I wanted to take my time with this reaction and not let the emotion of the loss to Stanford and the ensuing media fallout influence my thoughts on this season. Here we are on the eve of the Sweet 16, and by all accounts, this ultra-talented Jayhawk team should still be dancing. Instead, they will be watching from home and the coaching staff will get an early start to their major recruiting efforts in April. Instead, teams like Kentucky and Dayton will be the stories of rounds 4 and 5. Instead, KU fans have to sweat it out while Joel Embiid decides if he is going to join fellow freshman Wayne Selden and stay at KU for another year rather than cheering them on to the final four this season.
With the fall of Syracuse, KU had yellow brick road laid out for them that led straight to a re-match with Florida in the Elite 8 for a chance at another Final Four. But that’s all over now. The Cardinal of Stanford dominated this Kansas team from start to finish with the exception of a late push fueled by defensive urgency that almost stole the game back.
How did we get here? A month and a half ago KU had just put the cap on their 9th Big 12 victory over West Virginia. They sat at 9-1 in the most competitive league in America. Star freshman Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden were coming into their own on both ends of the floor. Naadir Tharpe was finally settling into his role, become a more consistent facilitator. This young but battle tested Jayhawk squad looked like the pains of their brutal non-conference schedule was paying out at last in the form of tough conference wins.
Then came the injuries. In rapid succession Embiid tweaked his knee and his back (which would later be revealed as a stress fracture). This limited his productive minutes for the remaining of the season. He had two separate leaves of absence entirely to rehabilitate the injury. But even when he played he was not the Embiid of the Jayhawks’ 9-1 start. He was slower to react to the ball on defense and less nimble on offense. His massive arsenal of offensive moves seemed to wither away and die right in front of our eyes.
KU finished the Big 12, including the tournament, with a 6-4 record losing to Kansas State, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Iowa State in Kansas City.
KU went on to struggle with 15-seeded EKU before finally losing to Stanford in the third round. The loss was almost merciful. It put KU and its fans out of their misery. The misery of knowing your team is talented enough to be great, but merely good without the anchor of Embiid in the lineup. We all saw it coming. I have never been less convinced that a KU team had what it takes to reach the final four. The exception may be last year’s team which lacked talent and depth.
But Embiid’s injury wasn’t the only dooming feature of this Kansas squad. This was the first Bill Self-coached team I can remember that was pitiful on the defensive end. Even with Embiid in the lineup they were average at best. I tried to impart in a previous post how much that means to a team with championship aspirations. Quite frankly, KU never had a chance.
With the notable exception of Wiggins, who developed into a superior on-the-ball defender, the Kansas defense was porous at best. Without Embiid, it was downright cavernous. And the worst offender? Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe, who couldn’t keep a Hoverround-mounted geriatric patient out of the lane if he tried. Add to it that KU’s two starting big men are not exactly vintage Bill Self junkyard dogs but rather finesse players and the picture starts to become clear. Embiid’s speed and length made him a great shot blocker, but that wasn’t enough to cover up all of the other shortcomings.
Every great team in football has a great quarterback. In the same way, every great basketball team has its great point guard. KU completely lacked consistent play from that position this year. Everyone in the media and on the coaching staff agreed that this team would only go as far as Naadir Tharpe could carry them. I would say that proved to be accurate with a third round exit. Tharpe and Mason performed like a duo that didn’t deserve a spot in the second weekend. They were too loose with the ball, too frazzled under pressure and made too many poor decisions when it mattered most. I think it is safe to say that the PG spot is up for grabs next season. Frankamp may very well be the front runner at this point, although there is a chance that Self may even explore the transfer market again to fill this need like he did with Black last year. I will be shocked if Naadir Tharpe is a starter next season.
Finally, I think that KU’s schedule was a double-edged sword. The grueling non-conference slate was good in the fact that KU entered the league play hardened and rattled off an impressive early streak that would ultimately secure its championship. But, on the other hand, I think this team got wore down by the end of February. The energy wasn’t there at times, Embiid got injured and the team never got its bounce back. I think it was evident in the loss to West Virginia to close out the regular season that something was wrong. KU was good enough to beat that team without Joel. They gave up 92 points. Oklahoma State was personal and KU played like it, but against Iowa State you saw the same signs of fatigue play out. Kansas gave up 94 points in that one, the most any Bill Self team has ever relinquished in a game that did not go to overtime.
Now that that is all out of the way, let’s talk positives. This KU team won its tenth straight conference title. That is an absurd accomplishment in the modern era of basketball and should be commended. No team wants to be the team that lets that streak die even though it will someday. This team really peaked in January and early February and secured the title then before everything caught up to them later on in the season.
In addition, Wiggins was freaking good. Forget the ridiculous hype and all of that. His season will go down as one of the best for a freshman at KU of all time which is saying something. In the short term people will remember the loss to Stanford and his disappearing act, but years down the road people will remember how spectacularly he played and how humble and team focused he was as a person.
The loss to Stanford in the round of 32 was a culmination of many things, the perfect storm if you will. It was the combination of the defensive laxity, lack of leadership, poor point guard play, injury to a star and off shooting night by your best offensive weapon that ultimately led to the fall. But all is not lost. KU returns almost everybody next season. While Black is out of eligibility and Wiggins is going to the draft, there is a chance that Embiid may forgo the NBA draft and remain a Jayhawk for one more season. Even if he doesn’t, with the talent KU has coming in, and all of the experience that will remain on the roster, next season should be something special if the pieces come together right. I am looking forward to it already. Rock Chalk.