Nothing about 2020 has felt or will ever seem normal for anyone, including Kansas basketball players who saw a pandemic cancel what they counted on being a lengthy March Madness run.
In spite of all the peculiarities that accompanied the pandemic, though, KU big David McCormack discovered some comfort during an isolating offseason.
After Bill Self sent the Jayhawks away from Lawrence in March, it ended up being close to five months before they were cleared to return to campus in early August for limited training and workouts. In any other year, trips home would have been shortlived and players would have spent the summer getting countless opportunities to prepare for the coming season together.
McCormack, ahead of KU’s first preseason practice on Thursday, told reporters during a video press conference the Jayhawks missed such offseason chances to develop most. While he still described this year’s group as close-knit, there’s value in players being around each other almost constantly, especially on the court, where they can learn about their teammates’ tendencies and strengths during pickup games and organized workouts alike.
Yet oddly enough, McCormack, while away from all of his KU teammates and typical offseason basketball activities, found quarantine to be the “perfect time” to work on himself. He went as far as to describe the seclusion as an advantage.
“Anytime I’m isolated, I know I’m very focused and locked in,” McCormack explained. “And I have, kind of like my racehorse blinders on, so in quarantine I know if I can just work out by myself I’ll be fine.”
After averaging 6.9 points and 4.1 rebounds as a sophomore during KU’s shortened 28-3 season, McCormack spent much of his alone time doing what he could to set himself up for a more productive junior campaign.
“If I’m home, there’s no reason to be lazy,” McCormack said of how he approached it. “Just kind of attack, eat right, and that’s just what I’ve been doing as far as changing my body and putting on muscle, leaning out, dropping weight, all those types of things in order to be a better player.”
With Udoka Azubuike’s college career complete, the Jayhawks will no doubt lean on McCormack much more in the months ahead than they did last season, when he averaged only 14.7 minutes an outing.
In fact, McCormack already has impressed head coach Bill Self with his athleticism and tack. Self forecasted the 6-foot-10, 265-pound junior producing an All-Big 12 season, because he’s a “much improved” scorer and a solid shooter.
Self said McCormack, along with guards Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji, have been the team’s most consistent performers up to this point. The coach not only expects McCormack will have opportunities to put up numbers, but Self also thinks KU’s latest go-to big man can deliver, and perhaps challenge for All-American status.
That might come as a surprise to some, who haven’t seen McCormack since he played limited minutes in KU’s last couple of Big 12 games back in early March. But Self raved about McCormack’s current state of mind.
“His want-to is at an all-time high,” Self presented. “His commitment is off the charts.”
Perhaps forced solitude isn’t always all bad. It seems to have benefited McCormack, leading up to a year when the Jayhawks will need him more than ever.
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.
The 2019-20 NBA season remains on a prolonged pause as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its return seems more in doubt than a certainty.
Regardless of whether he gets to play another game this season, former Kansas star Devonte’ Graham should find himself in contention for one of the NBA’s featured individual honors.
After bouncing back and forth between Charlotte and Greensboro, N.C., as a rookie, when he played 13 games in the G-League and 46 for the Hornets, Graham went from end of the bench contributor to Charlotte’s leading scorer and best player in his second season.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe put it on a recent episode of his “Lowe Post” podcast, Graham is one of the ultimate “nothing to something” candidates for the Most Improved Player award. After averaging 4.7 points and 2.6 assists and shooting 28.1% on 3-pointers in his debut season, Graham was putting up 18.2 points and 7.5 assists and shooting 37.3% from deep when the NBA schedule was put on hold in March.
Two men who scrutinize NBA game footage for a living, Lowe and TureHoop’s David Thorpe, analyzed Graham’s breakout season while going through their lists of candidates for the M.I.P. award.
“His playmaking was way more advanced than I thought it was and I think than the Hornets thought it was,” noted Lowe of Graham, who was leading the Hornets with a 24.8% usage rate through the team’s 65 games played, with an assist percentage of 35.3%, compared to a 14.5% turnover rate.
Graham actually began the season as a potential 6th Man of the Year candidate, coming off the bench and producing big numbers for the Hornets in his first 10 games. But his impact was too big, especially on a roster so lacking in talent (Charlotte is 23-42 as of this moment in the suspended season) to keep him as a reserve. So head coach James Borrego moved Graham to the starting lineup to stay back in November.
There were enough questions about Graham’s game and how it would translate to the NBA when he graduated from KU that the 6-foot-1 point guard wasn’t selected until the 34th pick of the 2018 draft. Though he came into the league in a deep and talent-rich class, Graham now easily looks like one of the top 10 players from the 2018 draft.
