KU basketball ’ready for anything’ ahead of Gonzaga tilt, unusual season
LAWRENCE — On the cusp of a college basketball season all but certain to see its share of pandemic-related stoppages, Kansas’ Christian Braun isn’t flinching.
These Jayhawks, the sophomore guard contends, are uniquely equipped to handle such interruptions.
“We got stopped short of a Final Four run trying to win a championship last year,” Braun said Monday, “so nothing thrown at us could be worse than that or more unexpected than that.”
He’s got a point.
No. 6-ranked KU, which in March was poised to earn the top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament before COVID-19 concerns canceled March Madness entirely, are scheduled to tip off this campaign against top-ranked Gonzaga at 12:30 p.m. Thursday in Fort Myers, Fla. The Jayhawks return five players who saw significant action in 2019-20, including expected starters Braun, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack.
“I think this team especially will be ready for anything,” Braun said. “At this point we’ve just kind of trained our minds to take things as they come, just be (as) positive as you can be. ... You’ve just gotta keep being positive, keep looking forward and just prepare for each game. Obviously you don’t know if you’re going to play ’em, but prepare for each game as they come.”
The fluidity of the upcoming season was reinforced this week as a pair of nationally recognizable coaches, Baylor’s Scott Drew and Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, each announced they had tested positive for COVID-19, throwing their ranked teams’ opening-week plans into disarray. The Jayhawks, meanwhile, are “relatively healthy” with the team now testing three times a week for the virus, according to Bill Self.
“(Gonzaga coach Mark) Few and I texted each other (Sunday) night,” Self said. “Mark said, ‘So far so good for the Zags.’ I said, ‘Same here with the Jayhawks.’ But you know what? This is one of those years, guys, that we all want to play and our guys really want to play, but the whole deal is we don’t need to get too high or too low when we do or when we can’t because there’s going to be plenty of those this year over the course of the season.”
Self said last week that he is confident the sport will be able to pull off both a regular season and an NCAA Tournament but expressed doubts as to whether the former will occur without significant interruptions. Many teams, Self believes, will simply be unable to complete the entirety of their 27-game regular season schedules.
And then there’s the matter of just how good those teams will be coming off isolation.
“If a team gets quarantined and you can’t play for two weeks and you’re going to come back and haven’t practiced, you’re going to come back and not be worth a flip for the next week or so after you come back,” Self said. “I think that you can have the image or perspective of not being near as good as you are, and vise versa, if you’re fortunate enough to stay healthy you may win some games where you’re not playing against full-strength teams.”
All those factors could combine to create perhaps the wildest, most upset-heavy March Madness ever.
“I really believe the rankings, the seedings and all that stuff this year will be less important than any other year,” Self continued, “because I don’t think we’ll be comparing apples versus apples until we get to the NCAA Tournament.”
Before March, of course, comes November, and for the Jayhawks the matchup with the top-ranked Bulldogs, the first of four preseason Top 25 teams on KU’s nine-game nonconference schedule. Self said Gonzaga deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as powerhouses Kentucky, Villanova, Duke, Michigan State and, yes, Kansas.
“I love their personnel, and obviously I’m not the only one; others do too because of where they’ve got them ranked,” Self said. “This is a loaded team. They’re big and strong on the wing, they’ve got length on the perimeter and I think their skill is off the charts. So we’re going to have to do some things to make them play poorly. It’s awfully early in the season to be able to do that, but that’s going to be our best chance to be successful.”
If the Jayhawks were indeed poised to be the top dog entering the 2019-20 postseason that never was, the Bulldogs would’ve almost certainly been No. 2 — Few’s crew was 31-2 and won the championship game at the West Coast Conference Tournament on March 10; just two days later, the NCAA Tournament was canceled.
One wouldn’t be wrong, then, to classify Thursday’s matchup as a long time coming.
“I didn’t get to play ’em last year,” said Braun, “but they’re always at the top of the rankings. They’ve got a lot of people that can hurt you. They’ve got a lot of talented guys. And obviously they’re the No. 1 (ranked) team, and that’s the spot that everybody’s going for. So we’re excited to get to compete against ’em and knock ’em off that spot.”
KU says no fans through Dec. 5
KU chancellor Douglas Girod announced Monday night that fans will not be permitted to attend home athletic events through Dec. 5, extending measures taken last week that barred spectators from all games and matches for the rest of November.
Girod’s decision means the Jayhawk men’s basketball team will play at least its first two scheduled home games — versus Washburn (7 p.m. Dec. 3) and versus North Dakota State (TBA Dec. 5) — inside an empty Allen Fieldhouse.
In a video message, Self implored fans to do their part to stop the spread of the virus.
"This Thanksgiving and of course with the Christmas holiday coming up, don't let your guard down. Mask up. Keep social distancing. Wash your hands,“ Self said. ”With a vaccine that's relatively imminent on it's way, this is a time that we really need to bow our neck and be disciplined and not take a step backwards. You have spoiled us rotten in the past over my time here and of course dating back generations (with) what a special place this is and how hard it is to win in this place. We need to bring those days back and it won't happen unless we all do our job."
NO. 6 KANSAS VS. NO. 1 GONZAGA
Tipoff: 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Suncoast Credit Union Arena, Fort Myers, Fla.
Records: Kansas 0-0, Gonzaga 0-0.
TV/Radio (Topeka): FOX/KWIC-FM (99.3)
Up next for KU: vs. Saint Joseph's, 1 p.m. Friday, Suncoast Credit Union Arena, Fort Myers, Fla.