How Much Blame Should Bill Self Get in Last Night’s Kansas Loss?

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In the week leading up to Kansas and Oklahoma’s Super Tuesday match up on ESPN, each team had different storylines. For Kansas, they took over sole possession of first place, something no one expected at the start of Big 12 play. For Oklahoma, they dropped two games, and the narrative was ‘Is Trae Young forcing too much?’ Both storylines changed Tuesday, when the Sooners topped the Jayhawks 85-80 in Norman.

Kansas held a 10 point lead with under 10 minutes to play in the second half. After a Svi Mykhailiuk made three pointer, KU looked to be in control. But then, Matt Freeman checked in. Freeman, a sophomore, plays 12 minutes for the Sooners, but he changed the game when he came on the floor. How does a player change the course of a game while finishing with zero points, zero assists and zero rebounds? He fouls. A lot.

Freeman fouled out in just two minutes of play, as Lon Kruger and Oklahoma resorted to the “Hack-A-Shaq” game plan on KU’s Udoka Azubuike. Seemingly unable to stop the Jayhawk offense, Kruger decided to make Azubuike, a 38% free throw shooter, beat them down the stretch. Azubuike went 1-7 from the line. That left the door for Christian James and Brady Manek to drain huge three pointers, and push Oklahoma to a win.

The loss gives the Sooners a much needed sigh of relief, but for Kansas, they are left with a sour taste in their mouths. Did Bill Self make the right decision to leave in his center during such a crucial situation? After the game, Self said it was not the right decision, but said it was a confidence move for his player. While a win would have set the Jayhawks up nicely for a 14th straight Big 12 title, I think Self made the right move in this scenario.

Defending the Head Coach’s Move

Kansas has a collection of experienced guards, and inexperienced post players. Azubuike, albeit a sophomore, only played in 11 games last season due to a hand injury. As a result, Self needs to know what he can get out of, basically his only legitimate post player, in crunch time. Azubuike leads the team in rebounding, and has has one of the highest field goal percentages in the country. He’s a guy you want on the court in end of game scenarios for a number of reasons. While winning the conference is great, coaches are judged, fair or not, by how they do in March. In order for Self to succeed in March, he needs to know how he can handle end of game situations with this KU team. It would be better to learn this lesson now than in March, right?

Aside from that, Self’s options were thin. Last night may have been an exception, as backup center Mitch Lightfoot had a strong game. But in general, Lightfoot is wildly inconsistent when he’s on the court. He can sometimes be soft down low, and doesn’t rebound as well as Azubuike. For a Kansas team that already struggles to rebound the basketball, you want your leading rebounder in there. With a lead and thing bench options, you want to leave in your leading rebounder and hope you can close it out on the defensive end. You would hope Azubuike would be able to at least split his free throws.

Lastly, as a coach, you want to show support in your players. I know at the end of the day, the goal is to win. It’s how coaches keep their jobs. But Bill Self isn’t going anywhere unless he chooses to. It benefits Kansas in the long run for Azubuike to know his coach and team have faith in him. You put faith in your player to keep his focus and confidence knowing his team is behind him. I know the results are not what Rock Chalk faithful wanted, but I believe it will help down the road.

Kansas still controls their own destiny in the Big 12. It would be great to be two games up over everyone in the conference, but they still rest at the top alone. They have that big win at West Virginia, something most teams will not get. This will be a game that stings KU and their fans right now, but it will be forgotten. It doesn’t compare to how badly those losses in March sting. And that’s what Self was playing for. Self’s decision last night, while playing a big hand in the loss, will help this Kansas team in a big game when the season is on the line.

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