College basketball: How good is Kansas?
Another torrid college basketball weekend, another batch of intriguing questions have the floor.
Is Arizona among the elite, now that it has Allonzo Trier back? (That’s UCLA nodding yes).
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Is anyone more impressive right now than Florida State? (Six ranked opponents, 22 days, five wins, applause please).
Is Duke’s vaunted depth finally operational? (Bench points against Miami: 31-0).
Have you seen the Marcus Keene Show yet at Central Michigan? (Fifty points against Miami of Ohio, including 26 in a row for his team in under six minutes).
Could Michigan State actually miss the NCAA Tournament? (Eight losses, and counting).
Finally – and this might be something of an odd question about an 18-1 team ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll – how good is Kansas? Really?
Time to learn.
Or as Bill Self said, “My guys are hard to figure out.”
Now there’s something you don’t hear every day in late January about a team that hasn’t lost
“When I say I’m still trying to figure it out, if you look at our games in league play, we haven’t played poorly. But we haven’t played great either. It’s hard for me to know how well we’re playing because I don’t think we’ve played terrific yet. So I don’t know what our ceiling is. I think our team is a team that is respected nationally. But I don’t think that we’re thought of as highly as some other teams. If you look at us, we haven’t done anything to really knock anyone’s socks off since the Duke game (77-75 over their last ranked opponent, two months ago), because we haven’t had a chance to really do some things since the Duke game.”
They do now.
They play at No. 7—but about to drop—West Virginia Tuesday, at No. 5 Kentucky Saturday and then home to No. 6 Baylor the following Wednesday.
Three top-seven teams in nine days with a combined record of 50-7.
“Monster games,” Self called them Saturday, after Kansas dispatched Texas 79-67. “This is a stretch that is probably as tough as we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
And that’s when the fog will begin to lift from around the Jayhawks. Clearly, there is some uncertainty among AP voters, who pushed Villanova past them last week.
“I can certainly understand it,” Self said. “I do think that we’ll have an opportunity here in the next two to three weeks to show whether or not we deserve to be there.”
Why the questions? Let us count the ways.
A six-point win at TCU opened league play. Kansas then needed a last-second layup to edge Kansas State 90-88 at home. The Jayhawks had to come from nine back to beat Oklahoma, 11 back to beat Oklahoma State in Lawrence and survived Iowa State by four points after making 18 turnovers.
“I thought Oklahoma State played great here. And we were just good enough to get past them,” Self said. “I thought TCU played great down there, and we were just good enough to get past them. I thought Iowa State was very efficient offensively, and we were just good enough to get past them.”
Introducing your Kansas just-good-enough-to-get-past-them Jayhawks.
Remember the score when Kansas lost the opener in overtime to Indiana? Try 103-99. Kansas State went for 88, TCU and Oklahoma State 80.
“I think the boat is pointed in the correct direction. But I don’t know if I would say turned around,” Self said of the defense. “I don’t think we’ve reached our potential on that end by any stretch.”
With the season-ending injury to Udoka Azubuike, Kansas plays only seven in the rotation.
“We’ve got basically seven starters, and I think there’s a lot of people out there that would like that luxury,” Self said.
But he also admitted it affects how the Jayhawks can attack on defense.
“The ability to pressure when you know you’re going to play 35 (minutes) is probably not as good as what it would be if you were playing 28 and subbing more. I do think the minutes have taken away some of the pressure.”
What’s that clanging? The Jayhawks at the line.
Kansas came into the weekend eighth in the nation in field goal shooting but 323rd in free throw percentage and last in the Big 12. The Jayhawks are seldom last in the Big 12 in anything, except maybe empty seats a home games.
Self has gone smaller and faster. Not many problems, so far. Frank Mason III, for instance, with his 20 points a game and 53.7 shooting from the three-point line – and as good an argument as any for national player of the year. The Jayhawks are shooting 50.2 as a team and averaging 85 points.
“I think I’m giving my guys a little bit more freedom to shoot it early. Which I think sometimes is good and sometimes is not good,” Self said. “But the good thing is they’re playing with a freer mind.”
Still, the big exams are ahead.
“Whether or not we can play small remains to be seen,” Self said. “It is a different style for us, one that we’re still trying to figure out. I think I learn something every time we play. To be quite candid, I haven’t coached it much at all. So we are a little bit different, but hopefully not our core philosophy in what we’re trying to do in the big picture. We have to find different ways to do it.”
The beat goes on in Lawrence. The 50-game winning streak in Allen Fieldhouse. The 151 consecutive weeks in the AP poll. The 253 home sellouts in a row. The march toward a 13th consecutive Big 12 title. Nothing unusual to see here. Kansas is 18-1 – for the sixth time under Self.
But nothing may come easy this season.
“Winning road games has always been the premium, that’s the standard. Winning home games (now) is premium,” Self said. “I’ve just resigned myself to the fact that every game is going to be a last-two-minute game.”
So, is his team ready for its close-up?
“We’ve certainly got another gear we can go to.”
Now would be a good time.