How Kansas’ Big 12 supremacy unraveled

Before Tuesday night, Feb. 28, 2004, was the last time the Kansas Jayhawks were mathematically eliminated from winning at least a share of a Big 12 regular-season championship. Oklahoma State and Texas both won that Saturday during George W. Bush’s first term, and it became impossible for both to lose their two remaining contests and allow Kansas to force a tie.

Fifteen years and one week later, it happened again.

Kansas’ loss at Oklahoma on Tuesday officially took the Jayhawks (22-8, 11-6) out of the running for a Big 12 regular-season title. Texas Tech (25-5, 13-4) and Kansas State (23-7, 13-4) both won Monday, giving each team a two-game lead on Kansas with one game remaining.

How did it all happen?

Heading into the season, a 15th straight Big 12 title seemed like a sure thing for Bill Self and the Jayhawks. Most of the contenders in the league had lost personnel from last season, and Kansas was adding an elite recruiting class to a group that included several key returnees and sit-out transfers. KU received eight of 10 first-place votes in the preseason Big 12 poll and was picked as the preseason No. 1 team nationally in the AP and coaches’ polls. There wasn’t another Big 12 team in the top 10 of either poll.

For a team that started the season with a win over Michigan State and rattled off 10 straight wins, the Jayhawks’ struggles in Big 12 play were unexpected.

So what went wrong? We spoke to a number of Big 12 coaches and sources to find out.

Factor 1: Udoka Azubuike’s injury

There are few players in college basketball like Azubuike. He’s a uniquely dominant force in the paint, at 7 feet tall and about 270 pounds. He led the nation in 2-point percentage last season and was once again shooting better than 70 percent from the field this season.

After starting the season averaging 19.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in his first three games and putting up 18 points and nine rebounds against Stanford, Azubuike injured his ankle against Wofford and missed four games. He returned against Eastern Michigan and promptly posted 23 points and nine rebounds in just 20 minutes.

Two games later, his season was over. Azubuike tore ligaments in his right hand during practice and required season-ending surgery.

Kansas’ record with Azubuike was 9-0, including wins over Michigan State and Tennessee. Without Azubuike, the Jayhawks are 13-8.

Opposing coaches point to Azubuike’s absence as perhaps the biggest factor in Kansas’ struggles at both ends of the floor.

“I think [Self] can play in multiple ways with Doke,” one coach said. “He wants to play small ball, he can go with the four-guard lineup like they did last year. When he had Doke in, he could go with his two-game. That’s his bread-and-butter. Doke is one of the best big men in the country. They could play defense multiple ways. They can beat teams different ways. You know you’re going to have to collapse on Udoka.”

Another coach mentioned that Dedric Lawson struggled to defend at the rim without Udoka because he had to play even more minutes.

“They weren’t deep. They had no post presence,” said one coach who played Kansas without Azubuike. “They weren’t good defensively. Lawson can’t play [aggressively] — not because he’s bad defensively but because he can’t afford to be in foul trouble. You can really attack the interior. I like Mitch Lightfoot, but he’s 6-foot-7. [David] McCormack’s a good body, but offensively for what they do — and especially without [Lagerald] Vick — where are they going to score in the half court if they can’t get out in transition? They have to play through the five-man.”

Factor 2: Inexperience, inconsistency in the backcourt

The past several seasons, Self has had a high-level veteran point guard to rely on. It was Devonte Graham last season and the duo of Frank Mason and Graham for a couple seasons before that. Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson handled things for a few seasons, then there were Sherron Collins, Mario Chalmers, Russell Robinson and even Aaron Miles back when the streak started. So many of those players overlapped on the same teams, giving Self multiple ball handlers and guys who could run the show.

This season, Self is leaning heavily on Devon Dotson, who has been one of the more consistent freshmen in the Big 12. But he’s still a freshman, and one who didn’t get much help from his backcourt mates when it came to running the offense.

“He’s one of the best freshmen in the country. Elite-level speed, his ability to take over games,” one Big 12 assistant said of Dotson. “But if you look at past years, Kansas doesn’t lose in the last four minutes. They execute, they take care of the basketball. They haven’t done that like in the past. They made more mistakes in the final four minutes, and that goes back to the leadership of a four-year guard like Mason and Graham.”

