Sam Mellinger

Kansas, the nation’s No. 1 team, is relentless but flawed heading into postseason

Kansas coach Bill Self on Jayhawks' win over Iowa State

KU coach Bill Self talks about win over Iowa State on senior day.
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KU coach Bill Self talks about win over Iowa State on senior day.

Perry Ellis made the play of his 137th college basketball game without earning a point, rebound, assist, block or steal. He had to dive on the floor to do it, banging bodies against a bigger man, and surely Ellis will feel sore when he wakes up but it was actually the other guy who came up holding his hip.

And, everything considered, isn’t that a pretty good way to describe Ellis?

And, for that matter, a pretty good way to describe this Kansas basketball team?

Coaches sometimes say they want their teams to win 60 percent of the 50-50 balls, but this was more like a 20-80 ball, but Ellis won anyway and threw it to Wayne Selden, who fired a bounce pass to Devonte Graham for a layup in the final minutes that as much as any other moment turned and defined No. 1 Kansas’ 85-78 win over No. 21 Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday.

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“We have to do more things to create energy and make other teams play poorly,“ KU coach Bill Self said, when asked to compare this team with others he’s had here. “We’ve shown we’re capable of that, but we haven’t been consistent at it.”

Kansas will finish the regular season ranked No. 1, and no matter what happens at the Big 12 Tournament at Sprint Center, the Jayhawks will be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced a week from today.

And doesn’t it feel just kind of, sort of, maybe like a setup?

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Because Kansas has been in this situation before. A lot.

There may not be an achievement going in sports as unlikely as Kansas winning 12 straight Big 12 championships, and there is not a regular season in sports as openly disregarded as college basketball’s.

So, here is where we are — Kansas enters the postseason as the best team (by the polls and many advanced metrics) in a season when that’s rarely mattered less.

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The Jayhawks won what is widely regarded as the best conference in the country by two games, but they won the race more with fuel mileage than horsepower.

They won all 10 conference games decided by 10 points or fewer, and aside from three-point shooting — which tends to be especially streaky in the NCAA Tournament, and which Self is famously uncomfortable relying upon — they are not statistically outstanding in any particular area.

If there’s a lottery pick on this team, it’s Cheick Diallo, and that’s only if he comes back next year and makes big improvements. If he does, that will likely mean this is the first year no Kansas player is taken in the first round of the NBA draft since 2006.

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“The margin for error is less,” Self said. “You talk about (college basketball) being wide open, so it’s less. The reality of it is, I couldn’t be more confidence about these guys moving forward. But the energy level we had defensively the first half, that may be enough to go home disappointed.”

It’s a strange thing, a team without a superior talent or obvious identity being good enough for its sport’s top ranking. Kansas has an impressive list of good post players, led the league in defensive field-goal percentage, but is not a great rebounding team and Self has consistently mentioned rim protection as a weakness.

Ellis is a natural scorer, Wayne Selden can change a game when he’s hitting shots, and Frank Mason is a relentless attacker, but there is no obvious go-to scorer. Basketball coaches, Self included, often talk of the importance of players who can score when the called sets aren’t working, and KU’s roster is full of guys who need help.

Bob Davis, who has been the "Voice of the Kansas Jayhawks" for the past 32 years, called his last home game in Allen Fieldhouse Saturday night. He spent the evening talking with friends, having his picture taken and honoring the senior class.

A lot of this is nitpicking, or judging on style points in a competition decided by actual points. Because this team has a lot of strengths, too. They are relentless. They are experienced. And since a wobbly three weeks in the middle of January, they have shown themselves to be tough as hell, mentally more than physically, in total comfort in the game’s hottest moments.

If it goes the other way — especially if Kansas loses early — the story will turn, and quickly. It will be said that their regular season won’t mean much, that the Big 12 wasn’t nearly as good as many thought, or that they can’t respond away from the overwhelming advantage of Allen Fieldhouse when an opponent punches back.

But before any of that happens, it’s worth stopping to consider that one of the country’s most storied programs is without an obvious lottery pick and won the nation’s top conferences and will take some fundamental flaws and a No. 1 ranking into a postseason it plans on attacking with the attitude of a midmajor.

Perry Ellis, Devonte' Graham & Jamari Traylor talk about beating Iowa State on senior day.

How often does this happen?

“It’s pretty much a different feeling,” Jamari Traylor said when asked to compare this with his four other teams (he redshirted) entering the postseason. “I feel like we’ve got a group of guys who are a little more hungry.”

The other way hasn’t worked in recent years, and this way has been enough for the last five weeks.

That’s nice, for now. But even by the standards of college basketball, the importance of right now has rarely been lower.

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