Mac Stevenson
When sophomore center Udoka Azubuike went down with a knee injury right at the start of the postseason Big 12 Tournament, it looked like Kansas would be out of luck in Kansas City. It didn’t happen. The Jayhawks rolled through the tournament and claimed the championship with a semi-final win against Kansas State and a hard-fought victory over West Virginia in the championship game.
KU couldn’t have done it without the emergence of freshman forward Silvio De Sousa (6-9, 225), who transferred from high school to Kansas at the semester break. De Sousa was terrific in the Big 12 tourney; he scored 16 points on 8 of 8 shooting in the championship game and had a game-high 10 rebounds. And he had just two fouls in 26 minutes of play.
After the game, Coach Bill Self said, “We couldn’t take him out.”
De Sousa acknowledged Self’s halftime talk, “He called me soft . . . he said, ‘You’re playing soft right now.’ And I just took that as motivation to play even harder.”
After the win, De Sousa said, “I think he [Self] just said, ‘Silvio, you’re a stud,’ and I think I agree with him and I proved to him in the second half that I can play.”
The Jayhawks also had a remarkable shooting night from the three-point line, hitting 15 of 27 3-pointers (55.6 percent). When KU is hitting a high percentage of their 3-pointers, they are capable of beating anyone. Malik Newman—MVP of the Big 12 tourney—played his best basketball of the season; he was sensational in all three games.
With the NCAA Tournament beginning this week, KU’s chances for making a deep run will depend on whether or not Azubuike’s knee injury has healed quickly. The early prognosis has been encouraging. If Azubuike can go full speed and with the dramatic improvement by De Sousa, Kansas will be potent at the center position to go with their four-guard lineup. The Jayhawks have a chance to make a deep run at the Big Dance.
Self was encouraged after the championship game and said, “This is not the most talented team we’ve had, but the most talent doesn’t always win. The talent that plays the best together wins. We haven’t been great at that, but we certainly were really good today.”
Big talk and speculation are over, it’s time to play. Kansas (27-7) is the number-one seed in the Midwest Regional and the Jayhawks play number 16 seed Penn (24-8) in Wichita this Thursday (March 15). If KU beats Penn, they will play the winner of eight seed Seton Hall (21-11) against nine seed NC State (21-11) on Saturday.
Before the semi-final game with KU, Kansas State was hindered by injuries sustained in the postseason Big 12 conference tournament. Star center Dean Wade suffered a foot injury in the TCU game and didn’t play against KU; guard Barry Brown was poked in the eye at the start of the KU game and didn’t play after that.
These games, however, will soon be forgotten when the NCAA Tournament begins and K-State is going to be a participant. The word from K-State is that Wade will be ready to go for the NCAA; that would mean he doesn’t have a stress fracture in his foot. Kansas State can make a solid showing if Wade is not hampered by the foot injury. Brown should be good to go by the tournament opener.
One positive factor for Coach Bruce Weber and the Wildcats is the progression of forward Makol Mawien; he scored 29 points against KU and made the all-tournament team. If Mawien can carry his late improvement into the tournament, he will take a lot of pressure off Wade in the pivot.
Kansas State (22-11) is the eighth seed in the South Regional; the Wildcats will play nine seed Creighton (21-11) at Charlotte on Friday. If K-State beats Creighton, they will likely play Virginia—the number-one seed in the tournament—on Sunday.
Wichita State was selected as the number four seed in the East Regional. The Shockers will play number 13 seed Marshall (24-10) in San Diego on Friday. If Wichita wins, they play the winner of West Virginia and Murray St on Sunday.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas has signed an unexpected one-year contract with the KC Royals for $6.5 million after turning down an earlier qualifying offer of $17.4 million. That decision was based on the questionable advice of his agent, Scott Boras.
Kansas City has four of their five infield starters back for 2018: Moustakas, shortstop Alcides Escobar, second baseman Whit Merrifield, and catcher Salvy Perez. Nevertheless, KC’s infield will be substantially weakened—particularly on defense—by the departure of first baseman Eric Hosmer.