With most of rotation unproven in March, unpredictable postseason awaits Jayhawks
Kansas City, Mo. — During his close to 16 seasons at the University of Kansas, Bill Self has coached teams bound for Final Four glory and others that crashed and burned as victims of the Madness known as March.
Sometimes, even the man who has a better feel for the state of a given group of Jayahwks, their trajectory and potential, has no idea how they will respond once they hit the postseason.
Even the most keen observers have found it difficult to gauge how this KU team will play from day to day, let alone week to week. The Jayhawks have only been consistent in their inconsistency away from Allen Fieldhouse.
Though Self jokingly boasted about his team’s 3-0 neutral court record Wednesday afternoon, while speaking with media members outside of KU’s Sprint Center locker room, the truth of the matter is, those victories over Michigan State in Indianapolis, and Marquette and Tennessee in Brooklyn may as well have occurred in another season, not just a different calendar year.
Now-injured center Udoka Azubuike and now-permanently absent shooting guard Lagerald Vick helped — in varying degrees — KU win those games. Even more relevant right now, both Azubuike and Vick also have postseason experience under Self as starters.
When Self looks into the eyes of his Jayhawks before Thursday night’s Big 12 quarterfinal matchup with Texas, he’ll only see two players who know what it’s like to put on a KU uniform and take on the stage that is March and the postseason. And as Self would point out, it’s not as if junior Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore Marcus Garrett were in prominent roles during KU’s most recent tournament runs.
The Jayhawks (23-8), theoretically, could come out against Texas and play on a higher level than seemed possible during the past couple of months. Maybe freshmen Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack, and junior forward Dedric Lawson — who watched from the sidelines during his redshirt year as KU reached the 2018 Final Four — will find themselves injected with new life. Perhaps they’re ready to author their own redemption stories by leading Kansas to its third Big 12 tournament title in the past four years.
If they are, Self wasn’t about to project as much. And why would he? The hall of fame coach has witnessed — in agonizing fashion — how this month can chew up and spit out even a team on the rise.
After agreeing that having a rotation featuring seven Jayhawks who have yet to play a postseason game for the program makes it challenging to assess how they’ll respond to what awaits them, Self recalled a set of March circumstances from much earlier in his tenure that proved how unpredictable college basketball can be this time of year.
“I thought we were as prepared as we ever could be when Mario (Chalmers) and those guys were freshmen, and we win the Big 12 tournament, beat LaMarcus (Aldridge, a standout big at Texas) and those dudes. And then we go to the NCAA Tournament, I promise you we looked good in practice and everything was great,” Self recollected.
The year he was referencing was 2006. And if you’ve followed KU long enough you know what happened next.
As a No. 4 seed, the Jayhawks played in the late Friday game of the first round, having spent at least parts of the two days leading up to a matchup with Bradley seeing or hearing about double-digit seeds such as George Mason, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Montana and Northwestern State pulling off upsets.
“You could see the body language and everything change in the locker room,” Self shared nearly 13 years later. “In fact you could almost cut it with a knife, because they got tight waiting. So who knows if that’ll happen agin. I certainly hope not.”
KU will play a late game against Texas (16-15) to open this postseason, and it won’t be until then that Self learns a little bit about how this group will handle all that comes with being a blue blood program every opponent would love to knock off.
“I do think when you’ve never been through it,” Self said, “there’s a lot of firsts, and, certainly, I think getting through a first game I think is important, whether it be this week or next week, to allow you to have a good tournament.”
Unknowns abound for this KU team, predominantly unschooled in the mayhem lurking around the corner.
And as Self learned back in 2006, even three wins in three days at the Big 12 tournament don't guarantee Kansas a successful Big Dance. Good or bad or somewhere in between, no one knows what will become of KU this week and next. Not yet. Not even Bill Self.