WASHINGTON, D.C. — Bill Self is not happy with where his Kansas team is a month into the season.
Not even close.
And to understand that, you really don’t have to look much farther than who is currently starting for the Jayhawks. Svi Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 wing from Ukraine with a ton of potential, might be the best NBA prospect in the Kansas program, but he’s also a 17-year old living in the United States for the first time. As head coach Bill Self likes to say, “he’s pretty good for a high school junior.” At center, Landen Lucas has been starting of late, and as one longtime scout told me recently of Lucas, “I’m not convinced he’s more than a low-major player.”
While those two get major minutes for the Jayhawks, Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, two top 10 recruits and projected lottery picks, come off the bench. Alexander has been a major part of the rotation, but Oubre? He played 16 minutes on Wednesday night, which was his season-high. He had logged 23 total minutes the previous four games.
“We’re not good right now,” Self said. “I think we have the potential to be good because we’re so young. We’re just trying to figure it out. We don’t know where our shots are coming from consistently. We don’t know who to play through at times. Sometimes Frank [Mason] is the best player on our team. Sometimes Wayne [Selden] is. Sometimes Perry [Ellis] is. We haven’t quite figured it out yet.”
And that should terrify you.
Because while you’re still hung up on that 32-point shellacking that No. 10 Kansas took at the hands of No. 1 Kentucky during the Champions Classic, what you may not have noticed is that over the course of the last five days, the Jayhawks have landed a pair of wins that you rarely see young, still-learning teams earn.
On Wednesday night, Kansas went into the Verizon Center and knocked off Georgetown, 75-70, in a game that the Jayhawks seemed primed to lose. Kansas was up by as much as 12 in the first half, and while they kept making runs during the final 20 minutes, they were never really able to get separation from the Hoyas. Georgetown always had an answer, whether it was in the form of an L.J. Peak three, a pair of low-post buckets from Josh Smith or an easy transition layup created by the defensive play-making of Mikael Hopkins.
This had Georgetown-steals-a-win-at-home written all over it, but Kansas, when they needed to make a play, made it.
“It was a toughness win,” said Brannen Greene, who finished with a career-high 19 points, hitting 5-for-5 from three. That included a trio of massive threes in the second half, the last of which pushed the Kansas lead to 68-63 with less than three minutes left. “We grinded it out.”
“We didn’t play great, but I thought we competed pretty hard. We won some important possessions,” Self said. “When we had to have a good possession, we got a good possession.”
Georgetown’s record may not show it, but that’s a very good basketball team. By the end of the season, don’t be surprised to see them sitting in the top 20 of the national polls and slotted right behind Villanova in the Big East standings.
Now let’s rewind to last Friday, when the Jayhawks hosted an underwhelming and undermanned Florida team and proceeded to get absolutely run out of the gym for the first 24 minutes. At one point early in the second half, Kansas was down 45-27. It was ugly. Everyone in Phog Allen Fieldhouse was getting ready to write off any chance of winning an 11th straight Big 12 title, and every writer on press row was prepping to write their ‘Will Kansas ever turn this around?’ column.
And then, all of a sudden, the Jayhawks woke up, attacking the rim, hitting open threes and pounding the glass as they completed a massive comeback, winning 71-65.
“It was just like Jekyll-and-Hyde the first half and second,” Self said.
Bad teams don’t do that.
They don’t erase 18-point second half deficits against NCAA tournament teams coached by a Hall of Famer, regardless of how banged up they are. They don’t hold on to beat quality opponents on the road when they commit 17 turnovers. They don’t do things like win the Orlando Classic, which Kansas did last month, and beat Michigan State in the process.
Right now, at this very moment in time, Kansas is a good basketball team. Good enough to win the Big 12? Probably not. Good enough to make the Final Four? Doubtful. But they’re good enough to play less than their best and do the things that good teams do.
So what happens when they do play their best?
What happens when Alexander and Oubre fully get the hang of what Self is looking for out of his star freshmen? What happens when Oubre gets the hang of where he’s supposed to be defensively? What happens when Selden irons out his inconsistencies? What happens when all-Big 12 forward Ellis goes back to being the guy you always forget about because there’s just so much talent around him?
They’re starting to get there. You can see it with the touches Cliff gets and the confidence that Selden is starting to build back up. You can see it with Oubre, who attacked the basket off of ball-screens quite a bit on Wednesday. Perhaps more telling is that after blowing a defensive rotation — he was late on help-side and allowed Smith to catch an over-the-top pass in the post for a dunk — Oubre was yanked, yelled at on the bench … and put right back into the game a minute later.
The future is bright for Kansas, and the future will be here sooner than you realize.
If Kansas keeps moving in the direction they’re currently moving, we’ll find out sooner rather than later.