It was a great night of hoops with a bunch of ranked teams on the road and plenty of important games for conference races and high-level NCAA tournament seeding. Here are the highlights from Tuesday’s action:
IS THE BIG 12 UP FOR GRABS?
We’ve been here before.
You tend to get repeats after 14 years, after all. That’s a lot of time to go without new material. There’s been mid-season cliffhangers before, only for the finale to finish the same. With Kansas winning the Big 12.
After the 11th-ranked Jayhawks lost their second-straight and third of four games in a 73-63 setback at Texas on Tuesday, maybe – just maybe – that teaser may actually foreshadow a different ending. Or death still waits for us all, taxes stay due April 15th and the sun will come up tomorrow to better illuminate Lucy pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.
But maybe not.
The evidence is starting to pile up that these Jayhawks may not have what it takes to extend the program’s run of Big 12 championships to 15 in a row. It starts with personnel.
Dedric Lawson is awesome. The Memphis transfer has absolutely lived up to the sky-high expectations that followed him from his hometown to Lawrence. He’s putting up 19.5 points and 11.1 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. He is exactly the caliber of player that Jayhawks so often have rode to a Big 12 championship – and more.
The problem seems to be everybody else.
There’s no Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, Joel Embiid, Devonte Graham, Wayne Selden, Andrew Wiggins, Svi Mykhailiuk or any of the multitudes of players that Kansas has had either as co-stars or members of a highly-capable supporting cast. Udoka Azubuike probably would have been that alongside Lawson in what would have been a monster of a frontcourt, but he’s on the bench with a season-ending wrist injury. Maybe Silivio De Sousa could have been that guy, but he’s in NCAA eligibility limbo.
Lagerald Vick has shown glimpses of being the type of player that can help lead Kansas, but he’s also prone to clunker performances and doesn’t have the take-over-the-game mentality of guys like Mason or Graham of recent years. Cal transfer Charlie Moore hasn’t provided the boost many expected while five-star freshmen Quinton Grimes and Devon Dotson have had their moments, but no one is going to be mistaking them for Duke’s freshmen foursome as the no-doubt, one-and-done, All-American freshmen they’d need to be to truly elevate the Jayhawks. Marcus Garrett, KJ Lawson and Mitch Lightfoot are hardly the answer for major production, either.
The pieces are there, though. Even considering Azubuike, we all looked at this roster in November and were enamored with the talent and experience. It could all still click into place. Would it really be all that surprising to see Grimes or Dotson mature into their five-star hype? Or Vick embracing his final months of college with improved consistency? The answer to that is not totally, but it doesn’t become more likely the longer Kansas languishes in this area between good and really good. Especially in the Big 12, where really good – and maybe great – is what it’s going to take to win the conference. Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas State and maybe even Baylor look capable of pushing this thing to the brink.
Maybe Bill Self will solve the personnel shortcomings with scheme, finding a way to squeeze enough offense out of a team that isn’t particularly strong shooting 3s, taking care of the ball or hitting the offensive glass while making the defense truly elite. He’s done some remarkable work in his tenure at Kansas. Just look at last year’s Final Four team. Plus, all the Jayhawks’ losses have come on the road, so it’s possible the schedule is simply as big a part of this as anything.
Kansas’ streak has been in peril before. There have been true threats to their crown – they’ve even shared a couple during this run. The Jayhawks still have Allen Fieldhouse in their corner and the Big 12 always seems to cannibalize itself in just the perfect way to clear the path for Kansas. That’s probably what will happen again this season.
NEBRASKA IS FADING
It wasn’t too long ago that Nebraska was basking in some well-deserved spotlight. Tim Miles’ team started the season 11-2 with wins over Seton Hall, Clemson, Creighton, Illinois and Oklahoma State with its only setbacks coming on a neutral to Texas Tech and at Minnesota. Things looked to be good in Lincoln after a nice season a year ago was derailed by a Big Ten that wasn’t good enough to deliver enough quality opponents to help the Huskers’ NCAA tournament resume after a non-conference schedule that was highlighted – which feels like a generous designation – by a home win against Boston College.
It’s now starting to all fall apart.
The Huskers dropped their fourth straight and sixth of eight in a 62-51 loss to Wisconsin on their home floor to fall to 13-8 overall and 3-7 in the B1G.
The calendar hasn’t yet flipped to February, but it’s hard to view Nebraska at anything other than a critical juncture of their season. They’ve got the Illini in Champaign on Saturday followed by No. 21 Maryland at home and then No. 17 Purdue in West Lafayette. The schedule then eases up some with Minnesota and Northwestern at home before a trip to Penn State, but the homestretch looks daunting with Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa the final four games.
There’s opportunity there, but a much smaller margin for error than Nebraska would have liked given how strong its non-conference work was. If they can’t pull out of this nosedive, they’re looking at a fifth-straight year and sixth in seven without an NCAA tournament under Miles.
KENTUCKY IS A BUZZSAW RIGHT NOW
That embarrassing loss to Duke in the Champion’s Classic seems like a million years ago. At least all the takes about Kentucky taking a step back seem like they were about a different team.
The Wildcats won their seventh-straight game Tuesday, following up Saturday’s win over Kansas with an absolute beatdown of an 87-52 defeat of Vanderbilt. They shot 55.6 percent from the floor and connected on 10 of 17 (58.8 percent) from 3-point range. P.J. Washington had 26 points and 12 rebounds.
Kentucky has it absolutely rolling right now, beating good teams like Auburn, Kansas and Mississippi State while dominating inferior ones like Vandy. John Calipari’s teams have often had a knack for figuring things out around this time of the season, and suddenly the Wildcats are starting to look like they might be a part of that club.