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
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.
As much as the Kansas basketball players who lived through Saturday’s second-round NCAA Tournament encounter with Auburn would like to wipe the night full of lowlight memories from their heads, that’s not the way season-ending defeats work.
These types of losses frustrate, linger and fester. But eventually the mental wounds begin to heal, and when that happens they can fuel players, too. For all the pain and disappointment that dominated the Jayhawks’ thoughts inside Vivint Smart Home Arena, first as Auburn ran away to advance to the Sweet 16, then in the locker room when the season’s finality hit the team’s leaders with an emotional knockout punch, their psyches will recover in the days ahead.
For the KU players who are both driven and plan on returning for another postseason run in 2020, this 14-point loss to Auburn in a game that felt like a 30-point Tigers lead much of the night has the potential to be a launching pad for an offseason of growth and improvement.
That’s really the only good thing about such brutal losses. Even when the sting downgrades from a 10 to more manageable level, it won’t go away for competitors. And because it will always be there for certain players, they’ll be reminding themselves the entire offseason that they need to push themselves harder in order to make sure this brand of heartache that they confronted in Slat Lake City doesn’t devastate them again.
Five-star prospects don’t sign with Kansas to lose in the tournament’s first weekend. This wasn’t what Devon Dotson envisioned for his first taste of March Madness. And when he couldn’t will the Jayhawks to some semblance of a rally versus Auburn, it crushed him.
The toll of goals unrealized first weighed on KU’s freshman point guard late in the inevitable defeat, as he sat on the bench and did his best to fight off tears — covering his mouth with a towel, attempting mask the raw emotions of the moment.
But Dotson couldn’t escape those feelings by leaving the floor after the final buzzer. They hovered over him in the postgame locker room, too. Upon taking his seat, Dotson slumped over. A towel soon draped over his head, as he powered through answers to reporters’ questions, pausing on several occasions to find some composure when the tears wouldn’t stop falling form his eyes.
“We’re all brothers. This team has an unbelievable bond,” Dotson said regarding the visibly shaken look the Jayhawks wore in the aftermath of the defeat. “We’d do anything for each other. At the end of the day, we just wanted to play for each other. It just hurts.”
Dotson must’ve uttered some variation of that last word at least a dozen times during postgame interviews, repeatedly shaking his head in disbelief, covering his face with his hand at times, and his eyes downcast most of the session.
While the future of his teammate Dedric Lawson is unknown at this juncture — Bill Self said after KU’s loss to Auburn that Lawson and others will have decisions to make regarding their chances of going pro — Lawson summed up the mood inside the locker room perfectly, describing the NCAA Tournament as something he and his teammates grew up dreaming about.
“And it went away so quick,” Lawson said.
The Auburn Tigers know that feeling. In 2018, their dreams of a March run were dashed by Clemson in the second round with a 31-point loss.
A year later, they were the experienced team crushing a second-round foe for a berth in the Sweet 16. The Tigers looked not only fast, but also experienced, as they buried the Jayhawks in the first half.
For Dotson and other members of the KU rotation who return, this dismantling at the hands of Auburn, impossible as it may have seemed while they endured it, could end up becoming a driving force within the team’s DNA when the Jayhawks try to redeem themselves in the 2020 tournament.
“It’ll definitely be beneficial,” Dotson said of the admittedly upsetting circumstances. “You know, us growing as a team and taking that next leap next year.”
While Dedric Lawson and his brother, K.J., and Quentin Grimes didn’t want to get into on Saturday whether they will be back for another go-round at The Big Dance, it doesn’t look like Dotson is going anywhere.
“I’m just heartbroken from this loss,” Dotson said, when asked what’s next for him, quickly adding he would turn his focus to the offseason and “getting better.”
If Dedric Lawson were to leave to pursue a professional career, this would immediately become Dotson’s team. Regardless of the pecking order, the point guard already is a program leader, and he’ll continue to grow in that role in the months between now and the start of his sophomore season.
Dotson is the most competitive player on KU’s roster. And now that he’s felt what an early exit from the NCAA Tournament is like, he’s not the type of athlete to let it happen again. If he has to become the lead guard who carries the Jayhawks he’ll do it. If he has to motivate his teammates as they work together toward something greater, he’ll do that, too.
