Why Kansas should consider load management during the Big 12 tournament

If winning a national championship next month is truly his top priority, then Kansas coach Bill Self might want to borrow a controversial NBA strategy.

It’s time for Self to consider introducing load management to college basketball during this week’s Big 12 tournament. 

Whereas most college basketball teams have incentive to make deep conference tournament runs, Kansas long ago solidified its place in the NCAA tournament and seemingly cannot improve its seeding. The Jayhawks are projected to be the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed even if they don’t win another game between now and Selection Sunday.

What that means is Self must weigh how much to rest standouts Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett this week in Kansas City. He has to assess whether the chance to hoist a Big 12 tournament trophy for the ninth time in his career is worth the risk of exhausting the core of his team or sustaining a critical injury.

The first time reporters in Lawrence asked Self on Monday about how little Kansas can gain during the Big 12 tournament, he responded by questioning whether the Jayhawks actually have the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed sewn up. “Who knows what will happen, who will get hot or whatever?” Self said. 

Either Self was simply trying to motivate his players, or he doesn’t understand the extent of the resume gap between Kansas and other No. 1 seed contenders. The Jayhawks (27-3) have 12 quadrant 1 victories, the most in the nation. No other team with three or fewer losses this season has more than five. 

When reporters in Lawrence asked again what Kansas has to play for this week, Self offered a few ideas. Momentum, he said, would be crucial going into the NCAA tournament. He also portrayed the Big 12 tournament as an opportunity for the Jayhawks to “validate the regular season” and reaffirm that they’re the league’s best team.

Sweeping the Big 12’s regular season and tournament titles would certainly be an impressive accomplishment, but history suggests it would have little bearing on how Kansas fares during the NCAA tournament. For every 2011 UConn that won five Big East tournament games in five days and then used that dazzling performance as a springboard, there’s a 1997 Arizona that entered the NCAA tournament on a losing streak. 

Only four of the past 10 national champions won their conference tournaments. Teams that won their conference tournaments also accounted for less than half the Final Four qualifiers over the past decade. 

Kansas Jayhawks center Udoka Azubuike (35) dunks the ball during the first half against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum. (Ben Queen/USA TODAY Sports)

Not only is conference tournament success not always an omen for what’s ahead, sometimes ill-timed injuries can torpedo a title contender’s hopes of winning a championship before the NCAA tournament even starts.

Cincinnati was 28-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country in 2000 when Kenyon Martin crumpled to the floor three minutes into a Conference USA quarterfinal against Saint Louis. The national player of the year’s broken right leg doomed the shaken, shell-shocked Bearcats to an early NCAA tournament exit

Arinze Onuaku was nowhere near as dominant at Syracuse as Martin was at Cincinnati, but the way his college career ended was just as tragic. The senior center suffered a leg injury during the 2010 Big East tournament and could only watch from the bench as Butler ousted the top-seeded Orange in the Sweet 16.

Self has been in a similar position once before entering the Big 12 tournament. In 2016, standout guards Devonte Graham and Frank Mason endured three games in three days and averaged roughly 35 minutes apiece even though Kansas had already done enough to earn a No. 1 seed before the Big 12 tournament began. They went on to lose in the Elite 8 to eventual champion Villanova. While not a bad loss, it was Kansas’ seventh game in 17 days.

On Monday, Self hinted that he may not be so cavalier this time, especially with Azubuike still dealing with a lingering ankle injury. The Kansas coach said that he intends to give backup big man Silvio DeSousa and reserve wing Tristan Enaruna some extra playing time beginning on Thursday against either Oklahoma State or Iowa State.

Late in his Monday news conference, Self was also a bit more pragmatic about how he’d like to see his team approach the Big 12 tournament. 

“I’d like to see us be jacked,” he said. “But I also know that as soon as the last game is over, whenever that is, nobody will be talking about the Big 12 tournament again. Everyone will be focused on the NCAA tournament.”

If the Big 12 tournament is an afterthought to Kansas, then Self should consider treating it that way. Sit Azubuike, Dotson and Garrett. Give walk-ons extended playing time, if necessary.  

Kansas can’t have the one shining moment it truly covets on the second Saturday in March. That can only occur on the first Monday in April. 

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