Monday, March 28, 2005

End of Season State of the Jayhawks

Losing, to Bucknell or any other school, in the first round is unacceptable. I’m trying not to overreact, but I was a little over a year old the last time this happened.

What I can do is place this loss in the context of the other excruciating tournament losses of my life. In a mixed blessing, last Friday’s game is only the sixth-worst season-ending loss of my conscious life. The top 5:

1) Archie Marshall blowing out his knee and Danny Manning playing the worst game of his career (in a red uniform, no less) against Duke in the National Semifinal, 1986.
T2) The fucking point zone in all its passive glory rolling out the red carpet for Mike Bibby and Juan Dixon, Regional Semifinal 1997 and National Semifinal 2002, respectively.
4) Missed free throws (18) leading to fewer points (3) at the end of regulation of the National Championship game, 2003.
5) Losing, despite the presence of Paul Pierce and Raef LaFrentz in the lineup, in the second round to the Jim Harrick coached Rhode Island Rams in the second round, 1998.

This year's loss most resembles the ’98 loss in that it arrives with the knowledge that the team will return no key contributors, but unlike in March 1998 no reasonable Kansas fan could have expected a tournament run this year. I wish Simien, Miles, Langford, and Lee had ended their careers more happily, but the sadness of their final game doesn’t overshadow the accomplishments of their careers. Simien played the best basketball of his life the final weeks of the season. So did Lee, even contributing half-a-Ryan Robertson in his final game. Miles and Langford both had up-and-down senior seasons. To my eyes, their struggles derived more from attempting to do too much rather than not caring enough. Langford clearly lost a significant portion of the physical ability he demonstrated during his first two seasons. Miles forced too many passes, but made far more jump shots than we had any reason to expect. They both played poorly in their last game. That’s a fair criticism of them as basketball players. To insinuate that they played poorly due to some lack of character or determination insults them as human beings.

Overly optimistic expectations hung over this team all season. Beginning with my own misguided yet representative pre-season picks (Three of my
pre-season final four picks lost in the first (Kansas) or second round (Wake Forest, Georgia Tech). My fourth (Oklahoma State) made the tournament’s second week but was also the only team that couldn't keep Kansas from scoring the last month of the season.) and continuing through the come-from-behind wins against Georgia Tech and at Kentucky when the team was without Simien, this team suffered from being only as good as they were and never as good as we hoped.

Last season, some Kansas fans treated David Padgett’s struggles to adjust to college basketball as morally offensive. A skinny seven-footer who alternated between being pushed around and making over-zealous, obvious attempts at pushing back, Padgett left for reasons other than fan bile (the coaching change, bad parenting), but it was unfair for him to be labeled a useless failure after his freshman season. He will not be the fourth best player in his high school class, but he will be useful at Louisville over the next three years.

Coming into this season the consensus on JR Giddens was that if he continued to make 40% of his three-pointers, finish in transition, and diversified his offensive game, he’d have the opportunity to be a lottery pick. No one thought that he’d be a finished product, just that the Association would value a more polished JR Smith highly. This year Giddens improved his defense and rebounding (from non-existent to mediocre), attempted to diversify his offensive game (mostly unsuccessfully), and shot miserably. Though he looked frustrated as he missed shot after shot in the last month of the season, I never saw Giddens sulk or stop trying. He appears to be both a passionate and immature player. He is now regarded as something close to an enemy of the state by those who celebrated Padgett’s transfer.

It’s not as if this year’s team lacked for legitimate things to criticize and celebrate. This was not an especially good team. It would be difficult to claim any member as a superb defender or categorize any player’s offensive game as multi-faceted. Outside of Simien, the team lacked a competent rebounder. Despite those limitations, the team generally played effective man-to-man defense, made baskets on big possessions, and broke even on the glass.

The overreaction both to the team’s 20-1 start and its 3-6 finish exasperate me. Many have decried the team’s general lack of effort, but I think that’s misinterpreted the revelation of the players’ limitations. If the Giddens detractors hadn’t lobbied for Michael Lee as a suitable replacement one could have regarded their complaints as hyperbolic rather than imbecilic.

