It is mid-June. What better time to talk some KU hoops? Especially after the weirdest season in decades turned into the weirdest offseason over the same span.
In the wake of the boat-racing by Auburn that mercifully ended the 2018–19 season, what should have been an opportunity for relaxing and regrouping became one of the most dire stretches in the Bill Self era. Dedric Lawson, Quentin Grimes, and Devon Dotson all declared for the NBA draft. KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore both announced that they were transferring, neither of which was a big loss other than subtracting a body from a rapidly shrinking roster. Most people expected Udoka Azubuike to declare for the draft. A team that began the 2018–19 season as one of the deepest in the nation suddenly faced the 2019–20 campaign with barely enough to field a squad. Oh, and the NCAA/FBI thing still hung over the program.
Cooler heads said, “Bill Self always finds a way to fill holes in the spring.” But as I looked at the list of unsigned high school prospects, I just didn’t see it. Two players KU had allegedly been the leaders on for months, Matthew Hurt and Cassius Stanley, were wavering. When both announced they were going to Duke it was not a huge surprise. KU went all-in on a couple guys they had been recruiting as backup plans to other guys, but those, too, fell through.
There were rumblings that RJ Hampton, a player who the “experts” said loved KU, would reclassify and wrap up his high school career in time to be eligible next fall. Hampton is the kind of kid that KU generally leads for until his senior year, when the Nike money, I mean influence of the Kentucky and Duke brands takes over and causes a shift to one of those schools. With Kentucky and Duke pretty much out of room for next season, Hampton looked like a done deal for KU. His time table kept changing, from July to June then finally to a nationally televised announcement on ESPN in late May. An announcement at which he proclaimed that he was skipping college to go play in New Zealand for a year. Par for the year for KU. “My dream has never been to be a college basketball player,” he told Jalen Rose on ESPN. Props to him for being honest and chasing his dream. It would have been nice if he didn’t waste KU’s time.
There was actually good news in May. First, Udoka shocked some people and announced he was returning for his senior year. I think Bill Self expected him to go pro. I leaned that way. He’s not ready for the NBA, and his game isn’t right for the modern pro game. But I figured he would go play in Europe and make some money instead if risking another major injury while in college. I still expect that he’ll get hurt at least once next year, but at least he’s back!
More shocking news in May: the NCAA appeals committee ruled that Silvio De Sousa is eligible to play next season. While their ruling was presented without comment, it was clear they took the line that suspending a kid for two years for getting a couple thousand bucks was an egregious penalty. Especially since there were multiple kids who played in the NCAA tournament – including two for Auburn – who received greater sums from agents and only served minor suspensions. Suddenly KU had the potentially best big-man combo in the country, although I believe there’s at least a 65% chance the NCAA infractions department finds a way to suspend Silvio again.
As the draft deadline grew closer there was worry that Devon Dotson might stay in. Dotson’s decision was, to me, the biggest of the offseason. He was poised to become a superstar next year if he returned to KU and made some minor improvements in his game. His return along with who we knew would be on KU’s roster would be enough to make KU a Big 12 title contender for sure, and a possible national title contender. He waited until the final hours, but in the end announced that he would play at least one more year at KU. Folks were starting to get excited.
Moments later Quentin Grimes announced he was pulling his name out of the draft, which was a big surprise. No one really believed he was ready for the NBA. But everything he had said made it seem like that had been his plan all along and there was no way he was changing his mind. RJ Hampton had yet to announce at this point, so after Grimes’ declarationI was in the midst of multiple text threads that boiled down to “Do we want Q back or RJ?”
Grimes answered that question moments later when he announced he was leaving KU. I’m not sure what went wrong for Q at KU, but other than his very first game, when he dropped 21 on Michigan State, he never looked comfortable or displayed the game he had in high school. I thought he got a little too big, which robbed him of some of his speed. But he also looks like the classic kid who is physically imposing in high school, but in college is just another dude, and he never figured out how to work around that. I think he’s also been told if he plays in the NBA, it will be as a point guard. And if he plays with Dotson another year, he can’t show people that he’s a #1. So, I think he’s made a very mature decision to take a year off, rebuild his body and game, and then play at a program that will put the ball in his hands. In a very different way it worked for Malik Newman. At least as far as Malik scoring 13 points in five minutes against Duke to get KU to a Final Four. The whole pro career thing hasn’t worked out so well. No ill will toward Q and I wish him the best.
With the guys from last year’s roster figured out, Self did pull a few rabbits out of his hat. He snuck in on Tristan Enaruna very late and stole him away from Creighton. After missing out on several higher profile graduate transfers, he grabbed shooter Isaiah Moss from Iowa to fill a glaring need. When John Beilein left Michigan, their highest rated recruit, Jalen Wilson, reopened his recruiting. He is buddies with Hampton and for awhile it looked like they might come to KU together. There were some nervous moments but Wilson announced for KU on Wednesday.
Bill Self’s spring magic is still in effect. In less than two months KU went from “Who the hell is going to play?” to “Who is going to redshirt?” In the process he both filled just about every hole on next year’s roster and backfilled the program with a group of players who are talented but should also be at KU for 3–4 years.
There was even some unexpected good news when the NCAA announced they are moving the three-point line back slightly next season. That should benefit a team like KU that will look to play inside-out as much as any team in the country.
All of this was tempered a bit by the news, about 30 minutes after Wilson’s announcement, that the NCAA will announce major charges against at least six programs soon. Two of those programs are supposed to be “high profile” programs. KU fans immediately began hoping that Louisville and Arizona were those two programs. Between the NCAA not being able to use the Kurtis Townsend phone call recording, Billy Preston never playing for KU, and their suspension of De Sousa being overturned, I feel like KU is in decent shape. KU will get hit with charges as some point, be it next week or in the next phase of the NCAA’s investigation. But I think KU is in much better shape than either Louisville or Arizona. There will be more drama, though.
It is nice for things to have calmed down a little. KU had three huge “recruiting” wins by keeping Dotson, Udoka, and Silvio. Adding Moss, Enaruna, and Wilson gives Self options. And now KU fans start hoping that Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett are shooting 8000 jumpers a game, Dotson comes back like a senior-year Frank Mason or Devonté Graham, Silvio is actually good, and Udoka somehow stays healthy and learned to shoot free throws. And there’s not any more bad news for awhile.
Not too much to ask.