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KU basketball seeking more 'oomph,' toughness on defensive end

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self shouts instruction during Tuesday night's game against Oklahoma State in Stillwater, Okla. The No. 6-ranked Jayhawks lost 75-70.

LAWRENCE — Bill Self apparently isn’t the only head coach capable of doling out blunt assessments on the state of Kansas basketball.

Self spent the opening minutes of his weekly “Hawk Talk” radio program Thursday breaking down what’s broken down of late for No. 6-ranked KU, which dropped a 75-70 decision Tuesday at Oklahoma State. Inadequate defensive play, Self argued, has been the biggest red flag across his team’s uneven start to Big 12 play — the Jayhawks allowed the Cowboys to connect on 45.5% of their field goal attempts and were outscored 37-8 on fast-break points in that setback.

As it turns out, Self isn’t alone in that line of thinking.

“I talked to a coach (Thursday) and she told me, she said, ‘Bill, I watched you guys play early in the season. You weren’t very good offensively but you guarded. Now you’re not guarding,’ ” Self said. “Coming from another coach, that’s actually kind of tough to hear.”

Self didn’t reveal the identity of his contemporary on the other end of the call, but he did note she has been a longtime Division I head coach “at the highest level.”

And, obviously, he agreed with her analysis.

“That’s the fact,” Self said. “We’ve got to get back to guarding.”

While the Jayhawks still rank ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency at advanced analytics outlet KenPom.com, troubling signs have bubbled up since the team's return from holiday break. KU (10-3, 4-2 Big 12) surrendered a 49.2% opponent field goal percentage and were outpaced 14-6 in fast-break points in an 84-59 defeat to then-No. 8 Texas on Jan. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Self drew a distinction between his team’s two conference losses, noting that the Longhorns’ advantage in athleticism meant that even if the Jayhawks had guarded well — they didn’t — the end result may still have been the same.

That was not, Self said, the case against OSU, which didn’t simply out-athlete KU.

“I said (at the second TV timeout), ‘Guys, they’re on pace for 125 (points).’ There wasn’t that pride of saying, all right, enough is enough. We’ve got to get better at that,” Self said. “We early in that game scored at will ourselves. I mean, we got anything we wanted. But then after they got the lead, started making shots, they got more energy, we got deflated, and next thing you know it’s a 15-point game.”

Cade Cunningham, the former consensus top-overall recruit in the Class of 2020, played the biggest role in OSU’s early hot stretch. He scored 12 points in the game’s first 10 minutes and finished with a team-high 18 points.

The Self-described “best player on the floor," Cunningham made it look too easy.

“When we had guys in opportunities to guard the guy that may be the No. 1 pick in the (NBA) draft, we didn’t take it as a personal challenge a lot of times,” Self said. “(Cunningham) scored one basket on Marcus (Garrett) the whole game, and then everybody else, we had such a hard time. It was frustrating. We’re better than that, but it was frustrating.”

KU did manage to rally, outscoring OSU 21-2 at one point late in the game to take a three-point lead into the final minute. Even then, though, it took the rare deployment of a triangle-and-two zone defense “just to not get run out of the gym,” Self said.

“We didn’t guard. We were slow,” Self said. “We’ve got to play with a little bit more ‘oomph’ without question, and toughness.”

As for the lopsided points-in-transition margin, it continued what's been arguably the most troubling trend for KU — the Jayhawks have now been outscored in fast-break points in five of their six conference contests. 

Self didn’t identify a lack of effort as the root cause behind the Cowboys’ 37-8 edge in transition. He did, however, state that film revealed too many instances where, rather than getting back on defense, KU players took a step toward the ball after an opponent’s defensive rebound, creating a situation where they lagged behind on fast break after fast break.

Those kinds of mental mistakes, Self said, can make any athlete look slow.

“Our ability — and this coach's fault, this if my fault — our ability to be able to read when the other team secures the ball and then get our ass back, you would think that would be something that would be very instinctual, but I guess we haven’t emphasized that enough,” Self said. “They ran by us like we were standing still. That’s embarrassing.”

Self did comment that he was proud of the way his group fought back from what was a 16-point second-half deficit, crediting his players’ patience and execution during that stretch. Still, there’s much work to be done on the end of the court that the best Jayhawk teams under Self have traditionally taken the most pride in.

“We have the margin for error not to be great on the offensive end, but on the defensive end I don’t know that we can not be turned up and allow other teams to get easy baskets,” Self said, “because on the flip side, it’s too hard for us to get those same easy baskets.”

There is, however, some cause for optimism here.

KU still ranks second in the Big 12 with an opponent field goal percentage of 41.5% in conference play. League foes are scoring 67.3 points per game against the Jayhawks, who only trail Baylor (61) and Oklahoma (67) in that category.

KU will look to improve upon both of those clips in a pivotal three-day stretch that begins with a 1 p.m. Saturday tilt against Iowa State (2-7, 0-5) at Allen Fieldhouse and concludes with an 8 p.m. Monday matchup against the No. 2-ranked Bears (11-0, 4-0) in Waco, Texas.

“It’s a big week for us,” Self said. “Gotta hold serve at home, and we haven’t done that yet. We’ve already lost one at home. Can’t let one become two. Certainly then we could take our act on the road against arguably one of the best two teams in the country that is absolutely terrific. We need to have a good next 96 hours.”

Surgery sidelines Thompson

Freshman guard Bryce Thompson, who broke his right index finger diving for a loose ball in the loss to the Cowboys, had surgery Thursday morning and will be out indefinitely, Self said.

A former five-star recruit, Thompson was making his return Tuesday after missing the previous three contests with a back injury.

“We don’t know if it’s going to be a month. We don’t know if it’ll be seven weeks. We don’t know right now,” Self said. “But we do know positively that (surgery) went well and everything they had to do went exactly as expected. (He’ll) make a complete recovery. We just want it to happen sooner rather than later.”

A 6-foot-5, 188-pound native of Tulsa, Okla., Thompson is averaging 5.1 points on 35.3% shooting this season.

“I was very disappointed and hurt for him, because he wants to be out there so bad,” Self said. “... He needs the reps bad. But he’ll come back. He’s tough as nails.”

IOWA STATE AT NO. 6 KANSAS

Tipoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence

Records: Iowa State 2-7, 0-5 Big 12; Kansas 10-3, 4-2 Big 12

Line: TBD

TV/Radio: ESPN+ (online streaming)/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7)

Up next for KU: at No. 2 Baylor, 8 p.m. Monday, Ferrell Center, Waco, Texas