What-ifs of NCAA Tournament even tougher for Jalen Wilson, Jayhawks
This year’s NCAA Tournament will be remembered for years to come by those who live and die with March Madness outcomes. And around Lawrence, where the absence of brackets and a potential national championship run in 2020 still stings for some, it will be impossible to look back on the 2021 tourney without thinking of Jalen Wilson.
An essential member of KU’s lineup in his first full season of competing at the college level, Wilson contracted COVID-19 just as the postseason got underway. And when the Jayhawks had to withdraw from the Big 12 tournament as a result, no one was immediately sure how long the redshirt freshman would be away from the team or whether he would be able to return and rejoin his teammates at all in their pursuit of a memorable March run.
Remarkably, similar to what the Jayhawks experienced with David McCormack in the first round, Wilson not only reunited with his teammates in Indianapolis following a bout with COVID, the 6-foot-8 wing from Denton, Texas, actually was able to play and contribute, too.
Wilson didn’t need to play like he was in midseason form on Monday night against USC to give KU valuable minutes. No one anticipated the young wing to be able to totally change the game against the Trojans the way McCormack did two days earlier versus a lesser foe, Eastern Washington.
As head coach Bill Self said during a pregame radio interview, all the Jayhawks wanted from their typical starter was for Wilson to come off the bench and play solid defense and compete on the boards.
Self finally called upon Wilson nearly nine minutes into the first half against the Trojans, as the team’s best rebounder and one of its most reliable 3-point shooters took the floor for the first time in 11 days, dating back to when KU beat Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo.
It didn’t take long for Wilson to at least give the Jayhawks some needed energy. After watching his teammates struggle to score over the length of USC’s defense, Wilson put his head down and got inside to try and give the team a lift on the scoreboard. His well defended layup wouldn’t drop, but his willingness to go make something happen instead of playing with hesitancy was welcome, given how things were going for KU offensively.
He kept it up, too, with a steal and a much needed assist on a rare successful KU 3-pointer in the first half. But a couple of quick whistles on Wilson made his first stint a quick one, even for a player on a minutes restriction.
And while Wilson is a lot of things for KU, he isn’t a miracle worker. He played eight minutes and scored two points via free throws in an 85-51 USC rout.
Again, no one expected for Wilson to be some kind of one man conqueror. As much as KU struggled against Evan and Isaiah Mobley and the wiry, long-armed men of Troy, the Jayhawks would’ve been even worse off without Wilson.
His presence was nothing but a bonus after spending more than a week in isolation, away from his teammates and undoubtedly wishing he could change what transpired over the past couple of weeks.
Wilson is a competitor, and was going to give KU everything he had. And because of that, just having him available to defend USC’s tall frontcourt players and put a body on the Trojans when a shot went up made him effective.
Regardless of Monday’s outcome and the what-ifs that inevitably come from KU diehards when they reminisce — or commiserate — about Marches past, Wilson and McCormack deserve credit for their efforts to make the most of an awful situation.
Imagine you’ve worked most of your life to become a Division I basketball player, and you were so successful in those endeavors that you landed a scholarship to one of college basketball’s most renowned programs, Kansas.
You watched March Madness when you were a kid, dreaming about what it would be like to get out on that court with the nation watching. You wondered what it would feel like to lead your team to a Final Four.
For Wilson, McCormack and Tristan Enaruna — who wasn’t able to return to the team as quickly — to go through quarantine in March had to be mentally exhausting.
It’s hard not to feel bad for these players who had the virus impact such a massive aspect of their lives at a time of the year that comes with such anticipation and excitement.
While neither Wilson nor McCormack were available for postgame comments after the loss, Self shed a little light on what it’s been like for two of KU’s most important players. Self said the Jayhawks got “lucky” in the first round to win when they weren’t at full strength.
“We tried to put a Band-Aid on it. But this team, down a starter or down a couple of starters,” Self said, “even if guys are actually playing in the game, but don’t have rhythm and certainly haven’t practiced and those sorts of things, that puts us in a situation where our margin of error is even smaller.”
So when you look back on the 2021 NCAA Tournament months or years from now, it’s all right to think about what might have been — the way many surely do when Joel Embiid’s injury-shortened 2013-14 season is on their minds. Just be sure to remember how incredibly hard the COVID pauses and unexpected breaks from basketball — during the height of March Madness — must have been for Wilson, McCormack and Enaruna.
They will remember this March much more than any observers will. And both McCormack and Wilson did as best they could for KU when they weren’t at 100%.
“It’s been difficult,” Self said. “I’m proud of our guys that we made it to the tournament. I’m proud of the guys that we were a three seed. I’m proud of the guys that we won a game in the tournament. I’m just not leaving out of here, nor are they, remotely proud about how we performed or prepared or how we got them ready tonight.”