The patient is happy but flawed, and will now undergo something like experimental surgery.
The Kansas basketball team is in a strange place, and like most problems the program has ever had, these are high-class problems. But that doesn’t mean these aren’t problems.
KU won a game against a very good team at the Sprint Center on Saturday, 63-60 over No. 13 Utah in what could perhaps be best described as The Full Jayhawk Experience.
The Jayhawks won because of their strengths: defense, teamwork, and toughness.
They nearly blew a 21-point lead because of one glaring weakness: They can’t score.
“Our team is different than any team we’ve had since I’ve been here,” says Bill Self, in his 12th season coaching at KU. “We don’t throw it to the post and score.”
That’s always been the Jayhawks’ safety blanket. As much as the program’s ridiculous 10-year chokehold on at least a share of the Big 12 championship has been about Self’s brilliance and Allen Fieldhouse’s ferocity and a long line of talented players, one of the foundations has been the ability to throw the ball to a tall man near the basket and end up with points.
That’s not true this year. Perry Ellis is better facing the basket. Jamari Traylor isn’t skilled enough. Cliff Alexander isn’t either, at least not yet.
The Jayhawks made just 41.9 percent of their shots Saturday, which is actually their best mark in four games. They’re shooting 43 percent inside the 3-point line, which would be the worst that Self has had.
They are ranked 10th in the country and haven’t lost since that mismatch against Kentucky, and regardless of what happens in the conference season, wins against Utah, Georgetown, Michigan State, Tennessee and Florida will help their case for NCAA Tournament seeding.
But the standards are higher at Kansas, and the scoring problem is only going to be more exposed in what looks to be a deep and tight race for the Big 12 championship.
Wayne Selden has the talent and skills to score and help others score, but has so far played mostly under expectations. The same is true about freshman Kelly Oubre, though he scored nine points in his best game. Kansas will need more from both of them.
But either way, the combination of a glaring weakness and news that freshman point guard Devonte’ Graham may miss the entire season because of a toe injury means the Jayhawks must change who they are midstride in a way that Self has rarely if ever done. Combined with the surprise transfer of Conner Frankamp, this isn’t the team they expected to have.
Self’s teams usually get points in transition, and off defense. That hasn’t happened as much this season, and Graham’s injury means Frank Mason — by far KU’s best player in creating baskets in transition — may wear down playing 36 minutes or so every game.
The lack of low-post scoring means the way Self has typically coached offense with this team is like having a spoon and needing a knife.
Usually, this is the time of year Self and his assistants have identified their team’s strengths and spend the bulk of practice time improving them. This year, Self and his assistants will have to be creative to find new strengths.
Evan Manning will play, for starters, and Self says he’s thought of using Traylor sort of like a backup point guard. He first mentioned that in a room full of reporters, and the reaction was such that he had to clarify — “I’m dead serious.”
The idea isn’t to have Traylor bring the ball up the floor, but rather to help initiate offense away from the basket. He’s quicker than any defender likely to guard him, so he wouldn’t be pressured, and it would also help clear space for guys like Mason, Selden and Oubre to drive to the basket.
Generating offense from the perimeter is how most college teams have to get by, of course, so this isn’t drastic. And at least by appearance and reputation, the Jayhawks have the pieces to make this work.
They are better than they were a year ago at this time — though without the upside of having two of the first three picks in the draft — and are already armed with a lot of traits other coaches bust veins to cultivate.
This is a group that plays well together and for each other, for the most part. Their focus goes in and out, but that could be said about a lot of college kids, basketball players or not.
They are likely to face a big challenge in the conference. Texas is ranked eighth and played Kentucky much closer than Kansas. But there is also depth in the league, at least it seems that way, with No. 14 Iowa State, No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 22 West Virginia. Self and a tremendous home-court advantage will help, but KU has some changing and improving to do.
Saturday was a happy day, at the end. Utah doesn’t have the brand recognition of some, but the Utes have a senior who will play in the NBA and a win over Wichita State. Beating a team like that, even in a pseudo home game, is a season highlight.
When it was all over, they swarmed to Brannen Greene. Once the final second went off the clock and these young men had avoided — finally — blowing the biggest lead in the long and proud history of their program they smiled and screamed and hugged around Greene, who walked over to the handshake line waving the wheat with his fans.
It was a nice moment for KU, which has come a very long way in the 25 days since being blown out by Kentucky.
But in so many ways, the real work starts now.