Bill Self points to 'maturity,' 'distractions,' defense as factors in irregular season
In spite of the Kansas basketball team’s undefeated home record and the necessity for a Jayhawks victory against Baylor, what with Selection Sunday coming up in just more than a week, this season’s Allen Fieldhouse finale figures to lack the buzz and fervor of recent regular season closers.
Many KU students will already be hundreds of miles away basking in all the diversions spring break has to offer. There is no beloved senior to celebrate. No nets to cut. Nor a shiny new Big 12 championship trophy to wheel out and add to the collection.
And the relative lack of interest, at least compared to the full-blown zeal that typically accompanies the last KU basketball home game on a given year’s schedule, has everything to do with the Jayhawks’ shortcomings this season.
Bill Self has coached more than enough Big 12 title-winning teams at KU to notice some characteristics that this particular team lacked, the types of limitations that paved the way for either Kansas State or Texas Tech — or both — to dethrone the 14-time reigning champions in 2019.
“I think there's some reasons,” Self began. “I think maturity is one. I think distractions is another and, you know, those are things that you don't really change.”
The disturbances Self referenced may have been too unpredictable for the Jayhawks to avoid feeling at least somewhat blindsided by them.
“Now, if it was distractions on judgment and things like that, then that's another thing — you can eliminate (those). These are distractions, whether it be health, whether it be a decision is made by a third party, whether it be obviously some personal things, those things are hard to navigate and deal with,” Self said. “I think those are probably reasons why, as much as anything.”
Of course, losing 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury, the NCAA ruling Silvio De Sousa ineligible and Lagerald Vick presumably leaving the team for good four months into the season all played a factor in KU coming up short of a 15th straight conference title. But the Jayhawks also possess on-court imperfections that have kept them from overcoming those aforementioned obstructions.
“And the other thing is, guys, our margin for error isn't what it used to be,” Self would add Thursday, during his weekly press conference. “I mean, going to win on the road is a huge win. Like going to Morgantown, up six (points) with two (minutes) left, that's what we’re going to look back on — or that’s what I’ll look back on.”
The road wrecked KU’s chances at living up to the program’s absurd conference-championship-every-season standards this year. The Jayhawks went 3-6 in the arenas occupied by other Big 12 programs this season, blowing a late lead at WVU, not putting up much of a fight in defeats at Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma, losing late at K-State and showing no ability to match Texas Tech’s intensity or level of play in Lubbock, Texas.
As Self said of the nail-in-the-coffin defeat at OU earlier this week, the Jayhawks (22-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12) needed to play “great” to beat the Sooners that night. But winning on the road usually requires a gutty defensive effort.
“We couldn’t be great. We had to make them play poorly. That's what this team has not done,” Self said. “It's not so much how we play, it's how we make other teams play. That’s probably the reason why we didn't have a better opportunity to win the league this year, to be quite candid."
Defending the 3-point line proved to be an issue for KU in Big 12 road losses. Iowa State went 13 for 25, Texas 10 for 28, K-State 10 for 24, Tech 16 for 26 and Oklahoma 9 for 24.
Through 30 games, KU’s 34.3% 3-point field goal percentage defense ranks 177th in the nation. To make matters worse, per TeamRankings.com, KU is allowing opponents to attempt, on average, 25.6 3-pointers a game, which ranks 317th.
Junior Mitch Lightfoot, a part of two Big 12 title-winning teams during his first two years at KU, didn’t have to think long to point to a primary reason this season hasn’t been as successful.
“Like coach has always said, you’ve got to win on the road,” Lightfoot replied, when asked if there was a specific characteristic he saw KU lacking. “We haven’t done that too spectacularly with this team in particular. That is the reason that it happened (KU didn’t win the Big 12). We have to address that, because throughout the tournament, throughout the rest of all of our careers here, we’re going to have to win on the road. We’re going to have to win in opposing environments and we’ve got to figure that out.”
The clock is ticking on this KU basketball season, and its expiration date will come sooner than usual if the Jayhawks don’t find ways to demand defensive responses from themselves when facing an offense that’s clicking. Whether that’s denying shooters behind the 3-point arc or impeding driving and passing lanes on the perimeter, the Jayhawks will have to make their opponents more uncomfortable from here on out.
Otherwise they’ll be setting themselves up for the type of finish to a season that is viewed as intolerable among KU’s rabid fan base.