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.
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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
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. — Prompted Thursday night after his Big 12 tournament debut to take a trip down his personal March Madness Memory Lane, Dedric Lawson’s roots popped up.
A native of Memphis, Tenn., and, of course, a former Memphis Tiger himself, it came as no surprise that his hometown college basketball program left quite an impression on him as a child.
Though Lawson said he didn’t run around Memphis as a youngster wearing a Derrick Rose or Chris Douglas-Roberts jersey, those were his two favorite players when he first started following the game closely.
The Memphis basketball program really began to take off under then-head coach John Calipari when Lawson was in elementary school, and Lawson found himself drawn most to Douglas-Roberts, a versatile small forward not too dissimilar from the player Lawson would grow to become.
“He was more of like a 3,” Lawson said of why as a child he chose the 6-foot-7 Douglas-Roberts as his favorite player instead of the explosive point guard, Rose. “I met those guys when they were at Memphis. We used to go around the program and things like that. They was real cool. Robert Dozier (a Tigers big man), he was real, real cool, too.”
Years later, when Lawson was a member of the Memphis program, playing his first season under coach Josh Pastner and his second for Tubby Smith, some of those Tigers he grew up admiring would come back around.
“We played pickup together and things like that. Those were cool people,” Lawson said.
And with Memphis basketball so much a part of his DNA, Lawson couldn’t help but laugh about the fact that his favorite childhood team lost to Kansas in the 2008 national championship game.
Lawson was 10 years old when the man who is now his head coach, Bill Self, guided the Jayhawks to an overtime victory against Calipari and Memphis.
Was he bitter at the time?
“I definitely was,” a smiling Lawson admitted, adding he remembers it like it was yesterday.
Perhaps unfortunately for Lawson and those old March Madness scars from his time as a fan, he gets a reminder of that pain before every KU home game, when the hype video plays a clip of Mario Chalmers’ iconic 3-pointer that sent the 2008 title game to OT.
“I’m cool with it now,” a laughing Lawson shared. “I’m a part of both cultures. There’s not really too much bitterness no more. And Mario, he’s a cool guy, as well. It was great for Mario. It was something great that happened for him, something sad that happened for Memphis.”
Of course, Lawson and the Jayhawks aim to create their own March Madness memories this weekend and beyond. And right now, their focus is on Friday night’s semifinal at Sprint Center, where they will meet up with an unlikely foe, No. 10 seed West Virginia.
Lawson couldn’t have imagined before the Big 12 tournament began that KU would be facing the Mountaineers.
“Nah. We was definitely expecting Tech,” Lawson said. “Of course, everybody probably was. Just to kind of play them again — we lost to them by like 20 — so we wanted to play against them guys again,” he added, referencing KU’s 91-62 loss at Texas Tech on Feb. 23.
“But it’ll definitely be a competitive game,” Lawson said of facing a WVU team that upset Kansas in Morgantown, W.Va., back in January. “They’re not gonna quit. They’re gonna come out playing with a lot of intensity and very hard.”
In an NCAA Tournament clash featuring two of college basketball’s most thriving programs, a fleeting moment during a dead ball situation became as memorable as any highlight-reel jam or crucial late-game basket Sunday, in Tulsa, Okla.
Well on his way to going down as one of those transcendent Kansas basketball stars, senior point guard Frank Mason III drove to the basket for a first-half lay-in like he has umpteen times over the course of the past four seasons. On this particular strike, the 5-foot-11 dynamo left his counterpart, Michigan State guard Tum Tum Nairn, in a heap out of bounds.
In the aftermath of the play, Mason remained near the baseline waiting for the game to resume. That irked Nairn’s freshman teammate, Miles Bridges, who stepped chest-to-chest with Mason to let him know about it.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bridges stared down a good eight inches into Mason’s eyes. KU’s uncompromising, 185-pound leader didn’t as much as blink — almost as if to say, “Bridges, I’m Frank Mason.”
Mason plays at an All-American level nearly every time he steps on the court for Kansas, and that’s one of many reasons the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory over the Spartans. His bravado, though, as seen when the bigger Bridges tried harassing Mason, gives the Jayhawks an edge, as well.
Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said each of Mason’s teammates know they go to battle with a point guard who won’t show any fear, regardless of his stature.
“We’re all one team, one unit. We’re gonna feed off each other. We fed off of him,” Lucas said, describing how Mason’s interaction with Bridges fired up the Jayhawks.
