I'm not sure I can remember a college basketball season like this one, and I'm thinking locally here, and not just because all three schools ended up better than the year before.
Kansas made its first Final Four since 2012. K-State made its first Elite Eight since 2010. Missouri made its first NCAA Tournament since 2013.
Each school had its own quirks. Kansas went on a sort of exaggerated version of the usual handwringing-in-December-slump-around-January-or-February-and-then-hey-would-you-look-at-that-everything-turned-out-OK-after-all move.
But as much as people wanted to talk about KU's Final Four run being unexpected,* K-State's run to the Elite Eight was more surprising. The Wildcats went 0-7 against the Big 12's best three teams and essentially played the NCAA Tournament without their best player.
*Which, I guess it sort of was. But come on. Still Kansas. Still a No. 1 seed.
Missouri's season may have been the most unexpected of all. Mizzou matched its preseason ranking in the SEC despite Michael Porter Jr.'s back surgery and the league being better than most expected. Kassius Robertson may have exceeded preseason expectations more than anyone else on one of the local teams, unless, actually, you want to make an argument for Jontay Porter.
But none of that is what I'm talking about here.
I'm not sure I can remember a college basketball season where each local school was better than the year before and had reason to believe it will be even better next year.
That's a hell of a thing.
Kansas will have its most loaded roster in years, perhaps the most talent Bill Self has had there. We'll get into that more below.
K-State should have, basically, its entire roster back. Mawdo Sallah was a grad transfer who averaged 7.7 minutes and 1.8 points and was the team's ranking senior. The Wildcats should be in the Big 12's top two or three in the preseason poll and likely a top 20 team nationally.
Missouri is the one that may not fit in here, because Robertson and Jordan Barnett graduate and Jontay Porter has an NBA decision to make. But Jeremiah Tilmon, Kevin Puryear and a recruiting class that's still in the works will be interesting to watch. If nothing else, Cuonzo Martin showed he can do more than you might expect.
Kansas is good every year, but for a while, the other two programs were too often bad and/or uninteresting. I know fans of one school either don't care about or actively dislike the other two, but for those of us interested in all three, it's a nice development.
This week's eating recommendation is the wings at the Peanut, and I know that's cliche, but dangit, I had a hankering for them last week and feel like they deserve some love. The reading recommendation is my friend Andy McCullough on Clayton Kershaw entering what could be his last season with the Dodgers. My hope is that if I mention the story here, he'll stop tweeting about it.
More of a comment than a question, but what these kids at KU accomplished this year was truly remarkable. This final game doesn’t define this season but their determination to uphold the proud tradition at KU should! Enjoyed the ups and down of this season and look forward to 19’— Jimmy Dwyer (@jimmyjay555) April 1, 2018
For sure. Again, Kansas can never be the plucky underdog, and it was funny to watch a blueblood program with a $50 million coach fly around the country on charter planes as a No. 1 seed and say with a straight face that nobody believed in them.
It's true that this particular team worked without the usual advantages of pros coming off the bench, but Malik Newman was the best guard in the country coming out of high school, not many teams can match up with Udoka Azubuike's size and strength, and four shooters are always tough to defend.
But the larger point is that it's hard to get angry when you match your potential. You could run a marathon in three hours, and I could take four and still be happier than you because I did not die on the course.
Kansas will be back to its loaded self next season, when a pro or two will likely be coming off the bench. I got the feeling it was nice for Kansas fans to be (relatively) void of expectations. I think it's true that this was the first time Self coached an Elite Eight game in which a loss would've felt palatable, and you didn't ask for it, but here is a ranking of the pain involved in Self's NCAA Tournament losses:
1. VCU, 2011 in the Elite Eight. This one will be tough to top. Terrific team, open bracket and a blatant choke.
2. Oregon, 2017 in the Elite Eight. National player of the year, No. 4 pick in the draft and a virtual home game.
3. Northern Iowa, 2010 in the round of 32. Never heard such open wailing in any locker room.
4. Bradley, 2006 in the first round. Second year in a row with a first-round loss, and this was the year after Roy Williams won a title in his new job.
