This year’s Kansas basketball team will forever be remembered as one that left us begging for so much more.
Certainly more than a second-game exit from the NCAA Tournament after a forgettable 60-57 loss to No. 10-seed Stanford. That gave KU a closing ledger of 25-10, the most losses in more than a decade, though a brutal preseason schedule played a role in that.
Really, we probably should have seen this coming once Joel Embiid’s back gave out. The Jayhawks’ loss Sunday was their fourth in the last seven games and without their primary rim protector, it caused a seismic shift in the way the team played.
Most of us thought the Jayhawks’ first-game struggles against Eastern Kentucky were just a blip. But if anything, they were just the tip of the iceberg.
I still believe a lot of it has to do with this team’s inability to shoot the 3-pointer to open up the court. In two NCAA games, the Jayhawks were a miserable 5 of 23, four of the makes coming from freshman Conner Frankamp, who until the last month was seen as a spare part and at the end was among their best players. They were 0-fer in the first game and 5 of 16 against Stanford. To win in this day and age, you have to be able to shoot the 3, although Stanford was an exception to the rule by going 0 of 9, as this game didn’t feature many H-O-R-S-E shooters.
It was a frustrating end to a frustrating season. At the start, Kansas was expected to struggle since it lost its entire starting five from a year ago. But when Bill Self reloaded with a bin-busting freshman class, with the cherry on top being No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins, expectations became wildly unfair. Fans saw what Kentucky did a couple of years back with a collection of one-and-doners and many thought KU could do the same.
Wiggins was perplexing to me all season. He absolutely crawled into a hole on Sunday and played scared to death. He no more looked ready for the NBA than any average freshman. He took only six shots, scored four points and turned it over four times. While he’s incredibly athletic (I actually dislike using that term since all players at this level are athletic), he’s still very raw. His footwork at times is horrible and he can’t shoot from mid-range, yet his numbers would suggest he had an outstanding season. Like I said about the team, Wiggins left me wanting so much more. He has to improve his body language and develop a mean streak. He has to want to be “the man,” and not just stand in the background.
Not having Embiid can’t be overstated. You put his motor in Wiggins and Whoa Nelly, what a player you’d have. Like Wiggins, he’s probably gone and we saw only the infant stages of both. It’s too bad college basketball allows its players to leave after one year, because the possibilities of them at KU for another year would have been intriguing.
The third heralded freshman, Wayne Selden, was MIA for the last stretch of the season. If his handlers are telling him to go pro, they are doing him a major disservice and setting him up to fail. He’s so far from NBA-ready that it’s laughable. He was 1 of 10 for two tourney games and was getting benched more and more in favor of Frankamp and Frank Mason toward the end of the year.
Then there’s Perry Ellis and we have to remember he’s just a sophomore. He’s really good at the offensive end and while he does get a lot of rebounds, he simply can’t guard. When he looks at the replay, he’ll be horrified how many times he was beat to the basket and how many times he got caught flatfooted watching shots go up and not moving to get the rebound. He’s got to get tougher physically and mentally.
The decline of Naadir Tharpe coincided with the Jayhawks’ struggles. You just don’t get the feeling the coaches and other players trust him running the team as he makes the same mistakes over and over with his careless passes and penchant for allowing teams to tie him up.
We can’t predict what KU will do next year because we don’t know who’s coming and going. Wiggins and Embiid are goners. Ellis, Selden (assuming he’s back), Tharpe, Frankamp, Mason, Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene are a good nucleus and maybe Landen Lucas will come on along with Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson, another big body. Two more heralded McDonald’s All-Americans have been signed and Self will still be on the sideline, though other than 2008 and 2012 his NCAA record is hardly spectacular.
KU will be KU, which means it will probably win an 11th straight Big 12 title even though the other teams are closing the gap. For this team, though, to make an extended run, it has to develop the 3-ball (maybe Frankamp will be the home-run hitter they need), not commit so many careless and silly turnovers, and play defense the way KU teams played it in the past.