Kansas Basketball: Billy Preston departure continues worrisome trend

The latest case of NCAA clashes with Kansas basketball concluded on Saturday, with freshman Billy Preston announcing he’d signed with BC Igokea.

The entire process has been extremely frustrating for all parties involved. Kansas basketball will now officially be without Billy Preston for the season. What really stood out in Preston’s initial statement (see tweet below) was this sentence,

“We have fully cooperated with the NCAA and were prepared to continue but it has been 67 days since this process began, and there is no end in sight.”

Sadly, quotes like Preston’s above have become far too familiar for fans of Kansas Jayhawks basketball recently. The latest case in a growing list of NCAA clashes with Kansas concluded on Saturday, with vaunted freshman Billy Preston announcing via Twitter he’d signed a contract with BC Igokea, a professional team in Bosnia.

Preston’s statement included the above and words of gratitude towards the University of Kansas and the Kansas coaching staff.

Preston, a 6’9’’ 220-pound forward from Virginia, had sustained a lengthy proceeding with the university and NCAA regarding the financial picture of a vehicle he was driving when he was involved in a minor accident on campus in Lawrence.

The on-court implications of Preston’s official withdrawal are certainly substantial. Over the past few years, KU coach Bill Self has transitioned to a guard-centric offense, but historically, Self and Kansas have always been at their best running offense through the post.

Udoka Azubuike has shouldered much of the load in the post, but he’s just one player. Mitch Lightfoot has filled in to the best of his ability, but the talent differences between he and Preston are considerable at the least.

Kansas did get some good news with the NCAA’s clearance of gifted forward Silvio De Sousa, who chose to graduate high school early and enroll at KU to give the Jayhawks some help the rest of the season. De Sousa is still young, and only began practicing with the team a month or so ago. It’s going to be a steep learning curve to overcome before De Sousa can make a sizable impact.

Preston practiced with the team all season, so it’s fair to think he could’ve jumped in and contribute immediately. As it turns out, Preston missing this time has been lucky. It forced the Jayhawks to learn how to play without him early.

There’s no way of telling how good Preston, and this year’s Kansas team, could’ve been with him on board.

What’s more important to look at regarding Preston’s time at Kansas is the off-court significance of his departure.

There’s a lot to love when you’re a Kansas basketball fan. Ask any, and you’re likely to get any number of different answers, but certainly one of the best parts of rooting for the Jayhawks is their recruiting prowess.

They’re a player in the recruitment of virtually every top high school prospect in the country each year. Per Rivals.com’s rankings, since 2010, KU has landed the top recruit in the nation three times. Only Duke has landed the top recruit more than once in that same span.

That’s just the number one recruit from each class. Per those same Rivals rankings, in the last five years (2013-2017 classes), Kansas has landed at least one top 25 player from each class, with a total of nine in that span.

But when it comes to those players realizing their potential during their time spent on campus, it’s been a mixed bag. This is typically the only place where those same KU fans find fault with their basketball program.

Sure, there are the players that hit and are successes immediately. Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Josh Jackson and Kelly Oubre Jr. were all fine players during their one year in Lawrence. But perhaps due to echoes of another talented freshman missing time, the misses seem to stand out just as much.

Over the same five-year span (2013-2017 classes), three different Kansas recruits ranked in the top 25 of Rivals’ rankings in their class have been held off the court for an extended period of time due to NCAA eligibility concerns. The transgressions and time missed by each of these players vary. That said, it must be concerning as a KU fan to question each year whether a heralded freshman will miss time.

Playing time is extremely valuable to young players. Practice helps, but in-game experience is essential to helping them take the next step in their careers. Different players progress at different speeds.

In the 2014-15 season, Kansas saw Rivals’ #4 overall recruit Cliff Alexander get off to a slow start. However, just as it appeared he was starting to turn a corner, he was shut down for the last eight games of the season due to concerns about his family’s pre-NBA draft activities.

Almost the exact inverse of Alexander’s case happened the next season at Kansas with Cheick Diallo, #5 in Rivals’ 2015 rankings. Diallo missed the first five games of the 2015-16 season at KU due to worries about the possible receipt of impermissible benefits. The NCAA eventually cleared Diallo to return after those first five games. But, it was clear he never got on track and in sync with his teammates.

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That brings us to this year, where concerns about Preston’s car have led him to take his game overseas. There’s no way of telling how good Preston, and this year’s Kansas team, could’ve been with him on board. But either way, it’s a frustrating what-if scenario to consider moving forward.

Kansas isn’t the only university constantly struggling with what many view as “the evil empire” of the NCAA. But amidst all the things to cheer about in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, ensuring the eligibility of freshmen stand-outs has revealed itself to be a new challenge. A clean bill of health keeping all of their new recruits on the floor is one streak the Jayhawks, and KU fans, would love to see begin.

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