The surface of the college basketball season has barely been scratched and already two of Kansas’ Big 3 have been nicked.
Kansas and Wichita State suffered the rarity of losing on the same night, as both were pinned with defeats on Tuesday that raised questions instead of answering them.
The knock on Kansas in the last couple of years is that they’ve been too young to win the big-time games. The Jayhawks have ridden one-and-done players like Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Kelly Oubre and, to a minor extent, Cliff Alexander the last two years, along with a group of sophomores who are now juniors.
But youth can’t be used as an excuse anymore. This is a veteran Jayhawk team, battle-tested over the summer when it won the World University Games, displaying a toughness that was missing during last season.
But that toughness could not be found on Tuesday in the 79-73 loss to Michigan State. Once the Spartans punched the Jayhawks in the mouth in the second half to erase a 13-point deficit, KU never got up to fight back.
I thought KU was over this. The summer performance gave Jayhawk fans hope since time and again they got off the deck to bring home the gold.
But Wayne Selden — who was KU’s best player this summer — looked like the Wayne Selden of so much unfulfilled potential. He all but disappeared in the second half and was terribly outplayed by Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine, who basically put the Spartans on his back. Selden was 3 of 12 from the field and you could see his confidence sapping as the game went on.
Perry Ellis was fine — 21 points, six rebounds — but Landen Lucas had a miserable night as he missed four shots from point-blank range. He did grab seven rebounds, as did Jamari Traylor, but as a team KU got pounded on the glass, which has been a bugaboo for it in big games. All three players tried to finesse their way around the basket instead of taking the ball to the rack with ferocity.
Frank Mason played with his usual tenacity, but missed a couple of key free throws. Devonte’ Graham was a no-show (1 of 9), while the bench provided little. I was a bit surprised with Lucas struggling to finish that Hunter Mickelson didn’t get more of a chance.
The Jayhawks, of course, will be fine. They generally tank in this Classic, as they are now 1-4, and while this game exposed their flaws, they’ll still be a Top 10, maybe a Top 5, team when all is said and done.
It would have been interesting to see how KU would have fared had rim protector Cheick Diallo been able to play. He’s reportedly a defensive menace with a high motor, something KU didn’t have.
I’m sure KU fans are going all-Chicken Little because of the loss. To that, I say “chill.” The sky is not falling.
As for Wichita State, its loss to Tulsa in the renewal of what used to be a great series when both were Missouri Valley powers didn’t come as a total surprise. The Hurricane are a veteran team loaded with seniors. The Shockers are Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, then pray for rain.
VanVleet’s numerous injuries reduced him to a shell of his last year’s form. He usually controls the game and other than a burst where he made three straight treys, he wasn’t the VanVleet we’re accustomed to.
Baker played up to his All-America status with 23 points, but looked exhausted at the end. Newcomer Anton Grady is going to help as he had 18 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds, but Rashard Kelly and Evan Wessel were no factors. The bench, loaded with youngsters, wasn’t ready for a game like this.
I thought the Shockers were tabbed a bit high in the preseason. Baker and VanVleet have to be at the top of their games every night for them to win and it shows if one doesn’t have it, the Shockers are going to struggle.
Like KU, I’m not going to predict gloom and doom, but there are definitely more clouds hanging over the Shockers. Their lack of size could be exposed as the year goes on and either Kelly or Shaq Morris are going to have to be that consistent fourth option since Wessel, other than his memorable game last year against KU, generally doesn’t look to score. He had three points in 28 minutes on Tuesday and seldom looked at the basket.
Hard to believe it’s one week into the season and Kansas State is the Sunflower State’s only unbeaten.