Thorpe called the former KU All-American a “highlight level player” who has shown “monstrous” improvement.
“Another guy who we weren’t sure how good he would end up being,” Thorpe said. “This guy’s gonna be really good for a long time.”
Although Graham’s scoring and shooting dipped in February (15.2 points, 29.8% on 3-pointers), he seemed back on track through five games in March (24.2 points, 44% on 3-pointers). And Lowe pointed out the role change for Graham in his second NBA season came with challenges.
“These guys that have never played big NBA minutes before, there’s just a wall you hit sometimes,” Lowe said. “You’re all the sudden, from not playing, playing 35 minutes as the No. 1 option on an NBA team. So I can forgive Devonte’ Graham in his first year of that for kind of hitting the wall a little bit.”
Because Graham became Charlotte’s best scoring option, Thorpe added, opponents also began game planning to force him into situations where he was less likely to score or get fouled.
“He’s gonna win once in a while, but not as much,” Thorpe said. “And over the course of the season that book gets written tighter and tighter and it gets harder and harder.”
Strong as Graham’s case is for the M.I.P. honor, it won’t be an easy piece of hardware to bring home this year. Some of the other top candidates for the award include New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram, Atlanta’s Trae Young, Orlando’s Markelle Fultz, Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and likely frontrunner Luka Doncic, who went from Rookie of the Year in his debut season with Dallas to bonafide superstar. Doncic, Ingram, Young, Siakam and Tatum were All-Stars this season.
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.
Some years in college basketball, picking All-America teams can be uncomplicated, even obvious. This bizarre, postseason-less 2019-20 campaign was not one of those years.
Sure, Dayton’s Obi Toppin fell into the clear-cut category, but as Friday’s release of the Associated Press All-America teams reminded everyone, it got a little trickier for the 65-member voting panel after that.
The complex nature of filling out the rest of the first team ultimately cost Kansas stars Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson from securing a spot. Instead, the two best players on the unambiguous No. 1 team in the country landed on the second team.
Both Azubuike, a 7-foot senior center, and Dotson, a 6-2 sophomore point guard, were legitimate first-team candidates. But neither was so clearly better than the other that voters could separate them. In tandem, Azubuike and Dotson made KU great. Still, neither had otherworldly statistical production to back up his case.
KU, in Bill Self’s 17 seasons as head coach, has landed one player on the AP’s first team four times — and has never had two first-teamers in the same year. So getting both Azubuike (13.7 points per game, 10.5 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 74.8% shooting) and Dotson (18.1 points, 4.0 assists, 2.1 steals, 46.8% shooting) on the first team this year was never going to happen.
What would it have taken for one of KU’s stars to represent college basketball’s best team on the first tier? For one, voters valuing winning over individual numbers.
Along with college basketball’s breakout star, Toppin (20.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 63.3% shooting), every other member of the AP first team averaged at least 20 points per game. Iowa junior big man Luka Garza (23.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 54.2% field goals), Marquette senior guard Markus Howard (27.8 points, 3.3 assists, 41.2% 3-point shooting), Seton Hall senior guard Myles Powell (21.0 points, 2.9 assists) and Oregon senior guard Payton Pritchard (20.5 points, 5.5 assists, 41.5% 3-point shooting) all had gaudier statistics than KU’s two standouts.
Azubuike and Dotson had them all beat in the win-loss column, though. When the season ended abruptly because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Jayhawks were 28-3 and a near lock to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Toppin was the only first-teamer who could claim anything close to that, as he helped Dayton go 29-2 and be in position for a coveted No. 1 seed.
Seton Hall went 21-9 overall (13-5 Big East), and in ESPN’s most recent version of bracketology was a No. 3 seed. Oregon went 24-7 (13-5 Pac-12) and had a spot on the No. 4 line. Iowa was 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten) and a No. 6 seed. Marquette went 18-12 (8-10 Big East) and could’ve met KU in the second round as a No. 9 seed.
Did Garza, Powell, Howard and Pritchard all have more impactful seasons than Azubuike, whose defensive dominance and force of nature offensive presence inside helped KU become the favorite to win it all in 2020?
Were all four of them really more effective than Dotson, who was a blur on both ends of the floor and got to the paint for layups and drawn fouls more than many bigs, helping KU enter the canceled postseason on a 16-game winning streak?
It’s complicated, and there are nuances, and that’s why KU went without an AP first-teamer, even though, for instance, ESPN.com’s All-America lists from Jeff Borzello had both Azubuike and Dotson on the first team.