5. Stanford, 2014 in the round of 32. This one moves up the list after conversations with some people inside the program. Joel Embiid's back giving out could've been the difference.
6. Bucknell, 2005 in the first round. Self's second season and the last of the Wayne Simien-Keith Langford-Aaron Miles recruits from Williams.
7. Wichita State, 2015 in the round of 32. The big/little brother part of this is impossible to ignore.
8. Michigan, 2013 in the Sweet 16. Elijah Johnson played as poorly as any player in any game I can think of right now.
9. Georgia Tech, 2004 in the Elite Eight. KU was a No. 3 seed, and this went to overtime. Langford fouling out 40 feet from the basket was critical.
10. UCLA, 2007 in the Elite Eight. This is the line of demarcation between the painful losses and the palatable losses. Kansas had the nucleus of the 2008 championship team coming back.
11. Villanova, 2016 in the Elite Eight. Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden stank, but Villanova was a worthy eventual champion.
12. Michigan State, 2009 in the Sweet 16. This was a replace-all-five-starters team, and Michigan State was clearly better.
13. Villanova, 2018 in the Final Four. Better team won, and KU reached its ceiling.
14. Kentucky, 2012 in the championship game. Kentucky had six players drafted that summer, including the first two picks, and Kyle Wiltjer couldn't find the court but later transferred to Gonzaga and put in 20 per game.
If Malik and Doak both come back - KU is the clear preseason #1 right?— Jack Bush (@jbush511) April 1, 2018
You should read Gary's story about next year's team, but yeah, KenPom and the Sporting News put Kansas No. 1 in the so-early-it's-dumb-to-be-talking-about-this rankings. Duke signed the nation's top three recruits, which has never been done before. North Carolina will be good, again. Kentucky, I assume. The names you're used to.
But this has never happened before: Self makes the Final Four and actually returns a more talented and potentially better team the next year.
I'm expecting Malik Newman to enter the draft. He was projected as a lottery pick out of high school, and he's now been in college three years. Hard to imagine his "stock" being higher than it is now after carrying Kansas to the Final Four. We'll get into this a little more in the next question, but it's also hard to imagine him getting as many shots if he returned next year.
I'm expecting Udoka Azubuike to put his name in, not hire an agent, and return to school. He's an interesting case. Ten years ago, he'd have been a first-round pick, no questions asked, perhaps even a lottery pick. Seven feet tall with that kind of strength and projectability? C'mon.
But now, he's a bit of a dinosaur for the NBA. That league is moving fast away from back-to-the-basket centers who can't shoot. He's not listed on any mock draft that I've seen. My guess is NBA folks will tell him to improve his shot if he can but also to go all-in on dominating around the rim. Get more agile — get Hudy'd up — and improve as a shot blocker and rebounder. Try to be Andre Drummond. He's still only 19, so he has time, and as we'll talk about in the next question, he'll be able to concentrate on things other than scoring if he stays.
I'm expecting Lagerald Vick to leave. This is just a guess, not based on anything someone has told me directly. Just feels like that's where this is going. He could get some NBA interest, could land in the G-League, maybe overseas.
But Self recruited over him and (briefly) took him out of the starting lineup. Feels like a Brannen Greene situation to me.
I’d love a completely guessing, unsubstantiated, off the cuff KU starting 5 for next year.— Adam Newman (@AdamNewman913) April 1, 2018
OK, so like I said above, I'm expecting Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick to leave, and if you're looking for guesses and unsubstantiation, you've come to the right place. Bill Self said the roster next year will look completely different; he was not lying:
PG: Devon Dotson, the No. 19 recruit according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index.
SG: Quentin Grimes, the No. 12 recruit according to RSCI.
SF: K.J. Lawson, a transfer who averaged 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds for Memphis last season.
PF: Dedric Lawson, a transfer who averaged 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds for Memphis last season.
C: Udoka Azubuike, the 7-foot center who will likely be asked to be more of a rim protector and rebounder than scorer next season.
One note: Newell had Marcus Garrett at the 3 instead of K.J. Lawson. I'm putting K.J. there because he's listed as a guard, and the bigs get pretty crowded with Silvio De Sousa, David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot.
