The success or failure of teams from the Sunflower State in the NCAA Tournament might be decided not by the players taking the floor but their trainers in the locker room.
Top-seeded Kansas hopes to get injured center Udoka Azubuike back Thursday for its first-round game against Penn. Ninth-seeded Kansas State likewise hopes to have All-Big 12 forward Dean Wade and high-scoring guard Barry Brown back from injuries that sidelined them during the Big 12 Tournament when they face Creighton on Friday in Charlotte, North Carolina.
As for No. 4 seed Wichita State? Well, only the Shockers' egos are a bit bruised after a semifinal ouster by Houston in the American Athletic Conference's tournament last weekend.
"This time of year, you can play good basketball and still lose. Everybody has that possibility in this tournament, and everyone is a champion or some really good team in their own rite," said Shockers coach Gregg Marshall, whose team opens up against Marshall on Friday in San Diego.
"You need to be playing your best. We haven't done that," he said. "We know that that's out there. We've gotten close at times, but it's now time to peak and start playing your best basketball."
Easier to play your best basketball when you have your best players.
The Jayhawks (27-7) lost Azubuike to a sprained ligament in his left knee a week ago, two days before taking the floor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament. The 7-footer has been a rock for them all season, and his loss left a gaping, 280-pound hole in the paint.
Azubuike got back on the court for a light workout Sunday, and coach Bill Self said after learning the Jayhawks were the top seed in the Midwest Region that he's hopeful Azubuike can play in the opener. The big man averaged 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Big 12 champions.
"We're very, very optimistic we can get him this weekend," he said of a potential second-round matchup with No. 8 seed Seton Hall or ninth-seeded North Carolina State. "Forty-eight hours can make a big difference. But we're hopeful he can play Thursday and if we're fortunate enough to advance, even more optimistic that he can play Saturday."
On the opposite side of the bracket, the Wildcats (22-11) are eying a matchup with the Bluejays and former Kansas State star Marcus Foster with questions surrounding their top two players.
Wade played 41 minutes in their overtime win over TCU in the Big 12 quarterfinals, only to be diagnosed afterward with a stress fracture in his foot. He showed up for the Wildcats' semifinal loss to Kansas wearing a walking boot and might not step on the floor until Wednesday.
Wade averaged 16.5 points and 6.3 rebounds in helping Kansas State to a top-half finish in the Big 12, and was a big reason why coach Bruce Weber's team didn't have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Brown only played about 90 seconds against the Jayhawks before taking a poke to his left eye while driving to the basket. He fell to the court in pain, was helped to the locker room almost immediately and then returned to the bench with ice pressed to his swollen eye.
One of the team's trainers said there was some slight bleeding as well.
"My first wish was to get in the NCAA Tournament. Second wish was to play Friday, which gives them another day to recover," Weber said. "You hope you have those guys back. Obviously they are two of the best players in the league and we are one of the best leagues in the country, so they are two of the best players in the country. And we need them.
"At the same time," Weber said, "our guys competed against one of the top seeds in the country, Kansas, and played their butts off and gave them a game and kept it close."
Indeed, the Jayhawks and Wildcats both showed some moxie without their stars.
Kansas welcomed the emergence of freshman big man Silvio De Sousa in romping through the Big 12 Tournament, including an impressive win over West Virginia for the title. And while Kansas State had trouble on offense without Wade and Brown, its defense was still plenty stingy.
"I don't think there is any doubt about Barry, he will be fine. He ran around and shot Sunday," Weber said. "Dean, we think he should be fine, until the doc says, 'Let him run around and we will see what happens.' We will know more as the week goes on, but we feel good about it."
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