Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Kansas Jayhawks - Finally Laying a New Foundation

I should have written this piece weeks ago.  I’ve had these thoughts all season.  For someone who isn’t a particularly avid Kansas Jayhawks fan, I’ve watched a lot of their games this season.  I watched them lose early in the season to Michigan State. I watched them beat Ohio State. And then I watched them win a bunch of games in a row and climb to the top of the college basketball rankings. 

They didn’t belong there. That’s clear now.  And I know that is how the rankings work – you continue to win and others above you lose and you get to move up. The number one team in the country has lost the past five weeks.  I understand this season is “wide-open” in college basketball.

But that doesn’t prevent some teams from being clearly better than other teams. And Kansas isn’t among that upper group.

In a week they’ve gone from touting an 8th consecutive regular season Big 12 championship to a three-way tie for first place.  They lost to TCU – a team that ranks 345th in the country in points per game, a team that hadn’t won a game in the Big 12, and a team that lost to Texas by 17 (a Texas team that is sub-500 and lost to Chaminade).  The odds on that TCU game, by the way, were larger than 1 vs 16 seed match-ups in the NCAA tournament.  This is KU’s first 3 game losing streak since 2005.

(Chaminade beat Texas by 13. Texas beat TCU 17.  TCU beat Kansas by 7. Kansas beat Ohio State by 8.  So Chaminade would beat Ohio State by 45? Or...UMKC, a team that lost to Ohio State by 46, would lose to Chaminade by 91? Either way I think we have a clear new #1 team.)

I should have said this a long time ago. This is the kind of “season” that KU fans have long been anticipating.  Every year a key contributor (or two, or three, or four) head to the NBA draft.  KU fans lament that the next year will be a “rebuilding” one before they even get to next season.  It’s a tough position for anyone else to swallow – with one of the top 4 coaches and top 2 recruiters in the game at the head of the program, the Jayhawks always have talent all over the court. Talent they have specifically sought out.

This year is different.  That early win over Ohio State looks nice, but in this type of season wins over top teams don’t mean quite as much. Especially when you only have one of them.  Ohio State also shot just 30% that game, which can be partly attributed to the Jayhawks' defense, but they haven’t come close to a mark that low in any game since.

Since then? The only ranked opponent KU has faced is in-state rival Kansas State (currently sitting at #11). They squeaked out a 4 point victory (and didn’t break 60 points in the process).

Allow me to toss out some stats.

In Big 12 play, Kansas has only broken the 70 point barrier twice: once in a loss to Oklahoma State, and once in an overtime game against Iowa State.  They rank 52nd in the country in points per game, 26th in rebounds per game, 48th in assists per game, and 33rd in field goal percentage.  The combination of only 6 players averaging 15 minutes or more per game and only 3 averaging double figures in points per game is troubling.

In short, the Jayhawks are the opposite of what they usually are.  In past seasons, a couple of losses during the season were acceptable. They hurt, but they knew it was going to help them build.  They won Big 12 titles because they were good, but they were successful in March because they had an identity and leaders.  Last year they had Tyshawn “Turnover” Taylor, who managed to lock it up despite his nickname and realize he had a variety of shooters and the second best big man in the nation on his team.  They had Thomas Robinson, an absolute workhorse down low.  Before that it was the Morris twins bringing Kansas’ defense to a new level.  Before that it was Sherron Collins becoming an elite college point guard. And before that it was Mario Chalmers and "The Shot".

(Side note…Collins' stature and speed always remind me of Ty Lawson. I feel like he could have been a poor man’s Ty Lawson.  Would anyone really want a poor man’s Ty Lawson? How many times in a row can I end a sentence with Ty Lawson?)

Who is that identity now? After McLemore, Withey, and Releford, the Jayhawk’s field goal percentages are gross.  Their assist numbers are terrible all over the board.  McLemore has hit some big shots, but KU hasn’t had to rely on a freshman before to lead their team in March.  Withey works his tail off and is a defensive monster, but he isn’t the vocal leader for the team, nor is his offensive game worth going to in crunch time.  Releford is playing decent, but doesn’t seem to care about the whole “senior leadership” thing.

Like I said, I should have posted this months ago. What stopped me was my belief that despite all these flaws, the Jayhawks would really only lose one game in the conference, win a round in March, and then get blown away by some 8 seed from the Big East.  The Big 12 does not stack up well.  My gut feeling was that Kansas just wouldn’t face stiff competition, and then wither when they did on the national stage.  That feeling was partly wrong - maybe the Big 12 has three or four teams worth thinking about in March. My feeling about Kansas not actually being a good team, however, was not wrong.

If Kansas falls to a 3 or 4 seed, I’ll consider having them lose first round, and definitely second round.  Perhaps this really is the “rebuilding year” I’ve always heard about.  Every other program in the country would love their "rebuilding year" to include a 19-1 start and a probable top-4 seed. Just ask UNC fans.

If I had posted this earlier, I’d have looked great. Now, I’m risking them figuring it out and making a deep run, and then I will look terrible.  I wouldn’t put this past Bill Self either.

But what I do believe is that Self will continue to develop his talent and continue to bring in even more talent.  Even if this season is a step back, at least they're laying a solid foundation to build upon.

Jayhawk fans better hope McLemore sticks around to make sure something actually gets built. 

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