KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas basketball needed a new mantra.
Breaking the huddle after a Wednesday afternoon practice at Sprint Center in advance of the Big 12 Tournament, the No. 17-ranked Jayhawks (23-8) were, for the first time in 15 years, unable to as a group holler the oft-heard departing words — “Big 12 champs.” Seeded third, KU last week saw its national record-breaking streak of 14 straight conference championships come to an end.
On the heels of a regular season full of injuries, ineligibility and other adversity, it appears the program has adopted a perfect replacement, shouted just before the group jogged back to its locker room:
“Fun starts now.”
KU opens its postseason with an 8:30 p.m. Thursday quarterfinal against Texas (16-15), one of six league rivals to earn a regular-season split with the Jayhawks. KU took an 80-78 decision over the Longhorns on Jan. 14 in Lawrence, then dropped a 73-63 outcome on Jan. 29 in Austin.
While it remains to be seen whether this is in fact a “fun” experience for these Jayhawks — only sophomore guard Marcus Garrett and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot have experience in the NCAA Tournament, both in limited roles — at least two of the team’s four starting freshmen expressed something akin to a Christmas Eve-level excitement.
“I’m ecstatic. I can’t wait for it. It’s just going to be a great experience,” said freshman forward David McCormack. “I’m going to have a great time playing. ... I feel like it’s a little bit more pressure just because it’s postseason and it’s my first time. You always want to have your best first impression.”
Quentin Grimes fondly recalled memories of growing up watching March Madness on TV, adding he’s excited to get his shot on college basketball’s biggest stage. On the matter of pressure, though, the freshman guard differed slightly from McCormack’s take.
“I feel like we don’t have a lot of pressure,” Grimes said. “Just go out there, play how we play. I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country when we’re all locked in and focused. I feel like there’s no pressure. Just go out there, play as one unit and we can beat anybody in the country, for sure.”
While KU is short on player postseason experience, it has at the helm a Hall of Famer who’s been down this road more than a time or two.
Bill Self, who is tied with Baylor’s Scott Drew for longest-tenured head coach in the Big 12, said his squad is playing “fine” as it enters the conference tourney but expressed a desire to see more from his still-developing group.
“I’m not going to say I believe yet that we’re hitting our peak form right now, although that’s what every coach hopes their team does, but that remains to be seen,” Self said. “But I think we are playing pretty well.”
The Jayhawks have won the Big 12 Tournament eight times under Self’s guidance, and a ninth secured this weekend could bolster the team’s hopes of playing in nearby Tulsa, Okla., or Des Moines, Iowa, in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Self has expressed his belief that the highest attainable slotting for KU is a three-seed, a position that would almost certainly be a lock with the right outcomes in Kansas City.
Asked what it feels like to be here knowing they’re not playing for a one-seed, Self quipped: “We’re not?”
“I don’t think there’s any difference,” he continued. “This tournament has always meant something to us, but it’s always just been a validation of the regular season. When we tied with a couple of teams (for the league title) it was always, ‘OK, let’s go figure out who the best team is,’ one of those deals. That’s what Texas Tech and K-State should be saying to each other, because the winner of this tournament, if it’s one of them, they can actually say they’re the best team in the league. The other one can’t.
“With us, we can’t make that claim, but we can certainly make sure that they can’t say it quite as strongly.”
The Jayhawks on Wednesday morning held a team meeting where Self spoke of the different feeling posed by postseason pressure, a matter he remains unsure how his team will handle. Regardless of Thursday’s outcome, the threat posed by a potential one-and-done scenario should only serve as a motivating factor, he said.
“I don’t think it’s a bad pressure. I think it’s a good pressure,” Self said. “But I think all young kids have to go through it, and it’s best if you have some experienced guys to help them go through it. But it’s a little bit different this year because I don’t think the target will be on our back quite like it has been in the past.”
Self’s behind-the-scenes message to his players struck a similar tone.
“Just go out there and play free, ’cause he knows what we’re capable of and how we played early on in the season, what we can do as a unit,” Grimes said of Self’s hopes for the team. “So I feel like he knows how good and special a team this team can be. Even though we’ve lost a couple guys, a lot of guys have stepped up. I feel like this team can be really good even though we’re missing a lot of pieces.”
Self bullish on sport’s future
Self was asked for his opinion on the health of college basketball, which over the last two seasons has seen its share of off-the-court headlines and scandal revolving around the federal government’s probe into corruption in the sport.
“I think the health of the game is far better than what the appearance is. I do,” Self responded. “And of course, speaking candidly because it’s obviously, we’ve been involved, even though I still believe it’s from a distance compared to maybe what some of the other programs that have been implicated (have seen). But still though, we’re going to have to explain ourselves out too, and we look forward to doing that.”
Both Self and KU were mentioned by name at last October’s trial of three former Adidas employees, who were charged with orchestrating illicit under-the-table payment to top-tier recruits in order to steer them to schools sponsored by the apparel giant. Testimony and documents from that trial resulted in the indefinite withholding and eventual NCAA ineligibility ruling against sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa, who must sit through the 2019-20 season.
“I don’t think that what’s going on is near as rampant as what the appearance is right now, I really don’t, but certainly it’s been a black eye for our sport,” Self continued. “And you know, it crushes me because obviously we’re a part of that because we’ve (been) the president of the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) and on the oversight committee, those sorts of things is something we take great pride in trying to help the sport grow and certainly not take from it.”
Self served a one-year term as president of the NABC that began in June 2017.
“It’s been difficult for everybody involved and our sport has taken a hit, but we’ll survive it,” Self said. “We’ll get through it.”
TEXAS VS. NO. 17 KANSAS
Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Line: KU by 2½
TV/Radio: ESPN2/KWIC-FM (99.3)
Next: Winner vs. Texas Tech-Oklahoma/West Virginia winner, 8:30 p.m. Friday, Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F Jaxson Hayes ... 6-11 ... Fr. ... 10.3 ... 5.1
F Dylan Osetkowski ... 6-9 ... Sr. ... 10.2 ... 7.4
G Jase Febres ... 6-5 ... So. ... 8.7 ... 2.8
G Courtney Ramey ... 6-3 ... Fr. ... 8.0 ... 3.0*
G Matt Coleman ... 6-2 ... So. ... 10.2 ... 3.7*
NO. 17 KANSAS (23-8)
P Player ... Ht. ... Cl. ... Pts. ... Reb.
F David McCormack ... 6-10 ... Fr. ... 3.3 ... 2.6
F Dedric Lawson ... 6-9 ... Jr. ... 19.1 ... 10.6
G Ochai Agbaji ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... 9.2 ... 4.9
G Quentin Grimes ... 6-5 ... Fr. ... 7.8 ... 2.4
G Devon Dotson ... 6-2 ... Fr. ... 11.7 ... 3.5*
* — Assists