Saturday, March 23, 2019

Benton Smith: No miracle March run for Dedric Lawson and Jayhawks

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) has his shot rejected by Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (5) during the first half on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) has his shot rejected by Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (5) during the first half on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.


Salt Lake City — On a Kansas basketball team devoid of both senior stars and heavy March experience, the Jayhawks would only go as far in this NCAA Tournament as a junior transfer could carry them.

Although Dedric Lawson’s first shining moment two days earlier made it seem as if the Jayhawks just may have some sort of run in them this postseason, there would be no Danny and The Miracles reboot 31 years after the original. No chance to bust some brackets in Kansas City, Mo. Not even a trip to Sprint Center for the Sweet 16.

Auburn made sure of that Saturday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Swift with their feet, strong with their frames and the way they bodied Lawson in the paint and confident in their game plan to stifle the Jayhawks’ top scorer early, the Tigers’ bigs knocked Lawson and the Jayhawks out of the tournament before they even had a chance to make any lasting March memories.

The complete meltdown in the first half of what ended up being an 89-75, season-ending loss in the second round featured too many KU mistakes on both ends of the floor to count.

The beating doubled as a reminder of how unlikely it would be for Lawson and four freshman starters — all five of them playing their first season at Kansas — to morph into something special overnight. The post-Lagerald Vick version of the Jayhawks had their signs of promise over the past month-and-a-half, but also negatives that couldn’t be ignored.

Lawson didn’t disregard those entering the tournament as much as he looked past them. He had to. This team needed him to do so.

So when the season ended too soon, it was more than the characteristically upbeat young forward from Memphis, Tenn., could take.

After powering through a first round of questions in KU’s locker room, then more on the stage for the team’s postgame press conference, Lawson returned to his seat for more inquiries. That’s when the weight of the loss and the end of the season — possibly his college career — walloped him.

Lawson pulled his blue T-shirt over his face, and wept. The brown towel near his chair covered his countenance next, when the tears wouldn’t stop.

“I don’t feel like we accomplished things that we should have,” Lawson said after composing himself, then pausing again to fight back more tears. “And being the leader I feel like it’s my fault.”

In order for KU to beat good teams when Lawson wasn’t dominating inside, the Jayhawks would need not just point guard Devon Dotson, but multiple freshmen taking their games to new heights.

But Lawson doesn’t think that way. According to KU’s leading scorer and rebounder, this was on him, and no one else.

“I just feel like, being the leader, guys follow your role. You come up short, it’s your fault. It’s your fault,” he insisted.

Inexperience can kill a college basketball team in the NCAA Tournament. And that characteristic ultimately led to KU’s demise while facing an Auburn team filled with rotation players who just a year ago went through the same heartache the Jayhawks did Saturday night, losing to Clemson by 31 in the tournament’s second round.

Lawson’s strengths always have been his basketball IQ, footwork and knack for pulling in rebounds. He’s not known for his athleticism, so it was going to make some type of otherworldly offensive explosion from Lawson or a number of his younger teammates stepping up for the Jayhawks to survive the Tigers’ roster full of athletes.

Coming off a 24-point, 11-board showing as KU cruised in the first round against Northeastern, Lawson couldn’t take over exactly the same way against the Tigers, even though he finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds, giving him 22 double-doubles for the season.

KU’s 6-foot-9, 235-pound go-to forward opened the night matching up with 6-foot-8, 230-pound Chuma Okeke, known for his versatility and defensive instincts.

Seconds into the drubbing (and this was one, despite the final margin), Okeke blew by his one-time youth basketball teammate to get to the rim. Okeke missed the lay-in, but Auburn signaled immediately to KU that it was about to play at a speed 10 times faster than Northeastern could ever dream of pulling off.

On Lawson’s first touch inside, the Tigers pounced on him with a double team and KU’s best passer turned the ball over.

Though the most talented Jayhawk on the floor would bring the ball up the court versus full-court man pressure when needed and grab an occasional rebound in the first half, his shots weren’t falling, when KU had to have something miraculous from him, because its guards proved either too naive to expect Jared Harper and Bryce Brown to go right at them or too overwhelmed to find within them what it would take to counter the game’s stars once they began taking over.

