(WRITER’S NOTE: I realize that we’re three days from the national championship game of the Southeastern Conference, but with the Big 12 again failing to participate, the time has come to pivot to basketball.)
Each of the last two years, just after the calendar has flipped, Your Veteran Scribe has written a column (for a different outlet) predicting that Kansas’ streak of winning Big 12 Conference regular-season titles would end.
You know what they say about a broken clock being right twice a day … well then YVS has been wrong twice in the last two years. Never one to learn a lesson, the third time will be the charm. Please, no wagering.
The Jayhawks started the season ranked in the top five and the prohibitive favorite to win the Big 12 for the 14th consecutive season. Kansas is currently tied with UCLA for most consecutive league titles but the Bruins’ baker’s dozen was accomplished in an eight-team league (14 conference games) and at a time when The Wizard’s rule was absolute.
What the Jayhawks have accomplished under coach Bill Self in an era where rosters are regularly turning over and the competition is tougher is truly remarkable. But nothing lasts forever. The signs point to this being the year when KU’s Phog over the Big 12 lifts.
Tuesday night in Lawrence Texas Tech told the Jayhawks they were going to take their lunch money and then proceeded to leave them hungry. The 18th-ranked Red Raiders’ 85-73 victory was complete and total and was the worst loss KU has ever suffered in Allen Fieldhouse during Self’s 15-year era.
In the last year, Iowa State, Arizona State and Texas Tech have won at The Phog. In late December, Kansas lost to Washington in Kansas City’s Sprint Center, which counts as a home loss. The fact that KU failed to defend its home court – it typically can bank nine Big 12 home wins before the season starts – can be justified by the fact that through Tuesday night Big 12 road teams were an astonishing 8-1.
The bottom line is that the Jayhawks are flawed, perhaps more so than they’ve ever been under Self’s reign. Kansas’ roster features just two post players and the Jayhawks’ four-guard lineup is physically taxing. The four perimeter players have to apply constant defensive pressure, guard bigger players and help out on the boards plus on the offensive end they need to be nearly flawless in execution and better than average in shooting.
For the second time this season, Self used the “s” word after a loss. Soft.
After the loss, senior guard and leading scorer Devonte’ Graham said that the Jayhawks needed to “want it more.” Self, who followed his players to the interview room, was told of that comment and his blood pressure spiked.
“I think it’s ridiculous that kids could say they’ve got to want it more. I think that’s a ridiculous statement,” Self said. “But what’s sad is it’s true. Whenever you say that somebody wants something more than you, oh my God, to me as a coach, it makes me cringe because that is my responsibility to put them in a position to be competitive and we haven’t done that near enough.”
Last season, Kansas basically had one reliable post player in Landen Lucas, a steady, savvy player who was a reliable rebounder and defender. But the Jayhawks also had 6-8 freshman Josh Jackson, an energy provider on defense and on the boards. This season, 7-foot sophomore Udoka Azubuike is backed up by slender 6-8 sophomore Mitch Lightfoot. That’s it for “big men” and Azubuike has been slowed in both Big 12 games by a sore back.
In the Big 12 opener at Texas, the Jayhawks set a Big 12 school record with 17 3-pointers to hold off the Longhorns. Allen Fieldhouse is typically where KU lights it up from the perimeter, but the Red Raiders guarded the line effectively, limiting the Jayhawks to 6-of-26 shooting from three.
“The thing about it is with ball, it shouldn’t matter what we shoot, especially at home,” Self said. “The worse you shoot it the more you grind. Do you give up in a football game when your quarterback’s having a bad game or he gets hurt? Well, you’ve got to (run) it then. We didn’t do that.
“That’s what concerns me. It’s not as much, ‘Well, you’re 0 for 12 or you did this or that.’ I hate to say this: It’s going to be hard to win if we don’t shoot better offensively, but that’s not what turns coaches on. So you missed the shot. Big deal. They’re 6 of 24 from 3 and they found some ways to score when the ball didn’t go in the hole too.”
Kansas entered the Texas Tech game last in Division I in percentage of points scored from the free throw line. The lack of an inside game plus jump shooting contributed to that. In the second half against the Red Raiders, KU adjusted and attacked the basket. But while the “running game” worked, the “passing game” fell apart as the Jayhawks missed all 12 of their second-half 3-point attempts. The shots that would provide momentum and crowd noise didn’t fall.
Just one week into the season there is reason for concern. The eye test indicates this current roster is too thin to succeed during an 18-game Big 12 slog. Kansas fans hope that Self will soon have two more front court players.
Silvio De Sousa, one of the signees in the 2018 class, has reclassified and is completing his high school course work. He is awaiting clearance from the NCAA. A 6-9 forward, he could provide more options and rebounding if he’s able to acclimate himself quickly.
Billy Preston, a 6-9 freshman, has been in eligibility limbo since an on-campus fender bender before the season. After the accident, there were questions regarding the car’s ownership and the school’s compliance office has been working with the NCAA in order to clear Preston to play. He has been practicing with the team and would likely be ready to contribute quickly but the longer he’s inactive, the more likely it is that the eligibility issue could be more serious.
Before the start of league play, the Kansas City Star asked statistical whiz Ken Pomeroy to calculate the Jayhawks’ chances of winning the Big 12. He gave KU a 47 percent chance, mostly because he believes the Big 12 is such a strong conference. Pomeroy started his advanced-stats site in 2001-02 and of the 500 leagues he’s evaluated during that time, the Big 12 is the third strongest. Currently Pomeroy has nine Big 12 teams ranked 51st or higher. The team that isn’t is Iowa State, which treats a visit from Kansas like planting season.
Kansas plays at TCU Saturday and if for some reason you think that’s a gimme then you haven’t been paying attention. The Horned Frogs figure to be in contention to finish near the top of the standings and they have the kind of size and depth Self and the Jayhawks don’t. Kansas last started 1-2 in Big 12 play in 2005-06, finishing 13-3 and sharing the regular-season title with Texas. The conference was weak that season, with only five of the 12 conference teams finishing with a winning league record and only four teams making the NCAA Tournament.
If the roster changes with the addition of De Sousa and Preston, then so does the outlook for the Jayhawks. But the challenge will be surviving until then and then hoping the newcomers can help spark a strong finish.
“I think we’re going to be really good by the end,” Self said. “I don’t think we’ll be close to what we can be until February. I really don’t. That’s with everybody getting favorable outcomes. I really believe we can play small. We’re doing 40 minutes of small ball every game right now. It’d be nice if that could go to 20. With two additional players I think it can.”
For the third consecutive year, Your Veteran Scribe is doubting a Hall of Fame coach.