Tonight the Kansas Jayhawks officially begin pursuit of their 10th straight Big 12 conference championship. Despite an immensely talented roster, that quest seems rife with concern at the moment.
There’s no denying it: the season has been disappointing so far. Disappointing, not a disappointment. While it’s been far from worst-case – the Duke and Georgetown games were fun – I think this season has been a textbook example of the perils of running a team full of freshmen and limited experience sophomores out against tough competition.
Take Sunday’s loss to San Diego State, for example. KU played awful on offense much of the day. They had no business being in the game late, yet they made some big plays on defense, labored through on offense, and cut an 11-point deficit down to 1 with seconds to play. They could have been tied, or even ahead, were it not for the continuing refusal to block out Aztec players and SDSU scoring most of their late points on put-backs and second-chance opportunities. I think a team full of juniors and seniors wouldn’t have made those mistakes.1
That’s just one example. To me, it’s not so much whether some of the incoming players were over-hyped by the recruiting gurus, the media, and fans once they committed to KU. Rather, the struggles this year are all about having a roster of clueless young pups with no anchor to settle them down. There’s no Travis Releford, no Jeff Withey, no Sherron Collins. No older, steady guys who helped freshmen of the past settle in.
Unfortunately the team also lacks solid point guard play and the guys recruited to be shooters can’t get on the court. I think those are the two biggest long-term impediments to another Big 12 title and a deep run in March.
But a quick look at some individuals.
- Andrew Wiggins. Yes, he’s not lived up to the hype. Yes, he’s not even been as good, consistently, as Ben McLemore or Xavier Henry. But he’s still been the best player on the team. He’s become very good on the defensive end. You can tell he’s getting more comfortable. He just needs a few outside shots to fall and his stats would look better. He also needs a point guard who can get him the ball in position to score. The four losses are not on him. I’ve heard some suggestions that KU should skip guys like Wiggins in the future. Those people are insane. By every account, Wiggins has been great off-the-court. He hasn’t pouted on the court. And, remember, he was a May signee. If Bill Self had lost his mind and said, “Sorry, Andrew, we’re not interested in you playing for us,” there was no other player out there KU could have signed who would have started this season. KU would have more losses without Wiggins than they have with him.
Joel Embiid. Kind of funny how, after the summer of Wiggins hype, there is a freshman on the team who is doing ridiculous things every game that we’ve never seen before. It’s just Embiid instead of Wiggins who has us in awe. I’m totally in love with this kid. There aren’t that many 7-footers out there anymore who aren’t plodders. Jojo isn’t just a throw-back to the glory days of the 7-foot anchor. He’s a ridiculously talented guy who you never know what will do next. I wish Wiggins could stay more than one year. I’m down right mad Embiid is going to be playing in the NBA next year. We won’t see a guy like him in a KU uniform again for ages.
Wayne Selden. A definite disappointment. He was supposed to be a tough, athletic guy to throw on the opposite wing of Wiggins. Or, perhaps, a lock-down defender who could give the opposing point guard fits. He’s not been good anywhere yet. He seems best suited to being the emotional center of this team. I think he’s going to settle in eventually, which could do wonders for the rest of the team.
Bill Self is a great recruiter. He’s consistently missed, though, on point guards in recent years. That really shows this season. Elijah Johnson was not a true point, but he was big and athletic, something Self’s best teams have always had. Naadir Tharpe and Frank Mason are both smallish, not super fast, and struggle to get to the rim. Neither has shot well, either, allowing defenders to sag off them. This team would be much better if it had a Tyshawn Taylor-type running the point who pushed tempo, took the ball to the rim constantly, and was throwing lobs from all over the place. Which is ironic since Taylor took all kinds of grief, not entirely undeserved, during his four years at KU. Now we want him back.
Andrew White III, Brannen Greene, and Conner Frankamp are all supposed to be great shooters. They can’t get on the court to prove it. Which is a shame, as none of the starters have done a thing from beyond the arc. Point guard play and outside shooting, more than Wiggins et al not living up to the hype, will be the reason this team doesn’t make a deep run in March. Sadly, KU’s Big 12 schedule is a beast up-front, so I don’t see any of these guys getting more than a handful of minutes unless someone really flips a switch in practice and carries that over to games.
KU has been incredibly fortunate in recent years, postponing rebuilding years several times. Sherron Collins refused to allow 2009 to be a rebuilding year. The Morrii kept 2011 from being a rebuilding year. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor kept 2012 from being a rebuilding year. Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore kept last year from being a rebuilding year.
The hope was that Andrew Wiggins would keep this year from being a rebuilding year. And maybe he still will. I’m not writing the season off just yet. This team will still make the NCAA tournament, assuming they avoid a disaster of some sort. They might even be a top-four seed if they can fix some things. But I think Wiggins’ and Embiid’s true impacts will be disguising that this is, indeed, a rebuilding year for KU.
KU fans needs to quit whining that Wiggins is not the next Kevin Durant or Michael Beasley, which were unrealistic comparisons to begin with. Instead, enjoy him while he’s here. Because after he’s been in the NBA a couple years and developed into a very good, maybe even great, player, he’ll be announced as having come from the University of Kansas.
It’s also a good moment to scale back the expectations for the team. Maybe they can out-slug Baylor, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State and win another Big 12 title. You generally have a decent idea of a team’s identity and what they’re capable of by mid-January. As they play now, the Jayhawks aren’t good enough team to challenge that group for the Big 12 title. They have some great parts. But until those parts perform consistently, and are in synch, I think they’re going to take some more lumps in the conference schedule.
I’m going to keep watching, though. Embiid will continue to make me laugh with joy a couple times a game. Wiggins will show sparks, and dominate a few games before the year is over. There will be nights Perry Ellis is unstoppable. Naadir Tharpe gets hot from deep a couple times a month, which opens things up all over the court. I have a feeling Wayne Selden and Brannen Greene will have a couple games where everything clicks and they make us say, “That’s what we’ve been expecting!”
In other words, it might be a (slightly) down year, but…
Rock Chalk, bitches.
- By the way, I loved watching San Diego State. LOVED them. They are a modern take on my favorite college basketball lineup: a bunch of long, athletic, interchangeable parts who play really hard, and play really smart, too. They remind me of an updated, less heralded version of the 1989 Illinois team. Steve Fisher, one of the all-time underrated coaches, has a top ten recruiting class coming in next year. He’s building something terrific down there. ↩