The Jayhawks won’t ignore or forget their March shortcomings anytime soon. And if they try to, Dotson will be there to remind them that’s not an option.
Salt Lake City — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 89-75 loss to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas would need some form of life offensively in the first half to keep Auburn within reach, but didn’t come close to accomplishing that.
The Jayhawks’ season was all but over by halftime, after shooting 8-for-27 in the opening 20 minutes and turning the ball over 8 times. A 1-for-10 half from 3-point range derailed KU’s chances of keeping pace, too, as Auburn built an insurmountable 51-25 lead by intermission.
The offense was more tentative than assertive when KU needed to find a way to step up and match Auburn’s intensity.
While KU shot nearly 60% from the floor in the second half, it barely put a dent in the Tigers’ massive lead.
Auburn wanted to play fast and shoot 3-pointers, and the Jayhawks did nothing to stop the Tigers from doing so.
With Bryce Brown burying 3’s out of the gate, the SEC Tournament champions were the aggressors and KU didn’t come up with anything that would make them feel uncomfortable.
The Tigers sprinted to a 34-8 advantage in fast-break points and shot 52% from the floor to advance to the Sweet 16.
No one in a KU uniform was ready in the first half to counter Auburn’s energy. Even Dedric Lawson, who once again finished with a double-double (25 points, 10 rebounds), went 1-for-7 from the floor in the opening 20 minutes.
Freshman big David McCormack got off to a promising start, with 5 quick points, as well as 5 rebounds in the first half. But matchups and the game’s tempo dictated that Kansas had to play smaller, with four guards, and McCormack was the odd man out.
McCormack capped his freshman year with 11 points and 6 rebounds, plus a couple of assists.
Devon Dotson (13 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) tried to give KU some kind of spark early on, but couldn’t get going offensively until the second half.
Some defensive missteps by Quentin Grimes in the game’s opening minutes, as Auburn exploded to a big lead, drew the ire of Bill Self.
And Grimes (15 points, 5-for-11 shooting, 2 assists) got most of his stats in the second half, when Auburn’s ticket to Kansas City was basically already punched.
Ochai Agbaji again failed to get out of his late-season slump, going 1-for-5 from the floor and grabbing 1 rebound.
Marcus Garrett, too ill to join the team for Friday activities at the arena, didn’t appear to be back at full health. In 20 minutes, the sophomore guard provided 7 points and 3 rebounds, but seemed a little less quick.
K.J. Lawson was the only other substitute to score, and he put up his 2 points at the free throw line.
Mitch Lightfoot grabbed 2 rebounds in 10 minutes.
Salt Lake City — Thursday afternoon inside the Kansas locker room, shortly after the Jayhawks opened their path through the NCAA Tournament with a first-round victory over Northeastern, head coach Bill Self had a question for his players.
“Good job. Hey, guys. One down and how many to go?” Self asked.
A mixture of responses followed, with “five” being the overriding reply.
“One,” Self quickly corrected them, as seen in a video posted on KU’s social media accounts. “One down. One to go. Hey, hey. One down and one to go, OK? All right, good job.”
When it comes to March Madness, Self always prompts his teams to look at each stop along the way as its own, four-team, two-game tournament. If the Jayhawks win the first two-game tournament, they get to go somewhere else and try to win another.
Apparently at least a few players who grew up watching The Big Dance and came to KU with dreams of chasing a national championship got caught up in the moment, knowing six wins is what it takes to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
“That tells you the impact I’ve had on their lives, as far as them paying attention,” Self would joke after the fact.
So who was to blame? Who said five?
“I think I said five,” a smiling Dedric Lawson admitted Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, ahead of KU’s second-round matchup with Auburn. “I forgot it was a two-game tournament.”
And with that response, Lawson didn’t hesitate to use the conversation as an opportunity to mess with nearby teammate Charlie Moore, teasingly throwing him under the bus.
“It was really Charlie’s fault. Charlie, he play too much. He’s the one that made me say five,” a grinning Lawson continued. “But we all know it’s a two-game tournament, one game at a time and things like that, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Why was Moore at fault? What did he do?
