Stretches of passionless play plague Jayhawks in rocky Big 12 start
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- There are only a handful of schools in major college basketball that would consider three losses in a five-game stretch -- two of them to highly ranked opponents -- as reason for concern.
One of those schools happens to be Kansas.
"Three weeks ago we were the No. 1-ranked team in the country. This week the sky is falling, I know that," said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, whose team has lost games at West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Iowa State around home victories against TCU and Texas.
He was being facetious, of course. The fourth-ranked Jayhawks (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) are still only one game behind Oklahoma, Baylor and West Virginia in the conference race. And with wins over the Sooners and Bears in hand, it's not as if their streak of 11 straight league titles is guaranteed to end.
But those three defeats, all on the road by double digits, have unearthed a number of cracks in a team that became a popular Final Four choice after its triple-overtime victory over the top-ranked Sooners.
Their guard play has been erratic, at times phenomenal and other times turnover-prone. The Jayhawks committed 22 turnovers in their loss to the Mountaineers, and 16 more in their loss to the Cyclones. Their post play has been constantly in flux, too. Five guys have taken a shot at nailing down the fifth starter spot, and only Landen Lucas has succeeded in gripping it with his little finger.
Perhaps most vexing for Self is not turnovers or missed shots or poor execution, or shortcomings of any particular player. Rather, it is something that has rarely been a problem at Kansas and doesn't show up in box scores: The team goes through long stretches of passionless play.
"If you really studied our team, we have some emotionless-type personalities," Self said, mentioning as examples arguably his three best players in Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Frank Mason III.
"Those guys don't exert energy from an emotional standpoint. It doesn't mean they don't play hard, but sometimes those things are contagious and run through their team," Self said. "It's an ongoing issue."
Whether it was the 2008 national title team of Mario Chalmers, Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush, or the 2012 national runner-team of Tyshawn Taylor, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks have always had a vocal leader. And usually, that vocal leader had a natural predisposition to get in someone else's grill, ratcheting up the intensity even if it might lead to some uncomfortable moments.
"I'd love to see personality. That's one thing we've always tried to do," Self said. "We're a pretty buttoned-down group for the most part, and that's fine. But one thing we've always encouraged our guys is let their personalities show. ... I don't think we've done a great job of that of late."
There are players on the team with personality, whether it's shooting guard Devonte Graham's ever-present smile or the constant hustle of forwards Cheick Diallo and Jamari Traylor. But most coaches would agree that emotional leadership is most effective when it comes from a team's best players.
That would be Selden, Ellis and Mason.
"Wayne Selden, he fits that profile," freshman forward Carlton Bragg said. "We need the leadership from him, with that profile, just having him on the court when things go wrong."
Lucas acknowledged that energy has been lacking the past few weeks. It could be the hangover from that epic game against Oklahoma, or the constant grind of the Big 12, but the junior forward hasn't been able to pinpoint why things have been such a struggle.
"We come out in games and it seems like we have energy and we're ready to play," he said. "I don't know if it's mental fatigue or whatnot, but we really have to get excited to play again."
It should help to have No. 20 Kentucky visiting Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday night.
"It couldn't come at a better time," Lucas said of the Big 12-SEC Challenge matchup. "It gets our focus off the league race. We can just go out there and play, and being at home helps. A game at home always helps. I know everybody will be ready to play."