The Day After: Punked by the Purple People
Leading up to Monday's game at Kansas State, I told anyone who would listen that the outcome of that game would tell me a lot about this Kansas basketball team.
Go into Manhattan and win and life is good and the Jayhawks would be well on their way toward wrapping up another Big 12 title and positioned well for the postseason. Go in and lose, though, — in any manner — and I think you'd come away hard-pressed to make a case for this being a team that can expect to get past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
Nothing about what I saw Monday night, during a 70-63 loss to K-State in which KU had a half a dozen opportunities to take control of the game made me change my mind.
I get the whole K-State was a desperate team, playing with passion against a heated rival. But they were also a team that just lost to TCU by 15 and Baylor by 27 and had lost seven of its last eight games. If you're a contender, you beat those teams. Home or away. If you're a contender, you don't let those teams grab on to a glimmer of hope that they can get you. If you're a contender, you find a way to win, pretty, ugly or otherwise.
KU did none of that and now enters the final three games of the conference schedule in a real dog fight for consecutive Big 12 title No. 11.
The odds are still very high that Kansas, which plays two of those three games at home, will win at least a share of the title and all will be well in the world of KU basketball. But even if that happens, I'm not sure that all is well with the Jayhawks. This team lacks mental and physical toughness and seems to be finding new ways to struggle just about every night out.
It's never easy to be the top dog that other teams hunt with reckless abandon. But if there's any team that should be used to that it's Kansas, and these Jayhawks too often look anything but comfortable out there on the floor.
I'm going to excuse Perry Ellis from the following commentary and also point out that there are times — minutes, halves even games — when a couple of other Jayhawks are the exception, as well. But it seems to me, now 28 games into the 2014-15 season, that this is a KU basketball team that lacks the necessary competitive juice to be a real contender. They don't play like they hate to lose. They don't compete to the point of exhaustion. They don't always lay it all on the line with the idea that, in any given moment, nothing else matters but getting a stop, grabbing a rebound or getting to the rim. I've said all season that this team lacks on-the-floor leadership and that's a big part of their struggles right now. It's probably too late to hope that emerges out of nowhere though, so the Jayhawks, and specifically Bill Self, are going to have to find a way around it. Ellis was a man on Monday and not just because he scored 20 points, hit 10 of 16 shots and was KU's only real offensive threat for most of the night. But also because he battled for rebounds, put the team on his back in the first half and even showed a little fire by trash talking a time or two. KU needs more of that from Ellis and others need to follow his lead.
Three reasons to smile
1 – Speaking of Perry Ellis, I thought the first half of this one was by far the best example we've seen of this team understanding that it should run every offensive possession through the junior forward from Wichita. It did not matter which players were on the floor with him, whenever they caught it, they looked at Ellis. If he was open, they passed it to him. And when he caught it, he usually got off a good shot or scored. That's a great sign for the future because this team has needed an identity all season and playing through your most experienced and probably most talented guy, who also happens to be as versatile as they come, is a pretty good identity to have.
2 – Props to Kelly Oubre for doing his best to compete. He didn't always score and it wasn't always pretty, but the freshman was aggressive when KU needed him to be and that's huge. There were times when it became way too easy for K-State to focus almost exclusively on guarding Ellis and dare other KU players to beat them. Oubre recognized that and went for it, he just wasn't quite as on as KU needed him to be. Still, he finished with 14 points, was aggressive in the half-court, took 13 shots (only two of which were three-pointers) and added seven boards in 28 minutes.
3 – Kansas did what it needed to do on the boards, out-rebounding K-State 37-28, including 14-7 on the offensive glass. A big reason that didn't matter more was because K-State shot so well, particularly in the second half, when they hit 56 percent of their shots and nearly hung 40 points. But KU held down the rebounding advantage, which led to more free throw attempts and more shots than the Wildcats.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – It didn't take a highly trained basketball eye to see which team wanted it more last night. KU battled and fought at times but the Wildcats battled and fought all the time. Even when KU hit K-State with runs, the Wildcats dug in and fought their way back. A couple of smaller areas where K-State had a subtle edge which can be huge in a two- or three-possession game included: deflections (5-4), charges taken (2-0), five-second calls forced (1-0) and, the big one, bench points (30-14).
2 – Not breaking any news here, but KU's on-the-ball defense was bad, particularly on Nigel Johnson, who played most of the second half with that look in his eye that told you he knew no one could guard him. K-State got way too many shots right at the rim and a good chunk of those were because of breakdowns in KU's man-to-man defense, which was so bad that Self even went to a box-and-one for a few possessions, something that K-State coach Bruce Weber said made him laugh because he thought his team was merely average offensively yet KU still struggled to stop them.
3 – I gotta think there's a way to get Brannen Greene more than 11 minutes. Greene has now played fewer than 20 minutes in 10 of the past 14 games. He's too good of an offensive weapon to limit his minutes like that. And, going back to what I talked about above, he's one of the few guys on this roster who cuts through the all of the tough calls, unlucky bounces and bad breaks and tries to compete, especially on the offensive end. He showed that late in the game on Monday night and it almost helped bring KU back. Unfortunately for the Jayhawks, he shot the ball from three-point range as badly as we've seen him shoot it, likely the product of either being too amped up or a little overwhelmed. Regardless, if it's me, I play him more not less.
One for the road
The Jayhawks' third road loss in the past four tries:
• Made KU 22-6 overall and 11-4 in Big 12 play.
• Dropped KU’s all-time edge in the series to 188-93, including a 23-4 mark in games played in Bramlage Coliseum and a 40-5 advantage in Big 12 games.
• Marked the first time that Kansas State has defeated Kansas in consecutive meetings in Manhattan since the 1981-82 and 1982-83 seasons (in Ahearn Fieldhouse).
• Made Self 347-75 while at Kansas, 24-5 against Kansas State (23-5 at Kansas) and 554-180 overall.
• Made KU 2,148-828 all-time.
The Jayhawks return home Saturday for another showdown with Texas at 4 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse. KU played one of its best games of the season in topping Texas 75-62 Jan. 24 in Austin, Texas.