SportsPulse: With Selection Sunday under two weeks away, Scott Gleeson dishes on four teams rounding into form that could be potential Cinderellas in the tournament.
One of the more impressive streaks in college basketball has finally ended.
Kansas’ 81-68 loss to Oklahoma on Tuesday officially stopped the Jayhawks’ 14-year reign over the Big 12, with one of coach Bill Self’s KU teams winning at least a share of the league’s regular-season title in every season since finishing second in 2004.
But how did this Kansas team, a preseason No. 1 in the coaches poll and a national title favorite in November, fail to do what so many teams did before it?
Granted, Self has had some remarkable Kansas teams, including national title-worthy teams that underachieved in the NCAA tournament (KU also won’t be a No. 1 or No. 2 seed this year for the first time since 2009). Those squads featured NBA draft lottery picks, veteran four-year players and Wooden Award winners. But there were also way worse Kansas teams on-paper that got the job done.
What was different this year? Let’s break it down.
1. The Big 12 was always too good
Perhaps the most impressive part of Kansas’ record streak, and one that casual fans hardly could grasp, is how good the Big 12 has been during the last decade and a half. The conference is leading the NCAA’s new metric, the NET, this year by a landslide. And it was the country’s best conference in every season since a once-mighty Big East disbanded into the American Athletic and a revamped Big East back in 2013.
This season was as much a strong conference showing its colors as much as it was circumstance and vulnerabilities sinking Kansas’ title chances. Texas Tech and Kansas State, the two teams fighting for this year’s Big 12 title, are well-coached teams coming off Elite Eight finishes last year. Road losses to both those teams hurt, especially the Red Raiders’ 29-point beatdown last week. But But Kansas’ demise likely happened before the pressure heated up in March back in February when it lost at West Virginia by one point. Playing in Morgantown is never easy, but WVU was the worst team in the conference this year. That was the beginning of the end.
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2. Huge losses of key players
Kansas’ national title hopes started to unravel when Azubuike, an All-America-caliber 7-footer who bypassed the NBA draft, suffered a season-ending injury. It didn’t make matters better in KU’s frontcourt when 6-9 forward Silvio De Sousa was ruled ineligible for the season. After playing last season with four guards and just one big guy, Self finally was supposed to have a frontcourt to be reckoned with since Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, a Big 12 player of the year candidate, was eligible. The whole team DNA was revamped with that loss and instead of Lawson and Azubuike forming a 1-2 punch, Lawson has been harnessed with doing too much this season.
In early February Self announced that Vick, the team’s second-leading scorer and key veteran, was taking a leave of absence. The senior’s streaky shooting wasn’t so much a difference-maker as his veteran presence was supposed to be for a team largely made up of freshmen and eligible transfers. Without him, Self was again forced to reestablish an identity for a team when most other teams had already found theirs.
3. Backcourt youth and inconsistency
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Freshman Quentin Grimes was ranked as high on some recruiting boards as Duke’s Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. But Grimes has not lived up to the hype that made him the Big 12’s preseason freshman of the year and a projected NBA lottery pick back in November. He’s still playing a crucial 27 minutes a game and is starting to come along on both ends. But his 7.8 points a game certainly doesn’t fill the void left by Big 12 player of the year Devonte Graham, who helped carry KU to the Final Four last year as a senior.
Charlie Moore, a transfer from Cal, also didn’t really make an impact as expected. After averaging 12.2 points a game in 2016-17, he’s playing just 13.7 minutes and averaging 3.2 points a game.
Freshman Devon Dotson won the point guard spot, and he’s been a pleasant surprise — averaging 11.6 points and 3.6 assists a game. But in the last two games, with Vick out and his role in the backcourt more vital, he’s shot 4-for-17 from the floor.
A Kansas program that usually has stellar three-point shooting ranks 200th nationally in made triples. And defensively, this team is nowhere near where Self’s teams get by March, ranking 150th in the nation in scoring defense. There are several factors that accumulate those stats, but it starts in the backcourt.