Close losses aren’t fun watch. Close losses that include blown leads are even less fun to watch. Close losses that include blowing leads to your two traditional rivals in the span of three days are profoundly unpleasant to watch. The optimists among us (are there optimists among us today?) could make an argument that the team is improving. They started giving up their lead to St. Joe’s with three minutes left in this first half, started crumbling against Kansas State with 13 minutes left in the game, and didn’t give away their lead to Missouri until the last 90 seconds of regulation last night in Columbia. That’s some sort of progress. It was also encouraging, though likely unsustainable, to watch the Jayhawks follow up their worst offensive performance since the Arizona game with their best offensive performance off the season. (Kansas bettered last night’s 1.16 points per possession against both Northern Colorado and Yale. Missouri, though not a good defensive team, offers more of a challenge, in my opinion, to score against than either of those teams).
I doubt that a second narrow loss to a rival will do anything to dissuade those who think Self isn’t getting enough out of the team. It was always silly to think that there was some clear management plan to winning basketball games with these players, this year that Self was too stupid/stubborn/overwhelmed to implement. The last two games have made that position demonstrably false. He’s done the things many of them said caused the losses to Arkansas, Nevada, and St. Joseph’s: Mario Chalmers has replaced Jeff Hawkins in the starting lineup and taken most of Hawkins’ minutes and the rotation has been shortened, yet the results haven’t really changed.
Chalmers (who like Russell Robinson last year was most definitely not ruined by having his playing time directly linked to his on-court performance) and Rush are inconsistent talents. Robinson has developed into a solid complementary player who will become more efficient once he has well-rounded players to complement. Jeff Hawkins is still limited in his ability and still the third-best guard on the roster. The most talented big men struggle to play consistently well on both ends of the floor and among the big men only Darnell Jackson appears capable of making more than 60% of his free throws.
This is and always has been an 18-win team. What surprises me is that they’ve had a chance to win 14 of their 15 games. The bad basketball has been far less frequent in its totality than I feared. While they lack poise, they are a talented and resilient bunch. They surrendered a 17-5 Missouri run over the last seven minutes of the first half, turning a seven-point lead into a five-point deficit. Less than 100 seconds into the second half the Jayhawks re-took the lead. Down 56-51 at the 10-minute mark, they went a 21-7 run over the next eight minutes. In the end it wasn’t enough and it would be foolish to pretend that anything positive happened in the last 90 seconds of regulation. I think it’s equally foolish to ignore the potential for long-term success for the Kansas basketball program.