At just past noon on Saturday, nearly four hours before Kansas’ 69-64 victory over Texas inside a jubilant and celebratory Allen Fieldhouse, Bill Self was summoned to an unexpected meeting with KU officials.
Self was thinking about basketball. In just a few minutes, he was headed to a walk-through at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks would run through the final preparations for a victory that would leave them on the precipice of an 11th straight Big 12 championship. But in this moment, as Self was brief by staffers versed in matters of NCAA compliance, the mood quickly turned more somber and serious.
“The worst part about today was the timing,” Self would say later.
As Self listened, he was told that the NCAA had alerted Kansas about a potential NCAA eligibility issue regarding freshman forward Cliff Alexander. Until the issue was resolved, and it was clear that his NCAA eligibility was not in jeopardy, Self was told that Alexander would not be able to suit up or play.
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Thus began a day for Kansas that should have been marked by a hard-fought victory against Texas, but instead was tainted by the hazy cloud of potential NCAA issues and official KU press releases that left more questions than answers.
“I found out about it approximately at noon,” Self said after the game. “I agree with what (KU officials) told me — if there’s an issue, we got to hold him out until it’s resolved. But hopefully it’s an issue that’s going to be resolved in the very near future.”
According to a statement released by KU athletic director Sheahon Zenger, the situation began after the NCAA “alerted (KU) to an issue that could affect Cliff’s eligibility.” Neither Zenger nor Self disclosed the issue, but such eligibility issues often involve — but are not limited — the acceptance of improper benefits from schools or third parties. In the moments after the game, Self emphasized, in vague terms, that the issue pertained to Alexander, not the KU program.
“I haven’t been told details about it, other than there’s a situation that involves Cliff,” Self said. “And I haven’t heard anything other than the fact that it involves Cliff. (It’s) not a KU situation, but a Cliff situation.”
When asked if he was concerned that Kansas may have been playing a player whose eligibility was in question, Self didn’t appear to think the situation would cause any harm to this season’s team, such as forfeiting victories.
“I can’t answer that, because I don’t know,” Self said, “but we haven’t been told it was a KU situation.”
The real question, then, for Self and Kansas becomes Alexander’s potential return to the lineup. The Alexander family has hired a Washington, D.C. attorney to represent it, according to a report from Sports Illustrated, and Self endorsed that move on Saturday evening.
“I would think that would be the smart thing to do, without question,” Self said. “That’s not an admittance of anything.”
On Saturday afternoon, Alexander’s 6-foot-8 frame folded into a chair on the Kansas bench, decked out in warm-ups, as the Jayhawks erased a six-point deficit in the second half and improved to 23-6 overall and 12-4 in the Big 12. The Jayhawks can clinch a share of the Big 12 title with a home victory against West Virginia on Tuesday night, but if Alexander’s eligibility issue were to drag on into March, it could harm the team’s March prospects.
A former top-five recruit, Alexander’s first college season has been a rocky affair. At times, he has been an elite rebounder, solid rim protector and a physical presence that Kansas sorely lacks in the paint. At other times, he has looked like a freshman big man struggling to adjust to the physicality and nuance of the college game. Entering Saturday, Alexander had scored in double figures just once in Kansas’ previous nine games. And in big games at Iowa State and West Virginia, he had simply been relegated to the bench for entire halves.
“He was able to a lot of times overpower people in high school,” KU assistant coach Norm Roberts said earlier this week. “Because he was bigger. That’s not the case (at the college level).”
On Saturday, the Jayhawks survived in the frontcourt with a dominating performance from junior forward Perry Ellis (28 points and 13 rebounds) and a committee approach from junior Jamari Traylor (11 minutes), Landen Lucas (five points in 25 minutes) and Hunter Mickelson (five minutes).
“They did fine,” Self said.” But it would have been nice to have one more body.”
Lucas added: “We would love for him to come back as soon as possible. But we have a lot of big guys; five deep really, so we’re prepared for any situation.”
In the moments after the game, Self appeared ready for a worst-case scenario as well. After Tuesday’s game against West Virginia, Kansas will travel to Oklahoma next Saturday. Then comes the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. So, yes, Self said, he was concerned that Alexander could potentially be out a couple of weeks.
“Here’s a situation that is happening in the most crucial time of our basketball season,” Self said. “I got to believe it’s going to be given priority (by the NCAA).
“So even it’s given priority, that doesn’t mean everything happens fast, because I’m sure there’s things that (the NCAA has) to do to be comfortable. But I don’t know how long it’s going to take. But I certainly hope it’s sooner rather than longer.”
This, of course, was not the Saturday afternoon that Self envisioned. The Jayhawks won. Allen Fieldhouse celebrated its 60th anniversary. Another Big 12 title is in reach. But as Self stepped in front of his team at the early-afternoon walk-through, he had to deliver some bad news. For now, Self can only hopeful that it doesn’t last too long.
“I looked in his face,” freshman wing Kelly Oubre said of Alexander. “He wanted to play so bad. He wanted to be out there to prove himself. It was just tough for me to look at, because I know if I were in his shoes, I’d want to play so bad.”