Vahe Gregorian

Brutal NCAA tourney loss to Auburn puts exclamation point on season of flux for Kansas

Dedric Lawson breaks down, blames himself after KU’s loss to Auburn

Kansas junior forward Dedric Lawson breaks down, blames himself after KU's 89-75 loss to Auburn on March 23, 2019.
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Kansas junior forward Dedric Lawson breaks down, blames himself after KU's 89-75 loss to Auburn on March 23, 2019.

So this is what the end of an era, or at least a radical outlier, looks like:

As a whirlwind Auburn team seized a 20-9 lead over Kansas on another fast-break three-pointer by Bryce Brown in their NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional game on Saturday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, KU coach Bill Self stood in a hapless, hopeless pose on the sideline. Exasperation radiating from his red face, he turned one way and then another. He seemed to start to speak to no one in particular as he perhaps sought an answer out of the literally thin air here.

When I asked him later if at some point he just didn’t know what to do, Self paused and smiled and simply said, “Yes.”

Seconds later, Brown, ho-hum, did it again, and you already knew by then there was no solving this mess for KU.

The fourth-seeded Jayhawks trailed 51-25 at halftime after the fifth-seeded Tigers swamped them 26-1 in fast-break points on the way to an 89-75 dismantling. Afterward, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl would casually say, “The reality is our Auburn basketball team is a better team than the Kansas team,” the understatement of the night.

In the process of being bulldozed, KU also squandered a chance to play in the Sweet 16 next week at the Sprint Center, where in essence it would have been playing with house money ladled in gravy after a season of flux that it’s now left to reconcile.

Instead, the loss that came after KU had offered some glimmers of hope by winning nine of its last 12 put an exclamation point on how much this season deviated from what’s become routine under Self and eluded him and his Jayhawks (26-10) this season.

Not only did KU’s streak of 14 straight Big 12 titles come to an end this season, but now so has another remarkable standard: The loss to Auburn, the Southeastern Conference Tournament champion that won its 10th straight game, extinguished a trend that had gone back to 2000 and had become a staple since Self took over in 2003.

Until Saturday, every Kansas season since the NCAA second-round loss to Duke in 2000 had ended with either a conference title, advancing to the second weekend of the tournament and beyond, or both.

And now … a humbling for a team that was preseason No. 1 — albeit before losing three of its anticipated top players.

“You don’t get a ring for winning a game in the tournament,” Self said in the wake of Kansas’ first-round romp over Northeastern.

Rather than adding more bling, the Jayhawks will head into an offseason of uncertainty with an ugly loss in their craw and little to console them by way of accomplishment.

Or as Self put it on Friday when he considered the potential impact of this game: “Even though the year didn’t go exactly as we had it scripted, I do think in our fans’ minds and certainly in my mind, in our players’ minds, it takes the sting off of that totally if you perform very well in the tournament.”

So the sting will stick now as KU and its fans are left to wonder what might have been. Meaning both in terms of if Udoka Azubuike hadn’t been injured and Silvio De Sousa had been eligible and Lagerald Vick hadn’t left the team for personal reasons and if it had managed to make its way back to Kansas City and a de facto home game against the winner of the matchup Sunday between top-seeded North Carolina and ninth-seeded Washington.

That homecoming guaranteed nothing, of course, especially considering KU just lost to Iowa State in its last game at Sprint Center and was upended there as a No. 1 seed by No. 3 seed Oregon in a 2017 Elite Eight game.

Just the same, the possibilities sure would have been intriguing and might have produced one of the most enticing games of the tournament if the Jayhawks were taking on the Tar Heels and former KU coach Roy Williams.

Instead, KU added to the tournament thuds of some of the Big 12’s most prominent prospects: Regular-season co-champion Kansas State, a No. 4 seed, fizzled out Friday in the first round against 13th-seeded UC Irvine, and in a 6-11 upset Big 12 Tournament champ Iowa State tumbled to Ohio State later in the day.

Meanwhile, even with no seniors on a team that started five players, including four freshmen, who’d never played in an NCAA Tournament before, KU fans also are left to wonder what’s ahead amid the uncertainty hovering from the FBI Adidas probe.

Kansas Jayhawks guard Devon Dotson on KU's three-point and transition defense in an 89-75 loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament round of 32 on March 23, 2019.

Azubuike, Dedric Lawson and Quentin Grimes, who struggled early but found himself some late in the season, all seem questionable to return. Perhaps others won’t be back. Without specifying anyone in particular, Self acknowledged as much and said “we’ll have some conversations this week and just see what direction they want to go.”

One way or another, though, Self knows he needs reinforcements.

“We’ve got to sign a couple athletes, obviously, that can be difference-makers that can make plays you can’t coach,” he said. “Because their speed tonight, they made plays you can’t coach.”

(As for the coaching part, Self also was quick to say “a lot of” the loss was on him for not sending three men back in transition defense from the get-go.)

Now, roster turnover is a constant for a program that currently has 11 players in the NBA, most of whom left before their eligibility expired. It also stands to reason that as long as Kansas is guided by Self, one of the best to ever coach the game, the program will regenerate and remain in the upper echelon. You can probably safely that bet next year Kansas will make its record 31st straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

But this still is all so different. For the first time in 15 years, Kansas’ season ended with no Big 12 title behind it, nothing of note accomplished in the NCAA Tournament and certainly more questions than obvious answers.

And now a sting that will linger for a program going into an offseason with less sense of achievement or momentum than it has in nearly two decades.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.