Something’s not right in Lawrence. After losing its opening game of 2018 on Tuesday against Texas Tech, Kansas sits at 11–3. For most teams, that’s a fine start to the season, but Kansas isn’t most teams. For the first time in more than a decade, it’s time to start worrying about the Jayhawks.
The season started out as well as head coach Bill Self could have hoped, with Kansas winning its first seven games, including a 65–61 victory against Kentucky in the Champions Classic. That win that helped propel the Jayhawks to the no. 2 ranking in the AP poll. And then the wheels started to come off. Back-to-back losses in December to Washington and Arizona State by a combined 19 points were out of character for a Kansas team coming off two consecutive 30-plus win campaigns. They didn’t just lose — they were thoroughly outplayed. The same was true earlier this week against Texas Tech. One is a fluke, two is a pattern, and three is a trend.
Worse still, it doesn’t look like Kansas is getting any better. There isn’t a switch someone forgot to flip, or a superstar returning from injury. Kansas is the weakest its been in recent memory, and the rest of the Big 12 is lurking. Oklahoma and Texas both start lottery talents in Trae Young and Mo Bamba, and West Virginia, TCU, and Texas Tech all have rosters to challenge for the conference crown. Last year, Kansas won its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular season title, tying John Wooden’s UCLA squads for the most conference championships in a row. The streak is so long, it spans three presidential administrations, and includes 10 All-American contributions, two Final Four appearances, and a national title. Now, after losing to the Red Raiders, they sit at 1–1 in the conference with a challenging game against no. 16 TCU looming on Saturday. So it has to be asked: What’s the matter with Kansas?
The last time Kansas didn’t win at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title was Bill Self’s first season in Lawrence. Since that 2003–04 team, Kansas has only had one season with less than 27 wins. That came in 2013–14, when the Jayhawks limped to a 25–10 record … and an outright regular season conference championship. And while the issues on that team could be chalked up to injury and struggles integrating freshman talent — Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins were both on the roster — this year’s club has some different problems.
Kansas was always going to have a difficult time this season replacing National Player of the Year Frank Mason III and freshman phenom Josh Jackson. But the arrival of Mississippi State transfer and former five-star recruit Malik Newman’s transfer and the commitment of Billy Preston — another five-star freshman — made it seem like the transition would be at least somewhat manageable. Newman started the season modestly, and though he hasn’t yet shown the consistent ability that led some to call him “the deadliest scoring guard” in his class, his potential is obvious. The bigger issue is Preston.
The highly touted forward was set to make his debut in November against Kentucky, but was held out by Self after he was involved in a single-car accident. Preston wasn’t hurt, but Kansas sidelined him so they could get “a clearer financial picture specific to the vehicle.” What exactly that means isn’t clear. No police report was filed with the Lawrence PD, and the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Preston just damaged his tires when he hit the curb. Still, Kansas has kept him out all year, though Self seems to think good news from the NCAA about the findings the university submitted could come sooner than later. The Jayhawks have managed in his absence, with senior forward Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike getting increased roles, but it’s clear that something is missing. Mykhailiuk, Newman, Devonte’ Graham, and Lagerald Vick are all talented athletes, but none are a superstar like Jackson, or a proven leader like Mason, who can be leaned on in close games.
For now, the Jayhawk faithful have turned to Silvio De Sousa — a four-star forward who graduated high school this winter and has been cleared to practice by the NCAA. Resting your hopes on a one-and-done talent is understandable. Dropping them on a teenager whose life recently revolved around what to wear to homecoming and asking him to box out Mo Bamba is a big ask. There’s no word yet on when De Sousa will be able to suit up for Self, but it’s safe to say Kansas could use all the help it can get.
Without a consistent interior presence, they’ve turned to the deep ball. On the surface, questioning Kansas’s 3-point shooting ability might look foolish. The Jayhawks have connected on 40.9 percent of their deep balls this season — good for 20th in the country — and they’re not too shabby from inside the arc either, shooting 58.6 percent from 2. They’re also shooting threes at a higher rate than ever before under Self, with more than 41 percent of their total shots coming from deep.
But an increased reliance on the 3 has left them vulnerable, and the Jayhawks are living and dying by it. In Kansas’s three losses this season, it shot a combined 25-of-84 from beyond the arc, and shot threes at a higher rate than they did in its wins. To make matters worse, Kansas is rebounding fewer of their misses than they have in any season since 2004 — the earliest year KenPom data is available, and rank dead last in the country in free throw rate.
Part of that is personnel — the team is thin up front, and its three highest scorers account for more than 70 percent of its 3-point attempts — and part of it is the natural increase in three-point tries that happens when playing from behind. Either way, the result is the same. Kansas has become a streak-shooting team: when they’re hot from deep, they win, when they’re not, they don’t. Trying to run your offense like you’re the Houston Rockets is great when shots are falling, but when they aren’t, you end up losing at home to Texas Tech for the first time in 18 chances.
Still, the concern could be for naught. Despite noticeable shortcomings this season, Kansas could still manage to claim its 14th consecutive conference title, and threaten for a national championship. They have a top-10 KenPom offense, a top-20 defense, and a reliable point guard — all of which are essential to success in March. Every time Kansas has looked vulnerable over the course of the conference championship streak, they’ve rallied and finished with at least 13 conference wins. The same could happen this year. But without a bonafide star or consistent shooting, there might not be a new banner hanging from the rafters this season.