When a school has played in 30 of the last 31 NCAA tournaments its students and fans will have seen pretty much every kind of team and season imaginable during that unreal sample size of success.
Kansas Jayhawk fans have seen a dominant team win it all (2008). They've seen an injury riddled, mediocre team catch fire at just the right time to win it all (1988). They've seen dominant teams trip up so close to the end (1986, 2002, 2007, 2011). They've seen dominant teams absolutely flame out (1992, 1997, 1998). They've seen teams running on more heart and grit than talent go on to make deep tournament runs (1991, 1993, 2003, 2012). And they've seen teams who proved themselves incapable of living up to their lofty preseason hype (1987, 2005, 2014).
It's into this last category that Kansas fans find this 2015-16 Jayhawks squad now, possibly, veering. It's difficult to reconcile just how good Kansas looked early - winning the Maui Invitational and then outlasting Oklahoma in what will likely be the game of the year - with how they look now.
Turnover prone at the worst possible times. Non existent on defense. Lapsing into incoherent offense. Brick foul shooting. One of these things would be a problem. All of them points to this team being a real mess. It's like Bill Self spilled his basketball team...
Sports fans are susceptible to shortsighted panic. Often times the results of any given game are unqualified by what came before and what still lies ahead. It's this unknowable quality that makes sports the greatest drama on television. A team is never as bad as its worst showing, never as good as its best. You see the Jekyll and you see the Hyde of teams every season, and just as the theme of that Gothic classic portends, the bad and the good are qualities equally present. You never know when one side will rise to dominate the other.
But for whatever Kansas was when they were ranked #1, and for whatever they may yet become this March, what they are right now, fairly stated, is a bad basketball team.
For Kansas fans, used to so much good basketball during 30 years of Larry Brown, Roy Williams and now Bill Self coaching, it's not easy to weather the shock of poor play. But ask the rest of the Big 12 if they sympathize with the tears of the fans of the big bad bully on the block.
Coach Self's track record should afford him the benefit of the doubt that he can regroup and salvage a decent season. There is still a lot of basketball to be played and the strength of the Big 12 will cannibalize itself over the coming weeks. Kansas could still extend its conference title streak, although, the smart money would be on them sharing that title at best. If they don't though, why should Kansas fans care, honestly, outside of the satisfying desire to jingle those fistfuls of rings in the faces of their conference rivals? If Kansas is one of the five best programs in college basketball, then conference titles cannot be the high water mark of their success.
This is college basketball, not college football. A few losses won't crush a team's dreams of postseason glory. Afforded 30+ contests to refine a roster and iron out troublesome wrinkles, teams can use losses as the most effective means to progress toward their ultimate goals.
So where Kansas goes from here is anyone's guess. It appears Self has a tough task ahead of him, but the talent on his team should be producing a more positive result than what Kansas fans have been subjected to as of late. Kansas' toughness has been called out. When it comes from Self's mouth, that statement is most likely meant as a motivational tool. When it comes from the media, it seems like a case of lazy eye. What's plaguing the Jayhawks looks more like a chemistry issue. The combination of players Self is putting on the floor is not working. This team is supposed to have the depth to shake out a solid rotation. 20 games in, though, Self is still holding live auditions for players to prove they deserve to start.
For all the frustration driven grief Kansas fans have given Self the last couple of years for his "fool's gold" remark and leery belief in a team's over dependence on the three point shot, the man seems to have acquiesced to their request to lean on a perimeter based offensive system.
From the get go, this 2015-16 'Hawks starting lineup looked very different than past Self teams. It's small, populated with guys in love with bombing away. Off the bench Self was giving Brannen Greene and Svi Mykhailiuk heavy minutes - even though alleged sharpshooter, Mykhailiuk, can't actually hit anything when it comes to game time.
During the 2014-15 season, Self's Jayhawks were buoyed by the three ball out of necessity. Cliff Alexander's flameout left Kansas light in capable big men. Yet, just as Self knows, and warned, the three ball stopped falling, especially when Greene's hip went lame on him late in the season.
Self knows what he's talking about. When a team lives by the three, they will die by the three. His two best three point shooting teams, statistically speaking, during his time at Kansas were his 2010 and 2011 squads. That 2010 team went ice cold from three against Northern Iowa in the Round of 32. The 2011 team couldn't hit anything outside of the lane against VCU when an apparent easy run to a second National Title was staring Self in the face.
So Self's reluctance to feel secure with a team that lives by the three isn't rooted in the man's stubborn rigidity, as a lot of Kansas fans were crying over the last season and a half.
So here Self's team sits, 20 games into this 2015-16 season, a jump shooting team with Self giving them the green light to fire away from three. Jayhawk fans who begged for Self to fall in love with the three, do you like the way it looks right now?
