Impressive as Kansas State looked in Monday’s 84-68 dismantling of Kansas, the bigger story was the horrid and lackluster play of the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks, who at times appeared uninspired, divided and shell-shocked against the in-state rival they’ve dominated for years.
“We may fall out of the polls next week,” Kansas coach Bill Self said, and he was probably only halfway kidding. “We’ve got to get some things straightened out.”
Every top program suffers an upset now and then. Duke lost to St. John’s, Richmond beat Purdue, Texas was whipped by USC and Villanova fell to Rutgers. That doesn’t mean they’re not still good teams. Sometimes a loss can actually be a good thing, and that may be the case at Kansas.
Still, as the NCAA tournament draws closer, here are some areas of concern for a Jayhawks squad that could either win the NCAA title or lose in an early round.
• Self needs to admit that Kansas is better when Josh Selby plays fewer minutes. The No. 1-ranked recruit in the Class of 2010 has been a bit underwhelming, and it’s not even his fault. Selby missed nine games – as well as some valuable practice reps – while KU officials worked to get him eligible. More than halfway through the Big 12 season, it’s obvious that he still isn’t comfortable on the court. And it certainly doesn’t help that he missed three games earlier this month with a stress reaction in his foot. It was during Selby’s absence when it became obvious that Kansas plays a better, crisper brand of basketball without Selby on the court. Selby entered college with a reputation as a scorer, a guy who could slash into the lane and finish around the basket or pull up from mid-range and bury a guarded jump shot. Instead, Selby has mostly settled for 3-pointers. His lack of aggression signals a lack of confidence, which is perfectly natural for a guy less than two months into his college career. Still, Kansas spent a lot of time and effort to get Selby eligible, and who knows what promises were made to him in recruiting. Before Selby ever played a college game, Self told reporters that Selby would arguably be the most-talented player he’d ever coach, so Self may feel pressure to stick with Selby through thick and thin. Selby’s situation also puts Self in a tough spot when it comes to recruiting. Opposing coaches are already telling one-and-done-caliber players that Kansas is not a good fit for prospects who plan to make a quick jump to the NBA. As well-coached as the Jayhawks may be, their style of play and balance makes it difficult for any player to put up gaudy numbers while showcasing themselves in front of NBA scouts. Of course, the notion that Kansas isn’t a good place for potential pros is ridiculous. NBA teams don’t care about statistics and highlight reel plays, and Self has turned out numerous first-rounders during his time at Kansas and Illinois. Still, the reputation is out there, and limiting the minutes of a potential one-and-done player such as Selby would only enhance it, which could cost Kansas prospects down the line. Frustrating as the predicament may be, Self’s goal is to win a national championship, so he needs to bite the bullet and commit to Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Tyshawn Taylor as his three main backcourt players, with Selby coming in a distant fourth. The ball moves better and the Jayhawks are more cohesive with Reed, Morningstar and Taylor on the court – and they’re a better defensive team, too. At this point Selby is still learning.
• Marcus and Markieff Morris need to mature. The twins are clearly Kansas’ two best players and future first-round NBA draft picks. Self even said that Marcus Morris is the top all-around player he’s coached during his time at Kansas. Basketball, though, isn’t just about points and rebounds – especially not in college. It’s about attitude, intensity, teamwork and making smart decisions. On occasion, those are areas where the twins have failed. Marcus was ejected from a December game against Cal for throwing an elbow and he also received a technical foul against Nebraska. Markieff has been whistled for flagrant fouls in each of Kansas’ last two games, although the one he was whistled for against Kansas State on Monday didn’t appear to be intentional. It was clearly an overreaction by the official, but that’s the point. The twins have developed a reputation as dirty players. Referees are watching their every move, just waiting to issue a technical. When either one of the Morris twins is out, Kansas is in a world of hurt. Standout forward Thomas Robinson, the Jayhawks’ sixth man, will likely be out two more weeks with an injury and 7-foot sophomore Jeff Withey isn’t ready to make a major contribution. Undersized forward Mario Little is trying his best, but sometimes he attempts to do too much. So it all falls on the Morris twins to keep their heads on straight. It certainly didn’t look good when Markieff screamed back at Self as the coach berated him on the bench following Monday’s technical. It’s understandable that teammates could get into a disagreement during a lopsided blowout, and there’s nothing wrong with showing passion. But the twins’ body language can be awful at times, which doesn’t say much for their leadership capabilities. In some ways it may not be fair to blame Marcus and Markieff for not being better ambassadors for the program. Not all players have it in their personality to be leaders. Some guys thrive on playing physical and on yelling and screaming. It doesn’t make them bad people. The problem is that Kansas doesn’t have anyone else to step up and fill that void. Taylor is consumed with turning around his mediocre season. He doesn’t need additional responsibility. Mario Little was suspended earlier this year following a physical altercation with a female, so he’s out. Reed and Morningstar lead by example. So there really isn’t anyone left besides the Morris twins, which isn’t good.
