The college basketball season always seems to fly by. Despite covering five full months – and bumping into the first week of a sixth – it feels like a much quicker run. Wasn’t just a week or so ago that KU was losing to Indiana in overtime in Hawaii, then beating Duke in New York four nights later? Yet here we are, in the final week of the regular season, when the uneasy part of the year begins. When you can never be sure there’s another game on the schedule. When you start missing the guys who won’t be wearing the uniform of your favorite team next November.
This March will be more bittersweet than any in recent memory for me. That’s all because of the special niche this year’s KU team has carved out.
There’s Josh Jackson, by far the best freshman to play at KU in the modern era. I think a lot of KU fans viewed with him skepticism when the season began. Sure, he was ranked #1 by most recruiting services. Sure, he had dominated in high school. But there were plenty of people who looked at his size, his lack of a consistent outside shot, and saw a guy destined to either never match the impossible hype like Andrew Wiggins, or would not be more than a piece of the overall puzzle like Kelly Oubre. Those fears seems justified after he struggled against IU in his first college game.
But he bounced back big time against Duke; when he could stay on the floor he was often the best player in the game. His much hyped motor and will-to-win were always present. He played hard every minute, guarding, rebounding, dunking, and eventually turning into as complete of a player as KU’s had in a long time. Unlike Wiggins, who was a nice kid but always seemed aloof, Jackson embraced all that came with who he is and where he plays. He was polished with the media. He did so many little things in every game that showed he was more about getting the W that padding his stats and confirming his draft projections.
Monday night against Oklahoma was a great example. In some ways, it was his worst game in over a month. He turned the ball over eight times. He missed a ton of close shots. He balanced great defensive possessions with a few brutal ones. But he never stopped being aggressive or battling. He was huge on the backboards. In KU’s 31–9 closing run, he was everywhere on the court even though he never scored. Where Wiggins would disappear when he got rattled, and Oubre was limited in his game, Jackson always finds a way to contribute.
Josh Jackson has been awesome for KU this season. He’s proof that you always recruit the best talent. And he shows that even kids raised on the AAU circuit and who attend manufactured “prep” schools can still care about more than just getting buckets.
There was Landen Lucas, a guy who was never supposed to start at KU, finishing up his fifth season and a career where he just kept battling and improving and getting the most out of his body and skills. He’ll drive you crazy at least a dozen times a game when he gets off balance and throws up a terrible shot, or gets stripped and misses a clean dunk because he can’t jump without putting the ball down by his knees. But, man, that dude is so good rebounding, playing defense, and doing all kinds of small things to help his teammates. No big man in the country steps out on defense as well as he does. He’s incredibly smart with his help offense, setting screens and moving the defense to set up a good shot for his teammates.
Back over the holidays I watched the KU-TCU game with my brother-in-law who went to TCU. That was one of Landen’s best games of the year, he went for 15 and 17. Late in the game, my brother-in-law shook his head and said, “I don’t know why you guys are down on him. He’s awesome, I’d kill to have that guy on my team.”
Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be a career backup.
He changed the course of last year’s team when he moved into the starting lineup. After shaking off some early-season health issues, he’s been an absolute rock this year. His play that won the Baylor game sums up who he is: he set a screen for Devonte Graham outside the three-point arc. As Graham put up a shot from about 22-feet, Landen sprinted down the lane. He beat Baylor’s three bigs for the rebound, got fouled, and hit the game-winning free throws.
Lucas is the counter to Jackson. Even at elite programs, sometimes you have to recruit kids who don’t have lofty high school rankings because you think they can develop into special players. Sometimes those guys just sit the bench for four years, contributing in practice and maybe a few minutes here-and-there. But other times, because of injuries and transfers and recruiting misses, they turn into Landen, probably the most important player on the #1 team in the nation.
And then there’s Frank Mason III. I remember the fall KU recruited him. They were recruiting every high school point guard, but for some reason kept missing on them. Then we heard about this short kid from Virginia who signed. When he got to campus, he was intriguing. The kid could not shoot but he seemed absolutely loaded with confidence. A huge difference to starting point guard Naadir Tharpe, who didn’t exactly exude “I got this.” By the end of the year, the offense ran better when the ball was in Frank’s hands. We finally started throwing decent lobs to Wiggins. This kid had a future.
Poor Frank took the beating by Kentucky in Indy at the start of his sophomore year as bad as anyone. I think he had 25 shots blocked that night. But he bounced back and seemed to be morphing into a smaller Sherron Collins: a dude you just could not stop when he wanted to get to the hoop. His jump shot was still ugly, but he was a huge improvement from Tharpe at the point.
