-case scenario: no spring football. Coaches and players everywhere would despise that result. But it would feel like an especially fierce blow for the Jayhawks.
This is just the second offseason since Les Miles came in to try and revamp the program. Spring practices are a critical component of such an extensive renovation project.
Sure, the Jayhawks showed some flashes of advancement during their 3-9 2019 season. But improving upon that mark in Year 2 of the Miles regime is not a foregone conclusion. Seniors from 2019 — such as left tackle Hakeem Adeniji, receiver Daylon Charlot, defensive backs Hasan Defense, Mike Lee, Jeremiah McCullough and Bryce Torneden, linebacker Azur Kamara, center Andru Tovi and quarterback Carter Stanley — played important roles on that team. Spring football practices are generally the time when coaches start to get a true sense of which players can step up and fill in vacated jobs on the depth chart.
What’s more, there is no clear favorite to take the place of Stanley as KU’s starting quarterback. Maybe Thomas MacVittie ends up winning the job. Perhaps it will be Miles Kendrick. The presumptive start of the 2020 season is still months away, so conceivably at least, it’s possible that some dark horse candidate would have time to emerge as well. Every aspiring starter — regardless of position — needs the 15 spring practices to go prove himself.
Plus, it’s likely no one was looking forward to this spring practice time as much as offensive coordinator Brent Dearmon. Miles promoted him to OC in the middle of the 2019 season, so Dearmon didn’t really get to run the full-blown version of the RPO offense he loves. KU’s spring practices and the meetings that accompanied them are going to be pivotal for Dearmon and KU’s offensive players, because that’s when the coach will be able to install his system and get the Jayhawks familiar with all of his play calls and cues.
College football is such a moneymaker for FBS programs that it’s hard to fathom spring practices getting completely wiped out. Then again, who would have been able to grasp just a week ago that the NCAA Tournament would be canceled. These are unprecedented times for everyone, let alone college athletics administrators.
As far as spring practices go, all anyone can do is remain optimistic. One would think the Big 12 and other conferences could come up with ways to salvage the spring schedule, even if that means pushing it into the summer.
At KU, the last day of classes is scheduled for May 7, and May 15 is the last day of finals, before a May 17 commencement. If life is back to normal at some point between now and then, maybe teams could at least get the spring practice schedule started late in the semester. And given these unique circumstances, one would figure NCAA and conference decision-makers would be flexible enough to allow practices to take place during summer classes, too, if necessary.
The Jayhawks need those 15 offseason practices before preseason camp gets started in August. KU football is not yet on strong enough ground to withstand the loss of that much preparation time as well as the more established programs in the Big 12 could.
For the time being, all any football player or coach can do is wait. And hope the best.
You thought watching your favorite team get upset in the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament was tough. Welcome to the truest form of March Sadness.
The idea of any basketball being played this weekend or in the weeks to come toppled, domino style, beginning Thursday morning. As conferences nationwide canceled their postseason tournaments, the trend reached the Big 12 and the Sprint Center less than an hour before a quarterfinal between Texas and Texas Tech was supposed to tip off.
By the afternoon, the NCAA and its board of governors went ahead and canceled the entire postseason. No Selection Sunday. No brackets to fill out. No buzzer-beaters. No Cinderellas. No Final Four. Not even “One Shining Moment.”
This is all, of course, for the greater good of society. Health experts far more knowledgeable about this novel coronavirus and how it spreads than those of us who wanted to watch more basketball advised against these games and the March traditions that we’ve come to know and love. It was a prudent move, reached with the well-being of people who could be fatally impacted by COVID-19 in mind. Even if it took the NBA, NHL and MLB all suspending their games for the NCAA to take a similar action, the people in charge of the March Madness moneymaker finally followed the ethical route.
But it’s OK to be disappointed in the result, sensible as it was. Imagine the sorrow college athletes throughout the country are still experiencing, and will continue to deal with, in the wake of this unprecedented measure.