Of course, the guards will be pretty crowded, too, if Romeo Langford — the nation's No. 5 recruit — picks Kansas. Whatever happens, it will be one of Self's most talented teams at Kansas. Might be the most talented, actually.
With the Darius Bazley story breaking earlier this week, what’s the over/under on when the ncaa starts legally paying athletes?— Davι.d ️(@dlbaral) April 1, 2018
If you hadn't heard, Bazley is a McDonald's All-American who was committed to play at Syracuse, but announced he will instead go to the G-League. There have been other high school basketball stars to skip college and work around the one-and-done rule overseas, or even training on their own, but Bazley is the highest profile to go straight to the G-League.
He's a thoughtful guy, and upfront that he wants to be a pioneer in this way, but I'm not sure it'll have that affect. G-League salaries top out at $26,000 and no matter where you stand on whether college basketball players get enough for their value, it's not hard to make a case that life as a star in a major program is better than earning less than my first salary as a high school sports reporter while playing for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
But your point is a good one, and it's one of the first things I thought when seeing the news about Bazley. The NCAA has been pretty clear that it will do just enough for athletes to keep the system in place, and if enough top recruits skip college the NCAA's ante will be raised.
My thoughts on the whole situation are, I'd say, evolving. There is no logical explanation for not letting athletes make money from their own likeness, and no reason beyond pearl-clutching for agents being shut out the way they are. College basketball would be better for all involved if it adopted the NHL model, which allows draft picks to continue playing in college.
The NCAA is so dishonest with all of this, and has lost so much credibility that it's easy for people like me who believe athletes should get more to diminish what they get now.
This point is pushing its way forward in my mind a bit with the Bazley news, because even without a salary the draws of major college basketball outweigh a small one-year contract to play minor league ball.
The facilities, travel, attention, and perks are only improving in college basketball. The NBA could tilt the whole thing if it raised G-League salaries or even instilled an exemption for certain high school stars, but that would (presumably) have to be done in a CBA negotiation in which both sides have a lot of issues they care a lot more about than how much prospects are paid.
This circles back to another essential truth, too, and one that's easy to miss. As good as the current setup is for the NCAA, it's pretty good for the NBA, too. Teams get to see the best talent in college before making draft decisions, and the players come into the league a little better, a little more mature, and backed by valuable marketing. All for the low price of merely waiting a year to draft them.
I'm finally getting around to answering your question. My best guess is the NCAA continues to marginally improve what athletes can receive, but it's any expectation of a seismic shift has to account for the reality that the shift would have to be implemented by the powers in the college and NBA games who are benefiting from the status quo.
Whirlwind weekend, Sam. I've had Whataburger 3 times in 43 hours. Seems like a glorified Sonic burger to me (please don't block me @JasonKingBR or @cdotharrison). Around San Antonio I drove by 5 Guys, Whataburger, Jack 'N the Box, Carl's Jr., In 'N Out, and more. A list, please.— John Brown (@JohnBrown1855) April 1, 2018
A ranking of burger joints is deeply personal, and should be shared only by those comfortable in their own skin, because the takes will be fire. It's hard just to find agreement on who's eligible, let alone the order, but for the purposes here this is national or regional chains in which burgers are featured and you order at the counter or drive thru.
1. Five Guys. They just don't miss, the personalization is nice, and I enjoy a place where the baseline burger is a double.
2. Shake Shack. More expensive than it should be, but so delicious.
3. Whataburger. Credit to Jason King for unlocking the key to enjoying Whataburger: double with bacon, cheese, and jalapeños.
4. In N Out. This dropped in the rankings because of inconsistency noticed in my ongoing research, but pro tip: order an extra burger instead of fries.
5. Sonic. People talk smack on Sonic but those people suck.
6. Wendy's. Except when I forget to ask for no mayo.
7. Jack in the Box. Any place you can order a burger and taco without leaving your car is OK with me.
8. McDonald's. My relationship with McDonald's is complicated. It makes me feel terrible every time I eat it, but it's so cheap, so easy, and our kids act like it's Q39.
