Heartbeat of the Heartland: Bill Self Describes Jayhawks Play as Soft

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This declarative statement cannot be refuted: Kansas will not win the Pac-12 Conference title this season. You can bet your Bill Walton tie-dyed t-shirt on it.

After consecutive losses to Washington and Arizona State, the Jayhawks went from undefeated and No. 2 in The Associated Press poll to a two-loss team ranked No. 13. And it has come time for Your Veteran Scribe to once again express his doubts that Kansas will be able to win a record-breaking 14th consecutive Big 12 regular-season championship.

A year ago, YVS on two different occasions wrote that coach Bill Self’s bag of magic tricks was empty. YVS didn’t think that the Jayhawks had enough depth to survive the Big 12’s 18-game round-robin cage match. Wrong both times, which brings the personal “wrong count” to well over triple figures.

Yet here we are again. Kansas started 7-0 but the most significant win was a neutral court triumph over Kentucky, a team with talent but little experience. That game of brand names was the best on KU’s non-conference slate. Recent games with Washington in the Sprint Center and with Arizona State in Lawrence were considered automatic W’s.

The two stunning losses peeled away the makeup that Self had used to disguise the Jayhawks’ flaws. Washington took away KU’s main weapon, the 3-point shot, while Arizona State challenged the Jayhawks’ manhood by playing a mirror-image style. Coach Bobby Hurley’s team fell behind 15-2 in the first four minutes proved that it was the better team with a dominant second half.

The losses had Self resorting to the “s” word.

“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” he said. “A lot of that is experience, a lot of that is youth, a lot of it is just the way that we’re physically built and the way that our skill set is. But the bottom line is, we have got to become tougher on that end. When I say soft, I throw that term around a lot, but I don’t know how else you could describe the last four halves we’ve played if you don’t say that.”

The Jayhawks will and should take that as an insult and a challenge. No competitor wants to be called “soft.” But for Self, the recently inducted Hall of Famer, saying his team lacks toughness wasn’t a motivational ploy. It’s the truth.

“What’s best for our team is that we develop a tougher mindset,” he said. “And, you know, we can do that. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to address from a competitive standpoint that I think we’ll get better at, without question. But right now it’s not clicking for us at all on (the defensive) end.”

What’s missing this season from a team that reached the Elite Eight is the consensus national player of the year (Frank Mason), the fourth player selected in the NBA Draft (Josh Jackson) and a savvy, glue-guy post player adept at setting screens, rebounding and playing smart position defense (Landen Lucas).

Many teams would lose three players of that caliber and be hopeful of just making the NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed. But this is Kansas, where the standards are high – sometimes ridiculously so. A program wins 13 consecutive titles in a major conference and the expectation is expecting an assembly-line product, the same thing every season.

Through nine games, here’s one man’s assessment of Kansas replacing the three missing starters.

  • Senior Devonte’ Graham for Mason. It’s unfair to expect Graham to be the national player of the year and he’s finding that going from Robin to Batman is a challenge. Mason willed Kansas to dozens of victories. His 3-point shooting combined with not-to-be-denied drives bailed KU out of numerous bad possessions. Mason averaged seven free throws per game; Graham has not been aggressive attacking the rim and his average three free throws per game.
  • Senior Svi Mykhailiuk for Jackson. Both are 6-foot-8 but there is no real comparison. Jackson is an explosive athlete. Last season he was a ferocious rebounder and shot blocker whose energy helped ignite KU defensive stands. Mykhailiuk is most effective as a perimeter shooter. He’s averaging 15.8 per game and leads the Jayhawks in 3-point shooting at 46.2 percent but he struggles taking defenders off the dribble and he’s average defensively.
  • Sophomore Udoka Azubuike for Lucas. The 7-foot, 280-pound Azubuike is basically a freshman and while he’s a powerful force around the basket, he lacks Lucas’ feel for the game. For now, he’s the only post player on the roster and at times he’s been tentative because of foul trouble.

A one-dimensional offense, an ineffective defense and a non-existent bench are three major areas of concern.

Kansas has become a one-trick pony in its half-court offense. The Jayhawks are averaging 27 3-pointers per game and just 13 free-throw attempts. Last season, Kansas averaged 22 threes per game and averaged nearly 22 trips to the line. A lack of consistent low-post offense plus a shoot first, drive rarely mentality has turned the offense into a risky business.

Self bemoaned his team’s lack of defensive effort in the second half against Arizona State but it appeared that the Sun Devils’ relentless pace wore down the Jayhawks. And while ASU has a unique group of offensive players who can attack off the dribble and shoot from deep, KU’s defensive liabilities are a concern.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is grudgingly playing more zone because of his team’s defensive struggles. Self is a man-to-man disciple. He says playing zone requires the same type of effort and fundamentals as playing zone. Plus, he’s loath to apply a band-aid to stop arterial bleeding.

“I’ve always been a believer that whenever you do things to bail kids out or bail teams out, it’s usually not best for your team over time,” Self said. “It may help you win a game or two, but come January or February, I’m not sure that’s what’s best for your team over time.

“What’s best for our team is that we develop a tougher mindset. And, you know, we can do that. There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to address from a competitive standpoint that I think we’ll get better at, without question. But right now it’s not clicking for us at all on (the defensive) end.”

All five starters are averaging double figures but all are averaging at least 25 minutes per game. Circumstances have made the Kansas bench thinner than the towels in a cheap motel. Self has seven scholarship players at his disposal – sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot and freshman Marcus Garrett make up “the bench.”

One reinforcement arrives Saturday. Sam Cunliffe, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward, transferred from Arizona State and doesn’t become eligible until the first semester ends. He will at least give Self another option but he joins a position group that is already crowded.

Thus far, freshman Billy Preston has proved that nothing from nothing leaves nothing. A highly touted recruit, the 6-foot-9 Preston would be a welcome addition to the front court. He has been held out of competition as the school’s compliance staff investigates the financial issues of a car Preston was driving that was involved in a single-car accident.

There’s also a long-shot chance that Kansas can add Silvio De Sousa to the roster. He’s a 6-foot-9, four-star power forward who signed with Kansas in the 2018 class but he could be eligible to enter school for the second semester and join the team. He is awaiting test scores and grades that allows him to graduate high school early and start his college career earlier.

If Preston is cleared and De Sousa becomes eligible, Kansas will suddenly have four post players to mix with a talented group of perimeter players. If neither become available, Self will be left with an eight-man roster that has two inexperienced post players and six perimeter players whose offensive repertoire has limits.

The Big 12 might be deeper than ever; all 10 teams could wind up in the post-season. Kansas is 7-2 in its last nine games in Allen Fieldhouse – and that, folks, is a slump. Teams appear tired of hearing that they’re supposed to Fear The Phog. The Jayhawks might not be impervious in Lawrence. If they don’t go 9-0 at home, none of the nine road games can be considered a lock to win.

So, there it is, Your Veteran Scribe is once again doubting a Hall of Fame coach and Kansas’ ability to extend its Big 12 streak to 14 titles. Feel free to treat YVS and his opinion like YVS treats a Walton telecast. Hit the mute button.