Emotions run high during games, and it’s hard sometimes to formulate coherent, reasonable opinions about a game or a season when in the heat of a moment, whether that be during a win or a loss. For the Kansas Jayhawks, Saturday’s loss to the Auburn Tigers in the second round of the NCAA tournament was a painful one, one that was difficult to watch and yes, was an emotionally draining game.
With some time to come down emotionally, let’s evaluate the game, the season and what’s ahead for Kansas basketball.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the loss, and that’s OK. It’s OK to admit that KU was flat-out outplayed in the second round. Auburn entered the contest as hot as anyone, along with being the worst possible matchup for this year’s Jayhawks. Coach Bill Self even said after the game that when he saw the draw KU ended up with on Selection Sunday he was concerned about facing the Tigers. It was going to take an elite performance from Kansas to win, and nobody brought that.
Self didn’t call a particularly impressive game, and he said as much after the fact. The defense was pitiful in transition. The offense couldn’t take advantage of mistakes by Auburn (not that there were many). Kansas played poorly, Auburn played fantastically. It’s a pretty simple conclusion, no need to overthink it.
This team still had plenty of heart and desire. Social media isn’t the best way to gauge the pulse of a whole fan base, but you can get a glimpse of one’s general feelings through Twitter (sometimes, anyway). This season I noticed a ton of fans who said this year’s KU team didn’t care, didn’t have any heart, etc. Spending any amount of time around the team would make it obvious that wasn’t true and was just some B.S. developed by people without the ability to come up with a more nuanced thought. But even if you were in the crowd who felt that way this season, I hope you’ve seen the videos of junior forward Dedric Lawson and freshman guard Devon Dotson sobbing after the game. This team cared a ton, they wanted it, they just didn’t play well enough to accomplish their goals. Keep the false narratives out of this.
The 2018-19 season wasn’t a “disaster.” That sort of sentiment was prevalent on social media for a large portion of the season, especially so on Saturday. If the question is whether or not the year was a disappointment, the answer is obviously yes. KU was the preseason No. 1 team in the nation and had national title hopes. Then junior center Udoka Azubuike got hurt. Sophomore forward Silvio de Sousa never played. Lagerald Vick … yeah. When a historic streak of conference titles ends and you fall short of the regional weekend of the NCAA tournament after being selected as the top team in the country entering the year, it’s impossible to not be disappointed.
That said, that doesn’t equate to disaster. The Jayhawks still ended up with a top-four seed in the tournament, in which they lasted longer than their in-state rivals, and won 26 games. Kansas fans have been spoiled to a ludicrous degree by the Bill Self era. As a Kansas alumnus and fan, I feel comfortable saying that. When you win a ton and rack up accolade after accolade season after season, you come to expect that. There were moments and factors in the disappointing season that were, or at least seemed, disastrous. That doesn’t mean the whole year was, though.
That’s a look back at what’s already happened. As for the what’s next …
A lot of players have big decisions to make about their futures. There are three players in particular who need to make a decision about their playing futures, specifically whether or not they’ll be in a Kansas uniform next year or making money somewhere as a professional.
Lawson is probably gone, at least that’s been the common train of thought for some time. There’s always a guy who you thought would leave all year only to stop and think and the season “Well, maybe …” The issue with hoping that Lawson returns is that you have to ask if his NBA draft stock will ever be higher. He was an absolute workhorse for KU this season, and if he comes back that will be the case again and he’ll be a national player of the year candidate. But he’s not an elite athlete, he’s not seven feet tall and he’s probably never going to be projected higher than an early second-round pick at best. The Jayhawks would be terrifying if Lawson played his senior year, but that may not be particularly realistic.
Azubuike is probably gone. His return was questionable last offseason, and considering Self has already said he doesn’t know if we’ll get to see what a healthy senior year from the big man will look like, it’s easy to imagine him moving on to the professional ranks somewhere. As for de Sousa, if his appeal is unsuccessful it’s hard to imagine him sticking around for another year on the bench when he could go somewhere else to actually play. It would be sad, but it would probably be in his best interest.
You can make the argument that those three players will all likely be gone. That’s before you get to other names on the roster who could look for other opportunities. Will Grimes leave for the NBA draft, banking on his potential outweighing his brutal tape from this year? Could sophomore K.J. Lawson leave without his brother on the roster any longer? Will sophomore guard Charlie Moore consider other options after a bad first year at KU? There are a lot of decisions to be made and questions to be asked. For KU’s sake, it may be better off having some of the bench squad stick around for the sake of both continuity and less stress on recruiting.
Speaking of recruiting, there’s a lot on the line this year. Without intending to be a fearmonger, Kansas needs to do quality work on the recruiting front this offseason. There’s two members of the 2019 class so far, a pair of program guys in Christian Braun and Isaac McBride. This program thrives with veteran guys like they’ll be in a few years, so that’s fine. But the Jayhawks need to add talent, they need to add guys who can get buckets and make an immediate impact. KU’s top target at the moment is Matthew Hurt, a top-10 prospect who played for Self at the U18 world championships last year (along with Grimes) and he profiles as the kind of player who would be an immediate offensive contributor.
Hurt would be a big win for Self and KU, and would instantly make this a strong class when all things are factored in. Of course, hypothetically adding Hurt (which is far from a given, considering his most recent 247Sports Crystal Ball predictions have Duke as the favorite to land him) may not be enough to fill out the whole class depending on how many guys leave. If the only open scholarships are those of Vick, Lawson and Azubuike, for example, things would be all settled with Hurt, Braun and McBride. If de Sousa, Grimes or any one else left, though? It’s right back on the recruiting trail.
With bodies and scorers needed, it wouldn’t be the worst idea for Kansas to dip into the grad transfer market this year. If the Jayhawks could find a veteran presence (in terms of general experience if not program experience, anyway) who could provide an immediate scoring/shooting threat they would be in much better shape entering next season. Rayjon Tucker is a perfect example of a player who could elevate KU immediately. He’s a 41.1 percent three-point shooter who would be eligible right away. That sounds exactly like someone who’d have a major role at Kansas. There hasn’t been word that KU has reached out yet, but that’s the profile of a player Self should strongly consider going after to help this team fill a gaping hole.
You could have a much worst returning core. As worrisome as the recruiting outlook may be, and the same can be said for speculating which players will return and which ones will leave, KU does have a strong trio of players certainly returning as sophomores. Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack are all coming back, and with a year of experience (approximately) under their collective belt they should be one of the best trios in the Big 12, despite all being sophomores. If the guards improve their shooting and McCormack refines his post game, they may be the undisputed best trio in the league. It sounds excessively optimistic at first blush, but consider who else is/could be returning in the conference next year; there aren’t many options better than the Jayhawk sophomores.
There are plenty of reasons to be upset about how the 2018-19 season ended and to be nervous about what’s next. We haven’t even touched on the NCAA and any potentially impending accusations. But there’s still reason to be optimistic. Most notably is the fact that Kansas still has a hall of famer as its head coach, whose worst season in a decade and a half included third place in (arguably) the toughest conference in the country and a four seed in the NCAA tournament. Self and the returning core have their work cut out for them, but doomsday certainly isn’t on the horizon in Lawrence.