“He play too much, man,” Lawson replied. “I ain’t even gonna say what he did.”
Learning that Lawson had just placed the blame on him, Moore provided his version of the story.
“That was definitely Dedric. I wasn’t gonna say nothing. But Dedric said five. If you’re listening closely to the video you’ll hear Dedric say it,” the smiling Moore insisted.
With Moore and Lawson cracking themselves up with their accusations, Moore’s assertion continued.
“Everybody said one. Dedric yelled five,” Moore argued. “He over-yelled everybody, ’cause he thought he was right. But he really wasn’t.”
Why did Lawson say it was Moore then?
“I was next to him. I don’t know why he said that,” Moore retorted.
As the allegations flew back and forth, the reactions from David McCormack, sitting in the locker stall between Lawson and Moore, indicated he knew something.
Asked for some insight, McCormack provided his opinion.
“I mean, you can never tell with these two. Between them, Marcus (Garrett), all of them, they all like to joke around,” McCormack said. “Maybe Charlie might have tapped Dedric … I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. He probably told him the right answer was five and everybody else said one.”
What was McCormack’s response to Self’s question?
“I took the smart route and I didn’t say anything. I just whispered to myself,” the freshman big explained, “and said one after the fact. So right or wrong, I just didn’t get called out.”
Whomever was to blame, McCormack said Lawson was “by far” the loudest to give the incorrect answer. But he wasn’t sure if there were others on Team Five.
“I just know I was standing next to Dedric, so he definitely said five,” McCormack said.
Surely veteran Mitch Lightfoot didn’t fail Self’s postgame locker room test, right?
“I don’t know what I said, to be honest,” Lightfoot claimed. “I’m not gonna self-incriminate, either. The next time he asks, we’ll be locked in on one.”
Of course, in order to do that the Jayhawks will have to get past Auburn on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to lock in for our second game of this one,” Lightfoot said, “and hopefully get to the next one.”
You can’t knock any of KU’s players for having large scale goals this time of year. The vibe the Jayhawks gave off in their locker room was one of confidence. They believe in themselves and their ability to make a deep run.
The incorrect “five” response that popped to the front of some players’ minds allowed them to have some fun along the way, too. But they all understand the crux of Self’s one down, one to go message.
“You can’t win five games if you don’t win one game,” Lightfoot said. “Slight issue.”
Salt Lake City — Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 87-53 win over Northeastern on Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Though the Jayhawks missed shots in the opening minutes, they were able to get out in front by securing second chances on the glass and getting out in the open floor for transition opportunities.
The Jayhawks’ burst of 7 consecutive fast-break points helped them lead 18-11 a little more than 8 minutes in.
KU’s clear advantage inside assured the No. 4 seed and favorite of easy points much of the first half.
After a low-turnover opening 20 minutes, KU coughed it up three times in the first three minutes of the second, allowing NU to trim KU’s lead to 7 quickly. However, the Jayhawks gave the Huskies a dose of their own medicine after a timeout, as both Quentin Grimes and Dedric Lawson drained a 3-pointer, and Lawson got back to work inside to give KU a 15-point advantage, its largest lead of the game at that point.
The Jayhawks dissected NU’s defense, shooting 56 percent from the field in a win that advanced them to a Saturday matchup with Auburn.
The Huskies’ 3-point attack proved effective right out of the gate in the first-round matchup, with Jordan Roland draining a couple and big man Tomas Murphy another to give the Vegas underdogs the start they wanted and a 3-for-5 mark from deep early.
Bill Self didn’t stick with his starting lineup or two-big look for long, though, and with four guards capable of defending the perimeter on the court, KU did a solid job in the first half of keeping Northeastern from getting hot from long range.
While the Huskies were able to get inside for looks, KU’s bigs did a nice job of staying active and making it less than automatic for NU in the paint, and the CAA postseason champs went 1-for-9 on layups and dunks in the first half.
NU’s season ended as KU limited the would-be Cinderella to 6-for-28 3-point shooting and 28-percent shooting overall.
Other than a defensive misstep here or there in the first half, Dedric Lawson gave KU exactly the type of first half it wanted out of its best player.
