For nearly three decades, Kansas basketball has been synonymous with consistency. They’ve made the NCAA tournament 30 consecutive seasons, and in that time, reached 13 Elite Eights, seven Final Fours, won a national championship, and lost in the finals thrice more. Coming into this season, the Jayhawks had won 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season championships, the longest streak in Division I history. No coach in the country has a better shot than Bill Self of catching Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski for most career wins, and the Jayhawks have averaged an astounding 30 wins per season over his 16-year tenure. But all year in Lawrence—and really, for the better part of the last two—something has been off.
Kansas’s season came to an abrupt halt on Saturday, when the no. 4 seeded Jayhawks were throttled by no. 5 Auburn, 89-75. Kansas surrendered a 2-0 lead a little more than a minute into play. Three minutes later, their deficit grew to double digits. By halftime, it expanded to 26. The Jayhawks were outmatched from the opening tip, often going minutes at a time without field goals, while Auburn dominated them on the offensive boards and forced Kansas’s inexperienced guards into committing turnovers. It was a fitting bookend to one of the more disappointing seasons in Jayhawks history, and one that may portend a murky future for the perennial blue bloods.
All five Kansas starters in Saturday’s bludgeoning made their NCAA tournament debuts against Northeastern in the round of 64, and it showed. Auburn’s starting backcourt of upperclassmen Bryce Brown and Jared Harper carved through the porous Jayhawk defense, with Harper scoring 18 points to go with six assists, and Brown dropping 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting from deep—five of which came in the first half. Each time Kansas attempted to claw its way back into the contest, a Tiger was there to end the run, either with a thunderous dunk, or a 3 that halted any momentum the Jayhawks were building.
Chuma Okeke with a vicious block which leads to Jared Harper’s one-handed hammer #WarDamnEagle pic.twitter.com/akxgBchVzG— Power of Dixieland (@PwrofDixieland) March 24, 2019
Expectations for Kansas were high to open the season, with the Jayhawks entering the year as the top-ranked team in the sport, ahead of future 1-seeds Duke, Virginia, and Gonzaga. A roster stacked with returning stars Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike paired perfectly with highly regarded freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, and prized Memphis transfers (and brothers) Dedric and K.J. Lawson. Dedric, a junior, garnered preseason recognition as a National Player of the Year frontrunner, while K.J. was expected to provide support off the bench. The incumbent Jayhawks reached the Final Four the previous spring after a somewhat erratic regular season that saw them jostling for position in the Big 12 hierarchy, only to claim the conference crown yet again. And while longtime stalwarts like Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk had moved on to the pros, there was little reason to suspect that Kansas hadn’t simply reloaded, the way it always had.
Early wins against no. 10 Michigan State, no. 5 Tennessee, and no. 17 Villanova only solidified Kansas’s position as one of the best teams in the county. A road loss to Arizona State was concerning, but the Sun Devils were ranked at the time, and the Jayhawks were without a significant interior presence. Azubuike sat with an ankle injury, and Silvio De Sousa—last year’s proclaimed savior after star freshman big man Billy Preston was held out while under investigation by the NCAA—missed the full year with eligibility troubles of his own. The 6-foot-9 245-pound forward was Kansas’s best offensive rebounder in the one semester of basketball he played last spring, but was held out after a former Adidas consultant testified in court to paying him $2,500 as part of the federal government’s investigation into illicit recruiting methods. De Souza was promptly ruled ineligible, and the Jayhakws’ engines were sputtering before the year began.
Azubuike was later sidelined for the year with a torn ligament in his right hand, forcing Kansas to play smaller and double down on a strategy that was antithetical to the one that has brought them success for more than a decade. Since 2001, the earliest year that KenPom data is available, Kansas has had only two seasons in which they collected fewer than 30 percent of their misses on the offensive glass: last season, and this one. And though Dedric Lawson lived up to the hype, averaging more than 19 points and 10 rebounds a night, Kansas’s freshmen weren’t all ready for top billing.
Dotson, the no. 21 player in his class according to 247Sports, was the Jayhawks third-leading scorer, but vanished at times, finishing with single-digit points in six of Kansas’s nine pre-tournament losses. Grimes, meanwhile, struggled to match his billing as the second-best recruit at his position, shooting under 40 percent from the field for the year while averaging almost a 1-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. And to top it all off, sophomore guard Marcus Garrett missed time with injury, and senior leader Lagerald Vick left the program following an early February loss to Kansas State, citing personal reasons. The details behind Vick’s absence are scarce, but his exit followed a contentious evening at the Phog. Vick didn’t play at all in the first half of that contest with Kansas State, and Self made a point of signaling out the move following the game.
“We made a decision to not play him in the first half obviously, but when we did that we were actually better,” Self said.
Vick was a surprise returnee for his senior season, with many expecting him to declare for the NBA draft. His homecoming was supposed to confirm Kansas as a national power. Instead, his absence marked the moment its luck ran out. Of course, Self’s assessment of his squad wasn’t exactly wrong: Kansas won its next three games, and five of its next six, but the damage was done. With a March 5 defeat at Oklahoma, the Jayhawks were officially eliminated from Big 12 regular-season contention. A 12-point loss to Iowa State in the conference tournament final locked them into a no. 4 seed, and after their failure against Auburn on Saturday, Kansas finished the year with double-digit losses for the first time since the turn of the century.
Some might argue that it wouldn’t have mattered if the Jayhawks were at full strength this weekend; that a team with as much skill on the wings as Auburn shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc was unbeatable, regardless of who took the floor for Kansas. And maybe those people are right. But Kansas’s issues this season can’t be viewed in a vacuum. The illnesses that devastated the Jayhawks this year appeared as symptoms last year. And looking ahead, there doesn’t seem to be a cure on the way.
As of Saturday, only two players have committed to Kansas’s upcoming freshman class, giving the Jayhawks the 55th-best group in the nation. Self and his staff whiffed on a handful of top prospects who chose to take their talents to Kentucky, Arizona, and Michigan, and only a signature from highly regarded power forward Matthew Hurt could help right the ship.
Maybe this view is fatalistic. Maybe this is just a blip, and Kansas will resume its winning ways after Late Night in the Phog next fall. It was only last year that they made the Final Four. But for those who watched this team crumble the way it did this past season, it must feel like it’s been longer than that.