It’s hard to dream up a more let down group of players than those on the Kansas basketball roster. The No. 1-ranked Jayhawks hadn’t lost a game since Jan. 11. They were in position to become the No. 1 overall seed in the national championship tournament, with the help of two potential all-Americans, Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, and a defensive guru, Marcus Garrett.
They had zero clue this past Saturday in Lubbock, Texas, when they beat the Red Raiders for an outright Big 12 title that it would be the last time they ever competed together. The Jayhawks looked like a team that could play nine more times — three in the Big 12 Tournament and six more in the NCAA Tournament — cutting down more nets and acquiring more postseason hardware along the way.
Instead, it’s all suddenly over.
For months, the lives of these players revolved around gearing up for this 2020 postseason. Now they’re no doubt left with a sense of emptiness, because the bizarre circumstances of these times meant they didn’t even get a chance to go validate their incredible regular season with some postseason glory.
For Azubuike, a senior, and Dotson, a likely early NBA draft entrant, this must be unfathomable. They were poised to write their own memorable chapters in KU’s storied program. Maybe even leave as legends. Like Danny Manning or Mario Chalmers. Now they and their teammates become an all-time what-if in KU lore.
Unfortunately for college athletes and fans everywhere, this unique brand of March Sadness extends to sports everywhere. President Mark Emmert and the board of governors determined the best way for the NCAA to prevent further spread of COVID-19 was to cancel all remaining winter and spring championships. That means no title runs for college athletes in basketball, ice hockey, wrestling, gymnastics, track and field, lacrosse, baseball, softball, golf and tennis, to name a few.
We’ve never seen anything like this. And hopefully we never will again.
As everyone continues to process this odd non-postseason, it’s OK to both appreciate that people involved in sports are doing everything they can to limit a pandemic, while also expressing regret over how March of 2020 came to an abrupt conclusion.
It's normal for players on Bill Self’s Kansas basketball teams to wind up on All-Big 12 teams in March, but not once in his previous 16 seasons did Self coach a team with two stars so productive that either could easily have won conference player of the year.
Of course, that changed in year No. 17, thanks to Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
A 7-foot senior center, Azubuike ended up sweeping the Big 12 player of the year awards, earning the distinction from both the conference’s coaches and the Associated Press.
But that didn’t mean Azubuike was the obvious choice. AP voters gave the big man 10 votes, but seven went to his teammate Dotson, a sophomore point guard.
Azubuike intimidated on the interior, while Dotson reigned on the perimeter. They formed an ideal complementary duo and made up the driving force behind KU’s incredible 17-1 run through the Big 12.
Was one more responsible for the Jayhawks’ success than the other? You could make strong cases for either and still not convince someone on the other side of the argument. Ultimately, both sides are right, because the dominating center and high-speed point guard formed a reciprocal pairing that resulted in KU emerging as the top-ranked team in the country.
Self said earlier this week he never had before coached a tandem with such a hefty one-two punch that it was difficult to discern which player was actually better.
“Yeah, when we had Marcus and Markieff, they were hard to distinguish,” Self joked of the Morris twins. “From a postseason award standpoint, I don't know that we've had anything like this before.”
Just in two of the previous three seasons, Self coached clear-cut All-Americans in Frank Mason III (2017) and Devonte’ Graham (2018) who were obvious choices for Big 12 player of the year. The same was true earlier in the decade, with Marcus Morris (2011) and Thomas Robinson (2012). And even though Mason and Graham were teammates in 2017 and Morris and Robinson played together in 2011, there was always clear separation between those KU duos in those particular seasons. Robinson and Graham each stepped up to become “the guy” after a teammate with a key role moved on.
In Azubuike and Dotson, Kansas (28-3) has two of “the guys” entering the postseason together.
Self thought the only time KU could have had a somewhat similar scenario was 2014, when the Jayhawks’ top two freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, went on to become two of the top three picks in the draft. Of course, that combo never got to realize its March Madness potential, as Embiid suffered a season-ending injury late in the regular season and KU lost as a No. 2 seed in its second game of the NCAA Tournament.
