KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Kansas assistant Norm Roberts was sitting inside T-Mobile Center on Wednesday night, scouting potential Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal opponents, when he learned that Jayhawks coach Bill Self had gone to the emergency room.
Once the shock wore off, and Roberts knew the Hall of Fame coach would be OK, he turned his attention to his team, which was less than 24 hours away from beginning the defense of its conference tournament title.
“When we found out, we didn’t really let the guys know until this morning,” Roberts said after cruising to a 78-61 win over West Virginia on Thursday, “because nothing was concrete that was going to happen.”
It wasn’t until after the Jayhawks had advanced to Friday night’s semifinal against Iowa State that the school said Self would be out for the remainder of the Big 12 Tournament. Still unclear is whether Self will be back for the start of the NCAA Tournament, where the third-ranked Jayhawks are the defending national champions.
“Throughout all the adversity we’ve been through the entire season, this just brings us together,” said Big 12 player of the year Jalen Wilson, who led the top-seeded Jayhawks with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
“It’s bigger than us,” he added. “We play for our entire family. Just another moment to prove how close this group is.”
Gradey Dick had 18 points, Dajuan Harris Jr. added 13 points and eight assists, and KJ Adams also scored 13 points for the Jayhawks (26-6), who beat the Mountaineers (19-14) for the third time this season.
Erik Stevenson had 13 points for West Virginia, which still likely secured an at-large NCAA bid with its opening-round win over Texas Tech. Tre Mitchell and Joe Toussaint added 11 points apiece and Emmitt Matthews Jr. had 10.
“This wasn’t the team I had all year,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said glumly. “We came out with absolutely no enthusiasm. No pep in our step. It was a bad game. It was a bad game from where I was trying to watch it.”
Kansas officials announced about five hours before tipoff that Self was being treated at the University of Kansas Health System for an undisclosed illness. The 60-year-old Hall of Fame coach was present for Wednesday’s practice at T-Mobile Center and appeared to be in normal condition when speaking with reporters.
Dr. Steve Stites, the chief medical officer at the University of Kansas Health System, said Thursday that Self did not have a heart attack, which some outlets had reported, but that he remained a patient. Stites did not describe the nature or extent of the procedure, though Self is expected to make a full recovery.
“You always talk about ‘next man up,’ how faces change, expectations don’t,” said Roberts, who went 4-0 in a similar interim role while Self served a school-imposed suspension this season. “That’s our motto. That’s what we live by.”
Still, the Jayhawks trailed midway through the half Thursday before the Mountaineers got sloppy on offense, turning it over 11 times in the first 20 minutes. That allowed Kansas to reel off an 18-2 run and take a 31-23 lead at the half.
“I thought they got a little bit fatigued,” Roberts said, “which probably helped us a little bit.”
West Virginia got within 35-30 early in the second half, but it struggled to make stops. The Jayhawks scored on seven consecutive trips down the floor at one point. And after a tough bucket by Adams made it 60-48 with 8 minutes to go, the springy forward slammed down Harris’ ally-oop pass from just inside the midcourt line to punctuate the run.
Harris hit big man Ernest Udeh Jr. for another alley-oop jam a few minutes later as the Jayhawks cruised to the win.
“They just came out and played harder than us,” Stevenson said. “They had energy. Obviously they’re a really good team. They can make shots. They’re really good in the pick-and-roll game. They have a guy in Adams that can put his chin on the rim and Dajuan Harris can really pass the ball. If you come out with a lack of energy, they’re going to make you pay for sure.”
West Virginia was hanging precariously on the NCAA Tournament bubble in late February before a strong finish, beginning with a win over Oklahoma State and featuring wins over Iowa State, Kansas State and Texas Tech. In fact, the only two losses by the Mountaineers since Feb. 18 came against the Jayhawks.
Kansas bounced back nicely from a regular season-ending 75-59 loss at No. 7 Texas, which could have zapped much of the momentum the reigning national champs had built with a seven-game win streak. Now, the Jayhawks will try to advance to the Big 12 title game for the fourth time in the last five full tournaments.
The Jayhawks will play the Cyclones on Friday night for a spot in the championship game.
The Mountaineers heads home to await their NCAA Tournament seed.
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