It's no secret that Kansas has struggled in the recent couple of weeks. It culminated with a disastrous loss at the worst team in the league, in a game they had a 97% chance of winning before tip. The Jayhawks now sit at 7-2 in the league, tied with Kansas State, and have a one game lead on both Oklahoma State and Iowa State, two places they need to visit yet this season.
Even more telling are the offensive woes. Despite leading the league in offensive rebounding and free throw rate, they are 5th in points per possession in conference play. That's not nationally, that's in the Big 12. Nationally they have slipped to 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency, not exactly awful but a far cry from a national champion caliber offense. It would be the third worst offense under Self.
It should be noted, however, that their defense is still elite. The point guards can't stick in front of people very well and pretty much everybody has trouble fighting through screens, but an elite perimeter defender, a very good perimeter defender, and the best interior defender in the country add up to Kansas allowing opponents to make only 38% of their twos, which is the best mark in the country this year. Even though they aren't turning opponents over, it is pretty clear that as long as they play decently on offense, it is going to take an above average three point shooting night from the opponent in order for Kansas to give up enough points to lose.
As I mentioned in this morning's post about pace, Kansas has actually done a really good job of forcing steals lately, which is (hopefully) going to drive their offense higher given that steals quite often lead to easy baskets. The biggest problem offensively has been the collapse in three point shooting: the Jayhawks are shooting just 31.9% from beyond the arc in Big 12 play, and they are also taking fewer and fewer threes. It is obvious that teams are clogging the lane a bit, but they probably can afford to now given that Releford (43.6%) and McLemore (42.6%) are the only two players on the team shooting over 33% from behind the arc right now. Fortunately, via Luke Winn, Elijah Johnson has had some hot Marches over his career, especially last year when he shot about 45% from three in the final Month of the season.
Looking back over the last 5 years, each champion other than Kentucky last year (thanks, SEC!) has suffered a horrible defeat either by opponent, margin or both: Connecticut struggled through the entire Big East season, including a 17 point loss to St. Johns. Duke lost by 14 against a mediocre NC State team, and even the 2009 North Carolina team whom everyone seems to love lost to Boston College. However, none of those teams is as bad as TCU is this year. They jumped 30 spots in KenPom thanks to the win, and it highlights a troubling trend lately:
The margin of victory has gotten smaller and smaller over the last month or two, and while some of that is thanks to an increase in competition as well as teams who know Kansas's style, there is no doubt that the trend should cause some worry.
In a weird way I personally would rather lose how they did against TCU: sure the Horned Frogs are terrible and KU's B team should have beaten them, and they absolutely should have been able to get up for a game after losing at home. Still, if effort and complacency are the issues they A) should be fixed now that the conference title streak is in doubt and B) if not it will be in March when it is win or go home and everyone has them pegged as a team that is in danger of going home early.
Which brings me to Bill Self's motivational techniques lately: Some have criticized Self for calling out his players after the last couple games, but I don't blame him at all. Over the last couple seasons the team has played to the level of its competition a lot, good or bad, and only came out truly fired up when it seemed like everyone was counting them out: they were the afterthought of the 2008 Final Four and blitzed North Carolina and beat Memphis. They were supposed to be terrible in 2009 and they won the league. In 2011 Richmond called them out and had an altercation with them before the Sweet 16, so Kansas went out and beat them by 20. It doesn't surprise me at all that Self would try that move, and he will probably say that no one expects them to do anything before the tournament starts.
The book is out on how to beat Kansas, that much is sure. But they have been running roughly the same stuff (with some tweaks, obviously) ever since Bill Self came to Lawrence, and that hasn't mattered a bit. For the most part, Kansas doesn't depend on outscheming you, they depend on out executing you.
The bottom line is there is now a legitimate Big 12 race and with Kansas still needing to make trips to Ames and Stillwater there is a chance that the streak ends this year. But given that Bill Self is at the helm I remain confident that Kansas will be able to right the ship in time to win their 9th straight Big 12 title and, given the parity in college basketball this year, I think they'll be a Final Four threat as well.