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Kansas Basketball: The Season That Ended Too Soon

NCAA Basketball: George Mason at Kansas

There’s only one team in all of college basketball that will finish their season on top of the mountain. Everyone else’s season will be left to tears and “what ifs” as they try to figure out what went wrong or how they couldn’t finish the job. Last year, Kansas was the last team standing. This year, the Jayhawks went home early after a second-round exit at the hands of the Arkansas Razorbacks.

In the 72-71 defeat, the Jayhawks were once again without their head coach, Bill Self. Due to a procedure, he underwent the night before the Big 12 tournament began, Self missed the final five games of the season for Kansas. He was expected to return to coaching if the Jayhawks made it to the second weekend of the tournament, but it wasn’t meant to be.

 

Norm Roberts did a fantastic job filling in for Self this season. The first interim spot came during the first four games of the season when Self served a self-imposed suspension. Roberts went 4-0 during that stretch including a win over Duke. Roberts then led the team to two wins in the Big 12 tournament before falling to Texas in the championship game. Despite the solid job Roberts did, was Self the missing piece in the loss to the Razorbacks that knocked them out of the NCAA tournament?

The Jayhawks actually got out to an early lead in this game, something that wasn’t a common occurrence throughout the 2022-2023 season. This team had been known for starting slow and then it seemed like after a pep talk from Self at halftime, the team would come out with a new fire lit inside of them and go out and compete at a higher level. Kansas led 35-27 at halftime and then was outscored 45-36 in the second half which led to the 72-71 loss. It just feels like a Self-coached team would not have blown a second-half lead in the way they did.

Missing Self wasn’t the only reason Kansas lost. Part of the problem was free throws down the stretch. Kansas was in the bonus with eight minutes left in the game and they missed six free throws from that point to the end of the game. Another thing that hurt the Jayhawks in this game, and throughout the season, was a lack of depth on the bench. Whenever the Jayhawks got into foul trouble, it caused problems. In this game, two starters (KJ Adams and Kevin McCullar Jr) were in foul trouble early in the second half. Their first big man off the bench, Ernest Udeh Jr, also picked up his fourth foul early in the second half.

 

Another issue the Jayhawks had this season was the streaky nature of freshman phenom Gradey Dick. In the home finale at Allen Fieldhouse, Dick went 0-7 from the field including 0-5 from three-point range. He scored four points at the free throw line that day, but the Jayhawks barely squeaked out a Senior Night victory over Texas Tech that night. He followed that up with a six-point effort at Texas to wrap up the regular season as the team lost by 16 points to the Longhorns. He showed up big in the first two games of the Big 12 tournament before disappearing in the championship game against Texas.

Dick recorded a double-double in the first-round game against Howard, scoring 19 points, grabbing 11 boards, and dishing out five assists. Then in what ended up being the final game of the season, the freshman limped to the finish line in the loss, scoring only seven points. These losses weren’t all on Dick, but the streaky nature of his game this season led to some inconsistencies. It’s likely Dick will test the waters for the NBA Draft, but it may be best for him to come back for one more season and become a more consistent contributor before making the leap to the next level.

Despite the disappointing ending to the season, it was another inspiring year for the Kansas Jayhawks. They achieved another Big 12 regular season championship and received a number one seed in the NCAA tournament despite losing 70% of their regular contributors from the 2022 National Championship team. The way Self was able to piece this team together and get them to buy in makes this season one of his best in a career filled with many notable accomplishments.

 

Hopefully Self will be able to bounce back from the health issues that occurred at the end of the season and be ready to go full strength moving forward. The Jayhawks have already begun looking ahead and announced a big named four-star recruit, Marcus Adams Jr, will be joining the Jayhawks for the 2023-2024 season. He will join three other highly touted four-star recruits, Elmarko Jackson, Chris Johnson, and Jamari McDowell, in Lawrence this summer.

Kansas will lose redshirt junior Jalen Wilson along with senior Kevin McCullar Jr, and Dick’s future with the program is in question, but the Jayhawks should still have several pieces back along with the impressive incoming freshman class. As was the case this season, Self will have a lot of talent to work with but will need to have another A+ coaching effort to get this team back to winning another regular season Big 12 championship and in position for a one seed in the tournament. It won’t get easier with the additions of Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, and UCF in the conference next season.

Despite the disappointing early ending to the season, there will always be optimism surrounding the Kansas basketball program. Back-to-back National Championships wasn’t in the fold, but the Jayhawks seem to always be in the conversation year-in-year-out and next year shouldn’t be any different. That’s part of the curse of being a storied program: expectations will always be high and falling short will always hurt just a little bit more. Hopefully, next season will have a sweeter ending.

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