Bill Self’s Backup – Lost in the Phog

By: Chris O’Brien

Kansas picked up a big road win at Texas (despite Mo Bamba recording around 25 blocks and dunking a basketball with his armpit) but then recorded yet another home loss to Texas Tech.

It’s the first time Kansas has lost two home games in a season since 2006-07… and the scary part is we still have nine more home games to go.

Bigger picture, we have eight more games against teams currently ranked in the Top 25, a journey that kicks off with a road game @ TCU on Saturday.

Things are looking bleak for this team. Granted, “bleak” as a KU fan is still pretty spoiled. Our disaster scenario is like a No. 5 or 6 seed, but still, this is uncharted territory in the Bill Self era.

Let’s Remember Texas for a second

To try and bring some positivity to this post, let’s briefly remember the nice resume win down in Austin.

We all know what happened, Bill Self was up late at night, stumbled on this Medium Rare Basketball site, and saw all of my pleas to start Garrett over Newman. He made the lineup change for the Texas game and it appears to be a permanent switch.

You’re welcome, Bill!

Garrett brings better defense to the starting lineup and then Newman can provide an offensive spark off the bench; much needed considering Garrett and Lightfoot combine for about four points a game. Newman seemed to be fine in the new role, he put up 10 shots and scored 13 off the bench.

My hope is Newman will feel less pressure as the sixth man. He’s allowed to make mistakes, allowed to make a few turnovers because his job is to provide a spark of offense.

The three-headed backcourt monster of Graham / Vick / Svi combined for 16 threes and a grand total of 64 points. This was awesome to watch, but it raises the question: What would happen if those guys weren’t hitting?

Segue to Texas Tech game

The answer was the loss to Texas Tech.

Graham had 27 but Svi and Vick combined for just 13 points. The trio was 3-of-23 from behind the arc and, as a whole, KU missed all 12 of their second-half three-point attempts.

On the season, Kansas shoots something like 40 percent of their total shots from three. It’s kind of like the college version of the Houston Rockets. It’s sporadic to watch; it leads to significant droughts during games followed by these crazy fast rallies where Kansas scores 10 – 15 points in a couple of minutes.

And it can work as a core strategy IF there are other components to the offense. For example, look at last year. Graham and Svi spent a lot of time behind the 3-pt line but it was balanced out by Mason getting to the rim, Jackson getting to the rim. When guys got cold, the offense didn’t come to a screeching halt.

But this year, I was shocked to see (at the time of the Texas Tech game) that Kansas was dead last in ALL of college basketball in free throw attempts. That’s ridiculous. I looked it up and the teams around us on that list are Colgate, Holy Cross, Western Illinois.

Colgate?! We’re shooting less free throws than a brand of toothpaste??

And yeah, sure, we don’t have size, but lack of free throws, to me, is a sign that our guys are playing way too soft. These are also chances for a thin team to get some breaks during a game. Catch their breath. There is no reason our total number of attempts per game should be 12/13.

In the second half, we got a glimpse of how Graham needs to play the rest of the season. He ended up shooting 13 free throws against Texas Tech, and made all of them. Moving forward, Graham needs to emulate James Harden or, closer to home, Frank Mason. He should be shooting 10 – 12 free throws a game. Plus all of those drives into the paint will set up either Doke for the dunk or Svi on the baseline.

I looked at the top of the free throw attempt list and saw Xavier leading the way. They average a little over 25 a game. Almost doubling us!

Using 25 as an ideal number, here’s my vision for how this team should be playing:

Graham – 12 attempts

Vick – 6 attempts. He’s our biggest most athletic guard, but lately he’s been settling for threes. Gotta have Vick going to the basket more.

Svi – 3-4 attempts

Doke – 6 attempts

Simple as that. Yes, Preston and De Sousa will potentially help in this department, but there’s no reason our guards can’t be more aggressive and get to the stripe. I hate to use Texas Tech as an example of anything that went right, but hidden in that loss were 23 free throw attempts. That has to be the new norm.


When they showed Texas Tech’s shootaround, they emphasized how much attention to detail Tech’s coaches and players were putting into everything. Simulated crowd noise, running through different scenarios, scouting KU.

Preparation is a sign of humility. The reverse is pride; the assumption that you’ll magically win because you’re KU, because you’re playing at home.

Getting to the rim more or dumping the ball into Doke are two ways to diversify the offense so that it’s not just live and die by the three, but maybe the simplest way to protect yourself from off-shooting nights is on the other end, putting more effort into defense and attention to detail. For starters, Kansas can not get out-rebounded 44-29, giving up 18 offensive rebounds and expect to win.

Tech put up 85 in Allen, Arizona State put up 95. I miss the KU teams that would lose those ugly like 57 – 55 games. Or think about that Villanova loss two years ago in the Elite Eight. That was a brawl, 64-59.

