Well, here we go. The best and worst time of the year for everyone who is A) a huge college basketball fan and B) lives and dies with a particular program. Best, because you never forget those comeback wins, those times your team knocked off a higher seed, and those deep tournament runs. Worst, well, because you never forget being on the wrong side of Cinderella’s slipper or the night your best player couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn or that turnover in the last second that changed the outcome.
Everything that happens in March stays with you.
As I believe I’ve made very plain here since last November, I’ve never believed KU was a true contender for the National Championship. That doesn’t mean I don’t think they could win it, which is a very different thing. Play this tournament 10,000 times on your trusty computer simulator and KU is going to cut the nets down a few times.
But, because of defensive deficiencies, lapses in focus, youth, and the dreaded major injury, I just can’t buy into the Jayhawks winning four games and making a trip to Dallas in two weeks.
It’s been an oddly manic week for me. After last Saturday’s loss to West Virginia, which would have been an epic smack down if not for the heroics of one Andrew C. Wiggins, I was dreading the opening round game of the Big 12 tournament. Oklahoma State had just beaten KU with Joel Embiid and seemed to be playing with fire and focus they lacked before Marcus Smart’s suspension. Oh, and then there’s the fact KU just can’t guard that dude.1 I thought it would get ugly early and lead to a weekend of worrying about how the tournament committee would look at a team that wrapped up the toughest conference in the country with three games to play then went into the shitter.
Naturally, that game was a classic, with KU having moments of defensive excellence and, outside of a brief stretch in the second half, containing Smart. It went to overtime, where KU hit the shots to win it.
Suddenly I was fired up about them and looking forward to a long NCAA run.
Those feelings were even bigger midway through the first half of the semifinal game against Iowa State. KU was shutting the Cyclones down on defense, making shots, and imposing their will upon the game. Number 1 seed here we come!
Then someone flipped a switch for both teams and there was a 22-point turnaround that led to a relatively easy ISU win.
Back in the dumps and spending Sunday frantically looking at the teams I did not want KU to face, knowing they would show up in the brackets Sunday night.2
So here we are, on Monday morning, still a bit manic. Pleased that VCU, among a few others, aren’t in KU’s bracket. A little concerned about playing New Mexico for the second time this season, without Joel Embiid who was the difference back in December. But, you know what, Wiggins wasn’t very good that day, nor was Wayne Selden. In fact, both are completely different and more confident players today. So I’m happy to take our chances if we get through the first game, and UNM beats Stanford, with the Lobos a second time.
I was trying to think last week when was the last time KU had to fight a major injury. Not just an ankle tweak, but an injury that kept a starter off the court for multiple games.
Brandon Rush was nice enough to blow out his knee in the off-season, and though he was hobbled the following November, he played just fine in his last NCAA tournament.
Wayne Simien fought injuries his entire career, and plenty of KU fans insist had he been able to play the second half of 2003, the Jayhawks wouldn’t have lost to Syracuse in the national title game. But still, they were playing for the title. His injury didn’t wreck the team’s season.
I think the last major injury that affected the program in March was Keith Langford’s knee issues in 2005. We didn’t know it at the time, but he had undergone micro-fracture surgery twice the previous summer, then played most of his senior year on a knee that probably should have had an entire year of rehab. He broke down late, sat out the Big 12 tournament, and then started the Bucknell game on the bench, playing only a few, ineffective minutes. If he’s healthy, KU may have been a better seed and avoided Bucknell. More importantly, the Keith we knew from his first 2 1/2 years of college would have sliced through the Bucknell defense and the first Killer B loss never happens.
We can’t really evaluate Joel’s impact until this season ends and whether he’s on the court in the final game KU plays. I fear, though, when we look back in the 2013-14 season, it will be with the perpetual regret that Jojo wasn’t healthy and reeking havoc in March.
I look at this team and see one that is about six weeks behind schedule. They had that 7-0 run in January where they looked awfully good at times, and won on talent alone when they weren’t locked in. They destroyed a pretty solid Texas team in February. But just now has it felt like they’ve begun to claim their identity, the way a Bill Self team normally does in late January/early February. Wiggins is making a much bigger impact on the game, playing with confidence and asserting himself into each contest. Selden has gotten better. Tarik Black found his footing. In the right matchup, Perry Ellis has been very good at times.
But there are the never ending, horrific defensive lapses, coming from just about every spot on the court. There are the mindless turnovers. Seriously, for all the talent KU has, how many times a game do they turn and chuck the ball out of bounds for no reason?
If we could turn the clock back even three weeks, and let them play another 6-7 games, I’d feel a lot better about their chances, regardless of defense, turnovers, and Embiid’s availability.
Thus, I’m sticking with the attitude I went into last year’s tournament with: if they make it to the second weekend, I’ll be pleased. The disclaimer this year is a loss in the first weekend without Embiid will be tough to take, but something a lot of us have been semi-expecting since he had to sit down and which would be very different than that young, hyper-talented team of 2006 that lost to Bradley in the first round.
It’s too late to expect miracles on the defensive end, or that the guys suddenly learn how to not throw the ball away 15 times a game. This is a maddening team in that some nights it can be as good as anyone in the game, and others they can play like a bad NAIA team.
They’re my guys, though, and I hope they surprise me this week (and next).
You know what time it is…
Rock Chalk, Bitches.