Maybe the misleading story lines and over-analysis are just part of the background noise here, like those pop-up videos during timeouts or the Rock Chalk Chant at the end of wins.
Because so much of the talk around this particular Kansas basketball team has been about what it cannot do and what it does not have. Not enough inside scoring. Not enough athleticism. No dominant big man. No lock for first-team all-conference.
All of those points have varying degrees of legitimacy, and the part about inside scoring remains a potential problem, but the focus has been so far toward the holes that it’s been easy to miss the Jayhawks’ strengths.
Because, viewed in the light of day and with reason, the team with supposedly underwhelming talent or no identity or whatever other pick that’s been nit is winning the nation’s No. 1 RPI league by two games and tracking toward a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament after a 74-64 win over No. 16 Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday.
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“We’re getting better every day,” says Kelly Oubre, the freshman star. “We’re only getting better.”
Things can change quickly, and it’s unlikely that KU makes it through the final six conference games without at least one loss. But taken in both the micro and macro sense, this is a rarity: a KU basketball team that’s actually better than many people think.
Some of that is because when the Jayhawks play bad, they play awful. They lost to Kentucky and Temple by 32 and 25 points, two of the worst three losses in Bill Self’s 12 years at Kansas. Also, a win over now-No. 11 Utah is often overlooked because it was a pseudo home game at Sprint Center, the Utes aren’t a name brand in the sport, and KU blew a 21-point lead.
But if you’re watched teams around the country, you know that there are no boats without holes. Kentucky is undefeated and by far the sport’s best team, but it’s worth pointing out the Wildcats are underwhelming on offense and have had several near-losses.
Besides, even if this is a repeat of the 2011-12 season, when Kentucky won the national title with Anthony Davis and a bunch of other cyborgs, Kansas is in a deep second tier of teams for the other Final Four spots.
The focus on what KU can’t or hasn’t done has overshadowed what it can and has done. Even beyond being in position to win the league outright, KU is now 21-4 against what is widely seen as the nation’s toughest schedule.
The nuance here is worth noticing, too, because as tough as the schedule is, it’s also diverse. Utah and Oklahoma feature top individual scorers with two of the nation’s best 10 defenses. Iowa State runs, Florida grinds. Baylor has its Amoeba zone defense, Georgetown is precise with what we’ve all come to know as the Princeton style of offense, and Michigan State is always one of the nation’s toughest teams. The Jayhawks are 8-1 against those teams.
That versatility will be tested again on Monday, with a road game against West Virginia’s frenetic pressure.
“Our league is good for a lot of reasons,” Self says. “And one of the reasons it’s good is you would think for postseason preparation, there’s not many things, many styles, people will throw at us that we haven’t seen.”
If the focus on what KU lacks has overshadowed its strengths, Self deserves much of the credit. Because as much as his comparison of Joel Embiid to Hakeem Olajuwon last year grabbed attention, Self is more often a prolific sandbagger.
This is his move, to talk openly of his teams’ weaknesses, often comparing them in November and December to the February and March versions of past teams.
This particular group gave him ample material to work with but seems to be finding its way. Those losses were graphic, and even the wins were flawed. It was easy to see the negative. But the positive is important, too.
After averaging just 10 minutes per game through mid December, Oubre has played like a projected lottery pick since moving into the starting lineup. Much has been made of Ellis’ inability to make shots, but he’s shooting 48.3 percent since Dec. 31.
Wayne Selden is averaging 16 points in his last five games, Brannen Greene has shown to be one of the nation’s best shooters, and Frank Mason has been the team’s best player. It’s hard to tell how much Cliff Alexander is being slowed by a bad back, but he has shown a soft shooting touch.
KU is not without weakness, obviously. This is not one of nation’s best five teams, probably, so by the program’s warped standards maybe this is a down year.
But in what sure looks like a wide-open field behind Kentucky, there isn’t a team KU can’t play with and perhaps few others can match the Jayhawks’ improvement and transformation over the last six weeks or so.
This group has proved that when it plays bad, it can play wretched. But those low points and the conversation around them have fogged over the reality that when KU plays well, it can play terrifically.
With just three weeks left before the postseason, the track record shows KU has been good far more than it’s been bad — no matter which gets noticed more.