9. Burger King. Meh.
10. Carl Jr.'s I think I've eaten there once in my life.
@mellinger i have never seen KU so out of their league in basketball EVER.. WTH? Was it their recruiting? Could Preston have changed the team? Im confused.— "Morning Dew" in Hebrew (@TyvionsMutha) April 1, 2018
Sports-Reference's database goes back to the 2010-11 season, and in that time, Kansas has lost just nine times by 16 or more points. Three of them came this season — Villanova, at Oklahoma State, and at Baylor.
Only two others came in neutral sites, and none came in the postseason. Before the game, I thought KU had a one-in-three chance. Play that game three times, and KU can win one. After watching, I'm not sure KU could win one in 100.
They had a narrow path against Duke, which is isn't as good as Villanova but does have better talent. Keep from being annihilated inside and there was a way for Kansas to do it.
Their path against Villanova, at least in theory, was to guard the three-point line and for Azubuike to be the difference. Villanova is superior to Kansas in every way except inside, with size at center. But KU didn't guard the three-point line — some of those were guarded makes, but not most — and Azubuike isn't much of a one-on-one scorer.
But, to me, this is less about Kansas' deficiencies than it is about seeing exactly what it means when a good team has a small margin for error. Villanova was terrifically positioned to explode the errors, and that's what we saw.
It's a strange thing to pick apart a Final Four team, and talk about what went wrong, but I guess that's what we're doing here. Self missed out on some recruits, which shrunk the margin for error, and then Billy Preston never playing did two things — shrunk the margin for error further, and dramatically changed the way KU played.
Preston was the so-called stretch-4 that Self values above perhaps all else except combo guards and not being soft. It meant KU played small, relied more on three-pointers, and against most opponents had to make up for being outrebounded.
But I don't see this as a failure of the program. It's a success. The KU As Underdog thing has been hilariously overdone, both inside and outside the team, but this is as close to reaching a ceiling as Kansas did in 2008.
Do the chiefs trade up back into the first round? What would it take?— Joseph Boeding (@JoeBoeding) April 1, 2018
They might. Brett Veach has shown himself to be aggressive, and confident, and he mentioned the possibility of getting back into the first round in his press conference last month.
There is no way to predict these things. A lot has to materialize. The Chiefs have to be particularly fond of a player, they have to believe that player is undervalued, and they have to find a trade partner in the right part of the round that's willing to dance. That's a lot of moving parts, and requires a clean set of circumstances.
My hunch is that Veach will try, but ultimately won't find the right opportunity, and then in two years will trade a 2021 fourth-round pick for guy he loved in this draft and is underperforming for the team he wanted to trade with.
Where does Easter rank in your food holidays (Christmas, thanksgiving, super bowl)— The Swede (@KristofChalk) April 1, 2018
Pretty low, if we're honest.
The Super Bowl is the GOAT, if we're talking about strictly food. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for other reasons, but if it's just about food the Super Bowl is tough to beat — literally, you're just expected to be as gluttonous as possible, with no pretense of a main course, just rounds and rounds of wings, nachos, queso, wing dip, cookies, and anything else you can stuff in your face.
After those two, you can do your order a few different ways, but mine:
3. Fourth of July. Any time the day is built around the grill, I'm in.
4. Christmas. Sort of like Thanksgiving, but in our house it's usually with braised short ribs instead of turkey.
5. Memorial Day. Sort of like the Fourth of July. If it's about the grill, I'm about it.
6. New Years Day. Sort of like the Super Bowl, but often with a hangover.
7. Halloween. I get sad when the fridge runs out of Twix and Snickers and, yes, I put Twix and Snickers in the fridge.
8. Easter. This might go up a spot or two if we're talking about brunch, but the one thing I know about Easter is that I'm going to make myself sick from eating so many blasted Starburst jelly beans.
Be safe, Sam. Can't wait to read your thoughts and insights about the Final Four. BTW, did you hear anything from coaches or AD's in San Antonio regarding the FBI investigation? I'm thinking about the future of college BBall today....— Shari Millar (@ShariMillar) April 1, 2018
The investigation hovers over the entire sport, and I'm not sure it's ever totally out of the minds of coaches. Most of them, if we're honest, have reason to be nervous.