Azubuike and Dotson are more likely to become two of the top three picks in the second round of the draft, but they’ve turned into highly effective college stars. The Jayhawks haven’t benefited from the presence of such a valuable pair of players since the year before Self arrived. In 2003, big man Nick Collison and fleet-footed guard Kirk Hinrich took KU all the way to the national championship game.
Azubuike and Dotson are the most impactful Kansas duo since, and exceptional enough in this college basketball season that they could take the Jayhawks one step further — and maybe help deliver KU its first national championship since 2008.
With the regular season officially behind them, the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks should feel right at home when they’re away from Lawrence this postseason, and not just at their mid-March home in Kansas City, Mo., for the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas fought its way to a 10-1 road record, bolstering its claim to the No. 1 overall seed on this upcoming Selection Sunday.
By definition, the Sprint Center and every NCAA Tournament venue in which KU could play in the weeks ahead, is a neutral site. But that’s open to some interpretation. Kansas fans could gobble up tickets in Kansas City this weekend, turning those contests into pseudo home games, the same way KU’s annual regular-season dates in Sprint Center masquerade as a home game on the schedule.
Once the Jayhawks (28-3) begin their NCAA Tournament run, though, their experience as road warriors this season should come in handy in high-pressure games, in Omaha, Neb., the opening week, and possibly Houston or Indianapolis the following one.
Even though KU is likely to be well represented in the stands at various stops during the 68-team national tournament, any sense of a home-court advantage will be out the window.
“I think when you're rated high,” KU head coach Bill Self said Monday during his press conference, “a lot of times if the game's close in the NCAA Tournament, the majority of the people in the building that aren’t a KU fan would certainly pull for the underdog or the upset, so to speak.”
It’s in those moments that the tension ratchets up in a hurry, potentially infiltrating even a great team’s collective psyche.
That’s when these Jayhawks can lean on their familiarity with winning games outside of Lawrence.
As Big 12 Player of the Year Udoka Azubuike said Monday, the Jayhawks’ confidence entering the postseason is only reinforced by their impressive record on opponents’ home floors.
“Some of the games, we didn’t really play well,” Azubuike said, regarding KU’s 10 road wins. “But we played good defense and we paid attention to details and that kind of helped us. Moving forward, we know we’re not always going to play well offensively, but we’re going to find a way to grind it out defensively.”
That defense, of course (No. 2 in the nation in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.com), is what makes the Jayhawks a favorite to win it all. And they’ve been so locked in on that end of the floor this season that getting stops and winning has become second nature, and they don’t need the boost of the Allen Fieldhouse crowd to make it happen.
All-Big 12 point guard Devon Dotson said KU’s run through its road schedule highlighted the players’ resiliency.
“That shows that we have some strength and toughness — like mental toughness — to overcome runs or bad moments that we have,” Dotson said. “We can overcome it. That’s a positive, that we can overcome that.”
Self’s KU teams often fare well on the road, and that doesn’t necessarily guarantee postseason success — we’re talking about March Madness after all. Still, their 10-1 road record this year gives Self confidence about this team’s potential as the Jayhawks head into postseason play.
“We've had some teams here that you knew that we would get a great effort and you knew that you would probably have a great chance to win, because you knew our crowd would be so good and get guys jacked to play,” Self said. “I don't I think this team needs that as much. At least I hope not. We haven't so far.”
KU road records in Self era, and NCAA Tournament result
2003-04 — 5-5; Elite Eight
2004-05 — 6-4; lost in 1st round
2005-06 — 6-2; lost in 1st round
2006-07 — 8-2; Elite Eight
2007-08 — 8-3; National Championship
2008-09 — 6-4; Sweet 16
2009-10 — 9-2; lost in 2nd round
2010-11 — 9-1; Elite Eight
2011-12 — 8-2; National runner-up
2012-13 — 7-3; Sweet 16
2013-14 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2014-15 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2015-16 — 7-3; Elite Eight
2016-17 — 10-1; Elite Eight
2017-18 — 7-3; Final Four
2018-19 — 3-8; lost in 2nd round
2019-20 — 10-1; ???
