Another year, another conference championship.
Rather than wait a week, when we’re through the Big 12 tournament and have our NCAA brackets to pick through, I thought I’d do my KU season wrap-up today.
It wasn’t that long ago when I was looking at the schedules, evaluating opponents, and assumed that Texas would go 16-0 in the Big 12 and KU, only a game behind at that point, was hopelessly out of the conference title race. Throw in an awful Jayhawk performance in Manhattan right after that, and it seemed as though Texas winning the Big 12 was the surest bet in college basketball.
(Cliché alert). That, folks, is why they play the games!
Texas’ youth caught up with them. A loss at Nebraska. A loss at Colorado, in which they blew a 21-point lead. Then a loss at home to K-State last Monday. The door was open.
Meanwhile KU settled down, got some personnel issues ironed out, and quietly worked their way back into the race. Saturday’s ugly win at Missouri sealed their seventh-straight conference championship.1
Sure, I gave up a few weeks ago based on my faulty math, but I don’t think this is the most unlikely of the seven straight titles. I think many people undersold the talent that Bill Self had to work with this year. The Morrii proved last year they were elite talents. It was not unreasonable to expect them to play at the levels they played at this season. Thomas Robinson looked like a player that could explode. Tyshawn Taylor, Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed, and Mario Little had all been through battles and knew how to win. Elijah Johnson had serious upside, although his rawness prevented anyone from expecting him to play a major role this year. And of course Josh Selby was supposed to be a difference maker. Many preseason prognosticators wrote that if Selby was eligible to play, KU would be a Final Four contender.
So the pieces were there. People may have looked too much at what was lost (Collins, Aldrich, Henry) than what returned. It happens. No biggie.
So I won’t argue that this run was remarkable or out-of-nowhere or anything like that. KU winning the Big 12 was not a fluke. It was just the latest chapter in a terrific run of talent with a coach who knows a thing or two about winning a conference title.2
As good as the Morrii and Robinson and the role players were, I think this season was more about Bill Self. Specifically, the way he handled the past three weeks. The K-State game looked like an absolute meltdown, a moment in which a team was coming apart. There was another Morrii Knucklehead Moment, as usual involving an elbow. There were harsh words in the huddle. There was Elijah Johnson getting T’ed up for doing one of the dumbest things in basketball: woofing when you dunk and are down by more than 10 points. There was Tyshawn Taylor looking brain dead much of the game, throwing the ball away and then standing there to pout while K-State broke upcourt. There was Selby looking overwhelmed, again. There was Self’s postgame press conference, where he appeared as unsure about his team as he’s ever been.3 Following the game, there were the inevitable rumors about Johnson transferring. A couple days later came word that Taylor was suspended indefinitely.
Even if Texas lost a game or two, it sure didn’t look like KU was in any shape to make up the two games by which they trailed the Longhorns.
Yet they did. I don’t know what Self did or said in the locker room and at practice, but Johnson stepped into the starting role and played the best basketball of his career. When Taylor came back, it was with a good attitude and an embrace of his role off the bench. There has not been a ripple of discontent with the late lineup change, and both players have been solid after the switch. Selby continued to struggle, but at least publicly made no noise about his diminishing minutes. And KU ripped off five straight wins to close the season.
Like Billy Beane, it appears that Bill Self’s shit works in the regular season.
This was a year in which there were several deserving candidates for Big 12 Coach of the Year. The way Self handled the last three weeks, as much as another conference title, was what put him over the top.
Looking ahead, instead of trying to figure this team out, I’ve been thinking about how they compare to last year’s team. Then, I was certain that team would make the Final Four. They were a stacked team with an elite point guard who reveled in the big moments. I had no doubt that, when push came to shove, Sherron Collins would make the plays and keep KU from losing before they got to Indy.3
That didn’t quite work out, though.
This year’s team is the most efficient KU team in the half court offense that I can remember. There have been plenty of good offensive teams over the years, but none were the pure half court teams that this one is. Their defense is suspect, but it seems like they can’t be shut down on offense. The Morrii are too versatile, Robinson too tough inside, Morningstar and Reed too good from the perimeter, and Johnson adds a whole new aspect to the offense with his athletic ability. When they need points, it feels like they will get them.
But there are plenty of concerns to balance out their offensive prowess. Will the Morrii throw an elbow that catches someone’s face and gets them ejected? If the front court gets into foul trouble against a big team, where do they get rebounds and points in the paint? Can you count on the point guards in high pressure situations? Will the defense relax at the wrong time and let another team score on six of seven possessions?
As always, it’s all about match ups and health this time of year. I don’t have the confidence I had a year ago. But, recognizing that we always knew there was something missing about that team, maybe it’s better to be aware of the specific weak spots of this team.
Are they a Final Four contender? Certainly. You don’t go through a schedule like KU’s with only two losses and not be in the mix. But the odds are less favorable than a year ago. And maybe that’s a good thing. Still, they are doing what you need to do: playing their best basketball of the year at the end of the season.
Chances are I’m going to be disappointed and depressed at some point in the next three weeks. That’s the nature of the tournament. So I’m doing my best to appreciate this team for what it’s accomplished this year, for all the terrific games and individual performances.
3In retrospect, that may have just been a coaching technique to take the focus off his players. Based on how things worked out, I’m not sure he was as confused and hopeless as he seemed in that press conference.
- At the risk of angering the Hoops Gods, who will hopefully detect my sarcasm, I would like to point out that if Duke won seven consecutive ACC titles, Sports Illustrated would devote an entire issue to the feat, SportsCenter would spend 60 minutes of examining the accomplishment in great detail, and Dick Vitale’s head would probably explode as he effused endlessly about Coach K and his players. But KU doing it in the Big 12 gets casual mentions. I’m just saying. ↩
- As a KC Star writer pointed out, Self’s conference finishes over the last 13 years are 1-1-1-1-2-2-1-1-1-1-1-1-1. Eleven of those years are in BCS conferences. I think that’s a pretty good run. ↩
- I hate it when you have to revisit your view of one of your favorite players. But Sherron is trying hard to tarnish his legacy. Anyone can have a bad game, so I don’t really hold the UNI game against him. Everyone sucked that day. But skipping the team’s awards dinner was concerning. Showing up for training camp in Charlotte heavier than he ever was at KU was troubling. Missing two flights when he had the chance to return to Charlotte last week was flat-out dumb. There is an argument that Charlotte is the worst franchise in the NBA and a player might be hesitant to play there. But when you’re a short, overweight, marginal NBA player, you take every opportunity you can get. The way the Charlotte front office publicly called out Sherron this week does not bode well for him getting another shot somewhere else. ↩