BY RUSTIN DODD
LAWRENCE — Let’s start here: Kansas’ 62-55 loss at TCU on Wednesday was as historic as it was utterly stunning. There’s no denying that — no matter how you bend or twist the numbers.
** According to Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings, TCU was ranked 270 spots below KU, the close equivalent of a No. 1 seed playing a middling 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
** Kansas had not lost back-to-back games in seven years, a nation-leading span of 264 games.
** The Jayhawks shot 29.5 percent, the worst by a KU team since Self arrived in Lawrence.
So what, exactly, is wrong with Kansas? Well…
1 It starts with guard play. When was the last time KU didn’t feature a guard on the roster that could get his feet in the lane and create plays when the offense broke down? Or, as Bill Self has frequently mentioned, when was the last time KU had a starting backcourt that featured just one primary ballhandler?
On Wednesday, the Jayhawks opened the game with a seven-minute scoring drought, a stretch that magnified KU’s deficiency in the backcourt. The Jayhawks’ top two scoring options — freshman wing Ben McLemore and senior center Jeff Withey — can both be one-dimensional offensive players. McLemore is too often limited to being a spot-up shooter, and Withey must catch in the right position to be effective.
Play against a team that is able to neutralize McLemore and Withey — or miss a few shots — and the Jayhawks’ offense sputters. It doesn’t help, of course, that guards Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe are both shooting worse than 38 percent from the field.
“We’re better players than what we’ve shown,” Self said on Wednesday. “But we’re still not great players. We could have a great team, but we’re not individually a ton of great players.
“We got one guy (McLemore) that’s super-talented. But we just got a bunch of nice players that, when they play well together, they’re pretty good. And right now, we’re not playing very well together.”
Here’s one example. According to an offensive breakdown shared by NBA Draft analyst Jonathan Givoni, the Jayhawks’ half-court offense featured the following against TCU:
McLemore ran four isolation plays and zero pick-and-rolls all night, resulting in four of his 15 points. Meanwhile, Johnson and Tharpe ran a combined 12 pick-and-rolls and isolation plays, resulting in nine points.
(McLemore made six of his 16 shots, while Johnson and Tharpe combined for 19 points on five-of-27 shooting.)
Here’s where the offensive question becomes tricky. Does McLemore lack the requisite skills to make more plays with the ball in his hands — as opposed to catch-and-shoot jumpers — or do Johnson and Tharpe simply use too many of KU’s possessions?
2 Questions at the four-spot. It’s not easy to replace an All-American such as Thomas Robinson. But the Jayhawks entered conference play with a three-man power-forward committee that appeared to be getting the job done. Senior Kevin Young is an energy guy with great passing ability. Freshman Perry Ellis has some natural scoring skills and figured to improve. And redshirt freshman Jamari Traylor, at the very least, brings some toughness and athleticism.
But while Young has stayed consistent, Ellis and Traylor have made limited progress in the last few weeks. And Wednesday was a glaring sign.
Self inserted Ellis into the starting lineup for the first time since November, hoping to give Ellis a shot of confidence and get him going. The freshman responded by scoring zero points in 10 minutes. And after a defensive lapse in the opening minutes of the second half, Self yanked Ellis in favor of Young.
Ellis and Traylor are freshmen who will only get better. That said, the Jayhawks are getting very limited production from their bench and it’s hard to see how it gets much better in the immediate future.
“We’re not very tough,” Self said. “So when things don’t go well, we kind of doubt or quit being aggressive, and certainly there’s a lot of that going on with this team.
“We don’t have answers (where) you can go to the bench to get answers. That’s obviously the case. So we gotta figure out a way to help our guys have the right mind-set to play better.”
3 The Jayhawks have been pushed around — and now the secret is out. After Saturday’s loss against Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse, Self called this Kansas team one of the least physically tough teams he’s coached.
It’s easy to see the line as a challenge to his guys. And sure, it was. But it was also stated as a matter of fact. For the last three years, KU has had forwards — the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson — who brought a presence of rugged toughness. This year, Self starts Withey (220 pounds) and Young (190 pounds), and KU has struggled to be effective against teams that muck it up inside.
Kansas, of course, has nine Big 12 games left, plenty of time to right the ship and start making shots. But after an eight-year run of Big 12 titles — and a seven-year stretch without consecutive losses — Wednesday’s loss to TCU may have cost KU something more than another game in the Big 12 race.
“We can certainly evaluate ourselves differently than what we could a week ago,” Self said. “And hopefully that will help fix some things. But the reality is, we’ve allowed everybody the opportunity to believe that they can beat us. Everybody’s gonna think they can beat us. And they should. We’ve opened up that floodgate.”