LAWRENCE — An up-and-down regular season for Kansas basketball ended on a high note Saturday, a campaign of long-term injuries, NCAA rulings, midseason redshirt burnings and indefinite absences now coming to a crescendo.
If that at all sounds like the plot to a movie, well, Bill Self has already identified the most apt flick for his fascinating-yet-frustrating squad.
“It’s ‘50 First Dates.’ Drew Barrymore could star on our team,” said Self, referring to the 2004 rom-com about an amnesia-hindered couple. “... ’Cause it’s something new every day.”
Dedric Lawson scored 23 points and hauled in 14 rebounds, frontcourt partner David McCormack scored 10 first-half points to help Lawson shake an early funk and the No. 13-ranked Jayhawks downed Baylor 78-70 in the teams’ final regular-season game. The outcome delivered a 36th consecutive victory in a home finale for KU and a seventh unblemished home slate for the program under Self.
With attention now turned to an 8:30 p.m. Thursday contest against Texas at the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., Self acknowledged uncertainty about what the immediate future holds as he enters the postseason with four starting freshmen for the first time in his 16-year tenure.
“I don’t really know what to expect, but I’m excited to see whatever happens,” Self said. “I still think there’s a level we can get to that we haven’t gotten to yet, so hopefully we’ll peak at the right time.”
Self was left wanting more after Saturday's victory.
KU (23-8, 12-6 Big 12) entered halftime with a 32-29 lead thanks to the surprise showing from the on-the-rise freshman forward McCormack. He hit 5 of 7 attempts from the floor, securing a second straight double-figure scoring output and only his fourth of the season. The 6-foot-10, 265-pound former McDonald’s All-American, who entered averaging 3.0 points and 2.5 rebounds, helped offset a rough start for the preseason All-American Lawson, who scored six points on just 2-for-9 shooting in the first 20 minutes.
“You know, Dedric gets numbers. He had 23 (points) and 14 (rebounds) tonight and I told him after the game, ‘That should’ve been 32 and 18,’ ” Self said. “He missed a lot of bunnies in the first half. He got seven good looks in the first half that he didn’t make (and) we’d sell out for that every day.
“I actually thought our offense against their zone was the best it’s maybe ever been, but we missed a lot of easy shots. It was a boring game, not a lot of flow, but we were able to keep them at an arm’s length the entire game. But the reality is, we had a chance to put our foot on their throat a little bit, and (we) let ’em off the hook.”
It certainly seemed that way out of the intermission. KU scored the first eight points of the second half to take an 11-point lead, but Baylor (19-12, 10-8) answered with a 6-0 rally of its own to cut the deficit back to five, 40-35, with 15:25 remaining.
That’s when Lawson was sent to the free-throw line following a flagrant-1 foul on the Bears’ Flo Thamba, who struck Lawson in the face while the two were jockeying for a rebound. Lawson hit both tries from the stripe, got back to the line and hit another pair after notching a steal when the ensuing free possession came up empty, and made eight total free throws in eight attempts across the game’s next three-plus minutes to re-establish an 11-point lead.
Quentin Grimes drained a 3-pointer to make the advantage 14, and while Baylor didn’t go quietly — a 23-point second half from first-year guard Jared Butler helped cut the KU advantage to just six with 2:35 remaining — Lawson and freshman guard Devon Dotson hit the necessary shots and free-throw attempts from there to finish off the victory.
Dotson scored 15 points and McCormack 12 to round out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks, who got an 11-for-12 effort from Lawson at the free-throw line that helped cancel out his teammates’ combined 9-for-18 showing from the stripe.
While pleased with the outcome, Self didn't see everything he expected in the home finale.
“We’ve got to do something to make them play bad. That’s been a little bit disappointing to me, that we just don’t do that consistently like we can,” Self said. “Our goal today, my whole deal was, ‘This is the most aggressive we’re going to play all year, is today. Both ends, attack mode, letting it go.’ And we start the game out by letting our guy catch it wherever he wanted to. We’ve got to change some of those things.”
Butler had a game-high 31 points on 10-for-21 shooting for the undermanned Bears, who played without hobbled senior guard Makai Mason (14.6 points per game) as well as former starters Tristan Clark and Jake Lindsey, who have been long sidelined with season-ending injuries. Entering the top 3-point shooting team in league play at a 38.7-percent clip, Baylor missed its first 10 tries from beyond the arc Saturday and finished 6-for-31 from deep.
After the final buzzer, Self said that while he doesn’t like to admit it, KU missing out on at least a share of a national record-extending 15th straight regular-season conference championship was a “deflating” feeling for his players, though he’s hopeful the time between Saturday’s victory and the Big 12 Tournament opener will help the No. 3-seeded Jayhawks clear their minds.
Beyond that, though? Unknown waters await.
“I actually don’t really think that I’m in love with how we’re playing, but I also don’t think that I’m, you know, ultra-concerned with how we’re playing,” Self said. “You’re going to be concerned this time of year because from this point forward it’s one-and-done, so to speak, if you lose in both tournaments.”
For what it's worth, Self doesn’t appear to have eliminated hopes for a Hollywood-worthy climax.
“I actually think it’s been a good year, but to me, you can’t have great years unless you do something that’s championship-type worthy, at least in our situation,” Self said. “And I think our ceiling isn’t as high as what it could’ve been if we had our full complement of guys, but I also believe that without those full complement of guys, I’m not sure 23-8 is a bad record. ...
“Whether it’s a good season or not a good season will all be determined in the next two or three weeks. Playing well this weekend, if you play well in the NCAA Tournament, I would tell you that I believe pretty good can turn into real good, and that still remains to be seen.”