Traditionally, Self teams have had that we’re-taking-you-down-with-us response to cold shooting nights. They have been able to say, “If we’re not able to shoot, you sure as hell won’t be able to either and we’re gonna make this a fist fight.”

Granted, depth is a key contributing factor to this, it’s hard to ask six core guys to give 110% on offense and defense. I think giving Cunliffe some more minutes will help and then, of course, all roads lead back to the De Sousa/Preston question mark. Another band-aid solution would be to play some more zone.

One theory to consider

I don’t think I would have thought of this after the game in my doom-and-gloom state, but after a day of soaking time, I do have one optimistic thought to consider.

What if Arizona State and Texas Tech are just really really good teams?

Texas Tech is 13-1. Their only loss was against Seton Hall who is 13-2, ranked No. 21, currently second place in the Big East. Assuming Texas Tech takes care of business on Saturday against Kansas State, Tech will probably be ranked Top 15, maybe top 10, for their showdown next week against Oklahoma.

Arizona State is 12-1. Their only loss was a close one on the road against Arizona. And they’re ranked No. 4, currently tracking to be a No. 1 seed.

Combine these two resumes and you’ve got 25-2 with two wins over Kansas in the Phog, a win over Xavier, St. John’s, San Diego State, Nevada, at Boston College, Northwestern (by 36!), Baylor (by 24). 

I was curious, can you get any better combination? I combined No. 1 and No. 2 Michigan State and Duke, and it gets a little funky because they played each other, but check this out:

27-2. Wins over Michigan State, Connecticut (by 20), North Carolina (by 18), Notre Dame (by 18, with a healthy Colson), Texas, Florida. 

Pretty damn close. I’d give the edge to the Arizona State/Texas Tech resume.

I wonder how much of my sound-the-alarm reaction to this Kansas team is based off traditional names. What I mean is if we were sitting here 11-3 with neutral court losses to Kentucky and Syracuse, or say those traditional powers came in and won in Allen Fieldhouse, my guess is I’d more easily justify it as losing to Top 5 / Top 10 teams.

Even Washington, granted, not nearly in the same category as the other two teams, but they’re sitting there at 11-4, all four losses against projected tournament teams.

It’s a theory worth considering, especially if you need a little pick-me-up after the Tech loss. This would explain why Kansas is still ranked No. 7 by KenPom, despite the three losses. Computers are looking purely at data, not the school name on the jersey.

Which leads to this final really optimistic thought… 

This team has secretly been through a lot of loss.

Started with Carlton Bragg who went from promising young big, to a rough sophomore season, to transfer.

Then the Dwight Coleby transfer. Here’s how much I love you as a reader, I’m dropping a Dwight Coleby Western Kentucky reference deep in a post. Coleby would have helped a lot this year backing up Udoka. He is averaging 11.7 ppg and 7.9 rpg for Western Kentucky (who you should keep an eye out for as an upset pick in March.)

Then we had the short-lived “Jack Whitman” era. Whitman wasn’t a Preston or De Sousa by any means, but he did average 10.1 ppg for William and Mary last year. He was a veteran, if nothing else would have given us another big body to throw out there. But he took an elbow to the head from Lightfoot in practice then a few weeks later decided to leave school.

And then now the Preston situation. And Cunliffe is still getting his sea legs, he’s only seen action in four games. He’s looking better, against Texas Tech he had seven points in nine minutes.

All this to say, Kansas has a pretty depleted roster and is still in the Top 25, still No. 7 in KenPom. That’s secretly pretty impressive.

IF, the big IF, the one I’ve been Googling every day, but IF we end up with both Preston and De Sousa, the depth chart suddenly looks like this:

Starting Five – Graham / Vick / Svi / Preston / Udoka

Second Five – Newman / Garrett / Cunliffe / De Sousa / Lightfoot

It’s an entirely new outlook. The biggest flaws – depth and size, both are solved. It’s like a potential fresh start at the 20 game mark.

But those are still hypotheticals. For now, Kansas needs to get better at defense, get to the line more, and start paying closer attention to detail. If they fix that, even without De Sousa and Preston, they are back to being a Sweet 16 / Elite Eight team.

With those two additions, the ceiling is raised significantly. It’s going to take time to make the pieces fit together and get some continuity, so it’s entirely possible the Jayhawks could lose their first Big 12 title in 14 years but simultaneously be building a team that has a legitimate shot at winning the national title; a trade-off we would all be willing to accept.

And this post is what being a Kansas fan is all about. Doom and gloom, this team isn’t going to be more than a No. 5 or 6 seed then 1700 words later I’ve talked myself back into the Final Four.

Hope you feel the same way!


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