Expectations for the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team are always a little unfair. Kansas fans are tremendously spoiled and tend to overreact then their beloved team loses. It might be a little harsh and unfair to be critical of a college basketball team that has only lost two contests all season and is still ranked in the top ten nationally. The Kansas Jayhawks are 7-1 in the Big 12 and 19-2 overall, yet they haven’t played all that well in conference. Unfair expectations or not, the Jayhawks just haven’t looked smooth and haven’t been in synch for several games now, especially on the offensive end of the floor.
It is easy to pinpoint the root of the Jayhawks’ struggles on offense. They lack a true point guard and because of this, Kansas has way too many turnovers and the offense is not running smoothly. I don’t fault Elijah Johnson for effort. He cares about his team and his performance but he just isn’t a point guard. He is really turning the ball over too regularly and the team’s offense doesn’t appear to run smoothly against the tight, pressure defenses most conference foes apply. He has trouble penetrating, and when he does, he has struggled to convert at the rim. He doesn’t drive and dish that often either. Throw in the fact that despite beautiful form on his jumper, he has not shot well, hitting only 39% from the field and only knocking down a third of his threes.
Johnson’s back-up, and really the only other guard in the rotation most of the time, Nadir Tharpe, is a much better ball handler but his shooting percentages are very similar to Johnson’s. Tharpe is much improved over a year ago and is showing promising potential but tends to dribble around too much and the Jayhawks’ offense doesn’t click as well when the ball isn’t being whipped around the perimeter. Coach Bill Self does not apparently have another option available. The only other player on the roster who might have the necessary ball handling skills is Anrio Adams, a freshman who has played sparingly thus far.
The other guards aren’t helping much either. Frosh sensation Ben McLemore, isn’t the most confident ball handler yet and is still learning how to best take advantage of his tremendous skill set and athleticism. He is incredible to watch at times but tends to disappear in games, especially with a tight defender on him. Senior glue man, Travis Releford, one of the country’s best off-the-ball defenders, is a career role player. He is outstanding at nailing open jumpers and in converting in transition but has never been very good at creating his own shot within the confines of a half court offense.
This is a key point. The Jayhawks are really just a team of role players right now. Only McLemore is an exciting, next level talent but he is young, raw and still growing as a player. Senior center Jeff Withey is going to play at the next level but only as a defensive specialist. Withey is a terrific college, in-the-paint defender but lacks dominating offensive skills. Senior Kevin Young is a hustle and enthusiasm specialist, the kind of players coaches love, but Young has few offensive skills outside of the offensive rebound.
There is nothing wrong with these players. The hustle and fight each game. They are experienced and what they lack in skills, they more than make up for it with guts and level-headedness. They have won 19 games for a reason. They don’t ever panic or give up in games. They have come from behind several times and have won close ones on shear will and determination. These are all admirable things in a team and fans should be proud of them. There are a lot of coaches across the country who would be thrilled to have any one of them on their team.
All of these positives aside though, Kansas is going to continue to struggle if they don’t fix the point guard position. In Big 12 play, with the tighter, more familiar defenses, Johnson has 34 assists to 31 turnovers, an unacceptable ratio. The Jayhawks as a team are even worse at taking care of the ball. They only have 98 assists in their eight leagues games to a whopping 111 turnovers. This wrong way, lopsided ratio is very uncharacteristic of Bill Self teams and he is aware of the issue. He has stated publicly that ball handling and point guard play are major areas of concern. A coach doesn’t win as many games as Bill Self has won without knowing his ball club inside and out. He is certainly addressing the issues in practice.
The Jayhawks have eight more regular season games to play. They still have to play OU, OSU, ISU, and Baylor on the road. K-State, the number two team in the conference, still has to come to Lawrence, and they will have revenge on their mind. They would love nothing less than to hand KU a second consecutive loss in Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have not nailed down their 9th consecutive Big 12 championship by any means. That road is going to be rough over the next month. Other schools are going to be gunning for the Jayhawks.
It will interesting to see if Self can perform his magic again and get Johnson and Tharpe to improve quickly. Will Self, who tends to rigidly stick to his rotations, give a few more minutes to the explosive and underused Andrew White III, or to untested Anrio Adams, if Johnson and Tharpe don’t get on track? Self’s teams historically are peaking at this time of the year but this edition seems to be slumping right now. Kansas fans always have confidence in Coach Bill Self. He has earned it time and time again but it will be interesting to see if he can get his troops to improve the ball handling and to coax more assists and fewer turnovers from them. Can Self find the right combination of coaching tricks to pull this team from the offensive funk in which they are mired? Kansas fans will have to wait and see but if anyone can do it, it is Bill Self.