Kansas is very much in uncharted territory these days. After losing to Oklahoma 75-68 on Saturday, the Jayhawks have lost three straight games, the first time Kansas has done that since 2013.
Those three losses are more than enough to drop the Jayhawks out of the top 10 of the polls. It has also dropped Kansas to the middle of the pack in the Big 12 at 4-4 in conference play. Given the depth in the Big 12 and the strength at the top of the league with Baylor and Texas, the Jayhawks are in serious danger of failing to win at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title for just the third time during Bill Self’s tenure.
Clearly, there’s something wrong with Kansas, but what is it? A year ago, the Jayhawks were an obvious national championship favorite. If not for a global pandemic, Kansas could easily be the reigning national champs right now. But what has caused the Jayhawks to fall so far over the past year and suffer a rare three-game losing streak? More importantly, is there still time for Kansas to turn things around and be in a position to make some noise in March?
Just a Tough Stretch?
Before we go any further, is it possible that we’re overreacting just a little? The Jayhawks have lost to a talented Oklahoma State team, No. 2 ranked Baylor and an Oklahoma team that’s in the top 25. Those three losses have all come by a combined 20 points, so it’s not as if Kansas has been blown out in recent losses. The Jayhawks also had a game against lowly Iowa State postponed. That likely would have been an easy win for Kansas, preventing the Jayhawks from losing three straight.
On the other hand, the Jayhawks also suffered an embarrassing 84-59 loss to Texas in early January, meaning they’ve lost four of their last six games. Shouldn’t a program like the one Self has built at Kansas be able to withstand a difficult stretch of games? Why haven’t the Jayhawks been able to meet the challenges presented by one of the best conferences in the country?
“I don't think we're talented enough not to have a hard stretch if we don't play well,” Self said after the loss to Oklahoma.
Not Enough Talent
Self’s comments serve as the aha moment for anyone who was still wondering what is the matter with Kansas right now.
Since last season, the Jayhawks have lost Udkoa Azubuike, one of the elite big men in college basketball, and Devon Dotson, who averaged 18.1 points and four assists per game for Kansas during the 2019-20 campaign. The Jayhawks lost those two players and didn’t have replacements waiting in the wings, causing a sudden drop off in the team’s success in 2021.
It was always going to be difficult to replace a dominant big man like Azubuike, who was a first-round pick, as well as a player like Dotson, who is getting a chance in the NBA after going undrafted. But that’s what programs like Kansas are built to do. Instead, the Jayhawks have no player on the roster who resembles an NBA player. There’s no player with an elite skillset who can impact a game in multiple ways. In fact, there isn’t a player on Kansas who is close to that.
There were high hopes for Marcus Garrett heading into the season, but while he’s continued to be an excellent defensive player, he’s not a reliable offensive option. In fairness, Ochai Agbaji has done his best to fill Dotson’s shoes, shooting 43% from the perimeter and averaging 14.5 points per game, which is up from 10 points per game last season. However, he’s not the same caliber of scorer or playmaker as Dotson.
At times, Christian Braun’s outside shooting has given the Jayhawks a much-needed lift, although he’s still lacking consistency, scoring seven points or less in three of his last four games. Meanwhile, freshman Bryce Thompson has failed to make much of an impact, especially for a five-star recruit. Even before breaking his finger prior to the team’s three-game losing streak, he wasn’t contributing much.
In the frontcourt, the Jayhawks have similar talent issues. David McCormack’s erratic play and occasional issues with foul trouble have kept him from adequately filling the void left by Azubuike in the paint. Self has lost faith in him at times, as he struggles defensively against smaller players but doesn’t stand out among the other big men in the Big 12. For a while, freshman Jalen Wilson looked like a potential savior, as he hit the ground running and played a major role in early-season wins over Kentucky and Creighton. But he’s hit a wall against some of the top teams in the Big 12, scoring four points in the loss to Oklahoma State and four points in the loss to Baylor.
By Kansas standards, the overall talent on the roster is average at best. The Jayhawks have several solid pieces, some of whom can look like All-Big-12-caliber players on a good day. However, Kansas is lacking the star power needed to rise to the top of a loaded Big 12 or even compete against the top teams in the conference if everyone in the lineup doesn’t have a strong performance. This is the reason why the Jayhawks have lost three games in a row, albeit three losses to quality opponents.
Can Kansas Be Saved?
Since we are more than six weeks away from Selection Sunday, it’d be foolish to say that any team doesn’t have enough time to fix whatever ails them and reach their full potential. Self is certainly operating under that assumption. However, after losing three in a row, even the head coach is acknowledging that something isn’t working and that changes are afoot.
“What we need to do and buy into to be successful hasn’t been bought into yet,” Self said. “We’re not aligned. We’ve got to all be on the same page.”
Self appears to be planning some lineup changes when the Jayhawks return to action later this week, as he attempts to mix and match to find the right combination. However, there doesn’t appear to a solution to the team’s fundamental problem, which is the amount of talent on the roster.
Barring a sudden improvement in the quality and consistency in the play of Agbaji, McCormack, or Garrett, there is nothing that can alter the Jayhawks’ current trajectory.
For what it’s worth, Kansas is still an NCAA Tournament team. The Jayhawks may even end up being a top-4 seed in the Big Dance. But they aren’t a threat to reach the Final Four anymore than they’re a threat to catch up to Baylor and Texas at the top of the Big 12 standings.
The Jayhawks are destined to remain what they are right now, which is a second-tier team in one of the nation’s best conferences. Unlike past Kansas teams, they fall into the category of good but not great.
Unfortunately for Self and the Jayhawks, there’s no way to fix that by the end of the season.
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