By: Chris O’Brien
The only positive I can think of after this week’s losses to Washington at the Sprint Center then Arizona State at home in Allen Fieldhouse is thank God we don’t play in the Pac-12.
Oregon (last year). Washington. Arizona State.
All in front of 95-98 percent Kansas crowds, all really ugly losses.
What scares me is if those teams could beat us by 10+ at home, what would it look like at their place?
I’m tossing word count out the window today, this is going to be a long examination as to what these losses mean, what’s wrong with this team, and a “truth hurts” re-evaluation of how far this team can go come March.
Have to separate the two (or three) losses
As you saw above, I have lumped the three Pac 12 losses together. It’s easy to do; they are all West Coast teams, all took place in either the Sprint Center or Allen Fieldhouse, all three games we trailed by 10 most of the way.
But there’s a big difference between losing to Oregon last year in the Elite Eight vs. Washington in December. Oregon had four pros in their starting lineup (Bell, Dorsey, Dotson, Brooks) whereas Washington was picked to finish 10th in the Pac 12 this season and were 21 point underdogs against Kansas.
What they lacked in NBA talent they made up for in preparation and gameplan. Washington’s Head Coach Mike Hopkins is a Jim Boeheim disciple so he brings the same zone principles that Syracuse has used for the last 30 years. The difference is Hopkins adjusted his zone against Kansas to guard the three-point line and leave a gaping hole in the middle.
This gave Lagerald Vick easy looks all night long en route to 28 points. Honestly, he could have scored 50 but he shot just 12-23 on borderline wide open five-ten footers.
And he needed to score 50 because Graham only had three and Svi finished with eight. It was an ugly night, Kansas finished the game with only 65 points and shot 5-of-20 from three.
And I thought, alright, maybe we just suck at the Sprint Center. Especially Graham, that place is his kryptonite.
I tried to justify it. I remember in high school there was one gym that I played horribly in, it turned me into the guys in Space Jam after the aliens take their powers. And honestly, it wasn’t a bad thing because I could superstitiously rationalize, “Well, as long as I’m not playing in that gym, I’ll be fine.” Maybe Graham could do the same?
Arizona State absolutely destroys Kansas for 36 minutes
For the first three and a half minutes, it looked like the classic Kansas-bounce-back-after-a-loss game. Graham with the layup. Doke with the dunk and the foul. Vick with the dunk. Newman with the three. Graham with the three. Kansas up 15-2 and rolling.
But then Arizona State caught fire and never cooled off. 15-2 became 15-12 and then gradually built their lead that got as high as 68-54 and then hovered around ten the rest of the game.
This wasn’t an Arizona State hung around then beat us at the buzzer. No, this is Arizona State was 20 points better, on our court, for 36 minutes after they spotted us a 13-point lead. They scored 58 points in the second half!
Now, again, time to separate the two losses. Arizona State is undefeated and has already beaten teams like Xavier, Kansas State, and San Diego State. They look ready to compete for the Pac 12 title and will be in the Top 10 this week. Washington, on the other hand, lost by 27 on their home court last night to Gonzaga.
BUT Arizona State is not 2017 Oregon. This isn’t a team loaded with NBA talent. Their guards (Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II, Remy Martin) combined for 72 points connecting on 11 threes and I don’t know if anyone of them can confidently measure above 6-feet-tall.
This loss scared me more than Washington because, instead of losing to a funky zone, we lost to a team that beat us at our own strength. All season long, I have thought, “You know what, we can’t compete with size and we’ll struggle against a team that has a deep bench, but no one can match our guards.”
Well, Arizona State played basically six guys and their guards looked quicker, faster, better than ours.
And Bill Self is pissed
After the Washington game and a couple days before the Arizona State game, I read a story by Gary Bedore titled, “Bill Self visits granddaughter in Texas, prepares for KU game against Arizona State.”
Did the granddaughter visit soften him up? Make him feel warm and fuzzy about his team? Not at all.
“You are replacing Frank with somebody not near as competitive as Frank (Devonte Graham). You are replacing Josh with someone not near as competitive as Josh (Lagerald Vick). And you are replacing Landen with somebody who doesn’t know how to be competitive yet (Udoka). Those aren’t negatives. Those are just facts. We had 2 1/2 dogs last year. Landen was close to being a full one.” (Bedore story)
or how about:
“You look at personality and whatnot, we’ve got some really nice young men. I don’t know that anybody, first thing they said after playing Frank or Josh was, ‘Those are some nice young men.’ I don’t think that’s what they said normally. I think that’s probably how other people look at us now,” Self said. (Bedore story)
This assessment of the team being soft continued after the Arizona State game. Self called his guys the “softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here.”
Right now, this team is not a one seed
I like what Self is doing, calling the team out, lighting a fire under them, seeing if they can become tougher.
