NCAA Basketball: Big 12 Conference Tournament Second Round- Kansas vs Cincinnati

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In an off year, Kansas was ranked No. 1 for three weeks, beating Kentucky, Tennessee and UConn early in the season while fielding two first-team All-Big 12 players.  

Remember those good old days for KU? Don't beat yourself up if you don't. After Wednesday night, those are practically trivia answers regarding a college basketball blue-blood gone … blue, as in the mood KU loyalists are sporting heading into the NCAA Tournament. 

Ninety-percent of Division I would gladly take the accomplishments listed above and like their chances this week at the Big 12 Tournament. These Jayhawks are trying to find their way. And the basket for that matter. That was evident in a 72-52 one-and-done Big 12 Tournament loss to Cincinnati on Wednesday that sent warning flares across the bow of the proud program. 

Oh, we already knew the Jayhawks were short-handed going in, missing their two best players. But even without 7-foot-2 Hunter Dickinson and leading scorer Kevin McCullar Jr. this isn't a complete team. Not when No. 16 KU goes into the NCAA Tournament having lost four of its last five. 

The Big 12 Tournament will now be without its traditional anchor, because Kansas has sunk from its previous heights. The program that has owned this conference tourney 40 miles from its campus now has more than a week to contemplate its first NCAA game. 

The selection committee is likely to do Kansas no geographical favors because the Jayhawks' game is all over the place.  

The same team that was ranked in the top five as late as February 11 has also lost twice by at least 29. The Jayhawks can neither shoot the 3-pointer – they were 3 of 20 from distance Wednesday – or defend it very well. (Cincinnati has nailed 25 threes in two tournament games.) A Kansas team that was No. 2 nationally in assists is a woeful 336th (out of 351 Division I teams) in bench scoring.

There's talent but not depth. There is hope but perhaps not a path. Put it all together, this has definitely been a down year by Kansas standards.

"We got to get a swag back," Coach Bill Self lamented. "Guys are aiming the ball instead of shooting it. We had four starters combine to go 8 for 39. It's like they're shooting at the fair. Balls can't actually fit through the goals. We gotta start shooting at a bigger basket." 

Humor will get Self everywhere at this point. As bad as things are, a year ago today, KU's coach was recovering from a heart procedure that forced him out of the Big 12 Tournament. That team, with assistant coach Norm Roberts taking over, lost to Texas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game. It followed up the 2022 national championship with a second-round loss to Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament. 

"A year ago today I was messed up," Self said. "From that standpoint, I feel a heck of a lot better today than I did a year ago. Today, I'm not exactly feeling great."

For basketball reasons. The college basketball juggernaut that carries the league and certainly is an economic driver downtown this week at the conference tournament, is a shadow of its former Self. 

Pun intended for the Jayhawks' hall-of-fame coach. Hey, the laughs have to come from somewhere for Self. KU took the floor Wednesday night sporting its lowest Big 12 seed ever – sixth. The quarterfinals will go on without the Jayhawks' faithful rocking T-Mobile Center. Instead, eight of the teams in the quarterfinals are Big 12 newbies – Cincinnati, BYU and Houston.

Dickinson was resting a dislocated shoulder that looked worse than it did initially when he pulled down a rebound Saturday at Houston. McCullar continues to nurse a bone bruise in a knee. If the NCAA Tournament was today, McCullar might have been able to go, Self said. Dickinson would definitely have been out, squashing any buzz that the players were resting. 

Both all-Big 12 performers should be back next week for the NCAA Tournament, which made Wednesday's result secondary. Almost. Even if at full strength next week, the Jayhawks need to do some arm curls. This is arguably Self's worst team in years. The eight regular-season conference losses were the most under Self. The nine total losses before the conference tournament are the most for Kansas since 1989. That was Roy Williams' first season when the Jayhawks were ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions. 

Given all that, was it a surprise Cincinnati was a 1-point favorite on what amounts to KU's home-away-from-home in Kansas City?

Freshmen guards Elmarko Jackson and Nicolas Timberlake took the injured players' place. But that only highlighted a season-long issue. The bench was/is thin and couldn't be counted on. 

"We have struggled of late but we haven't been whole yet either," Self concluded. "if we can just get whole we can play with anybody."

Self has always been his best this time of year. His teams always seem to come together by March. That has been an absolute you can count on. This group has been clunky. Dickinson cashed in on an attractive NIL deal (reportedly) but that's also secondary in this day and age. He delivered, averaging a double-double (18 points, 10.8 rebounds), the best numbers of his career. 

McCullar was the backbone of the team and an NBA prospect. He still led the team in scoring, but lately the knee hasn't been cooperative. Since late January, McCullar has missed five games. In those he played, he averaged 13.5 points, five below his average. 

Clunky? Slightly more than a month after blowing Houston out in Lawrence, Kansas, the Jayhawks lost by 30 Saturday at Houston.

Until further notice, there is no doubt who rules the Big 12 – and possibly the country – this season. The Cougars make their Big 12 Tournament debut Thursday against TCU.

Meanwhile, the nine-time Big 12 Tournament champs (under Self) have at least eight days to figure themselves out. What's the takeaway from this brief appearance in a tournament they once ran through?

"We came over here on a Wednesday and the [tournament] quarterfinals are tomorrow [without us] sucks," Self summed up.