It has been something of a strange season for the Kansas Jayhawks. A strange season that ends the same as all of the others.
Unless you have been living under a rock — and who lives under a rock, which would be uncomfortable and impractical, and how the hell did this become a cliche — you have probably heard that the Kansas Jayhawks have wrapped up their 13th consecutive Big 12 championship. It is a streak long enough to drive a writer looking for a hook to try to figure out how to deploy the terminology of geological timescales before giving up and writing some shitty sentence that includes the world “Holocene.”
So what makes this normal state of being, the annual declaration of superiority for the men from Lawrence over all of the other schools in this numerically-themed conference, so unusual? It is how the Jayhawks have gotten here. It breaks rather significantly from their usual mode of operation.
During Bill Self’s reign of terror in the Big 12 Kansas has beaten up teams by working the ball inside. Jayhawk big men aim to seal defenders deep in the paint to create easy chances to score, and everything else revolves around this fact. For years the ball has reversed back and forth while Perry Ellis, Joel Embiid, Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson, Markieff/Marcus Morris, Cole Aldrich, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Julian Wright, and Wayne Simien tried to post up approximately six inches in front of the rim with a helpless defender caught behind them. It is a formula that has worked for a long time.
But not so this year. Sure, Kansas will still put the ball inside to Landen Lucas or Carlton Bragg on occasion, but it became clear watching the Jayhawks early in the season that Bill Self planned to do something a little different this year. He planned to play at least some of the time with four perimeter players on the floor together. He was dabbling with four-out basketball.
I was endlessly fascinated by this in November. Watching Kansas play with two guards, two wings, and a big man felt similar to how I imagine early listeners experienced Dylan’s first experiments with the electric guitar. It initially seemed like a sell-out, but ultimately I grew to like it.
Self’s plan to play small some of the time became a plan to play small virtually all of the time when several things happened. First, Self realized that things would work because his talented 6’8 freshman Josh Jackson turns out to be the kind of tough and hyper-competitive kid who doesn’t mind going to the glass or mixing things up with much beefier players.
Second, Self had to find a way to get playing time for dynamic wings like Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick. Mykhailiuk is a very young junior who is having the breakout season that everyone has been predicting for a while. Meanwhile Vick -- a sophomore — is a perfect example of the clear advantage Kansas has over everyone else in the league. He is a gifted shooter and finisher with a solid pedigree coming out of high school who couldn’t find his way onto the floor a year ago — not because he wasn’t good enough, but because everyone in front of him was better.
Finally, the decision to play small pretty much full time was forced on Self when his third big man, freshman McDonald’s All-American Udoka Azubuike, went down with a season ending injury in December. Again, this is Kansas’ advantage. High school All-Americans come off the bench and one is lost to injury without the team missing a beat. Life is just different at the basketball blue bloods when compared with everyone else.
It has been fascinating to watch. Spreading the floor with dangerous shooters has created openings for Frank Mason that have never been there before. Mason will soon be named Big 12 and probably national player of the year as a result. He and his dangerous teammate Devonte' Graham are in the running for college basketball’s best backcourt duo (I think Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart may edge them slightly, but the gap is small).
Everything is flourishing offensively for Kansas. Blonde on Blonde is a terrific album. Trying new things can be good.
This is the juggernaut that the young Longhorns will face this Saturday. The game tips off at 5 PM CST, and airs on ESPN.