Vahe Gregorian

KU loss at Iowa State illuminates what Jayhawks lack

Bill Self on what went wrong for KU in Iowa State loss

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self talks about what went wrong for his team in a 77-60 loss to Iowa State on Jan. 5, 2019. The Jayhawks fell to 12-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big 12.
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Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self talks about what went wrong for his team in a 77-60 loss to Iowa State on Jan. 5, 2019. The Jayhawks fell to 12-2 overall and 1-1 in the Big 12.

Any number of times over the last few seasons, Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks might sputter early and be on the verge of fading out of a game.

Then, presto, an iron-willed leader — see: Frank Mason and Devonté Graham — would stabilize the situation and typically even spark a rally and … all good.

Plenty of those scenes had unfolded right here at Hilton Coliseum, where eight of the previous nine games between KU and Iowa State had been decided by eight or fewer points or in overtime and where the Jayhawks by Self’s assessment played “awful” a year ago but gritted out an 83-77 victory.

But as fifth-ranked Kansas came unhinged in a 77-60 loss to unranked Iowa State on Saturday, a defeat that included 24 turnovers, there was no one on this star-studded but young team ready to assume the pivotal intervening role that Self prefers come from his backcourt.

So for all of KU’s potential, particularly when junior center Udoka Azubuike presumably soon returns after being a late scratch Saturday because of a wrist injury, there is a void where Kansas has a vital need.

When in the past “a veteran figures out a way” to buoy the team, Self said, “there was none of that today.” And that has a tendency to ripple.

“As young as our guards are, and this includes even (senior) Lagerald Vick, we played very, very, very immature today,” Self said, adding that that led to “everybody went into their own little cocoon when things went poorly as opposed to galvanizing. …

“We didn’t have the leadership — yet — that needs to develop so that we can be in situations like this and actually perform better.”

With his emphasis on “yet” noted, Self was asked how that can be cultivated, if not accelerated, on a team whose other two starting guards are freshmen Devon Dotson (five turnovers) and Quentin Grimes — who led Kansas with 19 points but still is finding himself and reluctant to assert leadership.

As it happens, Self said that dynamic was a key part of an apparently lengthy postgame chat with the team that he said had “lost all composure and didn’t compete as hard” late in the game.

“It would be nice if anybody would be able to step up,” said Self, noting that the job calls for, among other duties, being able to take heat and deliver coaching messages to teammates. “We don’t have anybody that’s an extension of that yet. Right now, I don’t know how it’s going to play out and how we’re going to get better at that.”

That might sound jarring after KU (12-2) fell to 0-2 in true road games and basically was out of this one by midway through the second half. The best thing Self could say about the day was that it was probably best the Jayhawks got thumped instead of edged.

Because “it’s very evident that we have deficiencies,” he said. “... Everybody’s going to leave out of here knowing how bad it actually was, and sometimes that’s not an awful thing to get your team’s attention.”

If you had to guess based on track record, it’s hard to figure that Self won’t, in fact, secure his team’s attention and move it forward with the sort of adjustments that have made him a Hall of Fame coach.

The “sky isn’t falling,” he said, before joking that after correcting “some stuff” that “the rest of the season should be smooth sailing.”

More likely, it will have plenty more ups and downs as Self tries to meld all this together and stoke leadership.

Now, maybe it still seems inevitable that KU will win its 15th straight Big 12 title and do some damage in the NCAA Tournament. But it also will be no small feat for him to find the rudder that makes everything else go for a team that also could learn to play better together — like the one it faced Saturday.

The team that was going to win, Iowa State coach Steve Prohm told his team before the game, was the one that was mentally tougher, more detail-oriented and better defensively.

That was unmistakably Iowa State (12-2), which also got much more cohesive guard play and ball movement.

So maybe this is a wake-up call wrapped in a so-called teachable moment inside a mirage, just one of those inevitable dips KU habitually has absorbed and endured and ultimately shrugged off on its way to those Big 12 titles … and usually then some.

Just the same, a certain something special is missing right now for KU, which needs to find and nurture that presence if it’s going to gel.

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Kansas Jayhawks players Dedric Lawson and Quentin Grimes tell reporters Udoka Azubuike was a big part of the gameplan following the Jayhawks' 77-60 loss to Iowa State on Jan. 5, 2019.

Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.