There isn’t much time to analyze Kansas’ 86-81 loss at Iowa State on Saturday night. The ninth-ranked Jayhawks play host to No. 18 Oklahoma on Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse, and in a Big 12 schedule that is the equivalent of a two-month cage match, the Jayhawks must hold serve at home to keep pace in the league race.
But before moving on to Monday, The Chalkboard is here to help answer one obvious question from Kansas’ loss in Ames: Why did Kansas coach Bill Self go away from freshman forward Cliff Alexander in the second half?
Self, of course, answered this question on Saturday night, saying Alexander needed to play with a more consistent “motor”. The issue has also been addressed here and here and probably many other places on the internet.
But a quick refresher: Alexander put up six points and six boards in 12 minutes during the first half. He played just two minutes in the second half, sitting the final 14-plus minutes. And the players that inherited Alexander’s minutes (Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Hunter Mickelson) combined for zero points and six rebounds in 37 minutes.
So, yeah, what happened?
Well, Alexander’s benching appeared to stem, at least in part, from this play during an Iowa State run in the second half. Alexander, who was guarding Cyclones forward Dustin Hogue, gets caught ball-watching and then fails to close out in time when Hogue finds himself open on the three-point line.
Moments later, Iowa State scored another bucket off transition. Self called timeout, and Alexander never played again. Here was that possession:
During the post-game press conference, Self was asked about Alexander’s second-half minutes.
“I didn’t think his motor was very good tonight,” Self said. “That was the reason.”
Well, that was kind of vague. So a few questions later, I followed up with another question about Alexander. For context purposes, the question was phrased essentially like this: “Is there a balance with Cliff, because maybe he’s not doing what you need him to do, but he can still do things that your other big guys can’t do?”
In other words: Are you tempted to let Alexander play through some defensive lapses because he can dunk the basketball and finish inside and probably protect the rim better than any Kansas big guy?
Here was Self’s answer:
“I think the big thing is you got to play with a motor.” Self said. “When you’re guarding a guy that’s active on the perimeter, you got to at least close out or be in a stance or do some things to try and guard him. I didn’t think that was the case at all.
“Although he can put up some numbers, but we’re not going to win consistently unless he plays with a motor. And he won’t play well consistently unless he plays with a motor.”
Translation: Alexander didn’t guard the way Self wanted him to guard. And that earned him a spot on the bench. Self, of course, has a history with sending messages to players. And in most cases, Self’s motivational tactics and long-game approach has suited Kansas well. After all, the coach who has won 10 straight Big 12 championships generally gets the benefit of the doubt.
Yes, sticking with Alexander may have given Kansas a better chance to pick off a victory in Ames on Saturday. Then again, it certainly wasn’t helping when Dustin Hogue kept drilling threes because Alexander failed to close out.
Perhaps, though, the simplest read of the situation is this: This is not Self’s best Kansas team. They have limitations. Their margin for error is thin. If the Jayhawks are going to reach their ceiling — another Big 12 trophy, a possible run to the Final Four, and so on — the Jayhawks need Alexander to grow into a workhorse big man, somebody that Kansas can lean on during the season’s most important month.
If you believe this to be true, then perhaps Self is right to hold Alexander to a higher standard. The Jayhawks’ season could depend on it.