Jayhawks must find way to do one thing that’s eluded ’em all year: Finish

The Kansas Jayhawks enter the final stretch of the regular season with a half-game lead in the Big 12 standings. 

Scott Sewell/Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Meet the new flaws, same as the old flaws. Opponents don’t fear the paint against Kansas — Kansas State went 12 for 19 on two-pointers in the second half Monday night, before court storming stole the headlines — while coach Bill Self’s Jayhawks, paradoxically, continue to treat the dish as if it’s covered in peanut butter and radioactive waste.

KU converts 56.6 percent of its shots at the rim as a team, according to Hoop-Math.com, good for No. 238 out of 351 Division I programs. Now, by the same token, KU opponents are making only 51.0 percent of their shots at the rim, which is 25th nationally, and the kind of thing you can hang your hat on in March.

Except that the opposition is also taking 34.4 percent of its shots at the rim. As recently as two seasons ago, the count was just 28.4 percent. And 26.0 the winter before that.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying, again — as the Big 12 race hits the stretch run with No. 8 Kansas (22-6, 11-4 league) at the head of a four-team dogfight with Iowa State, Oklahoma and West Virginia at the top — that Perry Ellis  (47 points over his last two games) could use a little, um, help.

"We put ourselves," Self said late Monday night after his Jayhawks saw their Big 12 lead dwindle to just a half-game over the Cyclones, "in a tough position."

It’s a long grind, and February tends to be longer and grindier than at any point in the campaign, granted. And yet the most damning thing you could say about the Jayhawks, at present, is that they look largely unchanged from mid-December or even early January: Tough as nails at home, mercurial away from it, and a mess of hot garbage underneath the basket.

The combination of which, on paper, does not portend well for March, where the bunnies KU misses with an almost stunning regularity take on added weight, added gravitas.

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Which, if you’re Self, goes back to that ol’ fork in the road, the one he hates:

a. Say, "To hell with it," and take more 3-pointers, truly invest in the wing strengths that you have on hand, no matter how abhorrent you find it, or

b. Double down on the system, use the inside to set up the outside, and trust that more than one inside threat (Ellis) somehow gets hot and somehow becomes viable in a one-and-done scenario.

Given a choice, we know which fork most KU fans would take. Especially considering how much option "b" has played on their collective blood pressure.

If K-State coach Bruce Weber misjudged or mishandled his backcourt, then Self is guilty of doing the same with his big men — or lack thereof. It’s to the point now where Jayhawk fans — and, indeed, the KU coaches — are left with picking and choosing the lesser of several evils.

Jamari Traylor will leave life and limb on the floor but still lacks offensive polish. Cliff Alexander has the smoother scoring game, but defensively, it appears, at times, as if events are moving too fast to process. And a lost, two-game, extended weekend stretch versus TCU and K-State wasn’t kind to him: 21 minutes played, one for five from the floor, two points, six rebounds, seven personal fouls.

From there, the alternatives start to nose-dive: Landen Lucas often shoots awkwardly; Hunter Mickelson sometimes runs awkwardly. And so on.

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So, after the Jayhawks successfully dodged rims during the game and unsuccessfully dodged several thousands of Kansas State fans afterward, the spotlight shifts back to Lawrence with a very serious question:

What now?

"The league is a monster," Self continued. "It’s not embarrassing to lose on the road. We have a pretty good team, but we also do not have a margin for error to not be our best when we’re playing other good teams. It’s not surprising to lose some games in a league this competitive.

"Now, with the league race, there are basically four teams that are still in it. The team that plays the best in the last two weeks will have the best chance, and we have not played well in the last couple weeks."

In Self’s defense, we’ve seen these lulls before. We’re on the closing kick of the dog days of the college basketball season, the darkness before all eyes shift to Bracketville.

Of Self’s 35 Big 12 losses over a dozen seasons with the Jayhawks, 23 of them — 65.7 percent — have occurred in the month of February. That includes three of four league losses to date this winter, making this just the fourth Self team to suffer more than two Big 12 setbacks during the second month of the calendar year.

If you’re curious, here’s how the other three fared:

• 2003-04: Finished tied for second in the Big 12, 1-1 at Big 12 tourney (eliminated by Texas), 3-1 in NCAA Tournament (eliminated by Georgia Tech in regional final).

•2004-05: Finished tied for first in the Big 12, 1-1 at Big 12 tourney (eliminated by Oklahoma State), 0-1 in NCAA Tournament (eliminated by Bucknell in first round).

• 2012-13: Finished tied for first in the Big 12, won Big 12 tourney (3-0), 2-1 in NCAA Tournament (eliminated by Michigan in the regional semifinal).

Consensus: A tie for first two out of three times, an average of 1.7 wins at the Big 12 tourney (and one league tourney title) and, most important, an average of 1.7 wins in the Big Dance. Which, at this point, sounds about right. Maybe even a tad optimistic.

"There’s no margin for error," Ellis said. "And we have to take each game like it’s the last game we ever play."

If there is a silver lining, it’s that two of the last three regular-season dates are in Lawrence, where the fortress feeling has rarely been stronger and the home team is 7-0 against Big 12 opponents. Allen Fieldhouse might be enough, all by its magic, historic self, to keep the conference title streak alive — or a share of it, at the least.

But what happens outside the venerable walls? What happens on March 7 in Norman, with all the marbles likely still on the table?

"Yeah, it’s definitely a race," Traylor offered late last week. "But I feel like our destiny is in our own hands."

Not entirely, though. And now the Jayhawks, ironically enough, are left to lean on the one trait that has eluded them all season: Finishing strong.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter at @SeanKeeler or email him at seanmkeeler@gmail.com.