LAWRENCE, Kan. — The 14-year run of Big 12 basketball championships ended two weeks ago, when Kansas’ crown passed to Texas Tech and Kansas State. A yearlong reign as conference tournament champions came to a close last weekend, with the Jayhawks beaten by Iowa State in the final.
There will be no flashy Big 12 championship rings to pass out to the players next season, no new year to add to the league championship banner in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.
At Kansas, a fixture in the NCAA tournament, a season that began with great and usual expectations — and with the Jayhawks being ranked No. 1 in the country — has instead become one of trial, quite literally, and tribulation.
“It’s a real test of the fans,” said Kevin Willmott, who won an Oscar last month for co-writing Spike Lee’s “The BlacKkKlansman,” and teaches film studies at the university.
One key player was lost to a season-ending injury. Another is stuck in NCAA enforcement limbo. A third just went home. The coaches, drawn into a recruiting scandal playing out in federal court, sometimes feel as if they spend as much time conferring with their lawyers as they do with their team.
Of the dramatic arc that has unfolded, Willmott, who sat behind the Jayhawks’ bench for a game two weeks ago, said: “It’s probably not a film, but probably an episode of a TV show where you get your character tested a little bit. We’ve had a great thing for a long time. We’re not used to the ball not falling our way.”
The fans still turn up, of course. Allen Fieldhouse was dutifully full on the final day of the regular season, with 16,300 fans shoehorned into the venerable old barn, just as they have been for every Kansas basketball home game since Nov. 28, 2001.
The recognizable signs of the cocoon were everywhere: the crowd roaring to life at the opening tip, the confetti tossed when David McCormack threw down a dunk, the young fan holding up a sign announcing his commitment — to the class of 2032.
As the final seconds wound down, the students behind each basket serenaded the home team with their haunting “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant, marking another victory over Baylor, which has never won here, and cementing another perfect season at home — the 20th since Allen Fieldhouse opened in 1955.
It was all so familiar and yet, as virtually everyone in the building could sense, it was not.
The hulking junior center Udoka Azubuike, as potent a post player as there is in college basketball when healthy, has been lost for the season because of torn ligaments in his right hand. The dead-eye guard Lagerald Vick, the team’s only senior — and a starter on last year’s Final Four team — returned home to Memphis several weeks ago for personal reasons and will not return. Forward Silvio De Sousa, who practices with the team and sits on the bench in street clothes with Azubuike during games, has been barred from playing by the NCAA since a shoe company consultant testified in October that he funneled money to De Sousa’s guardian.
What has given this season a darker tint, though, is the uncertainty about what fallout lies ahead from the FBI corruption investigation that has roiled college basketball, ensnaring not only Kansas but Louisville, Arizona, Louisiana State, Oklahoma State, Southern California, Auburn and North Carolina State, among others.
Kansas took its uncomfortable turn in the spotlight last October when T.J. Gassnola, a basketball consultant for Adidas, which has a 12-year, $191 million apparel contract with the university’s athletic programs, testified in a Brooklyn courtroom that he had arranged payments to the families of two Kansas players.
Though Gassnola said he never told Kansas coach Bill Self about the payments, lawyers for the former Adidas executive James Gatto on trial pointed to text messages between Gassnola and Self and a Kansas assistant, Kurtis Townsend, in which Gassnola pledged his help in landing players.
Another trial, for bribery charges against three defendants in the corruption case, is set to begin in April, shortly after the Final Four.
Self said the revelations in the case, which the NCAA is investigating, have not been troublesome to his players — other than De Souza, whom the university has argued is being punished unjustly — but acknowledged that the developments have hovered over the coaching staff and will continue to do so. He called the case “draining.”
“Instead of doing things that you would worry about doing to make your program better, whether it’s recruiting or extra film sessions or more time in the individual meetings with players, I’m talking to attorneys,” Self said.
“It’s not so much that we’ve done anything, but we’re trying to get a game plan on when’s our next move? When can we do this? So from that standpoint, everybody deals with distractions, but this has been a big distraction — for the coaches, not the players.”
The depleted Jayhawks roster is a bigger concern. It has left Kansas with a starting lineup of four freshmen surrounding Dedric Lawson, a junior forward who transferred from Memphis. There has been a predictable level of inconsistency — a 29-point blowout loss at Texas Tech, for example, was followed two days later by a 15-point thumping of Kansas State.
“It’s ’50 First Dates’ — Drew Barrymore could star in it with our team,” Self said, referring to the movie. “It’s something new every day.”
As frank as Self is about his team’s relative shortcomings, he is not at all disappointed in its 25-9 record, given the absence of three crucial players, the difficult schedule and the lineup’s collective inexperience.
“The freshmen have done pretty well, but it’s not your typical freshmen like Duke has or some other people have,” Self said.
One of them, McCormack, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound center, has shown encouraging signs of development lately, playing off Lawson, whom Self called the best player in the conference, to give the Jayhawks a credible low-post presence they have largely lacked since Azubuike was injured in early January.
The next week, then — the Jayhawks open the NCAA tournament with a game against Northeastern on Thursday — is an opportunity for the Jayhawks to set aside the disappointment of falling from their perch, and to come to terms with more modest prospects.
“It’s just the outside people, the expectations playing at Kansas,” Lawson said of the weight of the conference streak. “Personally, I didn’t really hear the noise. I just wanted to win a Big 12 title for myself, plus you wanted to keep the legacy going.
“At the end of the day, we fell short, and it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “Going forward, we just want to be the best team we can be and have the best year we can have.”