WACO, Texas — Bill Self ignored the halftime heckler. He was sitting in the front row of the Ferrell Center, near the tunnel where Self’s Kansas Jayhawks had just exited the playing floor with a six-point lead over the Baylor Bears. The guy waited for Self to finish his interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe, then let him have it.
“FBI!” He shouted. “FBI, Bill! FBI!”
Afterward, when Kansas had won the Game of the Year to date in college basketball, 64-61, the heckler was a bit less sassy. He gave one more half-hearted “FBI” shout at Self and then turned to leave.
This is the team for our times. In a sport rife with baggage, the favorite to win the title brings plenty of its own. Kansas, under investigation and undeniably very good, tainted and talented, tied to a bag man and tough as hell, can beat the NCAA posse and possibly beat all comers for the national championship.
After this season, things could get dicey for the Jayhawks. The FBI investigation of corruption in college basketball that the heckler alluded to made it very clear that Adidas bag man T.J. Gassnola paid to help at least two players—Bill Preston and Silvio De Sousa—become Jayhawks. That in turn led to an NCAA Notice of Allegations, which officially put Kansas on the trail toward a Committee on Infractions hearing sometime in 2020, with potential major sanctions looming against both the program and Self. Kansas is vigorously contesting the NCAA Enforcement findings.
That is the context surrounding this Jayhawks team. It is the storyline that will accompany them as far as they go in the NCAA tournament—which could, in fact, be all the way.
Some other prominent teams are playing under a cloud of investigation as well: Auburn, Louisville, Arizona, LSU and Creighton all are on that list. But Kansas is the biggest name to be formally charged, and also the best of the bunch.
The Jayhawks squad that dealt No. 1 Baylor its first loss since Nov. 8 is staking a claim to the top overall seed in the tourney. Right now it’s a tossup between the two teams that met here Saturday, each having won on the other’s home court. But Kansas has played the nation’s toughest schedule to date and is currently riding a 12-game winning streak.
The Jayhawks have rarely been challenged during that span. And while they certainly had to work for the win Saturday in a big-time atmosphere, they also led it for the final 37 minutes and 19 seconds.
Kansas might be the best defensive team in America. It might have the Defensive Player of the Year in guard Marcus Garrett, It has Ken Pomeroy’s National Player of the Year thus far in point guard Devon Dotson. But the one thing the Jayhawks possess that could be the difference maker in March is powerhouse center Udoka Azubuike.
There are a few other teams with very capable big men—Maryland, Iowa, Kentucky, Duke and Gonzaga come immediately to mind. But can any of those guys dominate against a high-powered opponent the way the 7-foot, 270-pound senior colossus did Saturday?
“He was feeling it,” said Dotson, who along with his fellow guards threw lobs at the rim all day for Azubuike to hammer home on the heads of the Bears. The Nigerian finished with 23 points and a career-high 19 rebounds, thanks in part to a deft strategic move by Self.
No team is tougher to go through defensively to get to the rim than Baylor. So Kansas went over the Bears instead.
When Baylor beat Kansas in Lawrence Jan. 11, Azubuike only attempted six shots and scored six points. The Bears loaded up on the Jayhawks’ screen-and-roll game, which was primarily engaged from the sides of the court, denying Azubuike the ball or doubling him when he got it. This time around, Self initiated the ball screens from the top of the key in the middle of the court, and with Baylor switching every screen Azubuike was free to roll to the rim almost unimpeded.
“Today we were able to throw the ball over the top,” Self said. “… He was able to get a running start to the rim.”
The result was a rim-wrecking lob game as powerful as anything we’ve seen in the college game since Anthony Davis was leading Kentucky to the 2012 national title as a freshman. The difference is that Azubuike is a senior.
A big man this powerful never plays four years of college basketball anymore. And truth be told, Azubuike wouldn’t have either if he hadn’t been injured in two of his first three seasons. He was done in December his freshman year, and then shut down in early January last year. He’s played a total of 82 games in four seasons.
“He’s really a sophomore and-a-half,” Self said. “We were No. 1 in the country when he got hurt (last year). If he had stayed on the same path, he would have gone (to the NBA) last year.”
Instead, Azubuike stayed at Kansas and continued to improve. He has benefitted from four years of strength and conditioning, skill work and agility training in a program that develops players as well as any.
The growth is obvious. Azubuike has toned up, leaned up, improved his footwork and enhanced his coordination. He’s no longer just a giant body. He can rebound outside his area, catch just about anything thrown toward the rim and run the floor impressively.
“I wouldn’t be able to do this my freshman year,” he said.
“He can play basketball,” said Baylor big man Freddie Gillespie, who at 6-9, 245 pounds was giving away a lot of size to Azubuike.
Gillespie and Mark Vital—who at 6-5, 230 pounds might be the hardest-working player in the nation, pound-for-pound—spent much of the game trying to deny Azubuike the ball. In return for their efforts they absorbed a beating in the back, as the Kansas big man used his forearms and elbows to clear space and keep himself from being pinned down.
In an era of finesse big men who want to roam the perimeter, Azubuike is perfectly comfortable knocking people around in the paint and protecting the rim. Gillespie, who says he is a “football player at heart,” tried to “throw some stuff” at Azubuike in the paint but mostly had it thrown back at him.
Despite Azubuike’s dominance, this game came down to a tying shot at the buzzer by Baylor’s Jared Butler that came up short. It was a fierce, high-level game in a raucous environment that left everyone wanting a little more from what has been the two best teams to date.
“I hope we see them again,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew. “But I hope it’s in the Final Four.”
If Kansas gets that far, it will tote a lot of baggage with it. The Jayhawks will be trying to beat the NCAA clock, because what happens to the program later in 2020 could be a problem.