— Something seemed off. In the 14 days since a manic, triple-overtime victory over Oklahoma, Kansas coach Bill Self kept seeing the same signs from his basketball team. They came in a lackluster road performance at Texas Tech, and they surfaced in a energy-deficient loss at West Virginia. They showed up again during practice, in the two-a-days built around the winter break schedule, and the signs popped up on Saturday, in an unconvincing 70-63 victory over TCU at Allen Fieldhouse.
His team looked tired and fatigued, Self said, with none of the energy that helped the Jayhawks climb to No. 1 in the rankings on the day of that Oklahoma victory.
“I’m kind of struggling with it,” Self said.
In some ways, of course, Self doesn’t want to make too much of this lull. All teams go through these stretches, he says. But as No. 3 Kansas hits the road for the third time in 11 days, facing Oklahoma State at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Stillwater, the run of sluggish performances has moved from blip to trend, something to track as the Jayhawks head into the heart of Big 12 play.
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“It’s a long year,” Self said. “We look fatigued the last two games, to be real candid. And we’ve talked about it with our team. And certainly, we can’t cut back much on practice time, because we certainly have not been in the gym as much as what we’ve been in years past.
“But [we’re] just trying to keep them off the feet, keep their mind and their bodies fresh.”
The rut began, of course, with the Jayhawks’ first trips outside Allen Fieldhouse during conference play. This is understandable, of course; what program doesn’t have some issues on the road? But it offers no consolation as Kansas heads into a building that has been a real trouble spot during Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks, 15-2, have lost two straight games at Gallagher-Iba Arena. Self is 3-5 in trips to his alma mater while at Kansas. As a whole, Kansas is 5-6 in its last 11 Big 12 road games, dating back to last season. Tuesday looms as a chance to stop that trend.
“We lost the first two at Oklahoma State since I’ve been here,” junior guard Frank Mason said. “So we want to get on a roll and start winning there.”
The Jayhawks’ last three games have been categorized, in part, by poor offensive performances. Kansas, one of the best outside shooting teams in the country, has struggled at times to make shots, shooting worse than 44 percent in three straight contests. Junior guard Wayne Selden has come back down to earth. Mason has hit his own personal wall, shooting only 36 percent and committing 16 turnovers in five Big 12 games. Self says Mason has lacked his usual aggressiveness on offense; he’s not quite sure why. And this leads to a chicken-and-egg scenario of sorts. Are the Jayhawks struggling on offense because of a poor energy output, or does the energy level just seem depressed because the Jayhawks aren’t making shots?
Self is the first to admit that his teams will play with more energy when shots fall — a habit that he loathes. He also makes a distinction between effort and energy. The Jayhawks’ effort level has been adequate, Self says, but their energy has been lacking.
“Energy is contagious,” Self said, offering a non-scientific breakdown of the differences. “You’re lighter on your feet. A lot of guys try real hard, but if you don’t have that bounce and that energy, you never look quite as quick.”
In college basketball, slumps can be relative, of course, and Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford would love to own some of these Kansas problems. The Cowboys enter Tuesday night with a 9-8 record, losers of four straight, and Ford says the Jayhawks look like “a team that could win a national championship.”
“I’ve not seen too many teams that are better than Kansas right now, as far as a whole,” Ford added.
First, though, the Jayhawks must re-find the form that marked their rise in December and early January. For Self, the short answer begins with one word: Energy.
“It’s not a huge concern,” Self said. “It’s just something that everyone deals with. And hopefully we’ll get ours out of the way now and have much more energy for the stretch run.”