They couldn’t score. They couldn’t defend. And as Kansas coach Bill Self declared after an 85-80 loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 2, the Jayhawks didn’t have a point guard.
On Friday night at the Sprint Center, No. 1 seed Kansas will open the NCAA Tournament against Western Kentucky. The Jayhawks, 29-5, have a visible road to the 15th Final Four in school history. And as senior Elijah Johnson said on Selection Sunday, it feels like everything is coming together at the right time for KU.
That is to say, it feels so much better than it did in mid-February. It’s easy to forget now, that grisly eight-day stretch of basketball. Do you remember? Self called his team’s performance at TCU the worst since Naismith coached against the Topeka YMCA. Johnson bore the brunt of rampant criticism while shooting nine of 37 (24.3 percent) with 10 turnovers during the three-game losing streak. And the Jayhawks looked like a tired team — one that had flushed its chances for a No. 1 seed or even a ninth straight conference title.
“We had no personality, no bounce,” Self said. “We were duds and maybe feeling a little sorry for ourselves, questioning ourselves and maybe (we) lost a little confidence.”
The Jayhawks held two team meetings during those eight days, and the positive effects seemed to be muted. There are, of course, a handful of reasons that KU was able to right the ship. Johnson says the Jayhawks started having fun again. (They even jumped on the “Harlem Shake” video craze when it was semi-OK to do so.) The Jayhawks’ guards, including Johnson and sophomore Naadir Tharpe, began to emerge from their shooting struggles.
But if there’s a simple explanation for the Jayhawks’ late-season renaissance, it came down to this: The Jayhawks starting guarding again.
KU regained its mojo while holding K-State to 40 percent shooting in an 83-62 victory on Feb. 11. And the Jayhawks followed by holding their next six opponents below 40 percent shooting. If there’s a reason to believe in KU’s chances in the NCAA Tournament, Johnson says, it begins on the defensive end.
“We know that March is about defense,” Johnson said. “It’s really not about offense.”
Kansas finished the season ranked first in the nation in field-goal percentage defense (36.0), and according to KenPom.com, it ranks fifth in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. The last three national champs have all ranked in the top 15 in adjusted defense.
If the Jayhawks want to make up for a sometimes inconsistent offense — they rank a respectable 25th in offensive efficiency — they can’t afford the defensive lapses that marked their three-game skid in February.
“You get to the tournament because you can play offense,” Johnson said. “But it’s about who can stop a team when you can’t score. And we learned that last year. That was something that we didn’t know before.”
It’s in Self’s nature to believe that a team can’t reach its full potential unless it goes through some adversity. Self calls this “going through some crap”, and in retrospect, that week back in February was full of it.
Take that week away, Self says, and it’s been a pretty good year. One victory away from 30 wins. Another Big 12 title. And so on. The Jayhawks, of course, can’t wash that week away. But if Self is right — and teams need to feel some heat — maybe they wouldn’t want to anyway.
“Fortunately for us,” Self said, “these guys got it back. And when they got it back, they got it back in a big way.”