Now that the Big 12 Tournament is upon us, perhaps the most tightly contested, most talented conference in the history of basketball, and yet most of the headlines have nothing to do with this week’s games.
Texas Tech’s Mark Adams in not in Kansas City after allegedly making racially insensitive remarks to members of his team, which has earned him a suspension. Yesterday, TCU starting big man and important member of their team, Eddie Lampkin, Jr., not only announced he was stepping away from the team for personal reasons, but shared screenshots on social media that accused head coach Jamie Dixon of not only being abusive toward him but also saying racially insensitive things. And of course, this morning, Jayhawks got the horrible news that Bill Self is in the hospital with what has so far only been labeled an “illness” that will likely keep him out of the tournament, however long Kansas remains in it. There are social media speculations as to what the “illness” may actually be, but until something is even halfway confirmed, I won’t devote any words to these rumors.
With regard to the game, Norm Roberts will fill in on the sidelines as he did at the beginning of the year when Self was serving a university-imposed suspension. Kansas didn’t lose any of the games with Roberts at the helm, and even beat Duke in the Champions Classic, so it does seem as though the team is in good hands. However, if there is any sort of dark cloud hanging over the program as a result of whatever Self is going through, it’s easy to see that impacting the team.
We’ve played and beat West Virginia twice this year, so I don’t think anyone needs a deep dive on their style of play, or strengths and weaknesses. Though just the 8 seed in this tournament, they rank 16th in KenPom’s ratings, compared to KU’s 9th. This is anything but a standard 1 vs 8 matchup, and with the uncertainty hanging over Self’s sudden health concerns, there could be a recipe for an early exit here. If Kansas wants to stay in the discussion for taking the top overall seed from Houston, a quarterfinal loss to a bubble team, on the heels of a double digit loss to end the regular season, isn’t the way this team wants to put their stamp on things headed into selection Sunday. The question is whether this may galvanize the team, or leave the players looking a little aimless with the future of their coach and his health potentially up in the air. An off-court distraction like this makes a prediction very difficult.
West Virginia has been a solid offense in Big 12 play, and a below average defense overall. However, if you remember the meeting between these teams just under 2 weeks ago, West Virginia has the ability to cause KU some problems by crashing the offensive boards hard and generating additional shot attempts. That’s not a fluke, as they’re the league’s top offensive rebounding team, something that’s become a bit of a staple of Huggins’ squads. They also forced Kansas into turning the ball over 26% of the time in that game. Between those two stats, it’s impressive that KU beat such a good team in that game, even if at home and even if by just two points.
KenPom actually predicts the same exact final score for this one: Kansas 76, West Virginia 74. Of course, computers can’t take into account what the loss of Self may or may not do, and over the course of this morning, I’ve seen the line drop from KU -4.5, to KU -3.5, to multiple entities taking this game off the books entirely.
With West Virginia likely feeling some pressure to get one more big win in, and lock themselves into the tournament, this is an extremely tough game to pick. Kansas turned it over 26% of the time the last time they faced this team, and went through stretches where it seemed like WV’s offensive rebounding might bury them. Fortunately, the Jayhawks hit half their threes and forced turnovers of their own about 29% of the time, so they escaped with a win. I don’t think any of that, aside from maybe the Mountaineers’ offensive rebounding is likely to repeat itself this time. If the Bill Self news weren’t hanging over the players’ heads, I’d feel pretty comfortable picking KU to win a close one in KC. I’m still going to pick KU to win a close one in KC, but I can’t say I’m too confident about it. I just have some faith that Kansas is talented and resilient enough, and already familiar enough with Norm Roberts, that maybe they can put the other things out of their mind and at least make the conference semifinals. I think the Jayhawks can win this, but I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t come down to the wire.
Kansas 74, West Virginia 71