First, the good news. Despite losing at Oklahoma on Saturday, Kansas is still 19-4 this season. Despite their third straight loss, this time 72-66 at the Sooners, they’re still on track for the NCAA Tournament and still in the hunt for the conference title.
But there’s a lot that needs to get better if a deep run in March is in order.
Unlike Wednesday’s game at TCU, when Kansas took eight minutes to get a shot down, they made some early baskets and looked more crisp on offense. Travis Releford was more aggressive and Kevin Young was active on the offensive boards. The defense held tough and wouldn’t let Oklahoma inside.
Problem: Oklahoma didn’t need to get inside.
Usually, it’s not bad to make a college team rely on the jumpshot. Unfortunately for Kansas, Oklahoma was hitting theirs. From 12 feet. From 17 feet. From beyond the arc. Oklahoma shot 53% in the first half and 44% from three-point range. Kansas stayed with them and went into the half only down by four.
They turned to a triangle and two defense in the second half and it slowed down Oklahoma’s offense and allowed Kansas to get within striking distance. But every time they’d get close, they’d give up a run or have the ball and miss a shot. After the under-12 timeout, Perry Ellis hit two free throws to make it 47-46 Oklahoma. The Sooners then went on a 10-2 run while Kansas missed shots and turned it over.
Kansas picked up the offense, moving faster, pushing a bit more and started to chip away at a 57-48 deficit, crawling back to make it 60-58 for the Sooners with Releford going to the line with 3:49 left. He hit one of two. Kansas forced a miss, but Oklahoma got the rebound and hit a three-pointer. Two minutes later, Jeff Withey got a dunk to pull Kansas to within two and again Oklahoma answered with a three.
It was too much. Kansas had taken care of the ball in the first half, but turned it over nine times in the second. They cooled Oklahoma off, but they also missed too many free throws.
So what now? The sky isn’t necessarily falling, but Kansas State will come into Allen Fieldhouse next and, after losing to three straight unranked teams, finding a tough in-state rival knocking on your door isn’t my idea of a “wake up” game. Last year’s team had a habit of playing down to its level of competition, but picked it up when they had a tough opponent. Monday’s game will test the character of this group.
Late in the TCU game, Ben McLemore started taking the ball to the basket more than he seemed to in previous games. He took it inside against Oklahoma as well, so perhaps that’s a sign that he’s going to take a more active role in the offense. Adding that element makes him more than just a jump shooter. If defenders have to stay back to prevent a drive, he’ll have more openings to shoot. But Kansas also has to make more openings for McLemore.
Their offense has been off all season and it’s apparent that Johnson is out of place running the offense, but there aren’t many other options other than Naadir Tharpe who’s shown the ability to drive but isn’t consistent and his defense isn’t strong. It looks like a rudderless ship right now. Withey is tall but not big and he doesn’t get position consistently. Kevin Young is the glue guy, but not anyone to feed the ball to. Releford has played well through most of the year as has McLemore (though even he’s just getting by right now). Johnson, though, has slumped all conference season. He’s made 28 shots in 94 attempts in Big 12 play and just 9 of 37 over the last three games. The biggest problem, though, is why he’s taking 12 shots a game if he’s struggling so much.
Kansas isn’t usually in this position. The last time they’d lost three in a row was in 2005. After eight straight conference titles, sure, the fans are spoiled, but expectations are deservedly high with Bill Self and strong recruiting classes every year. The team can play defense and when they can get into transition, they’ll score, but creating for themselves is an issue and has been all year. If they’re going to win a ninth, they’ll have to figure this out starting Monday.