Some AP voters clearly recognized how great KU became because of its two stars. Dotson picked up 30 first-team votes and Azubuike had 22. Compare that to the first-team votes for the other three AP second-teamers and the respect is obvious. San Diego State’s Malachi Flynn had 12, Michigan State’s Cassius Winston picked up nine and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. garnered three.
The voting process gave Dotson 237 points and Azubuike 235, so they weren’t too far behind the final two members of the first team, Powell (37 first-team votes, 261 points) and Pritchard (37 first-team votes, 259 points). Toppin (325 points) was a unanimous selection. Garza (321 points) showed up on the first team on 63 ballots. Howard (279 points) received 43 first-team votes.
While there are far greater issues to worry about these days than college basketball honors, the relatively worst part of these second-team results for Azubuike and Dotson is they don’t have the chance to go out and prove themselves as first-team talents with most of America watching. Not that even that would’ve mattered much to those two. They were more invested in winning a national championship than individual numbers.
I̶t̶’̶s̶ ̶f̶i̶n̶a̶l̶l̶y̶ ̶h̶e̶r̶e̶.̶ ̶A̶f̶t̶e̶r̶ ̶f̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶m̶o̶n̶t̶h̶s̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶r̶e̶g̶u̶l̶a̶r̶ ̶s̶e̶a̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶g̶a̶m̶e̶s̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶a̶ ̶m̶u̶l̶t̶i̶t̶u̶d̶e̶ ̶o̶f̶ ̶c̶o̶n̶f̶e̶r̶e̶n̶c̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶u̶r̶n̶a̶m̶e̶n̶t̶s̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶N̶C̶A̶A̶ ̶T̶o̶u̶r̶n̶a̶m̶e̶n̶t̶ ̶h̶a̶s̶ ̶a̶r̶r̶i̶v̶e̶d̶.̶
Whoops. Guess not.
Full disclosure: The original version of this “16 teams that could win it all” piece was written a week in advance of what would’ve been Selection Sunday. That, of course, was before the world went topsy-turvy and the coronavirus pandemic canceled March Madness as we know it.
Even though there won’t be an NCAA Tournament in 2020, we thought it might be entertaining — and a decent distraction — to think about the would-be field and some of the teams that could have joined Kansas in the chase for this year’s national championship.
Many people considered the Jayhawks the favorites entering this year’s Big Dance. With 7-footer Udoka Azubuike controlling the paint on both ends of the floor, Devon Dotson blowing past defenders on the perimeter and Marcus Garrett locking up the opponent’s best player, KU entered the postseason on a 16-game winning streak.
And, of course, KU has a coach who knows a thing or two about winning during March Madness. Bill Self would have taken one of the best defensive teams he’s ever had into the 68-team field carrying a 38-15 record in NCAA Tournament games as KU’s head coach.
The Jayhawks thrived by grinding to wins throughout the past few months, a style that should’ve served them well in pursuit of a national title.
Most impressive victories: BYU (N), Dayton (N), at Stanford, at West Virginia, at Baylor, at Texas Tech
Troubling losses: None
Head coach Mark Few guided the Bulldogs to at least the Elite Eight in three of the past five tournaments. And, per usual, Gonzaga was bringing one of the most effective offenses in the country with it into March Madness.
The Zags threw six double-digit scorers at opponents, so it’s easy to see why they entered the postseason as the No. 1 scoring team in the nation (87.7 points per game).
At 6-foot-11, Filip Petrusev (17.8 points) led the way this this year, powered by his 56.5% field goal success. But he had plenty of backup, with Corey Kispert (14.3 points and 44.3% 3-point shooting), Killian Tillie (13.6 points), Admon Gilder (10.7 points), Joel Ayayi (10.3 points) and Ryan Woolrdige (10.1 points). Even their seventh-best scorer, Drew Timme, averaged 9.6 points.
Most impressive victories: Oregon (N), at Arizona, St. Mary’s twice
Troubling losses: None
The team KU spent much of January and February chasing, the Bears hit a relative rough patch late in the regular season, with two setbacks in their final four games. But one came against KU, and it’s important to remember the level BU played at for the vast majority of the season when considering its March Madness chances.
Just like KU, the Bears emerged as one of the stingiest defensive teams in the country.
In the regular season, opponents only shot 39.7% versus BU, with the defense of Mark Vital, Freddie Gillespie and Davion Mitchell doing much of the dirty work. And with guards like Jared Butler and MaCio Teague, the Bears could more than hold their own offensively, too.
Most impressive victories: Villanova (N), Arizona, Texas Tech twice, at Kansas, at Florida, West Virginia
Troubling losses: Washington (N), TCU
The Flyers only lost twice in the regular season and both came in overtime, on neutral courts no less.