Lawson had 16 points and 7 boards by intermission, as well as a block and a steal as KU led 37-25 at the break.
KU’s go-to big entered the second half ready to resume his takeover. And once the Jayhawks got back on track by following his lead, Lawson was able to rest longer than usual for a stretch in the second half, en route to experiencing his first NCAA Tournament win in style, producing 25 points and 11 rebounds.
David McCormack started the game but only logged 11 minutes, many of them with the game basically over. KU played variations of its four-guard lineup through much of what turned into a rout and didn’t need its freshman big man much.
McCormack went scoreless but provided 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
It became evident within a few minutes that NU didn’t have a defensive answer for Devon Dotson, especially in the open floor.
The freshman point guard’s confidence and assertiveness with the ball in his hands allowed KU to avoid any real first-half scare or nerves.
Dotson routinely sped by defenders, both in transition and in the half court. Just the threat of what he could do opened up the floor for his teammates, as well.
Though Quentin Grimes went scoreless in 18 first-half minutes, his defense was usually spot on and he continued to be an important passer offensively. The freshman shooting guard finished 1-for-5 from 3-point range and provided 3 points and 3 assists.
Ochai Agbaji’s best energy plays came when he crashed the offensive glass for tip-ins in the second half as KU was in the process of putting Northeastern away.
While Agbaji started, he played 20 minutes, coming through with 13 points and 5 rebounds.
Marcus Garrett didn’t start, but it only took a couple minutes for Self to turn to his team-first glue guy and sixth man. One of KU’s smarter players on both ends of the court, Garrett gave the Jayhawks their first separation of the afternoon when he scored back-to-back layups, the second of which he created by stealing the ball near midcourt.
While Garrett (8 points, 5 rebounds) was solid it was K.J. Lawson who stole the show off the bench.
K.J.’s first few minutes off the bench weren’t great, but that didn’t discourage him one bit. His assertiveness picked up when NU totally ignored him on a fast break for an easy layup in the first half and that seemed to empower him.
KU needed an offensive boost from someone off the bench and, boy, was K.J. the man for that job. The tough-nosed redshirt sophomore contributed 13 points and 3 rebounds.
KU’s old man, junior big Mitch Lightfoot, gave the victors 5 points and 7 rebounds.
Salt Lake City — Since the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled on Sunday evening it’s proven difficult to mention Northeastern basketball without also bringing up the Huskies’ 3-point shooting.
Hey, when your four starting guards all shoot about 40 percent from deep, that’s pretty hard to ignore.
But the No. 13 seed Huskies aren’t just gunners. The team’s glue guy and the player that could be the key to Northeastern slowing down Kansas in the first round on Thursday afternoon is Shawn Occeus, the Colonial Athletic Association’s 2018 Defensive Player of the Year.
So does all that 3-point talk irk the team’s 6-foot-4 defensive stopper?
“I mean, that’s the game. That’s what it is today. It’s turned into a 3-point shooting game,” Occeus said Wednesday inside the Huskies’ locker room. “I don’t need no credit for anything.”
He’ll get it on Thursday if his work on that end of the floor helps Northeastern pull off the upset.
Whether Occeus, who comes off the bench, ends up drawing the assignment of guarding Dedric Lawson or one of KU’s guards remains to be seen. He was coy about the game plan a day ahead of the No. 3 versus No. 14 matchup in the Midwest region.
“It’s not up to me who I'm going to guard. It is up to the coach. I'm willing to guard anyone on the court, obviously,” Occeus said, when asked whether he would defend Lawson. “He is a great player. He could do a lot of things on the perimeter and the post. For us, we're going to stick to the game plan, watch a lot of film on him and just pick out his weaknesses and stuff. Like I said before, he is a great player. We are confident it won't be one person that will hold him to his averages. It will be everybody, it will be a whole team effort and we will look forward to that.”
Various members of the Huskies have said they are better as a defensive unit with Occeus on the court. The junior defender, who missed 19 games during the regular season due to injuries, takes pride in creating turnovers.
“Ever since I was a little kid I always loved stealing the ball. I used to play football and I was always on the defensive end. I always loved getting interceptions and stuff like that,” said Occeus, who averages 1.4 steals per game for his career. “So when I’m out there on the court obviously I don’t gamble for steals — I’m not trying to chase stats or anything like that. I’m just aggressive. I’m just playing my game.”
