On College Basketball: At Kansas, Recent Off-Court Troubles Threaten to Scar a Grand History
“One day, we’ll win up here,” said Scott Drew, Baylor’s 14-year head coach. He is now 0-10 at Allen Fieldhouse.
More than any other college basketball program, Kansas sells its history, which is also, credibly, basketball’s history. The first Jayhawks coach was James Naismith, basketball’s inventor; the first draft of his rules, put to paper in 1891, are preserved next door to Allen Fieldhouse, an airy, almost sepia-toned arena nicknamed the Phog, after Phog Allen, a former Naismith player who coached the Jayhawks for 39 seasons, during which he won three national titles and recruited Wilt Chamberlain.
“It’s a different feeling here than any other place in terms of the history, the people that have come before, the people who have maintained this greatness,” said Larry Brown, who coached Kansas to the 1988 national title, and who was sitting behind the Jayhawks’ bench Wednesday night.
“I don’t know that anybody’s got as good as what we got,” said the current coach, Bill Self, who improved to 217-9 at home with Wednesday’s win.
Jayhawks fans can be as passionate about booing opponents as they are in their “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” pregame cheer. In the student section on Wednesday, one sign identified the Jayhawks as Big 12 “Victors” and Baylor as “Title IX Violators,” a reference to the spate of mishandled sexual assault allegations against football players there.
About that, though. Kansas’ is a nice Plains State fan base that fancies itself, not without merit, as the backers of a comparatively clean program. But in just the past couple weeks, Kansas has found itself facing three off-court issues that range from a minor scandal to a potentially devastating indictment of its culture.
The Kansas City Star reported on Monday that a university investigation had concluded that the sophomore Lagerald Vick most likely hit a female student multiple times in 2015, resulting in a recommendation of two years’ probation. (The university cited federal privacy law in declining to comment on the case.) Vick has not missed playing time, however, except for two games in December when he was listed as out — with an illness.
Asked about Vick, who scored no points in 14 minutes against Baylor, Self pulled a prepared statement out of his breast pocket and said he had been instructed to decline to comment on the specifics or even the existence of a university investigation.
“What was reported, was reported,” he said. “I haven’t been made aware of anything.”
Last week, Bragg, a sophomore, was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. He also missed last Saturday’s game, a win at then-No. 4 Kentucky.
On Wednesday, prosecutors reportedly opted to put him on diversion over the misdemeanor charge. But the paraphernalia were only discovered as a result of a university police investigation into a reported rape of a 16-year-old girl in a dormitory a block away from the Phog that houses both basketball players and nonathlete students.
No charges have been filed in that case, but five players, including Vick, the star guard Frank Mason III and the freshman standout Josh Jackson, have been identified as “witnesses” by the authorities. Self has not commented except to acknowledge that the allegation itself was serious and to admit, before Saturday’s Kentucky game, that it was a “distraction.”
“It’s been a unique last short period of time,” Self said Wednesday. “But the guys’ attitudes are great.”
In addition to the potential seriousness of the off-court issues, the incidents also have been disorienting to fans.
“I remember ripping Louisville,” Travis Postlethwaite, a Kansas native and lifelong Jayhawks fan, said as he drank a beer at the Wagon Wheel, a popular bar near campus, before Wednesday’s game. He was referring to accusations of Louisville’s entertaining basketball recruits and players with prostitutes in an on-campus dorm. “You don’t want to be that school.”
“The last week has been a little unnatural for us,” Postlethwaite added.
What comes more naturally is dominance of the Big 12. Regular-season championships are less glamorous than conference tournament titles, which is how leagues determine who receives their automatic bid to the N.C.A.A. tournament, but both have come to feel like a formality for Kansas, which is enjoying a record run of 27 (soon to be 28) consecutive N.C.A.A. berths.
And regular-season crowns are absolutely less glamorous than national championships, where Kansas’ three since the creation of the N.C.A.A. tournament in 1939 leave it trailing a half-dozen programs that did not have Naismith as their founding coach. But they do indicate sustained excellence, and today’s Big 12 has a much tougher competitive landscape than the Pacific-8 and -10 that Wooden’s Bruins once dominated.
Brown was briefly left speechless by Kansas’ Big 12 streak, tossing out the names of luminaries like Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma, whose women’s teams have won 12 national titles, and the Boston Celtics’ legendary run under Red Auerbach.
“I knew Coach Wooden, and Geno, but their situations are entirely different,” Brown said. He said he would never dare to diminish either man, or Auerbach, “but what Bill’s done is remarkable.”
That may be the thing that makes going to the Phog such a memorable, and daunting, experience: the knowledge not only that history is there, but that it isn’t finished.
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