With Azubuike, Vick and De Sousa out, the only players who have played for more than one year in Kansas’ program are Marcus Garrett and Mitch Lightfoot. Garrett missed time with injury, while Lightfoot didn’t play much until the past few weeks.

“It was more inexperienced in terms of a lead guard like Graham or Mason that held the ship together,” an opposing coach said of the biggest difference in this season’s team.

Combine the losses of De Sousa, Azubuike and Vick with Garrett’s missing four games because of an injury and Self’s needing to burn freshman Ochai Agbaji’s redshirt midway through the season, and there was very little consistency on the roster. Throw in the fact that it was such a young group, and Kansas just didn’t develop as expected.

“I don’t think they ever had a full boat. Never had a full team,” a Big 12 coach said. “You’re mixing and matching pieces. How can your team continually get better if you don’t have a full team?”

Factor 3: Quentin Grimes’ “freshman funk”

One of the best guards in the 2018 class, Quentin Grimes was a top-10 recruit who chose Kansas over the likes of Texas, Kentucky and Marquette. He was a projected lottery pick in the 2019 NBA draft heading into the season, and he earned preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors and honorable mention All-Big 12 recognition in October.

Grimes’ stock only rose once the season got underway. The 6-foot-5 Texas native was terrific on opening night against Michigan State, hitting six 3-pointers en route to 21 points and four assists.

Unfortunately for Kansas, that was the peak of Grimes’ season. He hit double figures just three times in the 11 games before Big 12 play began.

Self said back in November that Grimes’ struggles were mostly mental, calling it “the freshman funk.”

“Something’s going on that he needs to get out of,” Self told ESPN after Kansas’ win over Tennessee, in which Grimes had five points on 1-for-4 shooting.

After totaling 33 points in the first two Big 12 games, though, Grimes averaged 4.9 points in his next 12 conference games. He has slid all the way to No. 69 in ESPN’s NBA draft rankings.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Grimes to produce, but he’s not at that level right now,” one Big 12 coach said. “I think he will be, but not right now.”

Based on talks with sources around the Big 12, Grimes struggled to adapt to his role early. Dotson had the ball in his hands at the point guard spot, Vick was the shooter, and Self was playing with Lawson and Azubuike down low. Essentially, Grimes was the fifth man offensively — and after he hit six 3-pointers in the season opener, his shot stopped falling. He went 7-for-32 from 3-point range in the 10 nonconference games following the game against Michigan State.

“I think it was mental,” one Big 12 source said. “It was all of those variables. When you come into a situation as a freshman, you have in your mind your role. There’s a comfort level with that. When it starts, and there’s all those variables, it takes time to get adjusted to it — especially a young freshman. It takes a whole year for most freshmen to figure it out anyway, without all those variables.”

Once Azubuike got hurt and Vick took his leave of absence, Grimes was tasked with becoming more aggressive as a scorer, but he has taken some time to adjust again.

“All that shuffling in and out, playing different ways, impacted him,” a Big 12 source said. “And when everything fell apart, he never got it back going.”

Grimes, who doesn’t turn 19 years old until May, is starting to turn things around. He totaled 29 points and 7-for-13 3-point shooting in the two games preceding the OU loss, potentially signifying a strong finish to the season.

Factor 4: Lagerald Vick’s leave of absence

Lagerald Vick wasn’t supposed to be part of Kansas’ 2018-19 team.

He declared for the NBA draft following his junior season, and Self proceeded as if Vick would not be back, even after he decided to return to school. Self told ESPN last June that he was under the impression that Vick would go elsewhere if he withdrew his name from the draft. In late June, however, the school announced that Vick would return to the team.

For a couple months, it was a season-saver for the Jayhawks. With the questions surrounding De Sousa and the injury to Azubuike, a constant beside Dedric Lawson and Devon Dotson was, surprisingly, Vick.

He averaged 24.6 points and made 28 3-pointers during a five-game stretch in November and early December, including back-to-back 30-plus-point efforts against Vermont and Louisiana in which he shot a combined 15-for-20 from 3-point range. Vick scored 29 points against Villanova. But things went downhill from there. He hit the 15-point mark just twice in the next 14 games, and his performances in Kansas’ losses were worth noting: 10.0 points on 32.4 percent 3-point shooting compared to 14.1 points on 45.5 percent 3-point shooting on the season.