Back during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Northeastern (23-10) beat Alabama, but lost other marquee matchups against Virginia Tech, Davidson (twice) and Syracuse.
Occeus didn’t get to play in any of those games.
“Personally, it was very tough, because I looked forward to playing against those teams. I felt like last year for me was a good year. I felt like I got my foot in the door in terms of feeling like I belong in college basketball. So I wanted to prove — we wanted to prove — we’re a good team and a team to be reckoned with,” said Occeus, who is averaging 10.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in 14 appearances as a junior.
“So being out and missing those games, it definitely sucked. But I knew that I was gonna get my chance in the season still to prove that point, and I think I did so in the (CAA) tournament. And I’m gonna continue to do so, regardless of what happens,” he said.
While watching those games in November and December, Occeus observed instances in which he knew his presence would have helped.
“Seeing guards and point guards be able to score the ball as much as they did, I mean, obviously being the player and competitor that I am, I care about defense and stuff like that. Seeing that ticked me off,” he revealed.
Over the course of the year, six of Northeastern’s 10 losses came without Occeus. After watching helplessly for so much of the year, Occeus now has a chance to help the Huskies achieve their greatest victory of the season, and the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since its last Big Dance bid, in 2015.
Is it safe to say that Northeastern, a team that struggled to get stops through much of the regular season and is ranked 144th in defensive efficiency by kenpom.com, will look different against KU than it did against its non-conference Power Five foes a few months ago?
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” a cautious Occeus said. “We can’t just say that we are or that we’re not. At the same time, we do feel confident knowing that a lot of guys are healthy and ready to play. We’re not gonna go in there intimidated or scared. We know each other’s tendencies, and the chemistry and maturity of this team is at an all-time high.”
Salt Lake City — On Thursday afternoon at Vivint Smart Home Arena, seven members of the Kansas basketball team’s rotation will experience the NCAA Tournament — and all the nerves and pressure and highs and lows that accompany it — for the first time.
It was two years ago, in Tulsa, Okla., that Mitch Lightfoot found out exactly what that entails.
“It was UC-Davis,” Lightfoot recalled on Wednesday afternoon inside the Jayhawks’ locker room, stretching his 6-foot-8 frame backward and looking up at the ceiling as he focused to access the portion of his memory bank where that information lives.
“My freshman year. I was guarding their best player. I remember it was Christian something? I think,” Lightfoot guessed, taking an unsuccessful stab at the exact name of his defensive assignment two years and 72 career games later.
Lightfoot was less cloudy on other details surrounding what proved to be some unsuccessful initial moments for him against Chima Moneke. (Don’t pretend like you remembered the name of UC-Davis’ best big from 2017, either.)
“And we won, obviously. And he got a dunk. And that’s all I remember, because I was really pissed off, because I gave up a dunk in the NCAA Tournament,” Lightfoot said of his introduction to college basketball’s grand March stage.
Back then, Lightfoot played sparingly as a reserve for a deep KU team seeded No.1 in the Midwest Region. Sure, his breakdown while hedging on a ball screen in his first minute of March Madness action led to a dunk. But it also came in the second half of a game that KU already led by 40.
That group of Jayhawks had senior and National Player of the Year Frank Mason III on which to lean. The following March, when Mason was a rookie in the NBA, KU’s less seasoned players still had All-American Devonte’ Graham to carry them.
Lightfoot came up as a role player on those KU teams that had dominant star senior guards. Now, as a junior and a backup, he’s the savvy veteran of the locker room. The wise, old man of the bunch who should have all the answers.
“It’s a little different going from feeling like you’re just the youngin’, soaking it all in, to being the guy that helps all the other guys out, getting used to the tournament, what it’s like to play in it, being around this environment,” said Lightfoot, who enters KU’s first-round encounter against Northeastern with seven games of NCAA Tournament experience and two starts.
With Udoka Azubuike sidelined and Lagerald Vick no longer being a part of the team, the role was somewhat thrust upon Lightfoot. But that hasn’t made it any less rewarding for him.