For years and years, the culture has been to get away with what you can, and it's worsened by the NCAA's complicated and changing rules, as well as the relative lack of oversight.
Rules are broken all the time, by every program. It's more a matter of scale and frequency than anything else, and now, it's a matter of what the FBI can prove above all else.
Major changes are coming, and the leadership of the National Association of Basketball Coaches is preaching a message of compliance, togetherness, and being stewards of the game.
I don't know how long that will last, or if ever will stick. The investigation is complicated, and it's important to remember the FBI is not directly interested in whether NCAA rules were broken. At least in theory, this is about federal laws.
I don't know that any coaches have a strong feel for when this is all going to drop, or just how bad the damage will be when it does. Even those of us who think NCAA rules overreach and need to be updated can see that the implications are potentially enormous.
My hope has always been that if there's real teeth behind this that the results are so widespread that people understand the problems are with NCAA rules, not rogue and thoughtless actors. The current situation is untenable, because it incentivizes actions that are simultaneously deemed illegal.
There are common sense updates here, from allowing loans from agents, money from likeness, and more of a realistic view of where college basketball sits in the larger ecosystem.
What are the unwritten rules of the postgame press conference?— Devon Belew (@DMBelew) April 1, 2018
Depends on the situation, but there are many. They include:
- When possible, let a beat writer ask the first question.
- Know that if you drop a "talk about" question you will be judged by your peers.
- If there's five guys up there and you ask for all of them to answer your question, you're an a-hole, your peers will judge you, and they're all just going to say, "Pretty much what Joe said" anyway.
- When possible, don't give away your best stuff in a press conference.
- If needed, stand sideways so more people can lean in.
- Don't interrupt someone's one-on-one, unless you have a terrific reason.
- Your reason for interrupting someone's one-on-one is almost certainly not terrific.
- If there's a moderator, they'll usually ask you to state your name and affiliation, but nobody cares.
- Don't be afraid to go back and forth a little. These things can be overwhelmingly dry, so if you get some color, run with it.
Never say it can't get worse?
This was always going to be this team's greatest weakness, which was overshadowed by the free-agent drama. There is a feeling inside the organization that a significant chunk of Kelvin Herrera's struggles last year came because he couldn't get consistent work, and even if that's true I'm not sure it'll be any different this season.
After years of the bullpen being a strength and among the best in baseball, this is a bit of a throwback to Royals teams of the past — Rule 5 guys, empty track records, and a lack of consistency.
One of the subtle dramas of the season will be Ned Yost spending the summer trying to hide his frustration, and finding different ways to say, "He just didn't have it tonight."
I will say this: more than anywhere else on the roster, the bullpen is where you can see that the Royals are in rebuild mode.
Even before the parade, Dayton Moore's biggest personnel strength was finding relievers. He often did that by spending a little more, either with salary or taking on more reclamation projects like Ryan Madson or Mike Minor.
They didn't do that as much this year, which I see as part of the desire to keep payroll down.
The bullpen will be even worse if Herrera performs, and is then traded to a contender in July.
is it OK to be down with the rebuild, but still baffled as to why Orlando has started 2/3 of this team’s games? Also, I’m fully aware that it’s early.— JT (@TarH2O23) April 2, 2018
Sure. I understand what they're trying to do, and can empathize with the complications, and am guessing you're the same way.
They have a lot of mouths to feed, to use a phrase, and none of them are so good or otherwise demanding time enough to shut anyone else out. My preference would be to give Jorge Soler 600 plate appearances, sink or swim, to the point that if nothing else you can go into the offseason with a better idea of whether and how he fits into your future.
Orlando is a very good athlete, and in 2016 slashed .302/.329/.405, so you can understand why they want to see him. He's cheap, and plays center field better than they expected.
But he's also 32 years old, so even in the beginning of the season when the Royals are operating as if they're competing, there is a balance at play here in having an eye on the future as well.
