The Jayhawks won't be game-planning with the idea that Cliff Alexander can play.
Brendan Maloney/Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Eleven straight conference championships and a national title have understandably made Kansas coach Bill Self secure enough to acknowledge when he’s made a mistake.
That was the case when he looked back on last season.
The Jayhawks headed into the Big 12 tournament unsure of whether they would have Joel Embiid, one of the nation’s premier post players, because of a lingering foot injury. Self held out hope that the star freshman would be ready, so he built his plan around that assumption.
Embiid never stepped on the court again for the Jayhawks, who wound up losing to Iowa State in the Big 12 semifinals, then fell to Stanford the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
"Last year, we made a mistake," Self said this week. "We thought we’d get Joel back based on what we’d been told, and it just didn’t work out that way. No one’s fault. It didn’t work out that way. But you kind of approach coaching the team thinking that he’ll come back, and I don’t know if that’s the right approach."
That’s why Self is taking a different tack as the top-seeded Jayhawks prepare to open the Big 12 tournament on Thursday afternoon at the Sprint Center.
Freshman forward Cliff Alexander missed the last few games of the regular season amid NCAA concerns about his eligibility. Self is again holding out hope that his best interior defender will be available, but this time he’s not counting on it.
He is counting on having the rest of his players back — leading scorer Perry Ellis from a knee injury, point guard Frank Mason III from a sore ankle and Brannen Greene from a suspension.
"I’m going to coach this team like we’re going to get Perry back, and he’s going to be 100 percent, which we believe will be the case very soon," Self said. "Wayne will be 100 percent, BG will be back, and then whatever happens with Cliff will be a bonus."
The Big 12 tournament begins Wednesday night when eighth-seeded Kansas State faces No. 9 seed TCU, and seventh-seeded Texas plays No. 10 seed Texas Tech in the nightcap.
The Jayhawks will face the winner of the opener in the quarterfinals Thursday. Second-seeded Iowa State gets the winner of Game 2. Baylor faces West Virginia and Oklahoma takes on Oklahoma State in the two quarterfinals that are already set.
"Every team in the league is capable. It’s one of the best leagues in the country," Kansas guard Kelly Oubre Jr. said. "You can be beaten on any given night. Texas had some great wins. We slipped up and let a couple teams get us that shouldn’t. It’s a great league."
Texas and Oklahoma State may have the most riding on things this week.
The Longhorns, once ranked in the top five nationally, went through plenty of struggles this season. But they’ve been playing better down the stretch, and now a couple of wins in Kansas City could be enough to push them off the bubble and into the NCAA Tournament.
The Cowboys are also sitting precariously on the bubble.
"I don’t think there’s any question the Big 12, any night, all 10 teams have been NCAA-type teams," Oklahoma state coach Travis Ford said. "This is as strong as I’ve ever seen it. I haven’t seen a league this strong in a long time, I don’t care what league it is."
The numbers seem to prove his point.
Of the 15 teams with the most wins against Top 25 opponents this season, seven are members of the Big 12. Four of them are ranked in the top 15 of the RPI, one of the many metrics that NCAA Tournament selection committee will use to choose the field on Sunday.
Nine of its members have been ranked in the Top 25 in the last calendar year.
"Top to bottom, RPI-wise, we’re the best conference in the country," Baylor coach Scott Drew said, "and with that, I think we have several teams that could make Final Four runs."
That means just as many teams are also capable of winning the Big 12 tournament.
"It’s a new season now. Everything that happened in the past doesn’t matter now," Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. said. "Once it gets to the postseason, it’s lose and go home."