But the truth is, the current roster looks like a team at risk of losing the games @ Nebraska and @ Stanford (great, another Pac 12 team) then going something like 12-6 or 11-7 through the Big 12. In that case, we’re looking at 22-11 which is more like a seven seed than a No. 1 or No. 2.
Now, what’s tricky is there are three routes this roster can go from here on out. One is for certain, the other two are seemingly still possible.
Option 1: Limited help is on the way
Sam Cunliffe is eligible to play against Nebraska.
This is a nice boost, Cunliffe averaged around 10 a game as a freshman for, oddly enough, Arizona State last season. This would allow Graham, Newman, and Svi to get a little more rest, look less winded at the end of games. Cunliffe was a Top 40 recruit in 2016.
As for Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa? I don’t know about you, but I can’t find any news anywhere. Your guess is as good as mine. It seems equally possible that we’ll get both, we’ll get one, or we won’t get either this season.
If Cunliffe is all that KU is adding, I hate to say this, but I project we lose either @ Nebraska or @ Stanford, then go 12-6 in conference. I’d even say we pick up the rare second loss in Allen Fieldhouse when we play a really good Texas A&M team in the Big 12 vs. SEC challenge. I’m going to give us the benefit of the doubt and say we win the Big 12 Tournament, but it’s hard for me to picture winning one game in the Sprint Center, let alone three.
That’d put us at 24-10, a five or six seed in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it’d be nice to come in as an off-the-radar underdog for once?
Option 2: The Big Man Either Or
Let’s look at the glass half full. Say we get either Billy Preston (Top 20 recruit class of 2017) or Silvio De Sousa (Top 30 recruit class of 2018). That immediately changes our frontcourt depth issue, gives us hope against teams like Duke and Michigan State.
Let’s say it’s Preston. I think Self should abandon the four-guard lineup and go with a starting line of Graham, Vick, Svi, Preston, Doke. That gives us five future NBA players on the court, possibly two Lottery picks (Vick and Preston). It also allows Kansas to keep launching three but now have more offensive rebounding power in there for second-chance points.
Lightfoot would continue playing backup and we could switch to four-guard lineups if Doke and Preston get into foul trouble. The second unit of Newman, Cunliffe, Garrett could be a starting lineup for at least 25 of the 68 NCAA Tournament teams.
Alright. Gradually pulling myself out of the two-loss depression.
Option 3: The glass is overflowing
This is the dream.
I don’t want to get my hopes up, your hopes up, but this option is still possible; we could be getting Preston AND De Sousa.
That would change everything. I’d definitely go traditional three guards and two bigs at that point. De Sousa becomes the backup, Lightfoot becomes the 10th man. Clay Young and the football player we just picked up, they wouldn’t be relied on for anything more than practice.
In this “glass is overflowing” scenario, we are back in the mix for a No. 1 seed and can contend for a National Championship. Cunliffe/Preston/De Sousa arguably adds 28 points of offense + much-needed depth + rebounding.
A nice luxury
I’m going to dive into this more in an ebook called, “Why Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky Should Leave College Basketball” but think about how crazy those situations are above, and how lucky we are as Kansas fans, we can legitimately say, “Well, as long as we can add a Top 20 recruit, a Top 30 recruit, and/or a Top 40 recruit mid-year, we’ll be fine. We can still compete for the title.”
How is that fair for the non-Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State, Villanova’s of the world? Most teams are thrilled to have ONE Top 40 guy on their roster, let alone three of them that are midseason additions.
And March Madness will continue to sell that anything is possible, upsets can happen, any team can beat any other, and I’m sure one of the Blue Bloods above will go down earlier than expected to help continue this narrative, but–odds are–one of them will win the title.
There are 16 teams I’m arguing should leave college basketball and form the NBA U-21 league.
Why? Because they have access to more top 100 recruits than everyone else, year after year. I won’t dive too into the weeds too much here or give up any more of the details but these 16 teams have accounted for the last ten championships and an astounding 42 of the last fifty. That means we only get a “new” champion 1.5 times every 20 years.
Compare that with College Football over the last fifty years, and I’m tossing out any year with co-champions so it doesn’t distort the argument in my favor, but check this out, they have a whopping… well, there’s is only 18 different champions.
Even if you throw in the split National Champions (Colorado/Georgia Tech ’90, Washington in ’91, Michigan in ’97) that’s 22 compared to college basketball’s 24.
So I guess my new argument is just creating NBA Jr. and NFL Jr., let the top guys funnel into a set of 16 schools, get paid, do endorsements, whatever, and then the rest of college sports can return to 4-year players, more parity, more in line with what the NCAA promotes as “student-athletes.”
Great. Problems solved. It’s not even 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, I think I can take the rest of the week off.
Speaking of weeks off, Kansas doesn’t play again until Saturday @ Nebraska. Then it’s Nebraska Omaha followed by that game @ Stanford that has me nervous given our recent streak of Pac 12 losses. My next Bill Self’s Backup will look at all three of those games and will be published on Friday, December 22nd.