It has been a challenging nine days for the Kansas Jayhawks. They followed their 85-80 home loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 2 with back-to-back road losses against TCU (which had been winless in the Big 12) and Oklahoma. Thank goodness Topeka YMCA wasn't on the schedule.
These are the same Jayhawks that in nonconference play averaged 77 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the field and 37 percent from the 3-point line, and the same Jayhawks that started off 19-1 before this three-game losing streak.
So what went wrong? And can Kansas, led by three fifth-year seniors and one of the nation's elite freshmen in Ben McLemore, rebound and win a ninth consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship? Let's take a look at the Jayhawks, heading into their "Big Monday" matchup against the Kansas State Wildcats (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET).
What went wrong?
Kansas' issues begin on offense. Since league play began, the Jayhawks have had to grind out every offensive possession. They're averaging 10 fewer points per game in conference play than they did in nonconference, while shooting only 31 percent from the 3-point line and 42 percent from the field.
You can make the obvious point that the competition has gotten better, but this is at heart a personnel issue. One primary reason for these struggles is that Kansas lacks a dynamic point guard. Elijah Johnson is a solid ball guard, but he's not a point guard. He doesn't see plays early and doesn't put pressure on the defense. He has taken only 42 free throws this season, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is barely 1-to-1. These are not the traits of an elite point guard.
In part because of that, opposing defenses have figured out how to shut the Jayhawks down. If you shrink the court and limit the ability of Jeff Withey and McLemore to take over games, you can stop them from scoring. That's because the Jayhawks lack a breakdown perimeter player who can come off of ball screens and put pressure on the defense, and their supporting offensive players have struggled to shoot. Johnson and Naadir Tharpe are a combined 17-for-64 from the field, including 9-for-33 from the 3-point line in KU's past three losses.
Opposing teams limit the ability to drive, and then don't get punished by good outside shooting. That's a bad combination.
Kansas' supporting offensive players have struggled as well. Travis Releford has taken only 13 shots total in the past three games, which is an unacceptable number for a player who logs as many minutes as he does. His inability to beat his defender off the dribble has allowed defenses to jam him and limit his effectiveness. Kevin Young is an active defender and role player, but he is limited on the offensive end. He doesn't shoot the ball well, which lets defenses shrink the court and take away Kansas' high-low game.
When you have three players -- in this case, Johnson, Releford and Young -- who aren't putting any pressure on a defense but are still playing big minutes, it makes things very difficult for your featured scorer. McLemore is a tremendous talent, but KU needs additional scoring threats.
The defense has slipped a bit in Big 12 play as well. The Jayhawks are giving up more than 93 points per 100 possessions in league games, up from 88 in nonconference play. This is a result of their lack of physicality and not going a good job of both pressuring the ball and containing dribble penetration.
Lastly, while the Jayhawks have a veteran starting group, every player coming off the bench has limited or no experience. It is difficult to get a team back on track when your second unit is that inexperienced.
Can they fix things?
Bill Self is one of the best coaches in college basketball, if not the best. He did a tremendous job of camouflaging the Jayhawks' deficiencies in the early part of the season and first half of league play, and this team is capable of getting back on track if they can do a few things differently:
1. They need to get back to their defensive principles. If they can once again start getting consecutive stops and forcing a few turnovers, that will allow them to get out in transition and score easy baskets, which will take pressure off of their struggling half-court offense. It starts with controlling the ball at the point of attack and then carries over to off-ball defenders being active and alert.
2. Offensively, Kansas needs to attack first, and then flow into their secondary and high-low action. Johnson needs to be aggressive coming off ball screens, and Tharpe needs to take good shots. I would not be surprised to see Self play Tharpe and Johnson together more. This will give Kansas two playmakers to complement McLemore on offense, as well as allow the Jayhawks to put more pressure on the ball defensively and potentially create some easy points off turnovers.
3. Another lineup adjustment Self could make is to give Andrew White III more playing time, at both the 3 and the 4. Although White is limited as a defender, he has the ability to stretch the defense, which would open up the floor for McLemore and Withey. Especially during points of the game when KU is struggling to score, having McLemore and White on the floor at the same time could be a solution.
In the frontcourt, I look for Jamari Traylor to get more opportunities. He has a knack for getting to the offensive glass and is one of the more physical players on the roster. When you're having trouble scoring, putbacks and extra possessions can mask problems. Traylor's physicality will be needed against Kansas State on Monday.
I think that the bruised and fragile Jayhawks will respond against Kansas State. My expectation is Self will use the rivalry game to inspire his players, as those matchups often can be the perfect recipe for getting a team to realize it is not playing for just itself, but rather for every student and alum who has ever walked across the school's campus.
My guess is that his pregame speech will go something like this: This is a game and a time to play Kansas basketball. It's not about yesterday, but today. It's not about the last play, but the next play. Play with confidence, be the attacker, play through your mistakes and play to win. Have no reservations and no regrets at the end of the game.
However, even though I believe the Jayhawks will get back on track against K-State and in Big 12 play, it's clear that we need to start viewing this team differently than we were just two weeks ago. The expectations have changed. They're a good team, and can get back to being a very good team by doing some of the things I've described above, but they're far from being a great team. They have too many limitations right now, particularly on the offensive end, and the fact of the matter is opponents have really begun to figure them out.