“You get to bide your time and now you get to impart a little bit of what you learned onto the other guys,” Lightfoot said.
While the backup big who averaged 13.4 minutes a game during Big 12 play is known most for his defense in the paint and the energy he provides with his blocked shots (32) and team-leading 14 charges drawn, Lightfoot is just as valuable off the court for this roster, with seven of its top eight scorers — Dedric Lawson, Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Quentin Grimes, David McCormack, Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson — about to play in their first NCAA Tournament game.
Lightfoot has done his best to mentally prepare them for what’s to come before the ball is tipped and there they are, to steal a line from the tournament’s theme song.
“I’ve tried to do it on my own initiative, just because that’s what I would’ve wanted in their position,” Lightfoot said. “You come to this level of basketball, this is what you want to play in — this is the stage you want to be on. Obviously, you want to win at this stage, so I was just giving them some tips and pointers on what we’ve done in the past and what has helped us to win at this level. I’m just excited to be able to get out there and play with these guys and see what we’re capable of doing.”
At some point during Thursday afternoon’s first-round matchup, some tournament newbie from No. 4 seed Kansas (25-9) inevitably will make a mistake, maybe even one that leads to a dunk, like Lightfoot did a couple years ago. And with No. 14 seed Northeastern (23-10) looking to pounce and win over a neutral crowd in such instances, the way KU’s players react when something goes awry could end up playing a large role in the outcome of this game.
In Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who played in all five of KU’s 2018 postseason games, the Jayhawks have a couple of players who can prepare their less experienced teammates. Lightfoot said there are ways to convey some know-how on what it feels like to make a mistake, as well as the need to find a proper response.
“I was talking to a couple of the younger guys. It’s amplified,” Lightfoot explained. “It’s like everything you’ve done times five. And you get a complete — I wouldn’t say it’s a different feeling — but it’s that feeling times five. There’s a lot of joy and there’s a lot of heartache in this tournament. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Just trying to keep everybody on the same page.”
Both Lightfoot and Garrett have helped the rest of the rotation get as ready as possible for the brand new and potentially stressful situation before the tournament has a chance to smack the four freshmen and three transfers over the head.
“They do a good job of coming to practice, having energy, talking, helping guys out,” Dedric Lawson said of Lightfoot and Garrett, adding he watched Lightfoot spend a portion of Wednesday helping McCormack out with details of the scouting report for Northeastern. “They definitely put their imprint upon the game.”
Of course, Lightfoot is always in his teammate’s ears about something that will end up helping them, either that very day or down the line.
“Mitch tells me before every game, ‘Go out there and do your thing.’ It goes along with you, your teammate having your back,” Lawson said. “I think (Lightfoot and Garrett) are definitely important. I’m looking for them to have their impact on this tournament just as much as me.”
Admittedly, Lightfoot called it “crazy” that he and Garrett were the only two active Jayhawks in the locker room with NCAA Tournament experience. But according to his veteran eyes, this relatively inexperienced KU team is “extremely locked in” and peaking at the right time.
The junior forward who grew up cheering for the Jayhawks from afar each postseason will continue doing all he can to educate his teammates on all things March. Part of Lightfoot’s message has echoed that of his coach, Bill Self, in terms of playing without any distractions.
Just as important, though, Lightfoot offered, will be playing loose.
“This is the most fun you’re ever going to have playing basketball. There’s nothing better than this,” Lightfoot said. “Your state championship, your state tournament in high school doesn’t match up with this. The AAU doesn’t match up with this. This is truly unique. And I think everyone’s excited to get out there and play in it. And I think they’re ready to have a good time.”
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.
Anyone who has spent spare time during the past couple of months checking in on the always fluid NCAA Tournament bracket projections by now knows the destinations by heart.
First- and second-round games will be played next week in San Jose, Calif.; Hartford, Conn.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Des Moines, Iowa; Columbus, Ohio; Tulsa, Okla.; Columbia, S.C.; and Salt Lake City, Utah.
So where will the University of Kansas men’s basketball team be sent? That all depends on what happens in a few days in Kansas City, Mo.
