It’s been 15 years since someone other than the Kansas Jayhawks could call themselves the outright Big 12 regular season champion, a streak that is almost as impressive as the half-decade of consecutive seasons where we found ourselves asking at some point if this is finally going to be the year.
Is this when the title streak comes to an end? Or will, inevitably, the trophy end up back in Lawrence as it always does?
I do not know have that answer, but I do know this: As of today, January 30th, Bill Self’s team is as bad as I can remember seeing them be. But whether or not they are truly in danger of seeing their decade and a half of dominance come to an end is more complicated than that.
Kansas lost on Tuesday night at Texas, the fifth time in six games this season that they have lost on the road, to fall a game behind Kansas State and Baylor for first place in the league standings. Baylor is the one team Kansas has actually beaten on the road, and while Kansas State has been better in the last three weeks, this is still a team that is capable of getting smoked by the dumpster fire that is Texas A&M
Hell, at this very moment, nearly 50 percent through conference play, the team that KenPom is projecting to win the Big 12 — Iowa State — currently sits in fifth place. If Bill Self can get this team to 12-6 in the league, that might be enough to win a share of the conference title.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the Jayhawks have some major issues right now, and there does not appear to be an easy fix.
What is wrong with Kansas?
Let’s break it all down.
1. THE MARCUS GARRETT CONUNDRUM
The crux of the issue for Kansas is Marcus Garrett.
A 6-foot-5, 195 pound sophomore, Garrett is legitimately one of the best and most versatile defenders in college basketball, the perfect piece defensively as Kansas has been forced to revert back to the small-ball movement that has taken over the program the last three seasons. He can defend any position on the perimeter, and he’s tough enough that he shouldn’t get totally overrun by bigger defenders.
The rest of the KU perimeter rotation consists of freshmen and a senior that has the consistency of a freshman. Self needs Garrett out there.
The problem is that Garrett can be a non-entity on the offensive end of the floor. He had a three-game stretch where he averaged 17 points prior to Saturday’s loss at Kentucky, but those three games were the three highest-scoring games of his career. Self’s ability to scheme Garrett into dribble-handoffs that allowed him to turn a corner and get downhill was not going to last forever. In losses to Kentucky and Texas, Garrett was a combined 2-for-13 from the field.
The reason this is such a problem for Kansas is that it allows opponents to play two bigs against them without getting burned by more talented guards on the other end of the floor. Think about it like this: In 2016-17, Kansas’ perimeter attack consisted of Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Josh Jackson, with Jackson playing the four. All four of those guys are now playing in the NBA. Last season, Graham and Mykhailiuk were flanked by Malik Newman and Lagerald Vick for much of the year.
If you tried to hide a big body on any of those guys, you’d be getting burned.
That forced bigger teams to matchup with them.
That’s not the case this season.
Neither Kentucky nor Texas even pretended to be worried about Garrett on the perimeter:
This leads us to the second part of the problem.
2. QUENTIN GRIMES AND LAGERALD VICK HAVE NOT BEEN GOOD ENOUGH
I’m not exactly breaking news here, but this is becoming as big of a problem as Garrett’s offense for Bill Self.
The secret is out on Vick, and while he has a reputation for being a player that is, shall we say, moody, I do think that part of the issue he’s facing right now is that he is the only guy that opposing defenses are worried about on the perimeter. As good as he was early in the season, the truth is that he is essentially a tough-shot maker, a lob-catcher and a floor-spacer. Relying on him to go and get 30 to save Kansas on a night where the rest of the offense gets bogged down was never going to last. The only reason that we didn’t have to have this conversation about Kansas back in November was because Vick went for 33 against Vermont, 32 against Louisiana, 29 in an overtime win against Stanford and 27 against Villanova. The Jayhawks trailed in the second half in three of those four games and dug themselves a 12 point first half hole in the fourth.
Think about it like this: Last season, Kansas shot 40.1 percent from three — which was tenth nationally — which is what allowed Udoka Azubuike so much freedom in the paint. You couldn’t help off anyone.
That is decidedly not the case this year:
Dedric Lawson is the Kansas all-american this season.
And because their perimeter has been so ineffective, the result is that it is becoming easier and easier for teams to scheme Dedric Lawson right out of the game.
Which leads to the obvious question: What if Kansas just plays Ochai Agbaji in place of Marcus Garrett?
Eventually, that may be the answer, particularly if Agbaji’s performance on Tuesday night is who he will be the rest of the season.
But it’s important to remember that he disappeared for two weeks after he exploded on the scene in his first two games. Agbaji, as talented as he is, is still a freshman that has played a grand total of 147 minutes in seven games as a collegian. Grimes, another freshman, has not exactly been a modicum of consistency himself. Neither has Vick, and that’s to say nothing of the fact that we don’t know whether or not any of those three are A) Tough enough defensively to be able to guard up, or B) Going to win the matchup at the four more often than Garrett.
And that leads me to the single biggest problem facing this Kansas team.
3. IT IS HARD TO WIN WHEN YOUR ROSTER ISN’T LOADED WITH NBA TALENT
Who on this Kansas roster is going to play in the NBA, let alone be a first round pick or a potential star at the next level?
Let’s talk through it:
- Grimes probably will. At the very least, he’ll get drafted. But he’s been such a mess this season that he’s gone from being a guy thought of as a potential top ten pick to a player that might end up returning to school for his sophomore season.
- Lawson is going to get a shot at the next level because of his size and skill level, but he’s a slow-footed, below-the-rim forward that is shooting 28.2 percent from three this season after shooting 27 percent from three his last season in Memphis. That’s pretty much the opposite of pace and space.
- Vick was run out of the Kansas program during the offseason, but he had to beg his way back onto the roster because his pro prospects were so limited.
- Dotson has been a pest defensively and has shown all the toughness in the world, but at this point in his development, he’s a defender and a player that can do some damage when he gets going down hill. He’s not yet a point guard that makes the players around him better.
- Should we even bother mentioning the other KU big men? The reason that Self has been forced to play small this year is because David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot can’t replicate the interior presence of Azubuike, who himself is a relic of the NBA’s past.
- Frankly, Agbaji is probably the best longterm prospect on the roster, and he has a long way to go to get to where he needs to be to seriously consider the NBA.
At the end of the day, talent is going to win, and Kansas just doesn’t have enough of it.
That’s why they are in a bad spot, but the saving grace for this group is that no one else in the Big 12 looks like they are much better.
Texas Tech can guard but they can’t score. Kansas State is basically a poor-man’s version of Texas Tech. Baylor lost Tristan Clark, who was their best player this season, and Jake Lindsay. I’m not sure Texas has the goods to get it done.
Iowa State is the team that would scare me, but they’ve already played Kansas twice, they’re heavily reliant on youth and trusting them means trusting that Cam Lard and Lindell Wigginton figure things out. There’s not guarantee that happens.
For my money, this Kansas team is as bad as any in recent memory. The only year that contends was the 2015, better known as the Cliff Alexander Experience, but even then, the Jayhawks had Wayne Selden and Kelly Oubre playing alongside breakout star Frank Mason.
Then again, Kansas seems to find a way to win the Big 12 even when they aren’t the best team. We wouldn’t even be having this conversation if Texas Tech’s Keenan Evans hadn’t broken his toe last February.
But he did.
And here we are.
Once again wondering what rabbit Bill Self is going to pull out of his hat to save the streak this time.