LAWRENCE — What’s the matter with Kansas?
Bill Self has his theories, but the longtime coach admits hearing that question of late has produced a somewhat foreign feeling.
“I talked to one of my old coaches today. You know, we haven’t been through a situation where people are saying, ‘What’s wrong with Kansas?’ ” Self said Thursday. “We haven’t gone through that in 12 years where people would say, ‘Oh my God, they’re struggling.’ ”
The No. 10-ranked Jayhawks (11-3, 1-1 Big 12), who suffered an 85-73 home defeat to No. 18 Texas Tech on Tuesday night, are off to their worst conference start since the 2005-06 season, Self’s third season in Lawrence. KU started that Big 12 campaign 1-2 but reeled off 10 straight victories from that point en route to a 13-3 conference finish.
That team’s dramatic rebound perhaps provides appropriate perspective to the unprecedented success the Jayhawks have seen under Self, winning all 15 of their league openers en route to a national record-tying 13 consecutive regular-season conference championships, and where this team stands through only two conference contests.
“We’re going through what 97 percent or 98 percent of all the teams in America go through: ups and downs,” Self said. “It really is this, and this will be coach speak to you guys: We’re not very good right now, OK? We’re not near as good as what we can be.”
The Jayhawks’ first opportunity to ease fans’ concerns will come at 8:15 p.m. Saturday when the team hits the road to battle No. 16 TCU (13-1, 1-1). That contest — and certainly not surpassing UCLA’s record for consecutive conference titles — is the only objective Self want on his players’ minds right now.
“I think we need to quit talking about winning the league, even though that’s kind of expected around here,” Self said. “It’s obviously a fair question with having a chance to do something nobody’s ever done. We need to just talk about getting better each week. If you do that, the wins and losses take care of themselves. That’s what our focus is.”
To get to that point, KU will have to improve upon at least three areas Self identified as key Thursday.
First, Self pointed out the team’s defensive struggles guarding the ball, allowing open lanes for opponents to get layup attempts and providing little rim protection once they get there. The coach acknowledged it won’t be an easy fix but said it’s something that must be rectified.
“We let guys drive it with their dominant hand, get where they want to go. We have to be able to guard the ball better,” Self said. “When you can’t guard the ball it forces rotation, which forces rotation rebounding, all this stuff. Keep your man in front of you.”
Second, each player needs to know his role when the ball is shot, something Self said is stressed every day but hasn’t been executed, clear in the team’s deficiencies of late on the glass.
“We’re not doing it,” Self said. “The offensive rebounders have to make an effort to get there, and certainly you have to make an effort to check your man every time the ball is shot. We have not done that very well.”
Finally, and perhaps what Self wants to see most from his squad, the Jayhawks need to adopt and embrace some kind of identity. The team can “absolutely” still reach an elite level, he said, but it must first find something to hang its hat on, a reputation.
To illustrate that point, Self turned to the gridiron.
“An identity is when things are going bad, you still have that deal you can run the ball,” Self said. “Identity is, no matter what, you can still rush the passer. No matter what, you can still do certain things. That’s an identity you can hang your hat on no matter what: ‘Our identity is we control the line of scrimmage; our identity is we out-speed, out-fast everybody.’ We’re trying to develop an identity.”
If the team’s identity is as simple as being a sharp-shooting group prone to the occasional off night — KU was 6 for 26 from 3-point range against the Red Raiders and missed all 12 attempts in the second half, for example — Self indicated the squad is in for a harsh reality check.
“If we go through the season just by making shots, winning games just by that, I promise you, it will be a flame-out,” Self said. “You’ve got to have something you can really hang your hat on besides that.”
Despite recent lapses, Self said the Jayhawks are not awful defensively or from a rebounding standpoint, though he added they’re “just not good” at either right now. Those areas are all correctable, but the team must first start with adopting a better mindset.
All of these struggles — well, struggles by Kansas’ standards — could be good medicine come NCAA Tournament time.
“The exciting thing is if you don’t go through some crap — and this isn’t a lot of crap, but it’s enough crap you don’t want to go through a lot of it — if you don’t go through something tough, how are you going to develop that toughness unless you go through it?” Self said. “I don’t look at this as anything that is bad. I look at it like, yeah, wish we didn’t lose, but the bottom line is to get to where we want to go, some things have to be addressed and guys have to take ownership of. We’ve got to do a better job coaching them to get to the point where we want to be at the end.”
NO UPDATES ON PRESTON, DE SOUSA — Self provided no updates on the statuses of forwards Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa, withheld as the team awaits judgment from the NCAA on the each’s eligibility. Self did, however, say he expected some clarity on Preston’s ongoing saga before the TCU contest.
“I don’t know anything that has transpired today, but as of last night, I expected that we’d have some semblance or some idea of exactly where this was … before the game Saturday,” Self said. “Certainly I’ve said for a while now sooner rather than later. I can guarantee you it will be sooner rather than later, but I don’t know what the outcome will be on it honestly.”
Preston has yet to make his collegiate debut and has been withheld for the team’s last 13 contests as an internal review of a vehicle the freshman was driving on campus was underway. The university’s compliance department completed its end of the review a few weeks ago, but the NCAA offices were closed for holiday break until this Tuesday.
For De Sousa, who joined the Jayhawks on Dec. 27 after early graduation from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., expect the wait for amateurism clearance to be a little longer.
“Silvio’s deal is different,” Self said. “It’s an amateurism deal that every athlete that plays college athletics goes through. You don’t start processing their amateurism until they’re enrolled at your school.”