SALT LAKE CITY — Mitch Lightfoot was probably never going to give a perfect answer in this setting. Few, if any, can.
What happened midway through the question, though, made those odds all but impossible.
Approximately a half-hour after the Kansas basketball forward’s junior season came to an end Saturday with an 89-75 defeat to Auburn at Vivint Smart Home Arena, a red-eyed Lightfoot was in the process of being asked what his message would be to Jayhawk fans seeking something to look forward to next season.
Lightfoot interrupted the questioner. Dedric Lawson, KU’s top scorer, rebounder and leading man, was weeping one locker room stall to Lightfoot's right.
“Hold on,” Lightfoot told the reporter.
He reached out and touched Lawson on the left knee, offering his best words of encouragement.
“You good, G,” Lightfoot said.
Truth is, there wasn’t anything Lightfoot could’ve said to soften the blow of this moment.
The team’s heart and soul was heartbroken.
“I’m trying to be strong for the guys around me, even though they look up to me,” said Lawson, removing his face from the T-shirt it had been buried in. “Proud of the way they played, no matter throughout the whole season, wins and losses.”
Several seconds passed before Lawson was asked a follow-up: What was making this so tough?
“Man, I hate losing,” he responded. “I feel like we didn’t accomplish things we shoulda this year, and being the leader, I feel like it’s my fault.”
Lawson again broke down.
The last half of his observation, of course, wasn’t true. Lawson recorded game-highs of 25 points and 10 rebounds in the defeat to the Tigers, and while his evening wasn’t perfect, the preseason All-American finished 8-for-17 from the field, hit all seven of his free-throw attempts and dished three assists in a game-high 37 minutes.
Lawson’s earlier point, though, is up for debate: Should these Jayhawks (26-10) have accomplished more?
Bill Self, who throughout the year frequently cautioned in-season adversity had lowered this group’s ceiling compared to past KU squads, attempted to tackle that very subject.
“Did this team have a chance to play to its ceiling? I think this particular team that finished the season had a chance to play to their ceiling, and to be quite candid with you, they played pretty close to it,” Self said. “We didn’t tonight in the first half, but for the most part they played pretty close to it. Our ceiling had changed throughout the course of the season.
“But you know, we can say if’s and buts and all those things, and I haven’t said that at all this year, but the reality of it is, this was a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country when we had our full complement of guys. You take away pros potentially of your team, you start four freshmen in a pressure-type situation, sometimes that catches up to you, and it certainly did tonight.”
There was no shortage of obstacles for KU this campaign, its first without at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship since 2003-04.
Sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa didn’t play a minute, at first voluntarily withheld and then ruled ineligible through the 2019-20 by the NCAA season in a decision the program is appealing. Junior center Udoka Azubuike suffered a pair of injuries, the second a season-ender that wiped out a player that appeared in only in nine games, all victories. Lagerald Vick, the team’s lone senior and only real threat from 3-point range, endured midseason struggles and took an indefinite leave of absence in early February that turned into a permanent departure.
By the time the NCAA Tournament came around, the Jayhawks were starting four freshmen, a position the team had never been in throughout Self’s first 15 years with the program. The group, however, never adopted a “woe-is-me” attitude, at least not publicly.
“One thing about these guys and my kids is they don’t make excuses,” Self said. “You haven’t heard anybody say, ‘If we had this or that.’ They don’t do that. I’m proud about that. But I told them they should walk out with their heads high. They represented themselves and their families and the school in a first-class manner. We ran against a team that was better than us tonight and it was a tough matchup for us. We knew as coaches going into the game that could potentially be the case — (but) not like it ended up being.
“I love coaching these guys. I do think that the youthful experience that we got will benefit us down the road. But we’ve never asked freshmen, i.e. (Mario) Chalmers or (Brandon) Rush or (Julian) Wright or whoever, to carry the load that these freshmen we’ve asked to carry. It’s a different experience for them, but one they’ll grow from.”
As the final seconds ticked down on the turbulent season, KU fans likely already began thinking about the group’s next campaign.
What that will look like, exactly, remains an unknown.
The Jayhawks could lose all, some or none of Lawson, Azubuike, De Sousa and freshman guard Quentin Grimes to the NBA Draft. As with any program, the offseason could also offer more roster shakeup with movement from those without immediate professional aspirations. KU currently has two commitments in the Class of 2019 — 6-foot-1 guard Issac McBride and 6-5 forward Christian Braun, both ranked outside the top-100 recruits in 247Sports’ composite.
“We’ve got to sign a couple of athletes obviously that can be difference-makers that can make plays you can’t coach,” Self said, “because (Auburn’s) speed, they made some plays you can’t coach.”
As Self spoke just outside the team’s locker room, Lawson continued sobbing within it, wiping the flowing tears away with a brown towel.
While Self wasn’t aware Lawson shouldered the blame for both the season-ending defeat and the goals that will forever remain unobtainable, the coach likely would’ve offered this response if he had caught wind of the comment:
“He’s had as good a year as we could have ever hoped for,” Self said of Lawson. “I don’t know that we’ve ever ridden a guy (this much) — maybe Thomas Robinson, but he’d be the only guy we would have ridden as hard as Dedric. And you wouldn’t have to if you had your full complement of guys, obviously."
That Lawson finished with 25 and 10 on a night that started with a 1-for-7 first-half shooting performance and a 26-point deficit was even more impressive to the head coach.
“That speaks volumes to him not quitting and certainly playing the entire game,” Self said. “He’s a terrific kid. We’ve got great kids, don’t get me wrong, but he is one of the special kids we’ve had in our program in recent years.”
One last thing.
Lightfoot, who covered his own face with a towel as Lawson offered the harsh self-critique, finally got around to answering the question of what KU fans have to look forward to next year.
“It’s all about the offseason," Lightfoot said. "We’re going to figure out how to be better, and we’re going to do it.”