Kansas remains without one big piece of its puzzle. But it got a key piece back

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) greets a fan after defeating Howard 98-68 in a first-round college basketball game against Howard in the NCAA Tournament Thursday, March 16, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Norm Roberts walked into a halftime locker room Thursday, his first as the acting head coach of an NCAA Tournament team, and the initial thing that popped into his head is what the guy who’s usually in charge might be thinking.

What might Bill Self say right about now?

And, well, nothing good, Roberts figured.

“He would be thinking, ‘God, we’re not guarding at all. We’re not moving the ball at all,’” Roberts said, and then after a brief interruption, he added that, oh, yeah, Kansas wasn’t rebounding the ball particularly well, either.

So over the extended halftime break that the tournament setting provides, that’s precisely what Roberts said. What he thought the other guy would say.

Pretty close, too.

“Everything he was saying,” guard Bobby Pettiford said, “seemed like some stuff Coach Self would probably be saying.”

Effective enough, apparently.

Kansas upheld its top seed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament with a 96-68 victory against 16th-seeded Howard. After the inital 10 minutes, it was never much in doubt.

But there’s a shadow hanging over the Jayhawks as they officially open a national championship defense, and that’s who’s not here. Or at least who wasn’t here at the Wells Fargo Center at 1 p.m. Thursday.

In a radio interview that aired before the game, Self said, “I’m feeling stronger and everything” after last week’s heart catheterization. He hopes that he could be back on the sideline Saturday, when KU plays in the second round, but that’s not yet been determined. The recovery has been a bit slower than he anticipated, he acknowledged.

KU will need him more as this tournament progresses than it did in its opener, and that’s not a commentary on Roberts as much as it is on a Hall of Fame coach. The late-game moments that incorporate Self’s fingerprints tend to matter more when the game tightens, and they will tighten for the No. 1 seed that pulled the toughest draw out of the hat. Arkansas awaits on Saturday.

That’s the story of KU moving forward.

For about two hours Thursday afternoon, though, the story of KU was not about an absence but rather a return.

A different return.

Kevin McCullar.

You know, the guy who took care of the list Roberts provided at halftime. Jalen Wilson is the All-American. Dajuan Harris is often referred to as the most underrated point guard in America by his coach. Gradey Dick is the future lottery pick.

But McCullar?

“He’s our glue guy,” Wilson said.

“He’s the heart and soul of our team,” Harris said.

Or even better: He’s the guy who took the words from Roberts to heart. Or the words from Self. Whichever.

In his return from back spasms, McCullar finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. He played just 25 minutes and sat the final five with the game out of reach. And while we could talk for awhile about how McCullar played Thursday — “looked great tonight,” Wilson said — his real impact illuminated in the game he did not play. The game he wanted to play.

Five days ago, McCullar tried to talk his way into the lineup in the Big 12 Tournament’s championship game against Texas. Back spams that have popped up for the past two years bloomed at an inopportune time one day last week. He knew he’d be limited against Texas, but “I wanted to play. I ain’t gonna lie.”

KU decided otherwise. Prioritized the long-term. Roberts called it an “easy decision,” actually, even in retrospect. The team’s training staff had said McCullar might be able to push through if necessary, but it could rob him of the chance to play in a week.

So he sat. KU missed him. But in the end, the same drubbing that might have cost the Jayhawks the chance to play in Kansas City in the regional offered them something more important for the long-term.

A healthy Kevin McCullar.

Look, the Jayhawks probably cruise past Howard in the opening round with or without McCullar. But beyond? KU plays its bench as infrequently as any team in this tournament. They need all five.

“It’s big for us,” Roberts said. “Because Kevin does so many things on the defensive end, but he also helps us offensively — moving the ball, being able to score, drive it.

“He’s a big piece of the puzzle.”

They got one back.

Still waiting on the other.