With reports breaking late last night that Cliff Alexander is being investigated for receiving impermissible benefits (and with the rumors going around Lawrence about what specifically happened, this probably won't end well), it might be time to mentally prepare for life without Cliff-- if you haven't been preparing already. Personally, I started stocking my Cliff Alexander bomb shelter the moment he was held out of the Texas game last week.
For the sake of this article, let's assume he's done for the year. How much are we going to miss him?
There are a few examples to draw on if we're talking about key players being lost for the postseason. The one still fresh in everyone's mind, of course, is Joel Embiid. I maintain that KU should have been able to handle Stanford without Embiid, but there's no question that without that injury, the Jayhawks are playing in the Sweet 16 at the bare minimum. When they were full strength last year, they looked like one of the best teams in the country. Because of their youth, there might not have been a high probability of the 'Hawks actually hitting their ceiling, but there's no denying that said ceiling was national champs, especially with the way the bracket ended up breaking.
There was Wayne Simien's shoulder injury in 2003. Simien missed a bunch of games during the regular season, and with Jeff Graves putting up an 8 and 8 in his absence, Kansas was able to go 9-2. After Dub came back, re-injured the shoulder and missed the rest the season, Graves went nuts during the run to the championship game, averaging a double-double from the Elite 8 on, including a heroic 16 points and 16 rebounds in the championship. Besides the bench being shorter (oh hi Bryant Nash getting way too much playing time in important games), you could argue that KU barely missed a step in Simien's absence.
Archie Marshall blew out a knee in both 1986 and 1988. That injury played a role in the '86 Final Four loss to Duke when Marshall went down in the second half of a close game, but obviously KU was able to overcome it in '88-- thanks Danny.
Then there are the lesser injuries, wherein the players battled through and played, but were clearly affected. Keith Langford was an all-around physical mess by tournament time in 2005, and KU was bounced by Bucknell in the first round. Jerod Haase gutted out a broken wrist in '97 and played OK...until he didn't, and was essentially a non-factor in the infamous Arizona loss.
Back to Cliff. If you throw out the fact that he was the #3 recruit in the nation coming into the year, then he's had a fairly solid, if unspectacular, freshman campaign. A lot of ups and downs, some issues with getting enough playing time, and flashes of brilliance mixed with head-scratching mental errors. Because he was a top-ranked recruit, however, his season becomes much more of a disappointment. How much of that disappointment can be placed on the lack of playing time can be, and has been, debated, but I think it's safe to say almost all of Jayhawk Nation was hoping for a little bit more out of Cliff.
Last week, Kansas went 2-0 without him, with one win coming against the huge front line of Texas, and the other coming against a West Virginia team without its own best player, Juwan Staten (KU's 2nd half comeback without both Perry and Cliff was very promising, however-- Staten or no Staten). Alexander is, far and away, both KU's best rebounder and shot-blocker, as he ranks 56th and 80th in the country in offensive rebounding % and block %, respectively. Losing that presence down low hurts a lot.
However, Landen Lucas' play has been encouraging, and having Hunter Mickelson as the 5th big in your rotation is an incredible luxury (hi again Bryant Nash, don't worry, with you moving up in the rotation, now we have tournament minutes available for your buddy Moulaye Niang, hope he's been stretching!) I feel like Kansas has the horses to mitigate the loss of Alexander, if only a little bit.
My biggest concern is that without Alexander in the lineup-- even admitting that by this point in the season, he was probably not going to make a huge leap in his productivity-- the ceiling has been lowered for the 2015 Jayhawks. As currently constructed, I struggle to envision a scenario in which KU makes the Final Four; I'd be happy with a Sweet 16 berth; and I'm bracing myself for a really dicey game in the Round of 32. I think the only way this year's team had a Final Four run in them would have been if they got a superb performance from Cliff. To put it another way, I don't think the Jayhawks will be much worse without Cliff; but they've just lost their last chance to be any better.
So what say you? On a scale from Wayne Simien to Joel Embiid, how much would losing Cliff Alexander hurt the Jayhawks in the tournament this year? How substantially does it affect both their ceiling and their floor?