Jayhawks in no mood for excuses after somber end to incredible Big 12 title streak

Injured center Udoka Azubuike (35) watches from the bench during the second half, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Norman, Okla. — The streak is over, and as the rest of the Big 12 Conference no doubt was doing a happy dance at the expense of 14-time defending champion Kansas following Tuesday’s loss at Oklahoma, one man’s name came up that had not been mentioned in a while.

It was that of Kansas junior Udoka Azubuike.

After a 30-minute meeting with his team in the locker room following the Jayhawks’ 81-68 loss to the Sooners on Tuesday night in Norman, Okla., Kansas coach Bill Self was asked by a member of the Oklahoma media, in big, broad, general terms, if he thought things would be different had the Jayhawks still had the 7-foot Azubuike in the lineup.

In many ways, the question could have been rhetorical. Of course, things would have been different. Azubuike and his mammoth size and record-breaking field goal percentage provide Kansas with arguably the toughest individual matchup in college basketball.

And with all due respect to what Kansas State and Texas Tech — along with the six Big 12 teams that refused to let KU come to their place and win — have accomplished this season, there’s little doubt that KU would have been a different team and, therefore, perhaps in a much better position to extend its streak of 14 consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles to 15 if it had Azubuike in the lineup night in and night out.

Instead, though, Azubuike played in just one Big 12 game this season — coincidentally, it came in the opener against the very Oklahoma team that played the final note in KU’s Big 12 swan song — and the Jayhawks have been trying to figure out how to operate without him ever since.

There were good moments — like rocking Texas Tech and K-State at home or fighting to survive an overtime scare from TCU in Fort Worth, Texas — and bad moments — pretty much all of the road losses, but especially no-show nights at OU and Texas Tech. But not one time did Self or his team ever talk about not having Azubuike as the reason why any of it was happening.

That’s what made the question on Tuesday night so interesting. But even then, Self did not take the bait.

“We had a pretty good team when we had our full complement of guys,” Self admitted. “But I tell our guys all the time that injuries are a part of what many teams go through throughout a season and everybody deals with some adversity or obstacles and the good teams are able to fight through that.

“Basketball’s a little different than some other sports, where one person can make such a big difference,” he continued. “But the reality of it is, I don’t look at that as an excuse. I know that we would certainly be better with our full complement of players, but you could say that about a lot of teams across the country. Bottom line is, we just haven’t got it done in the manner in which we hoped we could.”

One of the biggest reasons Self refused to use the Azubuike injury as an excuse for what transpired this season — or the fact that the team played the parts of the past couple of months without four players who were key parts of the 2018 Final Four team in Azubuike, Lagerald Vick (leave of absence), Silvio De Sousa (NCAA suspension) and Marcus Garrett (ankle injury) — was because of what this young Kansas team has proven it can do without them.

None of that foursome was there, back on Feb. 2, when KU rocked Texas Tech by 16 points in what was arguably the team’s best win of the season. And only one of them was in uniform (Garrett) when KU whipped K-State at home last week in a do-or-die game that kept the Jayhawks in the Big 12 race until the end.

“I think we’ve shown teams that, when we play right and play well, we’re turned up enough that we can play with anybody,” Self explained. “So to say losing a player is the reason why something happened, I’m not going to buy into that because we’ve shown that we can play at a pretty high level. We just haven’t done it consistently enough.”

That consistency, or lack thereof, was perhaps the biggest reason the Jayhawks found themselves in the position they were in on Tuesday night, watching the Sooners celebrate a big win and knowing the rest of the Big 12 was celebrating right along with them.

And, Azubuike or no Azubuike, injuries or no injuries, tough breaks or no tough breaks, Self was not about to call what this team accomplished and tried to keep alive for the past few months was anything other than an effort worthy of his admiration.

“You know, I haven’t talked of the streak to the team very much,” Self said. “But it’s pretty cool, at least from our perspective, that we’ve hung in there for a pretty substantial amount of time and taken most people’s best shot most every night, and we’ve had teams that were tough enough to be able to combat that and talented enough to, because you can’t do it without talent.”

“We’ve certainly had our fair share of talent. And we have talent now. It’s just young talent. A coach, better than anybody, knows the potential and the ceiling for each and every team and for us to be 22-8 right now, even though we’ve had some pretty bad losses on the road, I don’t think is anything for this team to hang their head on considering some of the stuff they’ve had to go through.”

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