When the Big 12 baseball coaches picked Kansas to finish second in the conference — a first for the program — they assumed KU would have Lee Ridenhour as a weekend starting pitcher, 2009 Big 12 Triple Crown winner Tony Thompson at third base and the emerging Brett Bochy as their closer.
But Ridenhour, who posted a 6-3 record last season as a freshman, had ankle surgery and missed the entire season. Thompson, who hit .389 with 21 home runs and 82 RBIs last season, fouled a ball off his knee in the preseason and missed the first 19 games. He is only beginning to return to form. And Bochy, who started this season on a tear with a 0.78 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 23 innings, injured his right elbow in early April and opted for surgery, ending his season.
So the Jayhawks that show up tonight in Oklahoma City for their Big 12 Tournament opener as the No. 7 seed against No. 2 seed Oklahoma are not the same team that carried expectations of a breakout campaign into Ritch Price's seventh season as coach.
While KU was able to stay afloat through the early injuries to Ridenhour and Thompson — at one point taking two of three in Baton Rouge, La., against then-No. 1 LSU — the loss of Bochy has been the backbreaker that has the Jayhawks off the NCAA Tournament bubble at 31-24-1 overall and 11-15-1 in the Big 12.
Last weekend, KU was swept by the Sooners in Lawrence in brutal fashion, losing 8-7 on Saturday after leading 7-4 with two outs in the ninth inning and 9-6 on Sunday after leading 5-2 entering the seventh inning.
"We've been positive with our guys," Price said. "If those young guys on our staff were pitching in roles they were set up to pitch in, they'd be fine. You lose one impact guy, it changes everyone's roles. We haven't been experienced enough in the back end to finish off games."
The Jayhawks believe they will be better for it long-term, and, of course, it sure would be nice for the future to arrive this weekend. KU is in a pool with No. 2 OU, No. 3 Kansas State and No. 6 Baylor and will play each team once. The team with the best record in the pool advances to Sunday's championship game, where Texas, ranked No. 1 in the nation, likely will be waiting.
Price said he thinks the Jayhawks need to win at least two games to have a chance at receiving a berth to an NCAA Regional. His players are taking it one step further.
"We have to win the tournament," said KU pitcher T.J. Walz, who will start tonight against OU. "At least, that's what we're looking to do. I think we would be kind of surprised if we got in (to an NCAA Regional) without winning the tournament. We're not gonna be satisfied unless we win it."
If the Jayhawks were to duplicate the accomplishment of the 2006 team, which won the tournament as the sixth seed, they would salvage what has been a frustrating season lined with hidden land mines. Price would not term 2010 a disappointment because of what he has learned about his team in the process.
"Our players have done a really nice job of continuing to play each and every weekend," Price said. "You gotta find a way to win when you're facing adversity. We've really grinded."