LAWRENCE — Of all the languages to learn, that of the body may be the most difficult to interpret.
Yet at any given moment of any basketball game, where emotions are clearly evident on the faces of those playing, assumptions are made regarding body language.
Coaches get involved. They must to understand the mindset of players.
Bill Self is no different. After No. 12 Kansas outlasted Iowa State 83-78 on Tuesday, the Jayhawks coach acknowledged that some of his players have difficulty blocking out mistakes.
“We have some mood swings with our other players,” said Self, “and that’s got to be eliminated or you’re never going to max out.”
Those reactions, sometimes reflected in expressions, stem from the very things Self must harp on in practice and during games.
Poor rebounding, difficulty getting to the foul line, failure to limit drives and a tendency to settle for 3-pointers were all issues KU dealt with again against ISU before improving to 13-3 overall and 3-1 in the Big 12.
The Jayhawks attempted a whopping 36 3-pointers, the most ever by KU in a conference game. Included was a school-record 23 in the first half — all launched before sophomore center Udoka Azubuike attempted something easier from point-blank range.
KU also made just five free throws, was outrebounded by 10 boards and allowed 13 layups.
Yes, the Jayhawks won. But again, they were left with much to address and moreover, much to think about it. Especially since Iowa State remains the only winless team left in Big 12 play.
The outcome calls into question KU’s streak of conference titles and whatever pressure its still-thin squad feels to preserve that run, while seemingly incapable of administering a blowout.
Yet the opportunity presented before any home crowd in Allen Fieldhouse, Self said, should loosen the free minds he wants his players to exhibit.
“I would think it would be harder for Devonte’(Graham) and Svi (Mykhailiuk) to be geeked up than it would be a young kid,” Self said of his two senior guards.
Younger players, however, do not show the same excitement generally.
“We can do a better job of playing to that,” Self said. “I think we play cool too often, and I don’t know if that’s intentionally, but I think it’s their personality.”
There was a breakthrough for one of KU’s first-year contributors against Iowa State. A career-best 27 points could build momentum for sophomore Malik Newman, who has looked as pained as any of the Jayhawks at times by his performances.
Two plays in particular were encouraging. In the first half, Newman lost his shoe and was slow to get back to defend transition off a turnover, but recovered to block a shot. In the second half, Newman snagged a rebound, then came down and popped a 3-pointer.
“It feels good,” Newman said. “Coach and others have put pressure on me to be aggressive, play my game and be myself. I tried to come out and do that.”
Ahh, but he conceded that frightful word. Pressure.
Some of the Jayhawks seem to be feeling it. Mistakes, however, must continue to be addressed, particularly when classes are not yet in session and there is more time to practice.
“We’ve watched a lot of tape here lately and it’s a little disappointing that we haven’t gotten any better,” Self said. “Attitudes are so much a part of it and I thought for the most part, I’d say five out of the eight (rotation players) had winning attitudes (against ISU). But we’ve got to have all eight going forward.”
Even then, any and all body language will be subject to translation.
Kevin Haskin is a sports reporter/columnist for The Topeka Capital-Journal