It’s been awhile since KU played a huge Big 12 game. The game at Texas Tech two years ago, when the Jayhawks clinched their 14th straight conference title was a big game. ESPN Gameday was in town, Tech had beaten KU in Lawrence a month earlier. But that game didn’t feel massive because A) KU was in first place coming into the game B) a loss would only drop them into a tie for first and C) there were still two games to play and KU had a scheduling advantage over that stretch. It was a big game but, from the KU perspective, it wasn’t a BIG GAME.
Saturday, though, was a BIG GAME for KU. A HUGE GAME, even. They entered the contest at Baylor trailing the undefeated Bears by a game thanks to a convincing loss in Lawrence six weeks ago. Baylor had a couple tight finishes but have not looked like a team that would stumble and help KU, the way so many other contenders have done over the past 15 years. ESPN Gameday was in town again. KU was looking up at a team that just might be better than them. The vibe was very different for us KU fans.
The result was a hell of a game, the biggest performance of Udoka Azubuike’s career, and a tie in the conference race with four games to play.
First up, the Udoka performance. A friend of mine – who happens to have a daughter at Baylor – predicted before the game that Udoka would have 20 dunks. That seemed a little exuberant, but damn if Udoka didn’t try to get there. He dunked early and often. Off lobs. Off offensive rebounds. Off spin moves and head fakes. Dok dunked like a man possessed. He, and the KU guards who got him the ball, absolutely shredded the Baylor interior defense. It was a career-defining performance. I found his postgame interview with Holly Rowe fascinating, too. He was super emotional, something he has rarely shown to the public. You could tell through his play and his words that this was a BIG GAME for him, personally.
I joked with friends after the game that he was soft for not getting one more rebound for an even 20. As impressive as 23 and 19 is, 23 and 20 puts him right there with Nick Collison’s insane games as as senior when he went for 20 and 20 multiple times as greatest performances by a KU big man.
The win and Dok’s performance were both thanks to some fantastic adjustments by Bill Self, changing where KU started their offense, who they had initiating things, and finding ways to take away what worked for Baylor defensively a month ago.
I don’t think Self gets enough credit for this kind of stuff. The casual fan will acknowledge that he is a great coach. But I bet many of those people will couch that by saying, “It’s just because he’s at Kansas and always has great talent. Oh, and because Adidas was paying those kids to go there, too.”
The more astute observer will recognize how Self is a very good in-game coach. He’s one of the very best at running sets after time outs to get easy looks. His teams almost always adjust well at halftime. But I think even these people miss how freaking good Self is at making adjustments at the higher level. If he has a chance to prep for a team, he will almost always insert new looks to attack their soft spots.
Bigger is how he adjusts over the course of the season. Way back in his second year, he threw out the entire offense when Wayne Simien was injured. Playing around a 6’8” walk-on, Self started a bunch of guards, discarded his preferred throw it down low offense, and ran motion to get them lanes to attack the rim. He didn’t fully embrace the three-point shot, mostly because that team was filled with slashers rather than shooters. Still he was one of the first coaches at an elite program to go small, even if it was temporary and because of an injury.
He also scrapped his offense three years ago, moving Josh Jackson from the small forward to power forward slot in mid-December. He saw that was the best way both to put Jackson in favorable matchups and open things up for Frank Mason III and Devonté Graham outside. That switch made a good team great.
This year, he was again willing to scrap his offense in-season, this time in January, when it was clear that David McCormack was making things harder, not easier, on Udoka. Bring McCormack off the bench, slide another guard into the starting lineup, and a team that was struggling to find its identity suddenly became much better on both ends of the court.
Coach K is the greatest coach in the history of college basketball because he has won so many different ways over his career. He’s always been willing to scrap the offense he ran last year if this year’s talent needs a different scheme to succeed. But I don’t know that K has ever adjusted in season the way Self has repeatedly done. Hell, if Coach K went to Rupp Arena and won with a 6’8” walk-on starting at center there would be an ESPN 30 for 30 about it. Self does it and only KU fans remember.
Bill Self is the subject of warranted criticism now because of KU’s involvement in the Adidas scandal. His KU career may well end in the next year or two once the NCAA has its say. Regardless of how that turns out, regardless of how much talent he has, Self has proven himself to be one of the best coaches in the game not just because of the consistency with which his teams win but also because he is a master of finding ways to put his best players in positions to play their best, and is never afraid to make major changes deep within a season to get them to that point.
OK, that ode to Self aside, Saturday’s game was fantastic. Baylor jumps out 5–0 and the crowd is going nuts. KU comes back with a 14–2 run to take control. Baylor made run after run, KU always answered. KU played the last 90 seconds of each half about as bad as they could have possibly played them. It could have easily been a 10+ point win to match Baylor’s 12-point win in Lawrence. They did just enough to escape the #1 team in the country’s home court with a three-point win.
It was a huge game, and yet it wasn’t. While the Big 12 race should go down to the wire, KU and Baylor have clearly separated themselves from the rest of the country. There seems to be little doubt that KU will be the #1 seed in the Midwest region and Baylor will be the #1 seed in the South region. All that seems to be in question is which team will be the #1 overall seed, which is important only if they play for the national title and need to decide which team gets to pick what uniform they want to wear.
With so much settled that does take a little away from this game.
Still, I love these huge, late February games. Big games at other points in the calendar are great. The greatest game in the history of the Big 12 was likely the #1 Oklahoma vs #1 Kansas game in January 2016. It featured an equal number of future conference players of the year as overtimes (three). It was a wildly entertaining, high-level game full of drama. But since it came in the first week of the conference season – and calendar year – it got lost as both teams waded through the rest of their conference schedules and played again six weeks later in a game that probably had more meaning.
But these games when the sun is setting a little later and hints of spring are on the horizon, when the wins make you start thinking about fun March scenarios, they just hit you a little harder. And the wins feel a little bit bigger.