As the Jayhawks learned back in November, at the Maui Invitational, there might not have been a more electric offensive player in the country than projected NBA lottery pick Obi Toppin.
A likely consensus first-team All-American, Toppin (20 points per game and 7.5 rebounds in the regular season), a 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, is the type of talent capable of carrying a team all the way to a national title.
With the help of Toppin’s 69.8% shooting on 2-point attempts, Dayton led the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, at 61.7%.
Most impressive victories: St. Mary’s (N), at St. Louis, at Richmond, at VCU, at Rhode Island
Troubling losses: None
Even though the Blue Devils opened the season with a victory over KU at the Champions Classic, they arguably headed into the postseason as a much better team. That tends to be the case with Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils lately, with so many talented freshmen relied upon year in and year out.
The latest one-and-done Duke star looks to be center Vernon Carey Jr. (17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 57.7% field goals), and with high-flying Cassius Stanley (12.6 points) energizing the Blue Devils they had more than one breakout freshman.
Yet it might be sophomore point guard Tre Jones (16.2 points, 6.4 assists) who tied it all together and would have helped determine how far Coach K’s latest title contenders could have gone.
Most impressive victories: Kansas (N), at Michigan State, Florida State
Troubling losses: Stephen F. Austin, at Clemson
The Spartans endured a rough stretch in February, during one of their more challenging portions of the schedule, and lost four of five games. Head coach Tom Izzo’s group seemed to come out on the other side of the experience better for it, though. MSU closed its regular season with five straight wins in the brutal Big Ten.
Izzo’s players always are associated with toughness and defense and this season was no different, with senior guard Cassius Winston (18.3 points, 5.9 assists) the feisty face of the team.
MSU held foes to 37.6% shooting from the floor and 28.7% on 3-pointers. Plus, the Spartans were one of just four teams who could claim they entered the postseason with a top-15 offense and defense, per KenPom.com. The others are KU, Duke and San Diego State.
Most impressive victories: at Seton Hall, at Illinois, at Maryland, at Penn State, at Ohio State
Troubling losses: Virginia Tech (N)
With Eudora’s own Mitchell Ballock firing away from 3-point range, the Bluejays had one of the most efficient offenses in the nation (No. 3 on KenPom.com).
A 6-5 junior guard, Ballock was the third-leading scorer for Creighton, but he was stretching defenses in ways few college players can. Ballock (11.9 points per game) attempted 6.9 3-pointers a game in his 31 starts during the regular season, and connected on 3.0 per game, giving him a robust 43.5% 3-point shooting percentage.
And he wasn’t even the most impactful offensive player in the Bluejays’ starting backcourt. Junior Ty-Shon Alexander (16.9 points) and sophomore Marcus Zegarowski (16.1 points, 5.0 assists) teamed with Ballock to form a dangerous trio.
Most impressive victories: Texas Tech (N), at Villanova, at Seton Hall, at Marquette
Troubling losses: None
San Diego State
The Aztecs dropped two of their six most recent games, but they opened the season 26-0.
SDSU achieved that phenomenal start and a spot among this season’s Final Four contenders with its stingy defense, holding foes to 38.7% shooting overall and 29.7% from 3-point range.
San Diego State also had a legit college basketball star in junior point guard Malachi Flynn, too. Flynn’s 17.6 points, 5.1 assists and 1.8 turnovers despite a high usage rate made him a very tough assignment for defenders.
And the Aztecs played at an extremely slow pace (332nd in tempo per KenPom.com), so they would have felt right at home in a defensive-minded, low possession, win-or-go-home setting.
Most impressive victories: at BYU, Creighton (N), at Utah State
Troubling losses: UNLV
Unlike a lot of contenders, the Cardinals actually had a lot of experience. Their top five scorers were all upperclassmen, with seniors Steven Enoch, Dwayne Sutton and Ryan McMahon all headed into what was set to be their last chance at the NCAA Tournament.
And on a balanced offensive team for coach Chris Mack, it was junior forward Jordan Nwora who gave opponents the most trouble. Nwora (18 points per game, 7.7 rebounds) got shot attempts at the rim with regularity but also scored from long range (76-for-189 on 3-pointers).
Most impressive victories: at Duke
Troubling losses: at Clemson
Another team that thrived on the power of its most experienced players, the Cougars’ top three scorers were all seniors and they all contributed at least 14 points per game for one of the country’s top offenses (No. 7 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com).
There weren’t many weaknesses in 6-8 senior forward Yoeli Childs’ game, and when he was healthy (he only played 18 games in the regular season) BYU went 16-2 and Childs produced 22.2 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists, while going 20-for-41 on 3-pointers.
