That’s the best way I can describe last night’s KU-MU game. The Jayhawks just forgot to win. Of course, Mizzou had a lot to do with that, as did both Cole Aldrich and Sherron Collins operating on fumes the last four minutes. There were a few dicey calls, including a classic “Horrible Call That Only Happens When KU Goes To MU.” But those didn’t cost KU the game. They pissed away a game that was in the bag in Columbia last night mostly by themselves.
But here’s the thing: my philosophy this season has been that everything is prologue for the next couple years. This year’s squad is not going to be a Final Four contender. And while I’ve been pleased with much of their play, and their improvement over the course of the season, nothing about their play right now suggests they can get hot enough to win four straight games in the NCAAs. So some lumps, speedbumps, adversity, etc. this year is just going to make them that much better next season. And the year after that.
The lesson from last night is you can’t stop playing hard just because you have a double-digit lead in the last ten minutes. Just because you’ve been handling a team’s defensive pressure well most of the game* doesn’t mean you can ease up late in the game. And no matter how good your best players are, you can’t rely on them to score on every possession.
(Despite all the turnovers in the first 3/4 of the game, I thought KU did a great job against MU’s pressure. That’s the thing good teams do against pressure defenses: accept they’re going to turn the ball over some, but try to minimize those turnovers and be sure to capitalize when they break the pressure.)
So it’s crappy to lose to a rival, especially Mizzou, especially on Big Monday, especially when MU is having a very good season and there will be a talk show or columnist idiot or 12 who puts too much stock in one game. But, it’s all about learning. Tyshawn Taylor will not suck as much next year as he did last night.**
What I had planned for yesterday was a quick evaluation of where the team is at. As I opened this post with, my guiding principle for this year has been it’s all about building for the future. Throw in what happened last March and April, and I’ve been decidedly mellow about this team. I’ve even skipped a few games, expanding my New Fan Plan to not take things so seriously.*** So I’ll try to recreate some of what I was going to post yesterday.
(Just remind me of how I had to flee the house during the Davidson game anytime I get too proud of myself for taking basketball less seriously than I used to.)
Going into last night, I was very pleased with where the team was. They were still a work in progress. But they were a missed free throw against Syracuse**** and one awful possession against UMass away from being 21-2 and ranked in the top 10. Not necessarily one of the ten best teams in the country, but ranked that high. Really only in the Michigan State game were they outclassed, and they played excellent in the final ten minutes of that game to make it a real contest. So I liked where we were.
(I’ll be happy if we never play Syracuse again, because it’s always going to come down to KU missing free throws.)
The Big 12 schedule was perfect for a young team searching for its identity. The next four weeks are going to be tough, as last night showed, but I think they’ll have a better chance in most of those games than they would have had in January.
Despite last night, the conference title is still a reasonable goal. Given how they’ve improved over the season, it’s not out of the question to think they can go to Kansas City and win the Big 12 tournament for the fourth-straight year. Or win a few games in the NCAAs. But, they could also go 3-5 over the next month, lose in the opening rounds of both the Big 12 and NCAAs. What matters is they’ve put themselves in position to make this more than just a rebuilding year. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but they’re capable of doing the work.
Like most, I’ve been incredibly surprised and pleased with the play of Brady Morningstar. I figured he was just a placeholder, until Mario Little got healthy and the longer he was on the court, the less the chance we had of doing anything significant this year. The kid is a legit player. A morph between Jeff Boschee and Brandon Rush, with his ability to both knock down the deep jumper and defend just about any perimeter player. In many ways, he’s KU’s most important player over the first 20+ games of the year.
Mario Little has been a pleasant surprise, too. You always take Juco guys with a grain of salt, knowing that level of basketball is completely different than D1, and Juco players often bring loads of bad habits with them. Once he got on the court and acclimated, though, he’s made the team much better and tougher. He still has a lot of rust, but he also has an innate feel for the game that makes the offense work better. Plus, he can score from anywhere on the court. If he can continue to round into shape and get more comfortable in the system, he’s the guy who can take KU to the next level, which this year means a legit Sweet 16 contender. What a freaking shot to tie the game last night!
The Morris twins. I’ve probably never been so down on new players as I am on them. I hold out hope that they can get their heads together, listen to Danny Manning in practice, and fulfill their potential. But I long ago grew tired of their petulance on the court. Strike that, it gives them too much credit. They flat out play like pussies. Soft with the ball. Throwing cheap elbows and grabbing people after the whistle. Complaining about every call. These are clearly guys who have never been asked to do anything hard in their careers, and now that they’re facing challenges both on the court and from their coaches, can’t react like men. It’s one thing to be tough and throw a well-timed elbow in the heat of battle. It’s another to throw cheap shots.
I thought the T Marcus got lat night was pretty cheap. The replays made it obvious he didn’t go out of his way to run into Scott Thornley. And Thornley was looking right at him and could have avoided the collision as well. But all Marcus has to do is either take a different path to the bench, or reach out, put his arms around Thornley, and say, “My bad.” No T, they pat each other on the butt and move on. But he wasn’t even man enough to do that. Throw in the reputation he and his brother have earned this year, and the T was inevitable. And don’t get me started on their airballs from the baseline every game, weak layup attempts in traffic, and complete inability to dunk. I’ll trust that the coaching staff can get them to play smart, tough, and clean while harnessing their natural abilities. But I’m not a fan and am kind of hoping some of next year’s recruits turn them into spot minute guys.
Finally, I like the spot-up shooting that Morningstar and Tyrel Reed give the team, but they need another deep threat. Next year’s recruiting class, as currently comprised, doesn’t appear to offer that. It’s looking like we’ll have to wait two years, until Royce Woolridge arrives, to get the deadly deep threat we had in Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush last year. I’ve seen video of Woolridge, and he appears to be a phenomenal scorer. But it would be nice to have someone on next year’s team who can do that.
So that’s the state of KU basketball, from my view. A work in progress, to say the least, but moving in the right direction.