About a month ago, my KU buddies I text with daily and I had a lengthy exchange fearing what was ahead of us. The conversation went something like, “I’m not sure if we can win the Big 12, but we need Baylor to lose to someone so they don’t go 18–0.”
At that point the Bears were rolling. They had waxed Tech in Lubbock and KU in Lawrence and, a close game here or there excepted, seemed like no one was going to touch them. In one of my KU posts I wrote how, unlike teams in the past who had a lead on KU, Baylor did not look like a team that was going get tripped up and help KU.
I was obviously mega wrong.
Baylor lost three of their last four while KU is on a 16-game winning streak. And, once again, the Jayhawks are the Big 12 champs.
Each year in the 14-year run I think I found someway to say that year’s title was the most satisfying. That’s an easy exercise this year. Between the NCAA stuff, losing that early game to Baylor, BU looking so tough, the Brawl, and some injury scares, for this team to close so strong and take back what appeared to be Baylor’s is super satisfying.
It is also setting KU fans up for yet another March rollercoaster of irrational emotions. Over the past two weeks I’ve swung wildly between “KU is by far the best team in the country” to “Oh God, we’re going to lose to Houston/Arizona/LSU in the round of 32 because we can’t shoot.”
It’s dumb to have any negative emotions at this point since we have no idea who KU is going to have to play. And with everything negative that has been wrapped into this season/what lies beyond this season, I’m going to try to focus on the positives.
It has been so much fun to watch this year’s big three. Devon Dotson was erratic the first two months of the season, fueling speculation he was worried more about impressing NBA scouts than helping his team win. Whether he did reset his mindset or just settle into his role a little more, the dude has been nearly unstoppable in Big 12 play. He has improved his defense. He’s become a better passer. And he is absolutely deadly if you give him even the slightest angle to get to the basket. He’s become the best finishing guard I’ve ever seen play at KU, surpassing Frank Mason III.
Marcus Garrett has been just a joy to watch as he does 1000 little things every night to make the team better. In any tight game, there he is asserting himself to make the plays that change the course of the contest. The four steals in seven possessions that flipped the entire season against West Virginia. His block on the final possession of the first Texas Tech game. His driving layup this past Saturday against Tech. If KU is closing out a game, he is always in the middle of it. The defensive player of the year who also led the conference in assists, yet somehow only made the third team all conference squad in the coaches’ vote. I’m hoping he goes 1997 Paul Pierce on the Big 12 tournament to show the coaches who did not vote for him how good he is. I think his personality means he will likely just keep doing what he’s done all year and let his team’s results speak for him.
And Udoka Azubuike, who, when healthy, has always been nigh un-guardable in the low post. But he took his game to another level this year. Especially since that first game against Tech, when he pouted and snapped at refs during the game and was benched for the next game, he has been a freaking machine. He’s rebounded better than he’s ever rebounded. Played fantastic defense, always better in the closing moments of games. He’s even making some free throws. All while dunking everything he can.
Those three alone give you a hell of a team. The best, most consistent team in the country because they get to the rim and finish so often, which is enough to balance what is a pretty poor outside shooting team. The inside offense is so good KU doesn’t even look to shoot from outside much. There are moments in every game when the offense bogs down for a bit and I think, “Man, what if they had Svi or Malik Newman or even peak LaGerald Vick to make people pay for packing it inside?” But it never matters. You might take Dok away, but then Dotson and Garrett and Ochai Agbaji get layups. You might take away Dotson’s lanes, but then you leave a defender on an island against Dok, waiting to get dunked on.
If KU runs through the Big 12 tournament and wins three games, they will enter the NCAA tournament as a huge favorite. Even if they lose a game, even if it is to Baylor for a second time, they will still likely be the #1 overall seed and betting favorite.
The NCAA tournament is full of nightmare scenarios, from twisted ankles to early foul trouble to not taking an opponent seriously to a team that never shoots well hitting 75% of their 3’s in the first half to a terrible call in crunch time. I’m doing my best not to worry about all that yet, and enjoy how this team has been so resilient throughout the season, hoping that resiliency can get them through whatever the NCAAs throw at them.
Speaking of the NCAA, KU issued its response to the NCAA charges last week. I did not read the entire, 300+ page document, but relied on some smarter, more devoted people than I am to do so and share their thoughts.
Since the NCAA response isn’t due for a couple months, and there will be more back-and-forth after that, I’m putting off spending too much mental effort into forming an opinion on the KU response or where the case is headed. There will be plenty of time for that in April and May. For now I want to stay on that March rollercoaster, rolling between anticipation of a special finish for a fun team and fearing another devastating tourney burn out.
- Seriously, the first team should have been all KU and Baylor players this year. ↩