Billy Preston will not save this Kansas basketball team. And the Jayhawks are better off knowing this now.
Preston, a McDonald’s All-American, announced Saturday morning that he had signed with Bosnia’s BC Igokea. For about 30 days, Preston waited on KU’s compliance department to complete an investigation into the “financial picture” regarding his vehicle, then for about a month after that, he sat out while the NCAA looked over his case.
His patience ran out Saturday. Preston will go overseas, make a good paycheck and prepare himself for the 2018 NBA Draft.
And if we’re honest, with the hazy timeline involved, this was the best thing for KU as well.
Part of the problem here is psychological. We, as humans, love the future and the thought of what could be. It’s why college recruiting sites have multiplied in recent years and draft coverage often draws more attention in pro sports than the games themselves.
This reality was at play for KU’s basketball team all season. If the Jayhawks played well, the discussion was, “So how good will the team be with Preston?” When they struggled, it was, “Preston might solve these issues if he’s cleared.”
It became too crazy, too much. Preston’s mother, Nicole Player, even somewhat described this on social media earlier this month when she told KU fans, “I’m sick of watching people bash my child if he suited up tomorrow he’d be the next coming of Jesus Christ to you guys.”
Preston wasn’t a savior. He wasn’t going to cure everything.
And that cloud of the unknown has hung over this KU basketball team for far too long.
KU coach Bill Self will tell you this is new territory for his program.
The coach is a master motivator who thinks out every word carefully. Pay careful attention at his press conferences, and you’ll notice this: Whenever the public opinion is that the Jayhawks are playing well, he’ll speak critically to keep his team focused. And when the public opinion says the sky is falling? He’ll support his players and team when they need it most.
So a weird thing has happened this year: Self has found himself on the defensive all season.
Frequently, national writers are quick to praise KU. The Jayhawks have a great frontcourt, or a national player of the year candidate or a smothering defense or physical toughness that’s hard to miss.
This year? That hasn’t happened. The Preston situation has left nearly everyone picking nits.
“I think that everybody’s been saying that since November the 10th, ‘If we don’t get the big kid, that we’re more vulnerable,’ ” Self said. “I would have to agree with that. We are more vulnerable.”
There’s a huge “but,” though.
KU might have obvious weaknesses without Preston. But it’s still been pretty damn good without him too.
The positives include Devonté Graham, who won’t win player of the year honors but continues to will KU to victory night after night with less help than Frank Mason had. He’s also doing that while averaging — averaging! — 39 minutes in KU’s seven Big 12 games.
Also, Svi Mykhailiuk is shooting better from the perimeter than any player in conference history. Since the league began in 1994, no Big 12 player averaging at least three three-pointers per game has ever shot better than his 47 percent. Lots of teams would love to have that guy.
And Udoka Azubuike is on pace to set records as well. The best field-goal percentage in Big 12 history (minimum five two-pointers per game) is Missouri’s Ricardo Ratliffe’s 69 percent. Azubuike is at 77 percent, and that was after an off shooting night Saturday.
Most importantly now, Self can move forward with a game plan. A couple of weeks ago, he moved both Preston and Silvio De Sousa into the team’s first-team practice rotation in anticipation that both would be cleared to play. That ended up being a waste when word didn’t come from the NCAA before KU’s road game at TCU.
“The good thing is, if there is a good thing, is that we know who we got,” Self said.
KU’s ceiling is hurt by Preston leaving. The Jayhawks aren’t a complete team and do have a thin roster and also will need more contributions from reserves if they hope to shore up some defensive weaknesses by March.
But this is also true: This team is competitive as heck. It has developed an identity of winning close games, and has the outside shooting potential to take down any team, any night.
If you were to compare this roster to any other in Self’s tenure, it would probably be 2012. That team was short on bodies. That team could have used another big man. That team often won by the slightest of margins while scrapping its way to victories.
But you know what? That team also was Self’s last to make a Final Four.
You couldn’t dream on it. No KU fan sat at home thinking about the upside of a Conner Teahan or the potential of a Justin Wesley.
In the end, though, those Jayhawks came together, winning games when it mattered most.
This team could do that as well — yes, even without Billy Preston.