As of Monday afternoon, ESPN projected Kansas as a No. 4 seed in the East region, playing in Hartford. CBS Sports also forecasted KU on the 4 line in the East, but had the Big 12’s third-place team opening the tournament out west, in San Jose. The Athletic, meanwhile, deemed the Jayhawks a 4 seed in the West regional, with their March Madness road beginning in Des Moines.
The man who will be coaching the Jayhawks in one of those cities or another hasn’t exactly come across as distraught about any of this.
"People have said that we may not be playing close (to Lawrence). To be honest, I don't care,” Bill Self said Monday during his press conference inside Allen Fieldhouse.
What Self is concerned with, though, is getting more out of his Jayhawks (23-8) this month than he did during an, at times, hectic regular season.
Asked if he had an idea about what KU would need to accomplish at this week’s Big 12 tournament to assure itself of a shorter trip for the opening round of the Big Dance, Self didn’t venture into specifics, but gave the sense that he expects the Jayhawks should be in good shape geographically if they avoid disaster in Kansas City.
“If you're a 3 seed, you’re going to be playing close. If you're a 4 seed, the chances are you're probably going to play close — now close meaning Des Moines or Tulsa — but it's not a definite,” he added. “If you're a 1 or 2, it's a lock.”
There are far too many teams in front of the Jayhawks for even a Big 12 tournament title to skyrocket them to such a favorable position. While seeding on Selection Sunday won’t be decided by the NCAA’s new NET rankings alone, KU enters this week at No. 20 on that list used to sort the nation’s best basketball teams.
Obviously that number — and KU’s NCAA seed line — could take a hit, too, should Kansas come out and drop its Thursday night quarterfinal versus Texas.
“So, we've got a lot of work to do,” Self stressed, while discussing his team’s postseason travels beyond this week. “We could certainly fall out of favor with that.”
If the NCAA’s selection committee still used the RPI as a go-to gauge, KU would be in great shape. That formula ranks Kansas No. 1 in the nation, with the No. 1 strength of schedule to boot.
The Jayhawks, of course, could help their standing in the eyes of the committee and in the NET rankings by adding wins to their resume in KC. Eight of the Big 12’s 10 teams rank in the top 50 of the NET, with the only outliers being No. 82 Oklahoma State and No. 110 West Virginia. And Kansas isn’t likely to meet either of them.
Big 12 teams in NET top 50:
No. 9 Texas Tech
No. 20 Kansas
No. 23 Iowa State
No. 24 Kansas State
No. 36 Baylor
No. 39 Texas
No. 40 Oklahoma
No. 47 TCU
A victory over any team not named OSU or WVU at Sprint Center would be what the selection committee refers to as a Quadrant 1 win — a home victory over a team ranked in the NET top 30, a neutral site win against a foe ranked in the NET top 50 or a road win versus an opponent ranked in the NET top 75.
Kansas entered Monday with a 10-7 record in Quadrant 1 games, ranking Self’s team behind only Virginia (11-2) and Michigan State (11-4) in Q1 wins, and tied with Kentucky (10-4) for third most.
“We have an opportunity to get, I think, three more quadrant one wins this week — so does everyone else in the tournament, as well,” Self pointed out. “It would be hard to put us too far down if we lead the country in quadrant one wins and, you know, have played the hardest schedule and all those things.”
Self could be proven wrong, he’s not buying the idea that the selection committee is planning on shipping Kansas to some first-round outpost that won’t be a manageable drive for the program’s fan base.
“I think whether or not we travel will be determined on how we play this weekend,” he said.
No matter how things go for the Jayhawks at Sprint Center on Thursday (and maybe Friday and Saturday), though, don’t count on them being able to return there two weeks from now for the Midwest Regional.
Self isn’t expecting the selection committee to reward the Jayhawks to that extent. Whatever seed line KU ends up on, it is far more likely to be in the South, West or East regions.
“Would I like that? Absolutely,” Self said of a Midwest assignment and potential Sweet 16 game at Sprint Center on March 29. “But the reality of that happening, that may not be. You wouldn't want to put us as a 4 seed in Kansas City where there's a No. 1 seed, potentially. That wouldn't be fair to the 1 seed. So I get that that's probably not going to happen. But we'll see. Who knows?"