• Is the Big 12 preparing Kansas for the NCAA tournament? The league is as bad as it’s been in years. Kansas and Texas are both high-level teams and potential No. 1 seeds, but the competition they’re facing simply doesn’t compare to previous years. Heck, Texas has won all but one of its Big 12 games by double digits. Baylor and Kansas State were both preseason Top 15 teams who are now on the NCAA tournament bubble. Texas A&M, despite its high win total, isn’t very good. Oklahoma and Iowa State are rebuilding. Pat Knight’s job is in jeopardy at Texas Tech. Colorado and Nebraska are better – but they’re still Colorado and Nebraska. Only Missouri is as good as it was last year. Even worse is that Kansas played a weak non-conference slate of opponents including Cal, Michigan, Memphis and UCLA. All but Cal are bubble teams who are unranked. Arizona is a lock to make the tournament, but the Wildcats, who play in the nation’s worst Big Six conference, aren’t nearly as good as their record indicates. The Big 12 may be the only league with two potential No. 1 seeds, but the conference’s middle-of-the-pack teams are just as mediocre – if not worse – than those from other Big Six leagues around the country. It’s tough not to wonder if the lack of elite competition will hurt the Jayhawks come March.
(Last week’s rank in parenthesis.)
1. Texas (23-3, 11-0) – With 7.6 boards per game, Jordan Hamilton is outrebounding Tristan Thompson (7.5). (1)
2. Kansas (24-2, 9-2) – Could Monday’s loss cost the Jayhawks a No. 1 seed? (2)
3. Missouri (20-6, 6-5) – Marcus Denmon will be in the mix for first-team All-Big 12 honors. (3)
4. Kansas State (17-9, 5-6) – Jacob Pullen’s performance against Kansas was one of the most impressive efforts by any player this season. (7)
5. Baylor (17-8, 6-5) – The Bears need three more wins to feel good about their NCAA tournament chances. (4)
6. Texas A&M (20-5, 7-4) – The Aggies’ last three wins have come by a combined 10 points. (5)
7. Colorado (16-10, 5-6) – The Buffaloes almost choked away a victory Saturday against Kansas State. (6)
8. Oklahoma State (16-9, 4-7) – At this point the Cowboys seem like an NCAA tournament longshot. (8)
9. Nebraska (17-8, 5-6) – Would an 8-8 league record get the Huskers into the NCAA tournament? (9)
10. Oklahoma (12-13, 4-7) – The Sooners suffered a 59-58 home loss to Nebraska on Wednesday. (10)
11. Texas Tech (11-15, 3-8) – The Red Raiders have lost four in a row. (11)
12. Iowa State (14-12, 1-10) – Jamie Vanderbeken (ankle) didn’t play in Wednesday’s loss at Texas A&M. (12)
Texas’ win streak – With an 11-0 Big 12 record, Texas is just five wins away from becoming the first team since Kansas in 2002 to finish conference play without a loss. Texas has remaining home games against Iowa State and Kansas State and plays Nebraska, Colorado and Baylor on the road.
LaceDarius Dunn, Baylor – The Bears senior guard scored his 2,190th career point in Tuesday’s win against Wayland Baptist, which catapulted him ahead of Terry Teagle as the all-time leading scorer in Baylor history.
Pat Knight – As tough of a season as it’s been for Texas Tech, credit the Red Raiders coach for continuing to get his guys to play hard. Knight’s squad was in the game until the final minutes of Tuesday’s 92-84 loss at Missouri. Three days earlier it fell to Texas A&M 70-67.
Iowa State in close games – Wednesday’s 71-66 loss at Texas A&M marked the seventh single-digit defeat for the Cyclones in Big 12 play. Two of those losses came in overtime. In other words, Iowa State may be the most competitive last place team in the country.
Baylor’s carelessness – The Bears had 16 turnovers and 15 assists in Tuesday’s non-conference win against Wayland Baptist, marking the 18 consecutive game in which Baylor’s assist total did not surpass its turnover total. The lack of a high-quality point guard has been the Bears’ biggest weakness this season.
Kansas State – Forty-eight hours after Monday’s victory over Kansas, the Wildcats’ athletic department was selling a DVD of the upset on its website for $19.95. The DVD includes both the television and radio calls of the game as well as postgame interviews. Wow.
THREE TO WATCH
Texas at Nebraska, Saturday – The Devaney Center is not an easy place for opposing teams to play.
Oklahoma at Kansas State, Saturday – Every game is crucial for the Wildcats.
Oklahoma State at Kansas, Monday – The Jayhawks need to bounce back with authority.