Just two days after Vick played a season-low 19 minutes in Kansas’ loss to Kansas State on Feb. 5, the school announced that Vick was taking a leave of absence from the team. As recently as Feb. 28, Self told reporters that there was no change in Vick’s status.

Kansas is 5-2 without Vick, but despite his missing seven games, he’s still the team leader in 3-point makes and 3-point attempts. There’s a clear lack of consistent perimeter shooting without him.

“He’s a shot-maker. He’ll take tough shots, he’ll make tough shots,” one Big 12 coach said. “They don’t shoot the ball as well. And it’s one less player out of the rotation.”

Factor 5: Silvio De Sousa’s ineligibility

The day before Kansas’ exhibition opener, Self announced that the team was planning to hold sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa out of competition pending a review of his eligibility status. A couple weeks prior, former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola testified in federal court that he paid $2,500 to De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne.

In general, the FBI trial in October cast a shadow over Kansas’ preseason preparation. Every day there were more headlines coming out of New York, with the Jayhawks referenced in many of the stories due to their connection to Gassnola. The continued NCAA investigation into De Sousa raised concerns in Lawrence that an investigation into some of the FBI allegations could follow.

De Sousa played a key role in Kansas’ run to the Final Four last season, scoring 16 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Big 12 title game against West Virginia and averaging 6.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in Sweet 16 and Elite Eight wins over Clemson and Duke, respectively. He was once again expected to be a factor up front for the Jayhawks.

In late November, Self said things remained in a holding pattern with De Sousa, but he hoped to get him back around the holiday season.

That never happened.

In early February, De Sousa was ruled ineligible for the rest of this season and all of next season, leaving Self and Kansas athletic director Jeff Long irate. Self called the punishment “mean-spirited and vindictive” and “shameful and a failure of the NCAA.” Long referred to it as “unfair and punitive.”

De Sousa’s play down the stretch of last season was a major reason Kansas was able to make a run in March, especially with Udoka Azubuike hampered. While Azubuike was healthy, the Jayhawks had enough bodies up front even without De Sousa, but once Azubuike was hurt, it left them awfully short-handed down low.

“He would have brought physicality,” one Big 12 coach said. “An ability to have more of an inside presence, rebounding. And he was an extra body in the rotation, a reliable body in the rotation.”

Factor 6: The Big 12 is good (and Kansas is by no means bad)

It reads more like a list of excuses than the failings of this year’s team. But maybe that’s the case, and maybe that’s a testament to Self, Kansas and the aura of The Streak. It took a season-ending injury, a suspension and a leave of absence — all in the same season — to derail the Jayhawks.

“If I’m Bill Self, I think I’m doing a helluva job coaching this team,” a Big 12 coach said. “He’s getting the most out of the players he has.”

Here’s the other thing: Texas Tech and Kansas State are really good. Both teams reached the Elite Eight last season, and Tech could be Final Four good, while Kansas State returns most of its key pieces from a season ago.

“I think more of it is the parity of the Big 12 this year,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told ESPN when asked to assess the reasons for Kansas’ fall. “We probably have more teams that can make a Final Four this year than in other years.”

Kansas came close to seeing its streak end in the past, and there seemed to be one week every other season when the “Is this the year the streak ends?” narratives started coming out. But Self and the Jayhawks were always able to turn things around, to the point that Kansas winning the Big 12 seemed inevitable, a foregone conclusion.

Until this season. But that shouldn’t prevent us from sitting back to admire the Jayhawks’ 14-year run on top of the hill. The rest of the league sure is.

“This is one of the more remarkable accomplishments in modern college sports, especially in basketball, where there’s so much turnover and parity,” Drew said. “For 14 straight years, they were able to win a championship. Five of the last six years, it’s been ranked as the No. 1 conference, RPI-wise. To be able to do that streak in the No. 1 conference is a true testament to the players they have, Coach Self and their fans. That’s remarkable. Nobody does this nowadays.

“It’s a lot harder to win a regular-season championship than a postseason tournament. Two games, three games — people can string that together. But 18 games over January, February and early March is tough, and a lot of those years, it wasn’t close.”

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