Monday, February 21, 2005

State of the Jayhawks

Keith Langford says that the Kansas Jayhawks control their own destiny with respect to the Big 12 Championship race. That’s true but it fails to fill me with an overriding sense of confidence. This Jayhawk team has shown only an intermittent ability to take control of basketball games. I don’t attribute this to any lack of character. Rather, the Jayhawks have some obvious weaknesses that have existed since the start of the season which they have struggled to overcome.

Last year’s team, which suffered far more from injuries than has this year’s team, didn’t begin to play good basketball until this time of the year. Should this year’s team make a similar leap forward, they’d be in excellent position to win a national championship assuming somebody else knocks off Illinois with whom Kansas matches up horribly. More likely, the team we see now is the team that will be around in March: a tough out that will give almost any team a chance to beat them.

I don’t think I’m overreacting to two overtime losses in six days by a total of three points. I’ve been realistic about this team all year. Some of the more pessimistic things I’ve written I’ve refrained from publishing in an attempt to favor analysis over passion. The results of the past week are simply the flipside result of playing so many games decided in the last five minutes. Kansas won more than their share earlier. They appear to better than average on important possessions. If they could bring the same sort of intensity and commitment to execution to more possessions they’d face fewer game-changing moments.

Despite Ron Franklin and Fran Fraschilla’s entreaties I have my doubts about how brilliantly intelligent Curtis Stinson is as a basketball player. He’s good (unquestionably the best player on the court Saturday or at least the best player whose teammates let touch the ball) and unfettered by doubt. In contrast, the Jayhawks seem again to be in full possession of conscience and perspective, two things Dan Quisenberry always thought threatened to hold him back as an athlete. Quisenberry, unquestionably the smartest man in any bullpen (not to slight relief pitchers, Quisenberry was bright) envied his teammates for their ability to focus on the task at hand irrespective of the larger picture of the game, season, career, life. I cast my lot with the Jayhawk fans who thought this state of being had been created by the former head coach. Perhaps it’s instead endemic to the culture of Kansas basketball.

The Jayhawks, in the first five minutes of Saturday’s game, against the same matchup zone that threatened hold them under 50 points at home, executed better in the halfcourt than they had all year. Crisp ball movement combined with excellent spacing created eight open shots. Kansas made the first three shots. They missed the next five. Those five misses made them visibly tentative. They stopped attacking the zone and began to pass the ball languidly around the perimeter, occasionally penetrating the zone but rarely getting the ball to a dangerous position in the paint. Shots were taken out of desperation rather than desire and usually from distance. Wayne Simien played 41 minutes and attempted only seven shots. He (as in the Texas Tech game) hardly touched the ball in overtime even after the officials gifted the Jayhawks by calling a phantom fifth foul on Jared Homan.

At the other end of the court, Stinson got into the lane at will. If college basketball were a more ruthless game, he would have had the ball in his hands every time Michael Lee matched up against him. Had Iowa State taken full advantage of that mismatch their missed free throws would have merely thrown the margin of victory rather than the result into doubt. Stinson took advantage of the same weakness that Villanova exploited last month; a weakness so obvious that Quin Snyder managed to take advantage of it for a while before Bill Self forswore pride for results and flummoxed Missouri with the most basic zone defense in organized basketball.

Bill Self’s greatest accomplishment this year has been molding a solid defensive team despite the fact that each of his players struggles as an individual defender. To be fair, Aaron Miles is an above-average on-the-ball defender, but his teammates’ struggles often force him to guard bigger, stronger guards in key situations who, though he keeps them away from the rim, can get into the paint and shoot over him. Russell Robinson and CJ Giles project to be good defenders but have not been able to stay on the court enough to develop those skills in the short term.

Furthermore, the solid team defense holds only until the opposition is forced into a difficult shot. Spoiled by the recent frontline tandems of LaFrentz and Pollard and Gooden and Collison, Kansas fans overstate this team’s rebounding struggles. This is not a horrible rebounding team (okay, maybe they are when Galindo’s on the floor) but they are decidedly mediocre. Granted, it would be difficult to mold this collection of players into a good rebounding team. Most often, the Jayhawks play five players six-eight or shorter, occasionally cycling through their two skinny, raw seven footers.

It’s difficult for any team’s fans to come to terms with their weaknesses. Kansas isn’t, nor should they have been expected to be, a good rebounding team. The three freshman big men, none of whom had more than three years of organized basketball experience, have struggled to contribute. All three look promising, though, and could form a solid core for the program in the future.

Skeptical at the time of his hire, I have become an admirer of Bill Self. As much as I appreciate his calm (the ride our former coach pleaded with us to enjoy was too often of the emotional roller-coaster variety), his finest attribute appears to be his willingness to adjust tactics in order to win. He doesn’t seem the sort of coach who would have played Eric Chenowith rather than Drew Gooden or Nick Collison because Chenowith was a senior. I hope Self proves me right by making such a sound basketball decision regarding Michael Lee. Lee, unlike Chenowith, obviously plays hard and cares about winning, but more often that not his play makes winning more difficult for the Jayhawks. After Saturday’s game, Jeff Hawkins and Russell Robinson should be competing to be the fourth rather than the fifth guard. Neither is an ideal option, but neither can consistently be beaten with the slightest of jab steps or the most rudimentary of cross-overs. Hawkins especially plays like Lee did in his good, useful sophomore season. He values the ball, takes wide-open, spot-up jumpers, and plays hard on the defensive end.

A week ago, I figured a 4-2 finish in conference play and a decent performance in the Big 12 Tournament would lock up a number one seed. Though I didn’t expect an 0-2 start to the final six games, I think the above prediction holds true. As to how many games they will win here on out, I have no idea. Outside of Illinois, Kansas have demonstrated as much ability to play good basketball as anyone in the country. Such demonstrations have been infrequent and I don’t expect that they will suddenly become the norm. I do expect opposing teams to score about 60 points a game and Miles, Simien, Langford, and Giddens to create enough opportunities to score a few more for a tight, ugly win. Last week, for the first times this year, they didn’t take advantage of those opportunities. I hope they refrain from overreacting. Off the court, conscience and perspective can help mediate the highs and lows of competition by giving an accurate account of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

No comments: