Missing key pieces, KU once again clicking in March

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) grabs a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college...
Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) grabs a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State in the semifinal round of the Big 12 Conference tournament Friday, March 10, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)(Charlie Riedel | AP)
Published: Mar. 10, 2023 at 10:50 PM CST
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - Kansas is once again clicking in March. That’s no surprise given the historic success of the Kansas program, but the Jayhawks will play Saturday in their 16th Big 12 Tournament Championship Game without their head coach and potentially without a key starter.

On Thursday morning, Kansas’ players were informed by their coaching staff that head coach Bill Self was in the hospital and would not be on the sidelines for the Big 12 Tournament. The Jayhawks took the floor that afternoon and dispatched the West Virginia Mountaineers to the tune of a 78-61 victory.

When the starting lineups came out on Thursday, senior wing Kevin McCullar was not in KU’s opening five. Dealing with back spasms, McCullar played 26 minutes against the Mountaineers.

“It’s day-to-day, minute-to-minute what’s going on and that stuff,” interim head coach Norm Roberts said of the back issues plaguing the Texas Tech transfer after he played 12 first-half minutes and sat during the second half of Friday night’s 71-58 semifinal win over Iowa State. “He gave us all he could today and we’re proud of him for doing that.”

On Friday morning, the Kansas team held a video call with Self, who Roberts said was proud of the way his team played in its opening game. Roberts said that Self even told the coaching staff how he preferred KU to guard the Cyclones. Later that evening, the Jayhawks led for 38:20 of the 40 minutes in a commanding 71-58 win over the Cyclones.

“It was great to talk to him, hear his voice,” senior forward Jalen Wilson said after his 25-point, 10-rebound performance Friday night. “He was super proud of how we did last game, and I am sure he will be proud of us how we did today.

A fan holds up a get well sign for Kansas head coach Bill Self during the first half of an NCAA...
A fan holds up a get well sign for Kansas head coach Bill Self during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against West Virginia in the second round of the Big 12 Conference tournament Thursday, March 9, 2023, in Kansas City, Mo. Self was not at the game after being hospitalized. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)(Charlie Riedel | AP)

“He said just go out there, continue to play the right way and continue to play Kansas basketball.”

The win over Iowa State was Kansas’ sixth this season with Roberts coaching in Self’s place after the Kansas head coach served a University self-imposed four-game suspension at the beginning of the regular season. Three of Kansas’ six wins with Roberts at the helm have been of the Quad 1 variety, helping the Jayhawks boast a nation-best 17 such wins via the NCAA Selection Committee’s NET ranking system.

Asked if he felt like another victory over a Quad 1 opponent should solidify Kansas as the No. 1 overall seed -- and give KU the Midwest region and a second-weekend home of Kansas City -- when the NCAA Tournament bracket is revealed on Sunday, Roberts said he just remains focused on winning the Big 12 Tournament.

READ MORE: Wilson’s double-double helps Kansas advance to Big 12 Championship, defeat Iowa State 71-58

“I have no idea (if it locks up the No. 1 overall seed),” Roberts said Friday night. “We’re not worried about that. We’re worried about winning the game and who we play next. You can’t worry about that. When you get in the tournament, everybody is good. Every team is a champion. You gotta be ready to play, so it doesn’t matter where you’re at.”

Last season, the Jayhawks won the Big 12 Tournament with the unforeseen addition of production from senior guard Remy Martin, who scored in double figures in all three tournament games in Kansas City. But the Jayhawks haven’t always had great luck with injuries, missing Joel Embiid in 2014, Cliff Alexander in 2015 and Udoka Azubuike in 2018′s tournament.

Without Self and with either a physically limited or absent McCullar, Kansas will attempt to go back-to-back as regular season and conference tournament champions on Saturday night when they take on No. 7 Texas at 5 p.m. CT. In the Bill Self era in Lawrence, Kansas has won the league tournament nine times.

“Every time we put that uniform on, Kansas wants to win,” Roberts said. “I don’t care if we’re playing an exhibition game or regular season game, doesn’t matter. We want to win. That’s what we’re built on. That’s what our guys know. They know that’s the expectation. So we will go out there and try and play as hard as we can and try to succeed.”