A predictable smile covered Devonte’ Graham’s face when reminded of Bridges’ failed bullying attempt.
“My boy Frank is not going for none of that,” Mason’s backcourt mate said. “He’s not intimidated by anybody. He thinks he can guard LeBron, so nobody’s gonna intimidate him.”
Watching the scene from the bench at the time, backup big man Dwight Coleby said Mason’s cohorts knew he wasn’t about to back down.
“We was hyped. I was watching like, ‘Yeah,’” Coleby recalled, clapping for emphasis. “‘Let’s go. Let’s go.’”
Lucas revealed the Jayhawks heard plenty of trash talk during their second-round victory. No one ever would accuse Tom Izzo of failing to fully prepare his Michigan State basketball players for any game, let alone one in the postseason. So it must’ve been the Spartans’ idea to try and get in the heads of Mason and his KU teammates. And Bridges’ ploy flatlined.
“I think that’s silly if you’re trying to intimidate Frank,” Lucas said, “because that’s not gonna happen very often. Especially from a freshman. We’ve been through this before. We’ve been through a lot of things and that’s the last thing we’re worried about.”
Bill Self’s Kansas teams often are associated with their toughness, and no one on this year’s roster personifies that trait more than Mason.
“I think we all play with a lot of pride. We all believe in each other, and I think it starts with coach,” Mason said when asked about KU’s grit. “He really gets on to us in practice and he make us compete. And you know, it just carries on to the games. And I’m just proud of the way my teammates played and the great job that my coaches did.”
The image of Mason standing up to Bridges was a lasting one for anyone who saw the game, as well as the Petersburg, Va., native himself. KU’s Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy candidate posted a photo of Bridges’ scare tactic on Instagram after the game, dismissing the notion that someone’s chatter would rattle him.
“I’m about action,” Mason wrote, “like a movie.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Going into any given game, Kansas backup big man Dwight Coleby never knows how much — or how little — head coach Bill Self will decide to use him.
Twelve times so far during his junior season, the 6-foot-9 reserve from Nassau, Bahamas, never ventured to the scorer’s table to check in for the Jayhawks. So one can imagine his surprise and delight when Coleby, after watching the entire first half of KU’s second-round matchup with Michigan State from the bench Sunday at BOK Center, heard his name called in the midst of a tight second half, in the NCAA Tournament.
What began as an opportunity to give starting center Landen Lucas a breather evolved into a much larger responsibility when Lucas picked up his third foul midway through the second half. Before long, Coleby, who entered the game averaging 5.1 minutes and 1.7 points on the season, began finishing defensive stops with rebounds and extending possessions with offensive boards.
Few would have predicted as much prior to tip-off, but Coleby played as big a part in Kansas advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory as anyone wearing a KU uniform.
“He saved my career,” senior center Lucas said after his understudy contributed three points, four rebounds and a steal in 9 second-half relief minutes. “He made some big plays. I’m not trying to go home. We’re trying to win a championship and that’s what it takes, guys being ready and he was ready.”
Two days earlier, Coleby only logged seven minutes in a game that never was in doubt versus UC-Davis, in the opening round. Though he fully understands his role with the team, the backup big said he always hopes to earn more time.
“It’s the brightest stage and I want to play,” Coleby said, when asked how he stays mentally focused while never being sure what will be asked of him, “so I’m just ready the whole time.”
A studious observer, he doesn’t mind doing much of his research from his seat on the bench.
“I just watch Landen, and everything he does and how he defends,” Coleby shared. “Whatever he does, I just try to pick up on it and ask him questions.”
It’s a quality that can be difficult to master but Coleby said he felt prepared long before his coach called his name.
Listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds, Coleby looks more the part of a prototypical Michigan State post player than KU sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. During one second-half sequence, Bragg couldn’t finish over MSU’s Nick Ward after snagging an offensive rebound. When the teams switched ends of the floor, Ward posted up Bragg, spun off him for a layup and a foul, and cut KU’s lead to four.
Bragg only spent one minute on the court in the second half, and Self said after the victory he probably should have went to Coleby even sooner.
“One thing about Dwight, he's not that tall, but he is strong and can hold his position,” said Self, echoing words he often has used while praising Lucas. “And I thought he did a really nice job of holding his position. And also, his ball-screen defense was super, probably as good as any big guy we had today.”
