With time to let the outcome sink in, Kansas’ loss at TCU seems even more unfathomable. It may rank as one of the greatest upsets in recent college basketball history, by computer ranking, league standing or simply an eyeball test.
How could the Jayhawks — who in December won at Ohio State, now ranked No. 10 in the country, by an eight-point margin that could have been larger — make one field goal in the first 13 minutes against a winless Big 12 team on Wednesday night?
A more urgent question: Is Kansas broken beyond repair? By Jayhawks standards, that means a conference championship and ability to contend in deep into the NCAA Tournament is in doubt.
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla watched the game in disbelief and, like everybody else, said he didn’t recognize the team in the blue uniforms.
“It had to be an almost out-of-body experience for Bill Self for the first 15 minutes,” Fraschilla said. “They played like a team with a fragile psyche.”
Self agreed in his postgame comments, calling the first half “the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor” as Kansas trailed 22-13 at the break.
Unfortunately for Kansas, which fell to 19-3 on the season and 7-2 in the Big 12, the troubles aren’t isolated. Point guard play is a focus, and putting Elijah Johnson away from his natural shooting guard spot has been problematic. Reserve Naadir Tharpe is willing to play boldly at times. But he also can be the team’s most cringe-worthy player when he beats the defense and misses a layup.
Against TCU, swing player Travis Releford, the team’s third-leading scorer and statistically its best shooter, attempted one shot.
Clearly the offense is as dysfunctional as it’s ever been, and there are no shortage of suggestions. Unable to beat teams physically, KU should opt for an up-tempo approach. Or it should play more through Withey and get the right shooters shooting. Maybe some or all are valid, but Fraschilla said wholesale changes are unlikely.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “This is same team that was 19-1, doing many things right. But what’s going to be interesting is teams don’t stay the same through the season. They get better or they get worse.”
Kansas has to hope this is a roller coaster season and trust that its players can regain their form in the second half of the Big 12 schedule.
Working in the Jayhawks’ favor is the overall strength of the conference and college hoops overall. Analysts agree the game has hit a down cycle. If there’s a year to achieve with less, this appears to be it.
In Self’s decade at KU, especially during the early part of his tenure, the Jayhawks have had teams with less future NBA talent. And Kansas also experienced stinging losses in those years — early NCAA Tournament exits and early regular-season defeats in Allen Fieldhouse. Six of Self’s eight home losses at KU came in his first four seasons, including defeats to Richmond and Oral Roberts.
But the TCU embarrassment stands out for a couple of reasons. First, this KU team is senior-led. Until Wednesday, four seniors started. Withey, Johnson and Releford are only in their second year as starters, but they’re veteran players who are counted upon to take ownership for problems and confront adversity.
The opportunity to not let one defeat fester into a losing streak presented itself after the home loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, which makes Wednesday’s fail all the more perplexing.
Also, the TCU loss came neither at the season’s end, nor the beginning. After an early-season upset loss, practice can become a laboratory. A season-ender is just that, and in most cases, concludes a joyful ride that lasted for months.
This one occurred at the midway point of the conference race, allowing fans plenty of opportunity to question, second-guess or panic. What’s around the corner for the Jayhawks, who play at Oklahoma on Saturday and meet Kansas State, now tied with KU for first place in the Big 12, at home on Monday?
After a pair of rarities in a five-day stretch — a second home loss in seven years and a consecutive loss for the first time in eight — Kansas fans don’t have a clue. The most sure thing in the Big 12 now lives in the unknown.