Sam Mellinger

The Jayhawks are still flawed but they’re now catching breaks as March Madness looms

Here comes Kansas getting a break in March because of course that’s what happened.

Texas Tech is the Big 12’s basketball best team, especially with Kansas State star Dean Wade injured, but of course the Jayhawks won’t see Tech in Friday’s semifinals at the Sprint Center.

Tech lost the upset of the Big 12 Tournament against West Virginia, which may be improved but still went 4-14 during the regular season and will be playing its third game in three days.

Kansas beat Texas 65-57 on Thursday night, and if this is the entrance ramp to another March run you can see the eyeballs from fans who’ve watched this before.

Kansas finished third in the Big 12 regular season, but even without a win over Tech or K-State at full strength, a league tournament championship could keep the Jayhawks within a relatively short drive of Lawrence in either Des Moines or (more likely) Tulsa.

This is the time of year for college coaches to turn into salesmen, using any time in front of reporters to pitch the NCAA Tournament selection committee, but even KU coach Bill Self wouldn’t make a case to potentially play in the Midwest Regional in Kansas City in two weeks.

“That’s a little bit of a reach to be candid,” Self said.

To be clear: KU has a lot to fix. The Jayhawks don’t defend well enough to cover for their lack of three-point shooting, and can struggle to score, particularly when Dedric Lawson isn’t on the floor.

Kansas has become accustomed to negating particular roster deficiencies with NBA talent, but that luxury doesn’t exist with this group, at least not yet. Their wins will have come on the margins, without the comfort of playing through many mistakes.

The win against Texas did not necessarily fuel a new confidence. Longhorns star freshman Jaxson Hayes played just 14 minutes with foul trouble, and didn’t finish the game after injuring his knee. Texas fired 25 three-point attempts and hit just eight. Kansas will have to beat better opponents, who play more effectively, before becoming a trendy pick when the brackets are released on Sunday.

But the point on this night is that a path exists. David McCormack, the freshman and former McDonald’s All-American, has gone from seldom used to a real weapon. He went for 13 points and nine rebounds against Texas, thoroughly outplaying Hayes when both were on the floor, and going stretches as the game’s best player.

“I know we have to get physical with him,” McCormack said. “As far as getting inside of him because he likes to be a shot blocker, so I used by size and strength to my advantage.”

Devon Dotson has turned into something like a Frank Mason starter kit, a fast and strong point guard whose production is growing into his talent. Lawson remains one of the sport’s best and smartest players. Mitch Lightfoot has found his lane, Ochai Agbaji remains dangerous, and Marcus Garrett is a game-changing defensive talent.

In a year without many (any?) powers outside Duke with a healthy Zion Williamson, well, crazier things have happened.

One more time: the Jayhawks still face challenges. Heck, West Virginia beat them, and that was back when everyone still assumed the Jayhawks would win the league.

This is a flawed Kansas team, and those flaws are often compounded by a seeming lack of confidence and leadership.

But it would be just like the Jayhawks to find their way now, in a season already marked as a disappointment. The conference bracket has opened up, which could end up helping in the bracket people care about.

The streak died, but this team still has life. One more opportunity awaits the program that’s already had so many.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.