Exerting yourself while college basketball fans across the country are watching sure beats Coleby’s usual contributions.
“It was great to be in and actually help the team,” Coleby said, wearing a huge smile in the locker room. “All the celebration with the bench is cool and all, but actually being on the court and doing it, it’s way much better.”
After a moment in the postseason spotlight, Coleby said he could feel the crowd’s excitement growing with his hustle plays, which also fueled his teammates in a crucial stretch of the win.
“Yeah, everybody was hyped and jumping up and down,” Coleby said of the support he saw. “It lifted us up, so that was great.”
Lucas told Coleby and the rest of his KU teammates before the game they should be prepared for anything. Clearly Coleby listened.
“It obviously takes a pretty strong mental person to be able to do that,” Lucas said of Coleby’s approach, “and he showed us today he’s prepared for that. And that’s great to see moving forward.”
Added Coleby: “We just needed energy and I brought it.”
Jamari Traylor has watched closely from nearby as a Kansas basketball team made a deep run through the postseason. An NCAA partial qualifier, Traylor sat out his first year in Lawrence, only practicing in the spring semester with what turned out to be a Final Four squad.
But the senior power forward from Chicago never has personally contributed to anything better than a Sweet 16 berth for KU in 2013, his freshman season. Back then, Traylor didn’t have Bill Self’s trust like he does now. Traylor played a combined 13 minutes as the Jayhawks moved past Western Kentucky and North Carolina, and lost to Michigan. He took three shots, made two of them, scored four points, but didn’t even collect a rebound.
Each of the following two seasons, Traylor’s role increased, but Kansas faltered early in March Madness, exiting with just a single tourney victory in both 2014 and 2015.
Traylor, like the most of his teammates, struggled to score inside (1-for-8 shooting) in a 60-57 second-round loss to Stanford his sophomore year, two days after dominating against Eastern Kentucky, with 17 points and 14 boards.
As a junior, Traylor’s season concluded with him contributing four points (2-for-5 shooting) and five rebounds off the bench as KU lost, 78-65, to Wichita State.
Those back-to-back Round of 32 losses don’t fall solely on Traylor’s broad shoulders, of course. KU’s core of veterans — Perry Ellis, Wayne Selden Jr. and Frank Mason III — also played key roles in those season-ending head-scratchers. But Traylor takes ownership in the program’s successes and shortcomings. That’s one reason why, as the Jayhawks head into the postseason this March, the 6-foot-8 leader senses this team can actually live up to KU’s lofty expectations.
“It’s pretty much a different feeling,” Traylor said of the vibe, compared to the other KU teams he has played for. “I feel like we’ve got a group of guys who’s a little more hungry. We’ve tasted defeat in the postseason, so we know what’s around the corner for us. I’m a senior now. Perry’s a senior now. So we know it’s our last opportunity, so we’re more locked in.”
Even before the season began, Traylor thought the final Kansas team he played on could be as good defensively as the one he watched reach the 2012 national championship game.
What’s more, the closer the KU’s veterans get to the NCAAs, the better their defense looks. In Big 12 play, the Jayhawks held opponents to 39.2% shooting. No other team registered better than 42.9% — by both West Virginia and Oklahoma State.
KU’s improving defensive effort, coinciding with the emergence of junior big man Landen Lucas, is a sign of the hunger Traylor described.
“As a younger team, I guess guys probably could feel like we could come back next year or come back the year after,” Traylor explained of the more youthful KU rosters who fell short in past postseasons. “We don’t have that opportunity. I feel like we’re more focused in and we’ve just gotta be in tune, because we know one bad mistake or one bad game we can be over.”
In March, intangibles tend to push teams closer to a Final Four. Self pointed to an immeasurable characteristic when asked what he admired most about this year’s Jayhawks.
“I would say, I would probably never give my teams that much credit for being pretty tough, but I think they are pretty tough in crucial situations,” Self said. “I think that they usually — not always — usually rise to the level of what needs to be done at that particular moment, and, you know, they like each other.”
Ellis may be best known for his soft shooting touch from inside and outside, but Traylor noticed the team’s leading scorer getting tough in the final minutes of KU’s regular-season finale, an 85-78 home victory over Iowa State.
“He’s just a winner,” Traylor said of Ellis. “The last play you could tell, because he put it all out there. He dove on the court. It was the defining moment for the game. It just shows how much you want to win if you do that.”
