Devonté Graham entered the interview room with a hobble, favoring his left leg after landing on it awkwardly in the second half. A few minutes later, Udoka Azubuike talked about playing through his back injury, saying, “I’ve just got to do what I’ve got to do to help my team.”
Perhaps this is the best place to start following KU’s 85-73 home loss to Texas Tech on Tuesday — the largest-deficit defeat at Allen Fieldhouse in the 15-year Bill Self era.
Even in postgame, the Jayhawks looked worn down … and this was the second conference game, with 16 left.
Give the Jayhawks credit. They weren’t searching for excuses.
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Graham, who said his leg was fine after playing 40 minutes for the third time in the last calendar month, believed the Jayhawks needed to toughen up. Azubuike, who froze on the court and grimaced a few times while playing through his back issues, said KU’s players needed to “want it more.”
The reality is this: These Jayhawks have been put in a tough spot because of a roster crunch. Mental toughness can only help KU so much.
The Jayhawks are stuck in a vicious cycle. With only two big men, they have to play small. And if they play small, they have to play with constant energy to be effective defensively. And to have constant energy, they need a breather every once in a while.
And because there are only two big men … there’s no break. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the almost-expected Allen Fieldhouse run — the one so many other Jayhawks teams have made during their 13-year conference streak — never materialized in the second half.
“Whenever (your players) say that somebody wants something more than you … oh, my god, to me as a coach, that makes me cringe, because that is my responsibility to put them in position to be competitive,” Self said. “And we haven’t done that near enough.”
Before we go all doom and gloom, it’s important to keep proper context. This is not the worst KU team of the Self era, as many fans were proclaiming on social media. To start the week, the Jayhawks ranked third, fourth, fifth and sixth in some of the most-respected computer formulas out there, so one ugly loss doesn’t suddenly turn this into a lost season.
The biggest problem, though, lies with what happens moving forward. The impressive advanced stats so far were produced by a roster that looked fresh and athletic through the first two months. It’s why KU’s defense, at times, appeared as if it had the potential to be dominant.
The Jayhawks’ four guards often played up the floor, making it difficult for opponents to run their offense. They looked … well, much like the Red Raiders did for 40 minutes Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
KU can’t play like that now, though. Not without adding another person to the rotation.
Self, to give his guys a rest, has played extensive 2-3 zone the last two games. The Jayhawks’ pressure man-to-man defense also has disappeared, with the team posting below-average defensive turnover percentages in five of the last seven contests.
As a result, KU has allowed 1.18 points per possession in two consecutive games — something that’s never happened in Self’s 518 games with the Jayhawks.
The defensive issue is real, and it’s cyclical. KU has the 10th-shortest bench in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s statistics, and that likely has to fix itself before the Jayhawks can make significant strides defensively.
So what’s the hope for KU? Well, Silvio De Sousa could be available soon, but he hasn’t been cleared yet and he’ll be way behind with the playbook, making him an early February contributor at best. Self also has remained optimistic through the weeks that Billy Preston will get cleared, though nothing can be certain with as long as the situation has played out already.
Self, however he does it, needs to extend his bench. Maybe the NCAA will give KU good news with Preston or De Sousa. Maybe Sam Cunliffe gets more run. Maybe Mitch Lightfoot gets a longer leash.
Whatever it is, Self will have to find a way.
A small, non-energetic, poor-rebounding defense is a bad combination — and the biggest concern as KU fights for consecutive title No. 14.