I discussed the seniors and Giddens above. Examining the rest of the team in retrospect, Moody played more and played better than I expected. The paired half-seasons of Robinson and Hawkins contributed as much as could be expected from a fifth guard. The freshmen big men did not contribute as much as I hoped, but I think my expectations for them (as freshmen) were lower than most and a healthy Giles might have made a difference.
Some Kansas fans seem only to remember Roy Williams’ last two teams and his two best recruiting classes. Williams should get credit for bringing in the Gooden/Hinrich/Collison class (some would accurately remind us that both Iowa and Iowa State took themselves out of the race for the state’s co-players of the year, but Williams recruited Gooden, the non-McDonald’s All-American of the troika, before anyone else realized how good he could be) and the Simien/Miles/Langford class two years later but those classes were not the norm. Williams did not sign a single impact player in any other class after 1995 (Paul Pierce). Only during the two years when those two classes overlapped did the type of basketball so many long for exist. Don't get me wrong, I loved it, too. But it was hardly a constant in our lives as fans and it didn’t result in a national championship. That lack of a championship coupled with the pain of Williams’ departure has left a residual bitterness with a portion of the Jayhawk Nation that threatens to poison the future of the program. There would have been far less dissent had Williams left for Carolina after either the 1999 or 2000 seasons. No magical, up-tempo “brand of basketball” existed for teams built around Eric Chenowith (neither Duke nor Kansas won the great Chenowith/Chris Burgess recruiting battle) and Kenny Gregory. The Kansas basketball program misses Hinrich, Collison, and Gooden far more than it misses Roy Williams.

My objection to the complaints about the style of play of the last two years is not absolute. I prefer watching and rooting for up-tempo ball myself. My problem is that those '99 and '00 teams struggled to score a lot and were not led by players who had been integral parts of both conference championship and final four teams.As much as Miles, Langford, and Simien frustrated me at times as basketball players, and despite my distant ignorance of them as human beings, I quite like them and never found it an effort to root for them win or lose. I couldn't honestly say the same thing about the '99 and '00 teams.

Next year’s team will likely suffer the indignity of playing on Thursday at the Big 12 tournament but the pieces of a (potentially) strong 2007 are being assembled.

Only the least critical amongst us would classify the performance of this year’s freshman class as consistently useful. However all five demonstrated the potential to become useful role players in the future. Not role players in the sense that Christian Moody or Michael Lee were role players on this year’s team (less bad than everyone else), but players with a specific skill that helps win basketball games. CJ Giles (shot blocker) could become Marcus Camby without the extra benefits. Darnell Jackson (rebounder) could become a punctual Jeff Graves. Russell Robinson (defense) could become a miniature Alonzo Jamison. Alex Galindo (standstill shooter) could become a healthy Greg Gurley. Sasha Kaun, well, he looks like he’s only been playing basketball for three years, but he’s tall and not completely spastic. He could become Greg Dreiling. I highly doubt all five will maximize my hopes for them, but if two or three do and the next two recruiting classes contain impact players that can make use of the current players' particular skills, Kansas could be contending again as early as 2007.

I intend to demonstrate some patience with the program as Self rebuilds, but I can't pretend that not having an example of a Bill Self program isn't slightly uncomfortable. Unless I am mistaken, his last Tulsa team is the only team made up entirely of his own players that he's coached. If he’s attempting to build a similar team here (with the better players available through recruiting), I'm all for it.As much as Self's willingness to try different things seemed to manifest resourcefulness, none of the things he tried really worked all that well. Of course, ideally, the head coach would both have a plan and the ability to adjust that plan as circumstances dictate.It seems to me that Self is attempting (but has certainly has not succeeded yet) in putting together teams that more closely resemble the '91-'93 Kansas teams that were talented (though not as talented as the '02-'03 teams), efficient in the half-court, dangerous in the open court, and solid defensively. Widely and wildly mis-perceived as plodding half-court teams, they were fun teams for which to root.

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