Traylor, Ellis, Selden and Mason all will have plenty of chances, beginning this weekend at the Big 12 Tournament, to prove with their play if March victories mean even more to them now than they did in the past.
Try to remember the last time someone told you, "The Big 12 is a great basketball league," and you completely agreed.
Hopefully that happened sometime around 2002 to 2004. Because, in terms of overall NCAA Tournament success for the league as a whole, that statement hasn't exactly held true in about a decade.
Quick. Name the last men's basketball team from the Big 12 besides Kansas University to reach the Final Four.
Playing this game in my head, I went to Rick Barnes' 2003 Texas team, led by dynamic, though slight, guard T.J. Ford. Somehow, I skipped over Eddie Sutton's 2004 Oklahoma State team, featuring Tony Allen's amazing all-around game and the at times unstoppable offense of John Lucas.
Point being: It's been a while. It was 10 years ago that a Big 12 team not coached by Bill Self advanced all the way to the Final Four. When Sutton took the Cowboys, Self had just completed his first season at KU.
In the Big 12 men's basketball season review, sent to media from the conference in April, the league highlights its postseason accolades, including its seven bids in the 2014 tourney. And rightfully so. Seventy percent of the conference went dancing and each program got in with a single-digit seed.
But not a one of them — not even Kansas — could make it beyond the Sweet 16 this year. Of course, only two, Iowa State and Baylor, even survived that long.
The Big 12 failed to reach the Elite Eight in 2005 and 2013, as well. But the more telling statistic regarding the league's ability outside of Kansas to contend for a national championship lies in the number of Final Four appearances in the past 10 tournaments by conference teams who don't wear crimson and blue: zero.
In that same span, Kansas reached the sport's ultimate showcase in 2008 and 2012. Meanwhile…
• The old Big East sent six programs — Georgetown, Connecticut, Villanova, West Virginia (now in the Big 12), Louisville and Syracuse — to the Final Four.
• The Big Ten? Five: Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin.
• The SEC checks in with three: Florida, LSU and Kentucky.
• Three different leagues have produced two representatives: the ACC (North Carolina and Duke), Conference USA (Louisville and Memphis) and even the Colonial Athletic Association (George Mason and VCU).
That leaves the Big 12 in the same tier as the former Pac 10 (UCLA), the Horizon League (former team Butler) and the Missouri Valley Conference (Wichita State), with one program representing their leagues at the Final Four from 2005 to 2014.
Don't forget. No league in the country has reached the same stratosphere as the storied American Athletic Conference, which hasn't existed without one of its teams winning the national championship (Connecticut).
When the Big 12 boasts it is among the national leaders in Final Four appearances, it uses data form 2002 to present. In 2002, both Oklahoma — then coached by Kelvin Sampson — and Kansas made it, and in 2003, KU and Texas represented the league.
That just reads better than the facts from the past 10 years: two appearances, one school.
As long as the flawed RPI exists, Big 12 coaches will continue to reference that as proof their league is one of the toughest around. The Big 12 had the best RPI in the nation this past season. Same goes for 2009-10. It has ranked in the top three in conference RPI seven of the past 10 years.
Big 12 RPI rank, past 10 seasons
— (Source: statsheet.com)
A lot of good that did in a decade's worth of NCAA Tournaments.
The Big 12 rarely has disappointed in January and February, when games are exciting to watch, KU inevitably finishes first and that year's crop of other top dogs beat each other up just enough to lag behind the Jayhawks.
But, really, could one team win the regular-season title — outright or a share of it — 10 years in a row if the league truly was great?
Maybe Texas can end the rest of the Big 12's slump in March of 2015. Barnes' chances improved immensely when KU target Myles Turner, a 6-foot-11 center from Euless, Texas, announced he'll stay in state and join UT's talented Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Demarcus Holland, Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix as a member of the Longhorns.
Final Four representatives, by conference, 2005-14
Big East: Connecticut (2), Louisville (2), Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova and West Virginia.
Big Ten: Michigan State (3), Ohio State (2), Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.
SEC: Florida (3), Kentucky (3) and LSU.
ACC: North Carolina (3) and Duke.
Conference USA: Louisville and Memphis.
Colonial Athletic Association: George Mason and VCU.
Big 12: Kansas (2).
Pac 10: UCLA (3).
Horizon League: Butler (2).
American Athletic Conference: Connecticut.
Missouri Valley: Wichita State.