If the goal is to be ready to win by 2020 or 2021, it's hard to see how a 34- or 35-year-old outfielder without much of a track record should tack precedence over a guy who is now 26 and possesses the most raw power of any hitter Dayton Moore has had in Kansas City.
These are the types of decisions the Royals have chosen to constantly battle. They're in a bit of a halfway mode here, still, not yet completely rebuilding and not still completely trying to win.
Not the way I'd want to see them do it, but I'm not the boss, and I also understand there aren't a lot of great options available.
I guess I should elaborate. I frequently listen to @gregcote talk about how potential view counts dictate the subject of his stories. How has your personal journalism experience and KC subjects you chose to feature changed over the last few years with the shift in social media?— Dan Weixeldorfer (@dan_wex) April 2, 2018
This is a terrific question, and hits at something central to my professional life now.
Journalists have never had so much information about how their work is consumed. We have tools that can tell us exactly how many people are reading a story, and how long they're spending with it.
We know how many people click in a day, in a week, in a month, in a year, and how they're finding us — whether it's through Google, Twitter, Facebook, or anything else. We know how many of those people are in Kansas City, and we know how many of them are new users or loyal readers.
We all want to be read. We all want to connect. That's why we get into this, and with these tools it's impossible not to think about.
The struggle, at least for me, is figuring out how much to use those tools. How much to think about it. I think we all have different answers based on our own personalities, and I'm still trying to find mine.
There was a time I obsessed on those metrics. I was bummed when the numbers weren't as high as I expected, thrilled when they were higher, and at some point I felt like I was losing control of my own work.
There was a time I ignored all those metrics. I didn't want to be pulled into click-bait, consciously or otherwise, and thought that if I simply focused on doing the best work I'm capable of that the numbers would take care of themselves. But at some point, I felt like I needed some guidance on what was connecting with people and what wasn't.
So, now I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm trying the best I can to let the numbers be information or general guidance in choosing what to write about, and not letting the numbers be my boss in demanding what I write about.
Somedays are better than others. I've written columns I knew wouldn't do much traffic simply because they interested me and I wanted something different, and I've written columns I knew would do well in traffic.
When I started this job, one of the biggest struggles I had was column selection. I did a lot of columns that interested me, that I thought were cool stories to tell, but that didn't connect with people. They weren't bad stories, they just weren't stories that the sports columnist should've been doing.
Over the years I think I got better at that, but I also hope that these metrics can be assistance.
I'm glad you clarified the question, too, because you'll notice nothing I've said here is about Twitter. Social media is a tool for the job. It can be fun, but also obnoxious. I can learn stuff from Twitter and Facebook, be inspired by Twitter and Facebook, and also feel like humanity is hopeless because of Twitter and Facebook.
I'm actually trying to be on Twitter less lately, particularly when I'm home and not working. Disconnecting is important, and I'm trying to get better at that.
Could you explain to us simple people @vgregorian 's and the Star's great achievement and what it means? Have fun with sending the passive aggressive emails/messages.— Will Weber (@WeberwillKU) April 2, 2018
I believe you're referring to Vahe winning first place in the APSE's contest for column writing, and The Star winning first place in multimedia.
Basically, virtually every newspaper and national sportswriting outlet in the country enters this contest. For lack of a better analogy, it's sort of our Oscars. Entrants are split by circulation/audience size, and The Star always enters the largest category.
That means Vahe beat out others like Bill Plaschke of the LA Times, Christine Brennan of USA Today, and Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post. Pretty good company.
Vahe is obviously a talented writer and diligent journalist, but I can't ever talk about him without saying he is one of the absolute best human beings I've ever met in my life. This business is full of a lot of good people, kind people, funny people, thoughtful people, but Vahe is like next-level.
I think he'd agree with this: his success isn't in an award, nice as it is, but in the connections and work. I know I'm lucky to work with him, to have him as a partner in this job.
This week, I'm particularly grateful for the look on our sons' faces when I walked in the door Sunday night. I'd been gone about five days, which is about what it'd been each of the last four or five weeks. I'm sure there will be a time when I walk in from a trip and they don't care. I don't take this for granted.