As a junior, he was really good. He added that extra level of knowledge and confidence that came from starting for his entire sophomore year. His shot was still ugly, but when it mattered most, it always seemed to crawl in. With Graham, he formed one of the most exciting and versatile backcourt in the country. When the offense bogged down, he put his head down, put his defender on skates, and got to the rim.
When this season began, I thought it was Graham who would break out. He was spectacular in the final five weeks of the 2016 season. He looked like a kid that was about to explode and would leave KU for the draft after this season.
But it was Frank who took over and took off from game one. 30 points against Indiana, including an unreal final 90 seconds of regulation where he almost single-handedly forced OT. Against Duke, he hit the game winner. From there on, it was almost the same thing every night: right around 20 points, right around 5 assists, right around 38 minutes.
Every. Single. Night.
His shot is still unconventional, but now he sinks it nearly half the time. Other than a missed shot that would have won the Iowa State game – which was the exact same look, opposite side of the lane, as the one he hit against Duke – I can’t think of an important shot that he’s missed.
Along the way, we all fell in love with the kid. Jackson is the most talented player on the team. Lucas the most imposing. Graham likely has better NBA prospects. As do redshirt players Malik Newman and Sam Cunliffe. But it’s Frank who has put the team on his shoulders for 30 nights.
Like Lucas, we all admired how far Frank came in his four years. He grew from a kid with potential to one of the best players – not just point guards – in the program’s history. I had a couple non-KU fans ask me if I thought it was appropriate for Brandon Rush’s jersey to be retired last week. But there’s going to be no question from anyone in a couple years when BIFM comes back to Allen Fieldhouse and watches as his jersey is unveiled in the south rafters. High school point guards might want to pay attention.
And then there’s this team. Fans are always suspect to recency bias, but I swear I’ve heard more KU fans say “Man, I love this team!” more this year than in quite a while. They are fun to watch, they almost always play hard, and they score easier than any KU team has in at least five years. They dig themselves holes, but they rarely get rattled and always seem to find a way out of it.
I’m always thinking of narrative angles. I love how the true narrative of a team isn’t written until it plays it’s final game. Would the 2015 Kansas City Royals be remembered as a scrappy, running, relentless team if they hadn’t rallied in Houston in the ALDS? Nope. For this year’s KU team, its going to set up one of two ways. If they play deep into March, perhaps get to Phoenix, we’re going to hear about how hard they play, how they’re a reflection of their coach, how they never lose faith in themselves, and how no deficit is too big for them to claw out of. If they get upset by a lower seed, we’re going to hear about how those regular season deficits were a sign of weakness, the short bench and huge load placed on the starters finally caught up with them, and how Self is a genius in the regular season but just doesn’t understand how to coach in March.
March blinds college basketball fans. Perhaps it is because the regular season is so stretched out, and the madness of March is so compact, that we discount brilliance over four months for the drama of the final month.
More than ever, I’ve tried to soak up and enjoy what this year’s KU team has done. The last month has been spectacular. Winning in Rupp Arena after being down 12 early. Coming back from 14 down with under 3:00 to play against West Virginia. Holding Baylor scoreless over the last 3:36 in Waco. Monday’s comeback against Oklahoma. Clinching the Big 12 title with three games left.
It’s been another amazing season. Josh, Landen, BIFM, and all the Jayhawks deserve the cherry on top this year.
- I say that offering this qualifier: if Joel Embiid had stayed healthy, he was well on his way to doing amazing things and Josh would be, at best, tied with him. ↩
- It’s ridiculous some KU fans think Wiggins was a disappointment. He was really damn good, if not as consistent as Jackson. Losing to Stanford wasn’t just on him. ↩
- Huge mystery to me: why can’t Bill Self sign elite point guards? He only got Tyshawn Taylor because Tom Crean left Marquette for Indiana. He got Josh Selby, but he never seemed like a true point. You have to go back to Sherron Collins to find a top high school point that has signed with KU. KU’s finished second or third on three high school point guards this year. My theory: elite high school 1’s generally have the ball in their hands at all times. No matter what offense he runs, Self always tries to have at least two guys on the court who can handle the ball. You don’t come to KU and get to pound the ball for 25 seconds. Don’t know if it’s true, but that’s my theory. But I don’t understand why you don’t want to come play with this team next year. Slashers and shooters all around the perimeter, a potential beast in the middle, and a few other athletic bigs who can run and grab lobs. Not that I’m biased. ↩
- Short answer: based on the current ways they evaluate players to hang jerseys, yes. ↩
- Other then the end of the Duke game, I don’t know that I’ve been as happy this year as I was when Graham was skipping up the court after his third-straight three broke OU’s backs last night. ↩