Kansas men’s basketball is experiencing unfamiliar territory from recent years, and with a six-spot drop to No. 15 in the latest AP Top 25 poll after three-straight losses, panic is starting to set in for some fans.
Kansas is 4-4 in Big 12 play for the first time since 1987-88, and has now lost 3 straight games for the first time since 2012-13. I’ll say it again and again. Jayawks just don’t have KU talent.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) January 23, 2021
Granted, the Jayhawks are historically bad this year as they’re off to the worst start through 15 games since the 2005-06 season. The 4-4 start in Big 12 play is also Kansas' worst start in conference play since the 1987-88 season.
Perspective is important, though, given it's still only January and this Kansas team still has time to figure things out.
“I don’t think [we’re] broken, but I do think we certainly need some repairing,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after the 75-68 loss to Oklahoma Saturday. “We need a new boost of energy — may need to shake things up lineup wise.
“The storybook season is done,” Self continued. “What we have to create is a storybook ending. We’re 4-4 in the league and we’ve played a heck of a schedule. It’s not lost by any stretch as far as us having a great season, but the storybook part of the season is not going to play out.”
With that being said, here are four things that we’ve learned from Kansas’ abnormal 10-5 start to the season.
Consistency is key
The Jayhawks haven’t played a solid game as a unit all season, besides maybe against TCU on Jan. 6. Inconsistent play from nearly everyone on the team — including Kansas’ five starters — has impacted the Jayhawks.
“We’ll become better through this [poor start],” Self said on his weekly "Hawk Talk" show Monday. “We will, and it will be the way that we become a team. If we’re going to become a team, now is when we’re going to do it.”
Redshirt freshman forward Jalen Wilson carried a large scoring load early in the season, averaging a team-high 15.1 points through the first 10 games. However, Wilson has since gone cold, posting 9.2 points per game over the last five contests.
This streakiness is similar for other players, including Kansas’ two best shooters: junior guard Ochai Agbaji and sophomore guard Christian Braun. When Braun and Agbaji are on, they are dangerous. But sometimes they disappear from the offense — especially Braun, who has scored in double figures just five times this season.
Junior forward David McCormack also fits this mold, but we’ll get to that. All in all, the Jayhawks just haven’t been able to put it together consistently. The offense often goes completely stagnant, and with a less talented defensive team from last year, this is not a recipe for success.
Winning the three-point battle matters
Kansas' signature win so far was its 79-65 dismantling of West Virginia at home on Dec. 22. Kansas made a season-high 16 threes on 37 shots from beyond the arc, while also dominating the paint.
But what about those five losses?
Ironically, Kansas did win the three-point margin against the two best teams scheduled — shooting 8-for-18 against No. 1 Gonzaga (6-for-18) on Nov. 26, and 10-for-19 against No. 2 Baylor (9-for-19) on Jan. 18.
In losses to Texas, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, Kansas shot an abysmal 16-for-66 (24.3%) compared to the opposition's combined 30-for-71 (42.3%) clip. Kansas shoots three-pointers at the second-best percentage (37%) in the Big 12, but is No. 7 in three-point field goal defense — allowing teams to shoot 34% from beyond the arc.
“We definitely have to guard the arc [better]," senior guard Marcus Garrett said after the loss to Oklahoma. "It kind of feels like every time we make a mistake, we pay for it. We have to talk more, we have to communicate, we have to come together on switches.”
Self also said Kansas' defensive switches haven’t been as good as expected this season. Self could potentially go back to the drawing board on how the Jayhawks defend, maybe even switching to more zone.
“When you switch a lot, you don’t have to guard actions. You don’t have to guard plays you just have to guard players,” Self said on "Hawk Talk." “Last year was an unbelievable defensive team, and we switched everything."
“This year's team is not an unbelievable defensive team, yet we are trying to play similar to what we played last year,” Self continued. “I think our inability to stay in front of the ball and still pressure is maybe our biggest weakness.”
David McCormack is the X-factor
Kansas tends to win basketball games when McCormack plays well. In the seven games he’s scored in double figures, the Jayhawks are 6-1 (granted, two of these games were against Washburn and Omaha, but the point remains).
Self said McCormack would be Kansas’ best scorer before the season started. But he struggled to start the year, scoring less than nine points in each of the first three games.
His first solid outing came against Washburn (17 points and six rebounds), followed by another strong performance against then-No. 8 Creighton (13 points, seven rebounds). Shortly after, McCormack averaged 20.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks during a three-game stretch against TCU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
However, the Norfolk, Virginia, native has hit another rough patch as of late, playing less than 20 minutes in each of Kansas' last two games with a combined 15 points. McCormack also found himself in foul trouble against Baylor on Jan. 18.
Redshirt senior forward Mitch Lightfoot may see more playing time if McCormack gets in early foul trouble — which he's already been tasked with at certain points this season — but Kansas needs McCormack at his best to be an elite team.
McCormack is the X-factor, and he can elevate this team back into the Final Four conversation with his play.
Lineup changes may be on the horizon
Self made it clear after Kansas' loss to Oklahoma: the Jayhawks need some sort of change.
“I think it's time to go back to the practice board in terms of who plays,” Self said. “You go into a season and you want there to be five starters, and you want there to be a little separation between your starters and your bench — and there has been for the most part this year.
“[Our starters have] been too inconsistent of late. We just need something to stir it up,” Self continued. “I don’t know what that will be yet.”
One solution to this problem would be to start redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris. With him at point guard, Garrett is allowed to play more of an off-ball role and play more like he did last year.
Self previously said he may have tasked Garrett with a lot of responsibilities, which has led to fatigue. Harris could help with this a lot.
But then the question is, who do you move out of the starting five? To me, it has to be Braun. It’s not that he isn’t a solid player, his role just may need some revising.
Similar to last season when Kansas used Isaiah Moss off the bench as a scorer, Braun could easily fit into this role. Sliding Braun to the bench may be exactly what the Jayhawks need.
That would leave Agbaji, Wilson and McCormack in the starting five with Harris and Garrett. When freshman guard Bryce Thompson is healthy, Kansas will then have an additional ball handler off the bench, paired with sophomore forward Tristan Enaruna and Lightfoot. And again, a solid shooter/scorer in Braun.
Whatever Self has up his sleeve, it's clear Kansas needs new direction. With 11 regular season games left on the schedule, the Jayhawks still have a long way to go to find out who they are and become the best version of themselves.
“I am very optimistic that this team can have a very successful and potentially storybook ending," Self said after the game Saturday. "We have to do some soul searching, look in the mirror and find out ‘Hey, just what do we really need to do and commit to for us to be the best we can be.’”