How you view the No. 11 Kansas Jayhawks right now might depend on your general level of optimism. The Jayhawks are either a growing team that has won three straight, or a rugged work-in-progress that struggled to put away a middling Tennessee team on Friday afternoon.
On one hand: Freshman forward Cliff Alexander is starting to settle in, Frank Mason is a more complete guard, and Perry Ellis looks like Perry Ellis again when not facing a lineup of 7-footers. On the other hand: the Jayhawks still have a potential first-round pick who looks lost; they’re still sorting through a more definitive rotation; and they had to fight for close to 40 minutes to pull away from a rebuilding Tennessee team that edged Santa Clara by seven points on Friday.
Either way, the Jayhawks will play No. 20 Michigan State on Sunday in the Orlando Classic championship game. The Jayhawks have an opportunity to win an early-season tournament with an eight-team field for the first time since the 1999 Great Alaskan Shootout, if you can believe that. And with that, the Chalkboard has questions:
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Is Cliff Alexander finally close to cracking the starting lineup? Perhaps. Bill Self says Alexander is “starting to get it.” He’s doing less thinking on the court; he appears more comfortable in the Kansas offense; and his productivity has increased here at the Orlando Classic.
Alexander, who is sixth on the team in minutes per game, is second on the team in scoring (10.4 ppg) and second on the team in rebounds (5.6). According to advanced numbers, his offensive rebounding percentage (16.1) ranks 57th in the country, and his offensive rating (121.4) is third on the Jayhawks behind Perry Ellis and Brannen Greene, the latter of whom is boosted by some solid outside shooting in limited minutes.
Alexander can still be foul prone, so that’s something to consider, but he’s making a case as Kansas’ best rebounder and best scoring option alongside Ellis in the frontcourt.
Should we concerned about Kelly Oubre’s performance? Oubre, a top-10 recruit, is very clearly struggling. He’s playing just 8.8 minutes per game and is tied for third on the team with seven turnovers in five games. Self says every freshman has a process, and he still believes Oubre will be a factor this season. It’s still November, after all. But right now, he’s pretty clearly the sixth-most effective perimeter player on the team. Freshman wing Svi Mykhailiuk appears to understand the offensive concepts better, and he is a better positional defender and ball-mover on offense. And sophomore Brannen Greene is making a case for more minutes, mostly on his ability to score. In a limited sample size, Greene is shooting 43 percent from three and giving the Jayhawks some needed outside shooting.
Has Jamari Traylor been exposed while playing more minutes? It’s early, yes. But for now, it looks like some of Traylor’s best attributes — energy, speed and athleticism — haven’t played as well in a more regular role. Traylor looks slightly miscast while playing alongside Perry Ellis — both are smallish power forwards — and his numbers have suffered. He leads Kansas in turnovers (10) and is shooting just 33 percent from the floor. Here’s a quick reminder, though: Traylor shot 67.4 percent as a sophomore. If you put him in the right offensive situations, he can be an effective complementary player. And despite being 6-feet-8, Traylor is still one of Kansas’ more capable weak-side rim protectors.
Sophomore guard Frank Mason can have tunnel-vision while driving to the rim, but his overall court-vision appears improved this season. Here’s one example: A lob pass to Cliff Alexander in the second half against Tennessee. Watch Mason find Alexander open inside, look to his left to freeze the defense, then throw the pass.
Junior forward Perry Ellis. In two games at Disney, Ellis is averaging 20.5 points and nine rebounds. When he’s not matched up against a frontcourt of 7-footers, he’s still one of the country’s more efficient inside scorers.
In Kansas’ last three games, the Jayhawks are shooting 41.5 percent from three-point range. That’s after shooting just five of 25 in their first two games. Sometimes basketball is pretty simple. If you make shots, you look pretty good.