2019 Big 12 Tournament: With grit and Quentin Grimes, Kansas is ready to take back a lost season
Jayhawks' worst regular season in more than a decade may still lead to a Big 12 tournament crown
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It had been 129 days, to be exact, since Quentin Grimes looked like himself.
That is, fulfilling the promise of one of the nation's best combo guards brought to Kansas. It was on Nov. 6 that Grimes debuted with 21 points against Michigan State in the season opener, his first college game.
He has seldom come close to that performance, or his potential, since. That's why Friday's Big 12 Tournament semifinal performance was so assuring for him and the Jayhawks. Four-plus months into a career that was supposed to soar from the beginning, Grimes is ... finally taking off.
It wasn't just Grimes' 18 points and five 3-pointers that woke up his team and a sleepy crowd at Sprint Center in the 88-74 win over West Virginia. It was the way Grimes asserted himself. Those five 3s -- on five attempts -- that all came in the first half were the most by Grimes since that Michigan State game. The 18 points were the third-most of his career and most since Jan. 5.
A crowd used to more from their Jayhawks -- all season, really -- finally woke up along with the 6-foot-5 guard from Texas.
"I never doubted myself at all," Grimes said.
That's good for him. The rest of Jayhawk Nation had plenty of reservations, especially with a roster gutted by injuries, defections and suspensions. Grimes and his fellow freshmen had to step up.
"There are a lot of expectations when you come to a prestigious program like Kansas but everybody can't be one and done," said Dedric Lawson, a redshirt junior forward who is new to the Jayhawks but their most experienced starter by far.
"Some guys take two years, three years. There's nothing wrong with that. It's all about your growth and how you develop. Quentin had to develop at his own speed this year."
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It seemed that most of the time if Grimes wasn't tentative, he was just off. Coming into Friday, the former Texas high school player of the year had made only 12-of-33 this month. In 33 games, he has averaged just 8.2 points.
"I think everybody goes through phases like that," Self said. "But you know if you look at numbers, he shot it better in league play than he has during the [rest of the] season, but it's been a gradual thing.
"The good shooters shouldn't remember the misses, they should always remember the makes. I think he's going through a phase right now he actually feels good."
Third-seeded Kansas (25-8) finds itself in the conference championship game for the fourth time in five years. Win or lose Saturday against fifth-seeded Iowa State (6 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Jayhawks are virtually assured of their lowest NCAA Tournament seed since at least 2009, the last time they weren't a top-two seed. CBS Sports bracketology expert Jerry Palm had Kansas as a No. 4 seed entering the night.
A postseason awakening for the Jayhawks wouldn't be preposterous. This has quietly been one of Self's best coaching jobs. As the lineup dwindled, he had to master a starting lineup including Grimes and three other freshmen (Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack).
Part of the result was predictable. KU's run of 14 straight conference championships ended. Will a conference tournament championship make up for the end of The Streak? And will that satisfy the fans in Lawrence? Check back next week during the NCAA Tournament, when every Kansas season is eventually judged.
Until then, Grimes might be one of the bigger disappointments of the season in a season full of them. His 38 percent shooting percentage is the worst of any KU player who has started more than one game.
But at least he's still playing. Senior guard Lagerald Vick went home to Memphis in the first week of February for personal reasons and never returned. A month earlier, junior 7-footer Udoka Azubuike was ruled out for the season with a wrist injury. Sophomore Silvio De Sousa has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA through 2019-20.
The four-man freshman rotation that has evolved since then has included guards Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and Grimes as well as forward David McCormack.
At least lately, they had all been playing better than Grimes.
"Playing high-major college basketball takes a little while," junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said. "Everybody's got to adjust to it. Obviously, you can see him coming into his zone now. That's the kind of player he is.
"He's got flash to his game. There were some things that took a little bit to get going."
Grimes lifted the Jayhawks out of their last deficit late in the second half. He hit four 3s in the last 4:12 of the half. In that stretch, he completed a 4-point play after being fouled on a 3 by West Virginia's Brandon Knapper. The half ended with a 22-foot bomb from Grimes with less than a second to go. KU was up 48-40 and skated into the championship game for the fourth time in five years.
"[Grimes is] a weapon that we desperately need," Self said. "We need a guy to catch fire like that, who can carry us for a four- or five-minute stretch."
In the process, Kansas' path to postseason momentum is opening up. West Virginia's upset of Texas Tech Thursday made the league's last-place team KU's obstacle to the championship game.
After an up-and-down season, maybe the Jayhawks deserve this. Or maybe Self is working his late-season magic. His teams seem to mature this time of year. Perhaps the last time a Kansas team was this uncertain about itself was Self's second season. That 2004-2005 team won 23 games but lost six of its last nine.
The last of those losses is etched into NCAA Tournament history and burned into the memories of Jayhawks everywhere. A 14th-seeded Bucknell team with two walk-ons in its starting lineup beat third-seeded KU 64-63. Bucknell was so uncertain of a win that night, it didn't send its band instead paying the Northern Iowa band in pizzas to play its fight song. (Bucknell ran off copies of the sheet music to aid their stand-in band.)
Even though the next year's Kansas team also lost in the first round (to Bradley), Self was a on a roll. KU went to at least the Sweet 16 six of the seven years, winning that 2008 national championship.
Dreaming that big might be blasphemy considering the make-up of these Jayhawks. Or maybe they're just getting started.
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