KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If the end of this thing feels strange and somewhat disconnected to you, you’re not alone. Mark Emmert’s Final Four party in North Texas wraps up tonight without a Kansas team on the extended weekend’s guest list for the first time since 2011. The Sunflower State sent a 1 (Wichita State), a 2 (Kansas) and a 9 (Kansas State) to the Big Dance, and, three weekends later, there’s a 7 (UConn) and an 8 (Kentucky) playing tonight for all the marbles.
Strange, strange month, this. Oh, yeah, it was a good Dance. But a strange Dance, too.
At least John Calipari’s Cardiac Kids had to take out the Wildcats and Shockers, in succession, to get to the promised land, if that makes you feel better, or wonder what could have been. And, more to the point, makes you ask what it will take for your favorite team to get back ….
THREE QUESTIONS KU, K-STATE AND WICHITA STATE MUST GET ANSWERED IF THEY’RE TO REACH THE 2015 FINAL FOUR
:03 … SHOCKERS: WHO’LL PICK UP CLEANTHONY EARLY’S SCORING BATON?
A stomach flu slowed Early at his first MVC tournament a year ago — and the guy’s been making up for it ever since. The 6-foot-8 forward dropped 24 points on Louisville at the Final Four last April and went for 31 against Kentucky during a third-round loss at St. Louis in the 2014 Big Dance. In 15 tilts in March and April over the past two seasons, the New York native averaged 15.1 points and 5.9 boards while shooting .516 from the floor and .381 from beyond the arc.
The bigger the game, the bigger Early played, more or less. Arguably the biggest challenge for coach Gregg Marshall between now and Halloween is replacing an inside-out threat with range and the presence to rise — sometimes literally — to the occasion, depending on what the game (or situation) needed.
Off-guard Ron Baker is smaller (6-3) but has the same sort of qualities and intangibles, minus the post-up game. And the Scott City, Kan., native is coming back for his junior year after reportedly making an NBA inquiry — which might be the best news to come out of Sedgwick County in the last three weeks.
:02 … WILDCATS: WILL THE KEY PIECES OF THE ROSTER REMAIN INTACT?
After taking two steps forward, the next trick for K-State is avoiding a small step sideways. The three most critical pieces for next fall’s roster — freshman shooting guard Marcus Foster, junior forward Thomas Gipson and freshman forward Wesley Iwundu — are expected to bring a combined 33.9 points, 12.7 boards and 4.9 assists per game back to the table. That’s the sort of foundation coach Bruce Weber can build around, if the fates are kind.
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Which, of course, is hardly a sure thing.
Last spring, the top narrative in the Little Apple was the shocking departure of point guard Angel Rodriguez, who eventually wound up at Miami (Fla.), a personnel hit compounded by the end of the road for leading scorer Rodney McGruder and top shot-blocker Jordan Henriquez. Roster turnover is inevitable in college hoops, but it’s hard to sugar-coat losing critical pillars at critical junctures. Assuming Weber can avoid a similar surprise over the next five or six weeks, the Wildcats’ fortunes can continue chugging in an upward direction again.
:01 … JAYHAWKS: IS THERE A POINT GUARD IN THE HOUSE? ANYWHERE?
Cliff Alexander is, by all accounts, the real deal. Ditto Kelly Oubre. But Myles Turner or not Myles Turner, the Jayhawks won’t be a serious player in the 2015 postseason unless there’s an answer at the point — either internally or from a new face.
As to the former option, well, the early returns aren’t the best. Junior point guard Naadir Tharpe followed a forgettable two games in the NCAA Tournament (4.5 ppg, 2.5 apg, 3.0 tpg) by becoming the subject of a TMZ-style scandal after a photograph of him shirtless canoodling with a woman — who appeared to be, ahem, losing her shirt at the time — was posted on the Internet after KU’s campaign hit the premature skids in the third round of the Big Dance.
Granted, Frank Mason’s final eight appearances weren’t all that much to write home about, either (3.1 ppg, 26.9 field-goal percentage), and the up-and-down first season for off-guard Wayne Selden took another slide late — over the final six tilts of the year, the freshman averaged just 6.5 points per game and shot 4 for 22 (.182) from beyond the arc. Which, in March, is a good formula for going home in a hurry.
Just because it’s a broken record doesn’t mean it’s any less true: The more steps Selden and his backcourt mates can make over the next few months, the more steps KU figures to take in Bracketville next year. See UConn over there, still kicking? See Napier? See Boatright? More that, fewer NSFW couples shots.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.