It is that time of year again when the first semester is coming to a close, snow is beginning to fall over the Midwest, and Bill Self is calling his team soft.
Traditionally, I use this moment to remind myself it’s time to start my Christmas shopping. What follows is typically a string of resounding Jayhawk victories, including a big win over a ranked non-conference team right around the first of the year. Then comes the Valentine Swoon, that point in early to mid-February where Kansas has a three-game lead in the Big 12, loses to two land-grant schools in a span of three games, then calls a players-only meeting. That invariably straightens things out until March, when all hell breaks loose.
That’s the life cycle of a Kansas basketball season.
A couple days ago, Self began the cycle anew, but this year I’m not sure everything is on schedule for the Jayhawks, who have lost two in a row — one in Kansas City and one at Allen Fieldhouse — to Washington and Arizona State.
“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” Self said. “A lot of that is experience. A lot of that is youth. A lot of it is just the way that we’re physically built and the way our skillset is. But the bottom line is we’ve got to become tougher on that (defensive) end.”
That first sentence is the one that gets your attention, but the real truth comes after that, when Self subtly acknowledges that this group of Jayhawks has some fairly severe personnel deficiencies that will make them more reliant on their defense than ever before, and so far that defense has not been particularly good.
KU was planning on starting McDonald’s All-American Billy Preston at the power forward spot, but he still hasn’t played while KU tries to achieve “a clearer financial picture” on a car he wrecked a while back. That leaves the Jayhawks with center Udoka Azubuike and just one other scholarship big man, that being skinny sophomore Mitch Lightfoot, who … oh, you could say he “plays with a high motor.” Rather than press Lightfoot into a starting role, Self has decided to play four guards around Azubuike, a totally reasonable decision for a basketball coach to make in 2017 — and Self has been toying around with these sorts of lineups on a situational basis for his entire Kansas career.
Constructed this way, the Jayhawks can really get up and down, and they can make a lot of 3-pointers. Before they played Washington last week in Kansas City, they were undefeated and ranked second with wins over Kentucky and Syracuse, they led the nation in scoring margin, and they had one of the country’s ten most efficient offenses.
Then Washington coach Mike Hopkins employed one weird trick (coaches hate him!): He took away the 3-point line at all cost. And when I say “all cost,” what I’m telling you is that Hopkins’ strategy was to let LaGerald Vick, a legitimate NBA prospect, shoot unguarded from five feet any time he wanted to. Doing the broadcast, Fran Fraschilla kept reminding the audience that Hopkins was perfectly willing to let Vick score 40 easy points if it meant Kansas wasn’t draining 3s. And that worked. Vick got the yips (he finished with 28), Kansas went 5-for-20 from the 3-point line, and Washington won by nine. It was one of the most preposterous college basketball games I’ve ever seen, and it revealed Kansas as the most one-dimensional team of the Self era.
That’s why the defense matters so much. Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Vick can really fill it up as a trio, but Kansas has close to zero offensive post presence, which hasn’t ever been the case in the Self era, if ever. Azubuike is 7-feet, 280 pounds, and he’s constantly catching lobs, but he’s not exactly Nick Collison on the low block. He’s not even Landen Lucas yet.
Malik Newman, the former McDonald’s All-American guard who transferred to Kansas from Mississippi State, has quietly put up solid numbers (11-4-3, 41 percent 3-point shooting), and the Jayhawks are about to add newly eligible 6-6 Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe. Then there is the possibility the Jayhawks may soon be adding Silvio De Sousa, a five-star forward, if he can get some tests in order by the time the second semester starts.
I can’t think of any other year when Kansas looked this much like an NBA team trying to get some help at the trade deadline. Anybody who could put pressure on a defense from the post would take an equal amount of pressure away from KU’s backcourt, and another big body would relieve the foul anxiety Self says is plaguing Azubuike, especially on the defensive end. Cunliffe isn’t that, but Preston or De Sousa would make KU a lot more comfortable just by being eligible to play, and in uniform.
It is true that Self says his team is soft about this time every year, and it is true that it usually works out to be pretty effective. Kansas turns up on defense, the offense follows, and they stamp out another Big 12 championship.
Self is usually right when he says it, but this year he might be righter than usual.