Maybe it was fatigue.
Maybe the idea of playing Texas El-Paso in a third-place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis left Kansas a little underwhelmed or nonplussed. Maybe the Jayhawks had planned on being in the championship game all along.
Those are possibilities, of course. But they only go so far in explaining No. 2 Kansas’ rather joyless performance in a 67-63 victory over UTEP on Saturday night. Just one day after the second-ranked Jayhawks suffered their first loss of the season against Villanova, the Kansas response was tepid.
“I think our energy level (stinks),” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “It’s hard to play the game if you don’t have great energy, and I think that our energy level is not great.”
This is, of course, is the standard response when a team nearly coughs up a 14-point lead in the final minutes. The Jayhawks, who once led 15-2, were just a possession or two from being in major trouble in the final minute.
The whole thing left Self red-faced for most of the night — and also a little hoarse. On late Friday night, in the moments after the last-second loss to Villanova, Self didn’t quite question his team’s effort level, and he reiterated that point Saturday. But he did wonder if they knew how to really compete. The theme continued Saturday. And if there’s one way to describe the Jayhawks right now, Self says, it’s just too casual.
“We playway, way, way
too casual,” Self emphasized. “That would be the thing. When you say, ‘You play way too casual,’ that goes into how you screen, that goes into how you block out, that goes into how you go after loose balls.”
You can probably slot Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins into the casual category. For one night, Wiggins played as if he was still battling the flu bug that slowed him during the first two days in the Bahamas. He went nearly 18 minutes without scoring in the first half and finished with a season-low six points on two-of-nine shooting.
“He was dragging, I think,” Self said, “so I don’t know if it was fatigue from the flu. I don’t think he played with unbelievable energy, but he did get his hands on a lot of balls the second half going after the offensive glass.”
Kansas led just 50-43 with just more than 6 minutes left, and the Miners then cut the lead to 61-57 in the final minute after a 12-2 run. You couldn’t blame Self if he just wanted to pack his bags and head back to Lawrence right after the game.
“I think that we’re taking away from here that we have a long ways to go to becoming a good basketball team,” Self said. “And that’s not all bad, either. We rarely have great teams in November.
“But we’re not as good as we were 17, 18 days ago. So that’s a little frustrating that we’ve gone backward.”
This was the same UTEP team that had been rocked 89-53 by No. 23 Iowa on Friday night in the semifinals. But the Miners had used coach Tim Floyd’s trademark triangle-and-two offense to take down Tennessee on Thursday, and the Jayhawks had similar issues against the Miners.
“We have a lot to learn as a team,” Kansas forward Perry Ellis said. “There’s a lot of things we need to work on, and it’s all a learning experience coming here. And the main message was just: There’s a lot to learn still.”
Some persistent outside shooting woes didn’t help. After shooting a combined five for 25 from three-point range against Wake Forest and Villanova, Kansas made just five of 19 three-pointers against UTEP. So in three days, KU made just 10 of 44 from three-point range in the Bahamas.
The Jayhawks, though, can take a few positives back to Lawrence, where they will have a week off before traveling to Colorado next Saturday. Freshman center Joel Embiid finished with nine points and seven blocks (all in the second half) while playing 21 minutes. Freshman guard Wayne Selden added 14 points, including 12 points in the first half.
“There will be some good teaching moments,” Self said. “The tape doesn’t lie.”
It was a week in paradise for Kansas. But after three games, it didn’t quite feel like it.
“I’m leaving out of here not discouraged,” Self said, “but with the understanding that we’re not who we thought we were. And certainly not (what) the players thought we were heading over here.
“We were exposed pretty good over here.”