Jeff Withey knows how you feel. In fact, he’s felt it, too — that strange blend of satisfaction and frustration.
On Monday night, Withey had scored 15 points in Kansas’ 61-56 victory over West Virginia in Morgantown. The Jayhawks had moved to 19-1 — 7-0 in the Big 12 — and improved to 5-0 in true road games this season. And earlier in the day, Kansas had risen to No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll and No. 2 in the Associated Press poll.
On most days, Withey would have relished the moment and relaxed on the late-night flight back to Lawrence. So why was this any different?
“As a team,” Withey said, “we know we can play better.”
For the fifth time in seven games, Kansas had failed to score at least 65 points and the Jayhawks had committed 16 turnovers during another slop-heavy performance. The victories continue to pile up, but for the last month, the style points have been at a minimum.
“It’s a little frustrating at times,” Withey said, “but at the same time, you’re 7-0, you can’t not be satisfied. You’re obviously doing something right.”
Maybe, of course, the Jayhawks are just victims of their own dominance. A year after another Final Four run, the Jayhawks have won 18 straight, just five victories shy of setting a new single-season KU mark for consecutive victories.
KU coach Bill Self has a phrase he likes to call “Kansas math” — the idea that his program can lose all its best players to graduation and the NBA, and fans still expect to be better the next year.
Well, maybe this is a “Kansas funk” — an extended slump that appears much more serious than it really is. For instance, the Jayhawks played some efficient and smooth basketball for the first 15 minutes against West Virginia. A few more free throws would have given them 40 first-half points in a Big 12 road game. And even after struggling in the second half, Self made a clear distinction: There’s a difference between playing good and scoring more points.
“If the score was 74-69,” Self said on Monday, “everybody would be thinking we played really well. Which doesn’t mean we played well, it means we didn’t guard. But we may have played better offense.”
Kansas will put its streak on the line again on Saturday, when it plays host to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse. And according to advanced statistics, the Jayhawks still fit the profile of a top-ranked team. According to defensive efficiency numbers at KenPom.com, KU’s defense now ranks third in the country. And despite playing its least-efficient offense since the 2005-06 season, KU still ranks in the top 20 nationally on offense. Still, there are issues to address.
“Our guard play has got to get better,” Self said. “Teams that pressure us (and) get up after us, we’ve turned it over here of late. I thought we actually did some good things (against West Virginia), but we made some bone-headed plays.”
Self hopes his team is learning something from these hard-fought victories. And maybe, he said, they can learn the hard lessons without losing the hard way.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Withey said, “which is good. You don’t want to peak too soon, and we’re definitely not there yet.”