Guards Jake Toolson (15.3 points, 4.0 assists) and TJ Haws (14.3 points, 5.8 assists) were strong playmakers, as well, giving BYU a trio that would keep opposing coaches up at night.
Most impressive victories: at Houston, Gonzaga
Troubling losses: at San Francisco, at Utah
With star senior guard Myles Powell, the Pirates had an exceptional offensive weapon. But they also had defenders inside to help them legitimize their candidacy as contenders.
While opponents had to worry about Powell (21 points per game, 2.9 assists, on one end of the floor, they couldn’t afford to forget about Seton Hall’s pair of shot blockers on the other end.
And it’s hard not to think about 7-2 senior center Romaro Gill if you’re a player about to enter the paint. The big man from Jamaica averaged 3.2 blocked shots per game. And if he wasn’t on the floor, odds are 7-2 sophomore Ike Obiagu would be. Obiagu averaged 1.2 blocks in only 10.5 minutes per game.
Most impressive victories: at Butler, at Villanova, at Marquette
Troubling losses: at Iowa State
Former KU guard and now Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon had an inside-outside duo that would leave most in his profession envious.
With a solid supporting cast around them, it was senior guard Anthony Cowen (16.2 points, 4.6 assists) and 6-10 sophomore forward Jalen Smith (15.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 54% shooting) carrying the Terrapins all season.
Maryland played a difficult schedule, and with a couple of stars who can produce, Turgeon had the pieces to make a run.
Most impressive victories: Ohio State, at Illinois, at Michigan State
Troubling losses: None
This wasn’t John Calipari’s deepest or most talented roster, but it’s hard to discount the Wildcats in March, especially when the field looked so open outside of a select few favorites.
UK, yet again, had a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick who is a one-and-done prospect in its starting lineup. This season that freshman was 6-3 guard Tyrese Maxey (14 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists).
But it was sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley (16.1 points, 4.2 rebounds) and junior forward Nick Richards (14 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 64.2% shooting) who looked a little more consistent for Kentucky.
Most impressive victories: Michigan State (N), Louisville, at Texas Tech, at LSU, at Florida
Troubling losses: Evansville, Utah (N), Tennessee
Under the radar as always in the ACC, the Seminoles became the type of defensive team Leonard Hamilton loves to coach.
Their 273 steals in the regular season ranked 15th in the country and they finished even higher — ninth — with their 162 blocks.
Trent Forrest (team-best 1.9 steals per game), Devin Vassell, Anthony Polite, Raiquan Gray and Patrick Williams all averaged at least one swipe per contest. Meanwhile, both Vassell and Williams averaged 1.0 blocks per outing, as FSU took a democratic approach to swatting shots.
A 6-8 freshman, Williams might be a first-round draft pick, and he didn’t even start for the Seminoles. A 6-6 guard, Vassell (12.7 points, 49% shooting) led a balanced scoring attack on this defense-first squad.
Most impressive victories: at Florida, Louisville twice
Troubling losses: at Pittsburgh, at Clemson
It never hurts in March Madness to have a versatile guard on your side. And the Ducks had one of the best around in 6-2 senior Payton Pritchard.
The veteran rarely left the floor, which meant the Ducks were almost always playing near an elite level offensively. A complete player, Pritchard averaged 20.5 points and 5.5 assists in the regular season, while shooting 41.5% on 3-pointers and 82.1% at the foul line.
Oregon was especially lethal offensively when its 3-point shooters were in a rhythm. And most of the time they were. The Ducks entered the postseason shooting 39.6% from deep. Chris Durate (12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds), Will Richardson (11 points, 46.9% on 3-pointers) and Anthony Mathis (8.5 points, 45.4% on 3’s) helped Pritchard keep the floor spread and the offense flowing.
Most impressive victories: Seton Hall (N), at Michigan, Arizona twice
Troubling losses: at Washington State, North Carolina (N)
Don’t let the Buckeyes’ 10 regular-season losses throw you off their scent. The Big Ten was loaded with would-be NCAA Tournament teams this season, so OSU, like so many of its fellow conference members, would have entered the madness with the benefit of being battle tested.
Advanced metrics like Ohio State more than your eyes might, as both KenPom.com and BartTorvik.com had the Buckeyes in the top 10 at the conclusion of the regular season.
OSU may not wow you, but coach Chris Holtmann’s team was just steady enough in a variety of areas to compete with any team it faced. And 6-9 junior Kaleb Wesson (14.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 43.3% 3-point shooting) gave OSU a versatile veteran to carry the team.
Most impressive victories: Villanova, Kentucky (N), at Michigan
Troubling losses: Minnesota
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.
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.