The Day After: Three victories in four days for KU hoops
The Kansas Unviersity men's basketball team picked up some Orlando Classic hardware over the holiday weekend, with three victories in three days over Rhode Island, Tennessee and No. 20 Michigan State.
More important than anything that will end up in KU's trophy case, however, was the chance for the Jayhawks to play big-time minutes together in a short period of time, which allowed the players to bond, the coaches to feel out what they've got and the product as a whole to look a lot different — and better — than it did in the week that led up to the early-season tournament.
Kansas was sharp in many different ways during its three victories, with different players stepping up at different times and different aspects of the Jayhawks' style coming through at the exact right times. Perhaps more important than any of that was the fact that the tournament title came with victories over three pretty good teams. That experience and the confidence that comes from it, no doubt will do wonders for this team as it continues to grow and come together.
Don't get me wrong, winning three games in four days against good competition is no easy feat, but, the way I see it, the best thing for the KU men's basketball program is that the victories came without the Jayhawks playing their best basketball. They were plenty good, of course. And a couple of individuals — namely Perry Ellis, Frank Mason and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk — delivered pretty solid performances day in and day out, but, for the most part, the Jayhawks still showed some room to improve in plenty of areas. Most notable among them were KU's transition offense, freshmen still trying to find their way. It's early, so that's to be expected. But if/when the Jayhawks start to put those things together and stack them upon their already solid foundation, this team has a chance to be scary good.
Three reasons to smile
1 – It may still change, but it sure looks like Bill Self has figured out his starting lineup. Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Perry Ellis and Landen Lucas have been pretty solid together to start games and they bring different styles and skills that really complement one another while allowing Self to still leave plenty of firepower on the bench. I've been skeptical of Lucas' role on this team, but if he plays all season like he played in Orlando, his role will be there and it will be important.
2 – Forget Perry Ellis' actual numbers. They were great. But forget that he averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds in the three wins in Orlando and focus more on how he got them. Ellis was aggressive throughout all three games and he attacked the rim, scored in a variety of ways and operated with an attitude that Self has been looking for for quite some time — the mindset that when the ball comes off the rim on the opponent's end, Ellis should have as much right to the ball as anyone on the floor. That was, by far, the most impressive part of Ellis' MVP performance in Orlando and if he can keep that up and perhaps even improve upon it — and there's no reason to think he won't now that he's done it and seen the reward — Ellis is going to be even more of a nightmare for KU's opponents than people already thought.
3 – Plenty was made about Frank Mason's 10 rebounds in the victory over Michigan State, but this was not just a one-game thing. Mason was great on the boards all weekend and, at 5-foot-11, brings something to the floor that very few people expect. KU's starting point guard has ripped down 24 rebounds and ranks as the team's fourth leading rebounding, just one board behind Jamari Traylor. It's easy for guards to want to leak out and get going toward the offensive end when shots go up, but Mason clearly does not think that way. He almost always stays back to crash the defensive glass and the Jayhawks are better because of it.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – It's no secret that freshman Kelly Oubre is still trying to figure things out. It's also no secret that KU is just six games into the season and people should probably let him do just that. Still, Oubre struggled in Orlando and continued to look lost out there at times. He moves as if he's thinking about every step and has not yet allowed himself to play free and loose, which has even created problems for him as an offensive player, which was supposed to be his strength coming into college. Oubre was not the only one who looked a little lost last weekend. Jamari Traylor also had plenty of forgettable moments, most of them coming in the form of those 'Why did he just do that?' or 'Did he really just do that?' plays that cause you to forget how athletic and powerful he is and force you to wonder where his mind is at times?
2 – When Wayne Selden went scoreless in KU's 27-point win over Rider earlier this season, KU coach Bill Self barely blinked because Selden finished with nine assists, made a conscious effort to get others involved and took just four shots. Still, Self said there probably can't be too many games in the future where the team's starting two guard goes scoreless. Selden was not scoreless against Michigan State — he hit 5 of 6 free throws — but he did miss all 10 shots he attempted and, at this point, that has to be at least minor cause for concern. So far this season, Selden is hitting just 27 percent of his shots (13-of-49) and has struggled to finish in the paint and from distance (he's just 5-of-19 from three-point range). It's not time to panic yet, but it's obvious that coming up empty is bothering Selden and the longer this goes the more it becomes a concern.
3 – He played through it and claimed to be fine, but the lingering shoulder issues plaguing freshman point guard Devonte' Graham are not exactly great news. Graham played just 27 minutes all weekend and had at least a couple of moments where he got hit or tweaked the shoulder that caused KU fans to hold their breaths. KU has the depth to weather an injury like this, but, more for Graham's sake, you have to wonder just how bad it is and how long it will stick around.
One for the road
KU's championship-game victory over Michigan State:
· Made the Jayhawks 5-1 for the third straight season and the 10th time in Bill Self's 12 seasons at Kansas.
· Brought KU to a 45-26 record against ranked teams in the Bill Self era and 1-1 against top-25 squads this season.
· Cut Michigan State’s lead in the all-time series to 6-5 and snapped KU’s three-game losing streak to the Spartans.
· Improved Kansas to 3-1 this season in games played at neutral sites.
· Improved Self to 5-6 against Michigan State, 330-70 at Kansas and 537-175 overall.
· Pushed KU’s in-season tournament record to 35-6 under Self.
· Made KU's all-time record 2,131-823.
After a few days off early in the week, the Jayhawks will return to action at home on Friday, when they take on Florida at 8 p.m. Think about this: By Friday night, Self will have squared off against John Calipari, Tom Izzo and Billy Donovan in the first seven games of the 2014-15 season. You gotta love college hoops.