It was the kind of night where the mere act of Lawson battling for a defensive rebound and drawing a foul with KU down 34-17 in the first half drew Bill Self and his assistants off their seats to applaud.

Whether being checked by Okeke or Austin Wiley inside, it didn’t matter for Lawson early on, as he struggled on one end, and Auburn’s steady rain of 3-pointers drowned the Jayhawks on the other.

An 0-for-5 start for Lawson coincided with KU’s slow tournament death. Lawson’s first basket didn’t come until there was 2:26 to go until halftime. His offensive rebound and putback made it 46-25.

True, Lawson and his teammates would play much better and harder in the game’s final 20 minutes. But their season came to an unofficial end in the first half, as Auburn overwhelmed the Jayhawks the way Big 12 co-champion Texas Tech did in Lubbock, Texas, in late February.

Right or wrong, Lawson felt responsible for the performance.

“It’s not all about on the court, things like that. Just making sure guys around me was prepared,” Lawson shared of his perspective. “They didn’t know the magnitude of the games.”

Without Vick and injured Udoka Azubuike and ineligible Silvio De Sousa, there was only so much this KU roster could do against top-tier teams.

The Jayhawks had little to no margin for error when facing opponents such as Auburn. And unless Lawson spent his first March Madness experience on fire night after night, KU’s ceiling figured to be lower than this stored program and its hall of fame coach had to endure in quite some time.

Self would say afterward one reason he hated to see the season end the way it did was because the second-round loss “may be” the last one Lawson plays for Kansas.

“He has got to make some decisions. He's had as good a year as we could ever have hoped for,” Self said of Lawson. “I don't know that we've ever ridden a guy — maybe Thomas Robinson — but he'd be the only guy we would have ridden as hard as Dedric. And you wouldn't have to if you had your full complement of guys obviously.”

The Jayhawks’ flaws had everything to do with their lack of depth and being unacquainted with the rigors of a high-level, high-pressure NCAA Tournament stage.

If Lawson and the core of this team return for another crack at March in 2020, they’ll know what to expect. But Self’s words make you wonder if that’s what Lawson’s basketball future holds.

For now, the Jayhawks will have to watch from not too far away as Auburn and three other teams battle down I-70 in Sprint Center for a berth in the Final Four.

It would’ve taken some magic and a legendary run from Lawson to get there. And we knew from watching this team the past several months that such a storyline wasn’t based in reality.

Good for Lawson for believing he could help make it happen.


Layne Pierce 3 years, 8 months ago

I think the real question for next year is outside shooting. Once we got behind Auburn it was clear that we lacked the firepower to comeback. The West Virginia comeback, and other combacks they could only happen if we could make enough 3s, this team never had that ability.

Our situation going forward is that without enough 3pt shooting teams are going to simply jam up the middle. We have to find at least 1 3pt shooter that scares people. We don't have one now. Second we need a shot blocker, and that is what Azubuike gives us, then we can simply drive people off the 3pt shot, and when they drive to the basket, there will be someone to stop them.

And we need our guards not to be afraid to drive to the basket, and stop once in awhile to shoot the midrange jumper.

Those fundamental things have to change or next year is going to be disappointing and we won't have any excuses. Freshmen this year, OK, built in excuse, but going forward it won't cut it.


Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 8 months ago

Hmm. Could be a bit of a problem. With the signing of the two guards, we no longer have any scholarships left. I think Dedric and Dok both leave and maybe a transfer but we might be pretty much stuck with the same crew.

Steve Zimmerman 3 years, 8 months ago

To me, it's a miracle enough with the current roster we have, we've come this far. I'm thankful for these players to play to their best abilities representing KU. To me it's a miracle, a not-so-athletic player such as Lawson, still competed with double doubles against a brute force more physical & talented & athletic Auburn team. It's a miracle that we lost only 14 points vs hot shooting 3pt Auburn. Let's hope for a better season next year. Rock Chalk!

Danny Hernandez 3 years, 8 months ago

The first voice of reason over the last 11 hours!

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 8 months ago

First, we are going to need a few scholarships since as of now we have ZERO. We did sign two +100 recruits with the only readily handed out scholarships.

