The Big 12 men’s basketball tournament begins Wednesday downtown at the Sprint Center. Top-seeded Kansas doesn’t play until Thursday in the quarterfinals, but KU has already put itself in elite company winning its 13th consecutive regular season Big 12 title. That ties the Jayhawks with UCLA.
KU faced challenges on the court, but even more trouble off the court en route to this year’s title.
The Kansas Jayhawks started the season off strong, only losing one game. But trouble started to surface against Nebraska in December. Jayhawks sophomore Carlton Bragg sat out the game under the suspicion of domestic abuse. Though the prosecutor dismissed the charge after a security video surfaced, it was a harbinger of things to come.
In the next game, seven-foot Udoka Azubuike helped KU avoid an upset against Davidson at Sprint Center. Afterward, senior guard Frank Mason praised his freshman teammate from Nigeria, “We’re helping every day. Coach (is) helping him, so he’s improving every day.”
That was Azubuike’s last game of the year. The following week, an injury during practice prompted season-ending surgery.
In KU’s first Big 12 home game against Kansas State, the Jayhawks got a break, surviving on a controversial basket by Svi Mykhailiuk before the final buzzer. It looked like a traveling violation, but the officials didn’t blow their whistles.
But the thrill of the win was tempered by the published report of a rape at McCarthy Hall, the newly constructed residence hall where players and about 20 other students live. It dated back to KU’s return from that December game in Kansas City. Details are still unclear and no charges have been filed, but five KU players were listed as witnesses.
Before KU’s biggest non-conference game of the year at Kentucky, KU coach Bill Self answered more questions about the reported rape than the game.
“I think sometimes when you, in general, talk about a distraction, you look at how it affects us,” said Self. “But more importantly, there’s an obviously very serious alleged allegation.”
Already without Azubuike, the Jayhawks were even more short-handed at Kentucky because sophomore forward Carlton Bragg began a three-game suspension. He was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia from the night of the McCarthy Hall incident. Later, Bragg entered a diversion agreement.
Another situation for Self to deal with. “Well, obviously, he was suspended for violation of team rules and I’ll leave it at that,” said Self. “But certainly (I’m) very disappointed.”
But the off-court incidents didn’t stop there. The Kansas City Star reported that sophomore guard Lagerald Vick was the center of a university investigation over alleged multiple incidents of domestic violence.
After KU’s home victory over Baylor in a match-up of two top-five nationally ranked teams, Self again addressed questions about the game and allegations. “I have been told that I cannot comment on a university investigation,” he said. “Or whether one is or is not taking place or has ever taken place.”
Then as KU was on the verge of clinching at least a tie for the Big 12 title against TCU, it was announced that freshman sensation Josh Jackson would be disciplined internally over a car vandalism incident. Again, from last December. He didn’t miss any games.
With everything to deal with off the court, Bill Self said the team put it aside. “I will say that this team has been as focused as any group that I can remember considering all the crap and distractions that this team has listened to and dealt with,” he said.
One interested observer of KU’s streak is former UCLA great Jamaal Wilkes who was part of the Bruins conference title streak in the early 1970s. He said he would not be opposed to seeing KU break the deadlock next year.
“It’s really impressive,” said Wilkes. “I think it’s a testament to the tremendous job that Coach Self and his staff and the whole university is supporting the team like that. I hope they do it. I think it would be a remarkable and great achievement.”
Wilkes’ basketball-playing son, Omar Wilkes, signed to play at KU. He was recruited by Roy Williams, but Williams bolted for North Carolina, so Wilkes played as a freshman in Bill Self’s first year at KU. The 2003-04 season marked the only one in which the Jayhawks did not win the Big 12 title under Self.
Even the elder Wilkes didn’t foresee KU’s current string of conference titles.
“Not at that time. I honestly didn’t,” said Wilkes. “I didn’t really know much about Coach Self.”
What does Wilkes think of Self now?
“In retrospect, he has certainly made his mark,” he said. “I think Phog Allen would be proud.”
Proud of what took place on the court. One can only wonder what Phog Allen would think of all the reports connected to the KU team off the court.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.