Road records of NCAA champions, since 2004
2004 — Connecticut, 6-4
2005 — North Carolina, 8-3
2006 — Florida, 6-4
2007 — Florida, 5-4
2008 — Kansas, 8-3
2009 — North Carolina, 11-2
2010 — Duke, 5-5
2011 — Connecticut, 5-5
2012 — Kentucky, 8-1
2013 — Louisville, 8-3
2014 — Connecticut, 6-4
2015 — Duke, 9-2
2016 — Villanova, 10-2
2017 — North Carolina, 6-5
2018 — Villanova, 9-3
2019 — Virginia, 10-1
(Road records of NCAA champs via teamrankings.com)
There are plenty of better scorers, shooters and rebounders in the Big 12 than Marcus Garrett. The numbers others have put up, though, don’t equal the impact Garrett makes for the league’s undisputed champ, No. 1-ranked Kansas.
That’s what made it so shocking on Sunday when the coaches’ all-conference selections came out and Garrett’s name didn’t appear until the third team.
The junior guard, who has to lead the Big 12 in intangibles such as court awareness, dedication to defense and scouting report knowledge — and, by the way, led all league players with 5.1 assists per game in conference action — warrants far more credit.
One would have figured the league’s coaches, who had to face KU twice and experienced firsthand the type of effect Garrett has on games with his dogged defense and playmaking on offense, would have viewed him as a first-team performer.
No, Garrett doesn’t blow anyone away with his numbers. Except when considering his 9.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals in Big 12 games, it’s necessary to also examine the numbers 17-1 (as in KU’s remarkable conference record) and two (the amount of games the Jayhawks finished ahead of Baylor in the standings). Of course, Garrett’s teammates Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson — both obvious first-team selections — also played crucial roles in that success. But take away Garrett from the lineup and KU doesn’t win the league so convincingly.
There are no mind-blowingly talented, surefire NBA lottery picks in the Big 12 this year, because a broken wrist robbed Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton of the rest of his season in early February. So why not just reward winning with the All-Big 12 team? The league’s coaches will tell you the top-heavy conference has competitive teams throughout. Well, that makes KU’s run through the round robin schedule all the more impressive.
A team that so clearly established itself as the best in the league is worthy of securing three spots on the first team. Garrett is just as important a contributor in what KU already has accomplished this season as Azubuike and Dotson.
Kansas and Baylor had the two best teams in the Big 12 all season and, really, were so much better than the rest of the pack that it would be completely fair to fill the entire first team with Jayhawks and Bears exclusively. This isn’t a deep league this year, and it’s obvious who the most important players are. Azubuike, Dotson, Garrett, Jared Butler and Freddie Gillespie represent best what this league was about in 2020.
Looking at it from another perspective, if the Big 12’s coaches had to put together a five-man lineup in order to battle the five best players from other conferences such as the Big Ten, ACC and SEC, you’d want Garrett on that Big 12 team if you cared at all about beating the best the rest of the country had to offer.
Clearly the coaches respect Garrett’s defense. He was a unanimous choice for the all-defensive team and was voted defensive player of the year. Maybe they thought that was enough of a way to honor his aptitude.
A lot will depend on what’s to come in the postseason for the Jayhawks, but if they play to their potential and make it to the Final Four, people will look back at Garrett’s spot on the third team and laugh. It’s not as egregious as when the Associated Press panel botched its All-Big 12 first team in 2008, failing to get even one Jayhawk on the team. But Garrett as a third-team choice is a misfire.
Garrett makes winning plays and can do so in almost every way imaginable — defensive stops, incredible steals, attacks off the bounce, setting up teammates for high-percentage shots. He’s not a good 3-point shooter (17-for-52, 10-for-32 against the Big 12). Fine. He gives KU everything else his coach, Bill Self, could possibly want out of a player, and when teams leave Garrett wide open behind the arc he’ll take that shot, because that’s the right play.
There aren’t 10 better college basketball players than Garrett in the Big 12, though his spot on the third team suggests otherwise. Nor are there five players better than him in this league. Garrett’s one of the most impactful players around. And he deserved a spot on the first team because he’s a critical component of what has made KU, the likely No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, great.