The diameter of a regulation-sized college basketball is about 9.55 inches, or in another sense, about the average length of a layup. Sometimes it can be a little more. On occasion, it’s a little less.
But the act of putting a round basketball in a round hoop from 9 inches away is not supposed to be overly difficult, even when a collection of tall, athletic and ferocious defenders are breathing down your neck.
On Tuesday night in Chicago, in a 79-73 loss to No. 13 Michigan State at Champions Classic, the Kansas Jayhawks missed 20 layups. Eleven of those misses came after halftime. For the night, the Jayhawks shot under 40 percent from around 9 inches.
On another night, perhaps, one could chalk this up to bad luck or the simple laws of variance in basketball. Sometimes, you just miss. But as Kansas coach Bill Self pushed through the bowels of the United Center late on Tuesday and the Jayhawks prepared to board a late-night flight back to Lawrence, the numbers from another loss at the Champions Classic sounded a November warning.
The same flaws that haunted Kansas last season — the same issues that resulted in a 27-9 finish and second-round loss to Wichita State — were evident here on Tuesday, in this doubleheader showcase of college basketball’s best programs.
“We had the ball at 6 inches or 1 foot numerous times, and (we) didn’t convert,” Self said.
The Jayhawks (1-1) squandered leads of 13 points in the first half and 11 points with nine minutes to play. They were outrebounded 45-35 by a Michigan State frontcourt that was missing a starting piece. They just shot 39 percent from inside the three-point line.
There was no interior option to supplement the scoring of Perry Ellis, who finished with 21 points on 18 field-goal attempts. And perhaps worst of all, they watched as Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine seized control of the game in the final minutes, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists, becoming the first opponent to record a triple double against Kansas since Magic Johnson in 1979.
“To be honest, I’m not too worried about our team right now,” said junior guard Wayne Selden, who finished with 12 points on 3-of-12 shooting. “Down the stretch, we know what we had to do. We know we had to make stops and stuff like that. Everything is correctable that we messed up on. So I’m not too worried (as) I was in other years.”
The Jayhawks, Selden says, are older. They are experienced. Self, meanwhile, said he was encouraged that Kansas didn’t shoot the ball all that well and still managed to build a double-digit lead with less than 10 minutes left. This was a game they had in control.
“The hard lesson to learn, it’s like tennis,” Self said. “I use this analogy all the time. There’s some points in tennis that are most important to win than other points. You got a chance to break serve, you don’t get that chance very often, you got to do it.”
On Tuesday, the Jayhawks couldn’t procure the defensive stops when they needed to. Valentine had his way, and Spartans freshman reserve Matt McQuaid punished Kansas with two back-breaking threes in the final minutes.
“They had us, and kind of let us off the hook a little bit,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
There were other questions to ponder on Tuesday. One game after hitting 5 of 5 from three-point range, junior Brannen Greene played nine minutes and didn’t attempt a three. On a night where forwards Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor to eight combined points, senior Hunter Mickelson was confined to the bench, playing just three minutes.
Self said Michigan State’s defensive style — they three-quarter fronted the post — demanded the presence of Lucas, who is the Jayhawks’ best big man at sealing the post and creating angles.
“That’s Landen Lucas’ best game,” Self said. “That’s what he does. He plays to getting answers. So I thought that was the percentage play for us, to play that well.”
This, of course, was not what Self had in mind for this latest trip to the Champions Classic. At just past 8:40 p.m., the Jayhawks bounced through a tunnel and emerged onto the United Center floor, their fifth trip to the Champions Classic. In four previous ventures to college basketball’s premium November stage, the platform had often been a pratfall.
Four years ago, in the inaugural Champions Classic in New York, the Jayhawks were taken out by a Kentucky freight train, exposed by a team that would win the NCAA title five months later. The next year would bring a loss to Michigan State in Atlanta, before a singular breakthrough against Duke here at the United Center in 2013.
Then came frigid fall night in Indianapolis last November. The Jayhawks arrived for a much anticipated showdown with No. 1 Kentucky. They left with a 72-40 loss on the resume, a knockout that was as decisive as it was embarrassing.
In all of sports, there may not be an event with a greater disparity between great stage and low stakes than the Champions Classic. By March, these games will be data points on an NCAA Tournament resume, with no greater bearing on how a team might fare in March. For Kansas, though, Tuesday’s stage offered a chance to leave the Champions Classic with a signature early-season victory, to bury the memory of “72-40” and move forward, once and for good.
In the opening 10 minutes, the Jayhawks played like a cast of veterans. Ellis was a force in the middle, scoring nine of Kansas’ first 13 points. Mason and Devonte’ Graham pushed the tempo. Selden was the truest realization of himself, hoisting a couple of questionable jumpers and then watching as they swished through the net.
With more than six minutes left in the half, freshman forward Carlton Bragg would drain a jumper from 15 feet, and the Jayhawks led 28-15. Five minutes later, the lead would stretch to 39-29 after Michigan State’s Matt Costello was whistled for a technical foul on the Jayhawks’ end. Costello was called for a foul on Ellis, and he punched at the basketball in frustration. The ball ended up out of bounds, and the Jayhawks would make four straight free throws to seize control.
The Spartans, though, would rise from the mat, finishing the half with a 6-2 run and slicing the lead to 41-35 at the intermission. Michigan State would continue the surge in the opening minutes of the second half, pulling to within 51-48 after a turnaround from Costello with 14 minutes left.
Michigan State pounded away at the boards, winning extra possessions with rebounds, and the Jayhawks exercised ball control, limiting the turnovers to just five with 10 minutes left in the game
The Jayhawks would threaten to pull away once again, building a 61-50 lead after a bucket from Mason with 9:43 left. But Valentine would not stop. First came the triple double stat line with more than six minutes left. Then came a three-pointer from the wing that gave the Spartans a 65-64 lead, their first of the second half.
“I’ve always thought he’s a good player,” Self said. “I think tonight he proved to everybody he’s an exceptional player.”
Now Kansas will move on. The Jayhawks will have six days off before returning to the floor Monday against Chaminade in the first round of the Maui Invitational. They will have time to wipe away the feeling from this loss and move forward. But part of the process will include confronting the flaws — from the rebounding, to the finishing, to the litany of missed layups, just 9 inches from the basket.
“We can certainly improve,” Self said. “But the one thing, in order for us to win big consistently, is we got to be able to score with our back to the basket some. And we get none of that, unless it’s Perry.”