Self has plenty of time to reconfigure his rotation. He's already started to do so by tightening up his bench. Mykhailiuk and Hunter Mickelson may as well have their faces put on a milk cartoon as missing persons. Self is not even looking at them anymore. Perhaps it's time for Self to make this team resemble one he's always been more comfortable coaching.
Self has shown, in the past, that he is not above shuffling the cards in his deck. Self started the 2005-06 season with sophomore Sasha Kaun and senior Christian Moody up front, with freshman Brandon Rush and senior Jeff Hawkins on the wings, with freshman Mario Chalmers running the point. After starting the season 10-6 overall, and 1-2 in the conference, people around Lawrence began whispering the dreaded initials, "N.I.T." After an overtime loss in Mizzou coming on the heels of Kansas State beating Kansas in Lawrence for the first time in a decade, Self moved freshman Julian Wright into the starting lineup, buried Moody on the bench behind sophomore Darnell Jackson, sat Hawkins, slid Chalmers out to a more free scoring off guard spot, and put sophomore guard Russell Robinson at the point. Jayhawk fans couldn't know it at the time, but Self had just set up the core of what would be a National Title team. For that 2006 season, Self won Big 12 Coach of the Year and took the 'Hawks to the NCAA Tournament.
In 2008, after losing Wright to the NBA draft and sitting two year starter Sasha Kaun on the bench, Self's frontcourt actually improved in dramatic and dominant fashion with then senior Jackson and sophomore Darrell Arthur. At point guard, Self ignored public calls for him to start sophomore star Sherron Collins, feeling Collins' energy better served the team coming off the bench, while the stabilizing and lock-down defense provided by senior Robinson made the team stronger.
Self is now faced with another point in which he has to shake things up with playing time to make this team capable of playing tournament caliber ball again. What he does now is impossible to predict, but going back to what worked for him in the past would be a good place to start. Unlike last season, Self has the parts he needs.
A Kansas lineup consisting of freshman Cheick Diallo at the center five spot, freshman Carlton Bragg at the four, senior Perry Ellis at the three, junior Wayne Selden at the two, and junior Frank Mason running point has the look and feel of a traditional Self starting five. This lineup may provide some pain in the short term as the abilities of Diallo are still painfully raw, but Diallo and Bragg provide a great deal of upside when compared to Jamari Traylor, and especially Landon Lucas. And if Kansas is losing now anyway, there is no greater loss with Diallo and Bragg getting on the job training.
This lineup would return size to Self's offensive system, and with it the return of the High-Low, two man principles. Ellis has been playing his heart out, even while Kansas has struggled. Imagine how good he could play if there were a couple of big, athletic bodies to demand attention down low. He seems a more natural fit on the wing. He's not quite strong enough to bang with the big boys down low, but he has the ball handling skills for his size to present problems for most teams who'd be forced to match him up with a guard. This move would also allow for Selden to go back to the two spot where he'd played the last two seasons because Kansas' most dynamic players - Andrew Wiggins in '14 and Kelly Oubre in '15 - were in the three spot. Self believed Selden was ready to fill that role. He's not. Instead, he's taking the J.R. Giddens approach to remain content beyond the arc. Ellis, on the other hand, has the shooting touch to stretch the defense, and unlike Selden, the guts to consistently drive to the rim.
On the defensive end Diallo and Bragg's length would prevent a lot of the defensive mismatches Jayhawk fans saw in Monday's game against Iowa State. Several times Kansas' defense was caught in a switch that left Georges Niang on Devonte' Graham or Mason. When Niang wasn't busy traveling he gladly took that opportunity to work his undersized 'Hawk defenders like they were nothing more than a plucky kid brother. When it comes to Diallo, his offensive game is a work in progress, but his rim protection and rebounding could lead to more fast breaks as 'Hawk fans saw in the days of Aldrich, Withey and Embiid.
At the point, in spite of Mason's recent struggles, he still seems a better fit to run the offense than Graham. He has a fine shooting touch, and is tough enough to drive to the rim when the offense stagnates. Kid just has to stop turning the ball over.
This lineup would also set the foundation of a better bench for Self off of which he could utilize Graham's speed and shooting when needed, as he did Collins' in 2007 and '08. Greene off the bench is instant offense, and it's nice to see Mykhailiuk no longer leeching off Greene's minutes. Traylor and Lucas are capable subs to spell the other bigs should they get into foul trouble, and honestly, that's where their talent level suggests they are better suited.
Whether Self goes with this lineup or some combination thereof, it's hard to imagine that the Kansas coach will let his current starting five continue to trip over their own shoes and shoot themselves out of contests for much longer. Hopefully that change will come before a massive television audience this Saturday.