Maybe this team wins it all after another year. If not, Silvio should be cleared for the 2021 season.

Robert Brock 3 years, 8 months ago

Self may never put a decent defense on the court again. He keeps recruiting slow, unathletic players.

James Donnell 3 years, 8 months ago

Self has done a fabulous job with what he has had to work with this season. But when you look at the players on the court and the opposing defense and wonder who, if anyone, can score, something is wrong. Several things are apparent. To have real success in the tourney, you have to have two or three really good 3-point shooters. It seems like every other team does. We have NONE, except, perhaps, Lawson. Lawson can’t do it by himself. Dotson had a great season and would have racked up assists if he had anyone to throw it to who could shoot. So until we have some shooters, nothing is going to change, even with everyone back (unlikely), even Dok (unlikely). I know the guys are young but I am not sure if Grimes or Agbaji are the answer. We have recruited good athletes but we need guys who can flat out shoot. Think what Self could do with defense, rim protection, AND 3 point shooting!

Steve Zimmerman 3 years, 8 months ago

You nailed it, James. And if you look at some of those shooters, they developed over time. Seniors, juniors - that now play more significant minutes. It looks like they're groomed well. We used to have Andrew3, Frankamp that could shoot the lights out - alas, they chose to transfer.

Coach BS bought in fools' gold only starting last season when Svi, Graham, Malik were around. We looked great and got beat in the end, but we still were great back then. We knew Svi & Graham were good 3pt shooters from the beginning - but how many 3pt per game were attempted by them back then?

Two to 4 attempts! Not until they were seniors, 6 attempts. Bryce Brown of Auburn, 7 attempts in his freshman year!

I think it's the coaching philosophy. That's, I'm afraid, what prevent us from getting high calibers shooters these days. Coach BS sticks with what he knows use bigs, pound inside - he already told us. So, until he chooses to adapt and learn new ways of winning games, we'll be stuck with 14 B12 back to back to back to back.....

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 8 months ago

Well, other than the worst half in my KU memory. Completely wasted a redshirt, can't decide to play hi/low or go w/four guards and has the #8 ranked recruiting class.

In the BIG12

Danny Hernandez 3 years, 8 months ago

If Auburn had been so mighty, they’d be 36-0! Step off the ledge ppl.

Len Shaffer 3 years, 8 months ago

So the fact that Auburn was also a 9-loss team somehow makes it EASIER to take them destroying us in the tournament??? Interesting logic ...

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 8 months ago

Len... Can't follow the logic? If they were 36-0, we wouldn't have even played.

oops... ignore that last part.

Allin Herring 3 years, 8 months ago

That is because Self has lost his touch in recruiting several years ago. Now his talent is recruiting players with issues. In that he leads college basketball. On top of that you have the FBI investigation which has scared away any really top tier players (I don't want to hear about Hurt as he is now leaning towards North Carolina). If the investigations go the wrong way, and there is a possibility that that will happen then we may not be playing any NCAA tournaments which will end our streak and record of 30 straight!

Bryce Landon 3 years, 8 months ago

The 1987-88 Jayhawks were rightly glossed "Danny and the Miracles".

The 2018-19 Jayhawks should be glossed "The Underachievers".

Len Shaffer 3 years, 8 months ago

Wow, Bryce, you are truly pathetic.

Have you forgotten that we only had eight players on scholarship because of injuries, personal leave and the NCAA???

Just go back to rooting for "your" Hawkeyes and stay away from this site, which is for true KU fans.

Allin Herring 3 years, 8 months ago

Bryce you think this years team were underachievers? Well if D Lawson does not come back next year and no real additions via new recruits next year will be much worse. What will be coming back including Dok will not get us back to the top of a very week conference.

Marius Rowlanski 3 years, 8 months ago

Experience means nothing? This team's problem wasn't talent, it was finding the right lineup which I think we did but far too close to the end of the season.

If McCormack, Grimes, Dotson, and Ochai all return, I would think that to be a good thing. All these guys were McDonald's All-American's except Ochai. We still have two other McDonald's All-American's who have the option of coming back although I don't think they will. If no one else leaves then you are looking at next year's team

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