Yes, I already know what you’re thinking.
Are we really going to hit the panic button and wonder what is wrong with a team that is 11-3, ranked 7th in KenPom, and is in the top 20 in offensive and defensive efficiency?
That’s a fair question, but given the context of Kansas’ current situation, there is absolutely reason for concern. The Jayhawks have lost twice at Allen Fieldhouse already this season. Kansas hadn’t lost twice at the Phog since 2006 and still has nine more games in that building this season, including six against top 40 KenPom teams. The Jayhawks also lost a “home” game played in Kansas City to a pedestrian Washington team. Kansas hasn’t lost three home games in one season since 1999!
We’re talking about a school that has reached the top 10 of the AP Poll each of the last 12 seasons. In fact, the Jayhawks have been ranked in the top 10 for at least a week in 28 of the last 29 seasons (and in the missing season in that stat, Kansas peaked at #12). Kansas has reached the top 17 in the AP Poll each of the last 35 years, and only been excluded from the final, end-of-season edition of the poll three of those 35 seasons. In the 17 years of Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, Kansas has averaged a final ranking of 6.93 and has never finished outside the top 18.
Kansas has been a one or two seed in March each of the last eight years and hasn’t been seeded lower than third since 2007 and lower than fourth since 2000.
This is not just any program. The school has had eight head coaches since 1898 and only one has a losing record: Dr. James Naismith, WHO INVENTED THE SPORT. Kansas is as bulletproof as any program in college basketball. It’s failures as notable as Duke, North Carolina, or any other school in America.
My point here is simple. For almost anyone, three total losses by January 4 is not big deal. For Kansas, this is a crisis. We should note than being concerned is not the same as losing hope. This is a team that does a lot of things really well and has some really good players. Kansas beat Texas in Austin and Kentucky on a neutral floor. The Jayhawks shoot the 5th best effective field goal percentage in Division I and feature three high volume shooters making at least 44 percent of their three-point attempts.
Bill Self’s team is highly capable of success on the offensive end. That success is driven by the play of point guard Devonte’ Graham. The Preseason Big XII Player of the Year is averaging 18 points and 8 assists per game. He is one of college basketball’s most seasoned and trustworthy point guards. To date this season though, the Kansas offense has become one dimensional. No team in the Big XII conference scores more of its points outside the arc than Kansas. Graham attempts 7.5 threes per game himself. Sviatoslav Mykhialiuk adds in 7.4 more, with Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman contributing 4.4 and 4.3 attempts per game, respectively. That’s a ton of three-point attempts that haven’t been balanced by attacks at the basket.
Kansas ranks dead last in the nation in free throw rate. The Jayhawks attempt just one free throw for every five field goals they hoist. Compare that to Arizona State, who beat Kansas this season, which shoots half as many free throws as field goals. In fact, Kansas also ranks dead last nationally in the percentage of points coming from the charity stripe and just 10.9 percent.
Some of that problem is simply due to the personnel on the Kansas roster. Graham is more comfortable playing outside the arc. He shoots 60 percent of his shots from outside and just 18 percent at the rim. Compare those numbers to Graham’s former backcourt mate and last season’s National Player of the Year, Frank Mason, who shot 35 percent of his attempts from outside and 37 percent at the rim. Graham is the only Big XII player averaging more than 17.5 points per game while shooting less than 4.5 free throws per game this season. Ironically, of the Jayhawks’ leading scorers, Graham is reaching the free throw line the most frequently! Lagerald Vick’s free throw rate of 14.0 sits at less than half the national average (33.9 this season). Svi Mykhialiuk, meanwhile, has launched 1o3 threes this season and only attempted 17 foul shots all season. He joins just 13 other shooters taking more than 7 outside shots and under 1.5 free throws per game, a group which Mykhialiuk leads in scoring.
Those three players lead Kansas in scoring and make up almost half of Bill Self’s tight seven man rotation. Only eight teams feature bench players for a lower percentage of possible minutes than Kansas this season. The forward and center positions of the roster have been decimated by the loss (?) of freshman Billy Preston. The top level recruit crashed an SUV in a single car accident just before the season began. The coaching staff made the decision to sit Preston until there was a better understanding of who owned that car and how Preston found himself driving it. You can connect the dots for yourself. It was likely a smart decision for the program’s long-term health, considering the FBI is more present in college basketball this year than it was in the third act of The Wolf of Wall Street. Keep in mind, Kansas is an Adidas sponsored program.
Preston is joined in NCAA limbo by freshman big man Silvio De Sousa, who recently joined the team after finishing his academic requirements at high school/athlete factory IMG Academy. Self admitted that De Sousa’s case will take a few weeks for the NCAA to finalize before he’s allowed to play, and even then the young freshman won’t be ready for game action.
In Preston’s absence, Kansas has had trouble in the frontcourt. Big men Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot are the only Jayhawks taller than 6’8 trusted to play on a regular basis. Mykhiauliuk is also 6’8 but the Ukranian shooter may be allergic to the paint used in the lane of most basketball courts. Bill Self is so starved for frontcourt minutes, he put out an open plea to the Kansas football team to join the basketball club. He found what he was looking for in 6’7 tight end James Sosinski, who started as a practice player and is now a rostered member of the team. That move looks like it’s more about having someone to guard Azubuike during practices and shootarounds than it is about on-court production.
All of that leaves Bill Self with just two big men he feels comfortable playing right now in Azubuike and Lightfoot. Those two players have yet to spend one possession on the floor at the same time this season, with Self preferring to rotate them to preserve fresh legs and foul totals. Lightfoot scores only 3.9 points per game and possesses very limited skills. Azubuike has been efficient this season, posting the nation’s third highest effective field goal rate. He’s shooting 75 percent from the field and grabbing 8.3 rebounds per night. He’s averaging 5 points more per game in wins than losses this season, on about four more field goal attempts.
Kansas is far from a lost cause. There is a chance Preston is given the green light and fixes many of the Jayhawks’ issues. Even De Sousa’s presence would go a long way in helping stabilize things. More importantly, Bill Self is a Hall of Fame coach. Surely, he’s as aware of these issues as some guy spilling his thoughts onto his computer on a snow day. Even with a knowledge of the problems, Self has limited time to implement solutions. The Jayhawks play road games against three top 25 teams in the next 19 days, starting at TCU on Saturday.
Kansas is capable of correcting its mistakes or simply shooting its way to a conference championship and a deep run in March. This year, however, the Jayhawks are vulnerable. A cold-shooting night can lead to a Kansas loss any time they step on the floor. Motivated opponents are ready to take their shot at this wounded giant. Kansas had better find the answers before it’s too late.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. If you have any suggestions, tips, ideas, or questions, email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
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