Five months before the end, Bill Self was already starting to worry.
On the morning of Oct. 15, Self sauntered into the Sprint Center for Big 12 basketball media day. That evening, Self would head to Kauffman Stadium to watch the Royals clinch the American League pennant.
But before enjoying a relaxing night of baseball, he sat at a table in downtown Kansas City and tried to forecast the upcoming season, focusing on his team’s biggest question mark.
“I don’t know how well we can score inside,” Self said then. “We’ve always been a team that played on angles, but it doesn’t look like that’s coming quite as naturally for this group as it has for some of the other teams we’ve had.”
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Self had reason to be concerned. The Jayhawks featured returning starter Perry Ellis at power forward, but the rest of the frontcourt was either unpolished or untested. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander was raw. Junior forward Jamari Traylor was undersized. Sophomore Landen Lucas and junior Hunter Mickelson had never played significant minutes.
For more than a decade, Self’s Kansas teams had lived on easy baskets at the rim and succeeded with an offense that played inside-out.
Could this Kansas team score in the paint?
Five months later, in the aftermath of Sunday’s 78-65 loss to Wichita State at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., Self’s words from October sound like an ominous prophecy. The Jayhawks finished 27-9, won an 11th straight Big 12 title and received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But they never found a consistent solution for their low-post scoring problems.
And that’s one reason their season ended before the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
“We’re kind of a weird team,” Self said in February. “We have to score points on the block by driving it. We don’t score it by throwing it inside and guys scoring it.”
As Self and the Jayhawks reflect on the raw disappointment of an early-round exit, the focus now turns to the future.
More specifically: The focus turns to an offseason puzzle in the frontcourt.
The Jayhawks had zero scholarship seniors this season, and even if freshman swingman Kelly Oubre elects to enter the NBA Draft, KU will have a deep backcourt returning next season.
Bigger questions loom in the paint. Alexander will likely be gone after an NCAA investigation derailed the final months of his freshman season, but many contributors will return. Redshirt sophomore Lucas will return for his junior season after a strong finish. Juniors Traylor and Mickelson are likely to be back, as well. And Ellis could profile as a candidate for preseason Big 12 player of the year next season — though he may have his own NBA decision to make.
Self, though, will also have room to add more pieces. The Jayhawks have already landed a commitment power forward from Carlton Bragg, a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American from Cleveland. If Oubre and Alexander depart, that would leave three open scholarships on the roster.
For now, the Jayhawks have targeted a group of highly sought-after big men in the 2015 class. The list includes Stephen Zimmerman, a 7-foot center from Las Vegas, and 6-foot-9 forward Cheick Diallo, a Mali native who attends high school in Centereach, N.Y. The Jayhawks have also long coveted 7-foot forward Thon Maker, a top-10 recruit who reclassified into the 2015 class earlier this season. All three are expected to announce their decisions later this spring.
Self could also search for immediate help in the form of a graduate transfer. Two years ago, the Jayhawks used the graduate-transfer rule to land senior forward Tarik Black from Memphis.
On Sunday, the Jayhawks’ dearth of inside scoring options was glaring against Wichita State. Ellis finished with 17 points on four-of-nine shooting, but Lucas and Traylor combined for just six points on seven total field-goal attempts. Mickelson didn’t play a minute.
“They denied one pass away, and really did a good job of pressuring out and really kept us from throwing the ball inside,” Self said. “And that was a big factor that we couldn’t score inside.”
It was a familiar story. For the season, Kansas converted just 46.4 percent of its shots inside the three-point line, the lowest mark of the Self era. The Jayhawks also finished just 56.3 percent of their field-goal attempts at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. That was down from 67 percent a year ago.
If Ellis returns for his senior season, the Jayhawks will have a solid offensive anchor at power forward. But Ellis is expected to at least monitor his NBA Draft stock in the coming weeks. At the moment, the 6-foot-8 Ellis is not a factor in most draft projections — even as a possible second-round pick.
But multiple NBA teams tracked his progress this season under the assumption that Ellis could put his name in the 2015 draft. After Sunday’s loss, Ellis sidestepped questions about his future.
“I haven’t thought about that,” Ellis said. “I’ll just go with the flow and see what happens.”
Will Ellis become a four-year player as expected? That’s one question that will be answered in the coming weeks. But as Self and his staff hit the recruiting trail this spring, the focus will likely turn to building a bigger, better and more productive frontcourt.