Perhaps THE thing that has set Kansas apart and made their Big 12 success so consistent in the Bill Self era is their ability to avoid losing streaks. Lose one? They almost always win the next. On the rare occasions they lose back-to-back games, a win in the third is about as easy money as you can find. There might be momentary panic among the fanbase after a loss. But normally that is quickly quashed.
Today, though? I’m not so sure.
Suddenly the Jayhawks are in the midst of a three-game losing streak, with no easy wins in sight.
Jalen Wilson has been fantastic, on as hot of a streak as any KU player since at least Paul Pierce in 1998 if not Danny Manning in 1988, averaging a hair over 30 ppg over the last week. I’m wondering, though, if that’s kind of the plan against KU: let J-Will get his and make sure no one else goes off.
If so, it has worked pretty well.
Since halftime of the game in Manhattan, it’s as though KJ Adams suddenly remembered that he is KJ Adams and has kind of stunk. Kevin McCullar has looked thoroughly shook. Although he had 14 points and 12 rebounds last night, he still had some really bad moments.
We saw signs of life from Gradey Dick. He was only 2–5 from 3, but he was finally aggressive in getting to the rim again and dropped a game-high 24. If he can get people to even halfway respect his shot fakes and drives, that should give him space to get a couple more good looks per game. Which opens things up for his teammates.
DaJuan Harris? Yikes. He hasn’t been the same since he smacked his head on the Bramlage Coliseum floor. He somehow was only charged with four turnovers last night, but it seemed like more. Several of those were just bad decisions/plays, not the product of good Baylor defense. He’s not getting to the rim as often, either, and when he does he seems more interested in passing out than trying to get a shot off or seek a foul. He went through a phase like this last year, but that was more survivable since he was surrounded with better, or more consistent at least, scorers. There’s less room for error this year, especially from him.
Monday night in Waco was frustrating because KU did a lot wrong, and still did enough right to make two big runs in the second half, briefly taking the lead midway through. But in each of those moments, it was little mistakes by KU that gave Baylor back the momentum. Bad passes. The inability to hold onto a ball that hit them in the hands. Getting beat and being forced to foul on drives. All little things that add up quickly on the road against a very good team.
My random, postgame, half-assed theory is that KJ Adams’ development in December may have actually hurt the Jayhawks long term. He was great for 5–6 weeks, meaning Self had no reason to give any of the other bigs meaningful minutes. Zuby Ejiofor and Ernest Udeh might get a look here and there, but as soon as they missed a defensive rotation or blew up a play on offense, Self would sit them down.
Now, when defenses are taking away what made KJ successful during that stretch, his lack of size becomes a real problem. But Self doesn’t trust Ejiofor or Udeh to come in for more than spot duty. KU really needed a longer player on the court in each of the three losses. Had those freshmen played more minutes in December, would Self have the trust to play them more now?
The answer to that question is always “Well, he sees them in practice and we don’t, and they obviously aren’t doing enough there to warrant the minutes.” I just wish Zuby and/or Ernest did enough of something – rebounding, blocking shots, playing solid D – to get on the court for 5–10 minutes a night and force teams to deal with their size.
Of course the real source of angst among KU fans isn’t losing at Baylor. It’s getting waxed at home by TCU Saturday. I kind of saw that coming – I warned you that TCU was the worst matchup in the league for KU because of their size and speed – but I did not expect such a thorough ass kicking. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an opposing team go on a 19–0 run in Allen Fieldhouse before.
In my personal preseason rankings, I had KU third in the Big 12, behind Texas and Baylor. Baylor and KU have both suffered through three-game losing streaks. TCU lost three of four. The league is so tough there’s no reason to think that the other contenders won’t go through similar spells. The Ken Pomeroy prediction for the Big 12 currently has a four-way tie for first at 11–7 with two teams at 10–8. The challenge for KU is can they get their issues figured out so they can stay in that top six.
I’m not the first person to think about this, but over the past week I’ve been considering losing streaks in the era of NIL. What happens when a kid who is making money to play in college isn’t performing well, or his team is losing, or he’s just sick of his coach’s BS? Are they more likely to look for their own at the expense of the team, to mentally check out, or even flat-out quit? I think most kids who earn a big NIL deal have enough built-in pride where that won’t be a factor. But I hate how that’s in my mind now.
Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis shared a message he received from a “fan” a couple weeks back, calling him out for his play and using NIL as a specific argument for how he didn’t stack up to the legends of IU who came before him. I doubt he is the only one getting those messages.
Players like Jackson-Davis, who is making well into six figures this season, don’t deserve pity. However, when they have track records of playing hard, they also don’t deserve to have their motivation questioned when they go through a cold spell.
Every January KU goes through a rough stretch. Now it isn’t always losing three (or more) straight, obviously. But it is a rite of passage this time of year for KU fans to rip on the team, bemoan the recruits we missed out on, and start wondering about who will fill those holes for next season. Bill Self usually figures out a way to get KU right again. The path is certainly tougher this year.
A week ago some KU fans were suggesting this year’s squad was/could be better than last season’s national champs. Now I think most of us are wondering if they aren’t more analogous to the 2020–21 team. That team also had a three-game losing streak and ended the year getting humbled by USC in the round of 32. At least for today that seems like an apt comparison.