It’s that time of the season. A time to question, to wonder, to ask yourself this question: Is there really genuine drama left in this Big 12 race?
If you have followed Kansas basketball during Bill Self’s tenure, the seasons tend to take on a familiar rhythm, especially during a streak of 10 straight Big 12 titles. There is, in general terms, a hot start during Big 12 play (See: This year’s 8-1 start). There is always a building consensus that Kansas has wrapped up the Big 12 title before the race has truly begun. And then there is early February, a time for a road loss or two, a surprising result, and the usual questions about the Jayhawks’ flaws and problems.
In Self’s first 11 seasons at Kansas, his teams lost 31 Big 12 games. More than 41 percent of those losses (13 of 31) came during the first two weeks of February. There are various theories to explain Kansas’ February swoons. Perhaps the Jayhawks let up after a strong start in Big 12 play; perhaps an opponent has more motivation to secure a signature victory; perhaps the real outlier is Kansas’ ability to roll through the first month of the Big 12 conference, and the February losses are just a natural regression to the mean.
“That happens a lot with teams throughout a season,” Self said on Saturday after a 67-62 loss at Oklahoma State. “They get a little full of themselves, or they take the foot off the gas, or they lose their edge a little bit. And so we got to get back and get our edge back.”
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Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma State, of course, was not quite in the category of stunning or unexpected. The Jayhawks lost on the road to a team that is likely headed for the NCAA Tournament. Road losses happen. Self’s teams have historically struggled at Gallagher-Iba Arena. And according to advanced statistical site KenPom.com, Oklahoma State was a one-point favorite on Saturday.
But as No. 8 Kansas prepares for a trip to Texas Tech on Tuesday night, the Jayhawks will try to fight against any tendency to let one February loss turn into a full-fledged slide. The Red Raiders enter with just two conference victories, but Kansas has had its share of struggles inside United Spirit Arena, especially during the early years of the Self era. Last year, the Jayhawks needed a layup from Andrew Wiggins on a broken play in the final seconds to escape with a 64-63 victory.
Self, meanwhile, would like to shake off a string of poor road performances. The Jayhawks were average in a road victory at TCU on Jan. 28 before Saturday’s loss at Oklahoma State. In both games, Kansas was exposed against defensive pressure and a full-court press.
“The last two road games we played, we haven’t played well — at all,” Self said. “So we need to get back on a better track. Everybody talks about winning all the time — winning and losing. And obviously, we’re all judged by that. But it’d be more important to me if we just play better, play right. Then (the) wins and losses will take care of themselves.”
If there were such a thing as a February wall — and Self would likely push against its existence — the Jayhawks’ freshmen appear to have rubbed up against it in recent weeks. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander, who had eight points against Oklahoma State, is averaging just 4.5 points in 16.2 minutes during Kansas’ last four games.
“I don’t think he’s hit a wall by any stretch, but he hasn’t scored the ball as much lately,” Self said late last week. “But if you look at how he scored in other games, it’s off of penetration. It’s not off of catching the ball in the post and making post moves or scoring over people.”
For most of the season, Self has offered a similar refrain when discussing his team’s struggles. When the Jayhawks play with a certain level of energy, the offense seems to flow with more pace; the defense appears to fly around the floor with more intensity. At Oklahoma State, the Jayhawks were limited on both ends.
“We didn’t play the best of our ability and we just have to regroup,” junior forward Perry Ellis said.
In some ways, these are the dog days of winter for college basketball teams. The grind continues, while the promise of the postseason still sits weeks away. A year ago, the Jayhawks lost twice in the first 10 days of February, then reeled off four straight victories and claimed their 10th straight title. Two years ago, the Jayhawks lost three straight in early February before winning seven straight. This year, of course, Self is hopeful that Kansas can avoid a February setback.
“I would like to think that some of it is inexperience,” Self said. “I also think it’s a mind-set as much as anything.”