KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Forcing low-percentage shots? That part, Bill Self likes. It’s when those so-called low-percentage shots hit the medium- and high-percentage club that his blood pressure heads straight for the moon.
“It’s just that it all comes down to this,” the Jayhawks coach chuckled after No. 10 Kansas survived Oregon State, 84-78, Friday night in downtown Kansas City. “They guard the guy with the ball better than we guard their guy with the ball.
“You guys remember (former Oklahoma State football coach) Pat Jones. He used to say, ‘Hey, hey, they were getting our guy, we weren’t getting their guy.’ That’s basically what it was. We could not guard No. 3. Period.”
No. 3 in this case would be Beavers guard Ahmad Starks, who lit the Jayhawks up for 25 points, connecting on 7 of 13 shots from beyond the arc — there were some video-game shots, too, usually launched off a high screen and a heave — and generally driving Self up a Sprint Center wall.
“He wasn’t too happy with us,” senior guard Travis Releford said of his coach’s halftime demeanor. “He just told us there were things we need to work on to get better — finishing games, closing out halves.”
Recognizing shooters is probably on that short list, too. Through their first seven games, the Jayhawks have already watched an opposing player net 19 points or more on five different occasions. To put that number into context, over the final seven contests of last season’s historic run to the national championship game, it only happened three times.
“All they did was run a high-ball screen for 18 minutes at the end,” Self groused. “We couldn’t guard ’em. We couldn’t guard ’em.”
Granted, it’s early — November is to basketball’s calendar what April is to baseball’s — there’s a long way to go yet, and panic buttons are best saved for Valentine’s Day. But one month in, this much is clear: While this Kansas team isn’t saddled with too many weaknesses, defensively, they’ve got a ways to go.
“I’m really proud of my team, and it’s hard to say that … I always use this term: ‘It’s like kissing your sister when you lose a game and you say it was a good experience,'” said Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, whose sister, Michelle, just happens to be the First Lady. “I mean, that doesn’t mean anything in this business. You’ve got to win the game, and you’ve got to do the things you need to do to win the game.”
And yet the Beavers never blinked, despite coping with the presence of All-world center Jeff Withey in the paint, a shot-blocking, morale-killing machine who effectively serves the same purpose that a healthy Darrelle Revis does in the secondary, cutting the playing field in half.
For Self, it’s the non-Withey half — the perimeter, the arc, the wings — that’s showing signs of leakage. Oregon State’s 78 points were the most allowed by a Kansas team since a loss to Baylor in the Big 12 tournament semis here in March.
“We wanted to put pressure on their guards, because those are good guys,” offered Starks, a 5-foot-9 slinger who came into Friday averaging 14.6 points per contest. “We wanted to kind of tire them out and get them in foul trouble.”
The Beavers managed to tick both boxes, much to the chagrin of a loud, testy crowd of Jayhawk partisans. Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson played only 28 minutes, took four shots, scored just six points and turned the ball over four times. Self said he came in nursing a sore knee, an injury that’s made him less aggressive and more wary to crash the lane. Nor did it help that the senior suffered a nasty spill near the baseline with 2:58 left, taking a hard foul under the basket that sent him careening to the floor.
This was in the middle of a 13-0 Oregon State run, a stretch that turned a 37-24 contest into a tie game with 2:18 left in the first period. Self was so cheesed off that he brought freshman Evan Manning, son of Danny, off the bench to try and stem the tide defensively.
“They were bringing guys that we probably barely scouted,” Starks said, “so my job was just to pressure them and try to make it difficult for them to bring the ball up at the end of the half.”
In addition to Starks’ 3-point barrage, Oregon State forced Kansas into 17 turnovers and went to the free-throw line 26 times, both new season highs for a Jayhawk dance partner. And there goes Self’s blood pressure again.
“I guarantee you, we lead the country in 3-point plays (against), there’s no question,” the coach said. “We foul so soft. We just don’t play real smart.”
Still, a dumb win is a win nonetheless. It might not have felt like kissing your sister, but for Jayhawk fans, that sure has heck beats the alternative.