Like it or not, Kansas is back.
Back in the AP Top 25, at least, with the talent to make a run in the Phillip’s 66 Big 12 Men’s Basketball Championship.
The Jayhawks (19-8, 12-6) won six of their final seven conference games, including a 71-58 victory over previously undefeated Baylor, to grab the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Kansas also skyrocketed to No. 13 in the AP Poll and moved up to a projected 4 seed in NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament after falling to a 7 seed.
That’s quite a finish for a team that had its worst conference start in head coach Bill Self’s 18 seasons at Kansas.
A loss against West Virginia on February 6 dropped Kansas to 6-5 in Big 12 play and out of the top 25 for the first time in 231 weeks. The season seemed stuck on a downhill slope.
While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for the slide, possible culprits could be the practices and workouts lost due to COVID-19 protocols and the ongoing NCAA investigation. The NCAA investigation has hung over Kansas since 2018 and has started to affect recruiting. The Jayhawks still bring in quality talent, but do not have as many 5-star and top-100 recruits as previous years.
It felt strange watching a tradition-rich program, with a hall of fame coach in Self, play inconsistently and search for an identity.
Kansas needed time. The program avoided major COVID pauses during conference play, which helped build momentum, team chemistry, and a better understanding of the playbook.
The final seven-game stretch started with victories over Oklahoma State, Iowa State (twice), and Kansas State. Even though wins piled up, questions remained about how Kansas would match up against its remaining conference opponents, which featured then-No. 15 Texas Tech, then-No. 14 Texas, and then-No.2 Baylor.
Sophomore guard Christian Braun’s three-pointer with 44 second left to seal a 67-61 win over Texas Tech provided some answers. The Jayhawks also had five players score 10 points or more against the Red Raiders, led by junior forward David McCormack’s 17 points on seven-of-10 shooting.
McCormack followed up the Texas Tech performance with 11 points in a 75-72 overtime loss at Texas and a game-high 20 points in the win over Baylor. His increased involvement has opened up more scoring opportunities for guards like Braun and junior Ochai Agbaji.
Agbaji, the team’s leading scorer, put up 12.66 points and 2.33 assists per game during the last three conference match ups.
Braun’s emergence, along with redshirt freshman forward Jalen Wilson’s, has dictated the Jayhawks’ success. Braun scored 10 or more points in eight of the final nine conference games. Wilson recorded a double-double in six of the last seven games, including 11 points and 11 rebounds against Texas Tech.
Wilson also secured a game-high 13 rebounds against Texas. Kansas lost the overall rebounding battle 50-38 in that game and shot 26.9% in the second half as a 43-32 halftime lead disappeared.
Instead of dwelling on the loss, Kansas learned from its mistakes to pull off the upset against Baylor. The Jayhawks made 51% of their field goals, won the rebounding battle 48-28 and held the Bears to 34.8% shooting for the perfect ending to the conference season.
While the rest of the Big 12 finished conference play with make-up games this week, Kansas beat UTEP, 67-62, to stay fresh for the conference tournament. The victory exposed some areas the Jayhawks need to work on if they want to play deep into March.
Kansas may be back in the top 25, but it will need to pass a few more tests before finding a home among college basketball’s elite teams.