Bill Self didn’t go through many such phases in his 20 seasons in Kansas. Still, the coach didn’t seem angry or even discouraged during a rare three-game losing streak.
Self knows this isn’t the same Jayhawks team that won the national championship last season.
Kansas (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) has gone from having one of the most experienced rosters in the nation to a much younger group with no proven presence on the post in an invited Big 12 conference that may be better than ever.
“We don’t have as much room for error as we have in years past and that’s okay,” Self said. “But (when) you don’t have quite as much margin for error and the other teams in the league are a lot better, it’s going to be difficult.”
The ninth-ranked Jayhawks have lost three straight games for only the fourth time under Self. Every loss went to a senior conference opponent, two of them on the way. The latest was 75-69 at Baylor on Monday night in a matchup of the last two national champions, the fifth straight win for the 17th-ranked Bears.
“I’ll be honest with you, I need to take a different approach and understand it’s a marathon,” Self said. “It’s not an instantaneous reaction because in this league you can react instantly and nine other teams are going to have to go through exactly the same thing at some point.”
Kansas is still teeming with talent.
Junior forward Jalen Wilson leads the Big 12 with 21.4 points per game and is second in rebounds with 8.6. While streaky freshman Gradey Dick (14.9 ppg) is the league’s top 3-point shooter at 43.7%, Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar Jr. averages 7.3 rebounds. Dajuan Harris Jr. is one of the top assist men at 6.5 per game, despite his extended shooting battles.
But these Jayhawks are unlike most of Self’s standout teams of the past, who have played through the post with big boys like David McCormack, Jeff Withy, Thomas Robinson or Udoka Azubuike.
McCormack was part of last year’s title team along with first-round NBA draft picks Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. The Jayhawks also lost ball handler Remy Martin and veteran sniper Jalen Coleman-Lands.
Kansas plays its SEC/Big 12 Challenge game Saturday in Kentucky (14-6), won 80-62 at Allen Fieldhouse last season. The Jayhawks will be looking to avoid their first four-game losing streak since 1988-89, their first season under coach Roy Williams.
After taking on coach John Calipari’s struggling Wildcats at Rupp Arena, the Jayhawks return to conference play against fifth-ranked Kansas State. They then open the second half of their Big 12 program at No. 12 Iowa State before hosting No. 10 Texas.
Their current slide began last week with an 83-82 loss in overtime at K-State, which held a 14-point lead midway through the first half. TCU, now ranked 11th, hit 13 of their first 15 shots and had an early 19-0 run in an 83-60 win on Saturday, the second-worst home loss of the Self era.
“Our league is so good,” said Self. “It’s gonna be a grind.”
The Jayhawks were trailing by as much as 13 midway through the first half at Baylor. They took their only lead when Wilson showed a 3-pointer with 15 1/2 minutes left, but the Bears responded with a 12-3 run.
“The way K-State played the first 10 minutes, the way TCU played the first 10 minutes, and the way Baylor played the first 10 minutes, if we played really well we would still have been behind,” Self said. before using a wrestling analogy prompted by a visit by two former Oklahoma State classmates to the interview room after the game at Baylor.
Brad Livingstone was a senior at Oklahoma State during the 1981-82 season when Self was a freshman for the Cowboys. Livingstone’s wife, Baylor President Linda Livingstone, also played basketball for the school in Stillwater, where wrestling is big.
“When you’re on top and you can get ride time, it takes twice as much energy when you’re the bottom man in wrestling. … That’s how basketball is,” Self said. “When you are behind, it takes more energy, everything is magnified, it takes more effort. And when you’re playing at the front you’re obviously more relaxed, it’s not a matter of life or death.”
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