Bill Self hasn’t had to go through many stretches like this in his 20 seasons at Kansas. Yet the coach hasn’t seemed angry or even all that discouraged during a rare three-game losing streak.
Self knows this isn’t the same Jayhawks team that won the national championship last season.
Kansas (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) has gone from having one of the nation’s most experienced rosters to a much younger group without a proven presence in the post in a loaded Big 12 Conference that may be better than ever.
“We don’t have as much margin for error as we’ve had in years past and that’s OK,” Self said. “But (when) you don’t have quite as much margin for error, and the other teams in the league are a lot better, it makes it tough.”
The ninth-ranked Jayhawks have lost three in a row for only the fourth time under Self. Each loss was to a ranked conference opponent, two on the road. The latest was 75-69 at Baylor on Monday night in a matchup of the last two national champions, the fifth win in a row for the 17th-ranked Bears.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’ve got to take a different approach and understand that it’s a marathon,” Self said. “It’s not an immediate reaction, because you can react immediately in this league, and you’ll have nine other teams go through the exact same thing at some point.”
Kansas is still loaded with talent.
Junior forward Jalen Wilson leads the Big 12 with in scoring at 21.4 points per game and is second in rebounds at 8.6. While streaky, freshman Gradey Dick (14.9 ppg) is the league’s top 3-point shooter at 43.7%, and Texas Tech transfer Kevin McCullar Jr. averages 7.3 rebounds. Dajuan Harris Jr. is one of the top assist men at 6.5 per game despite his extended shooting struggles.
But these Jayhawks are different than most of Self’s standout teams in the past that played through the post with big guys like David McCormack, Jeff Withy, Thomas Robinson or Udoka Azubuike.
McCormack was part of last year’s title team, along with first-round NBA draft picks Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. The Jayhawks also lost ballhandler Remy Martin and veteran sharpshooter Jalen Coleman-Lands.
Kansas plays its SEC/Big 12 Challenge game Saturday at Kentucky (14-6), which won 80-62 at Allen Fieldhouse last season. The Jayhawks will be trying to avoid their first four-game losing streak since 1988-89, their first season under coach Roy Williams.
After going to Rupp Arena to face coach John Calipari’s struggling Wildcats, the Jayhawks return to conference play against fifth-ranked Kansas State. They then open the second half of their Big 12 schedule at No. 12 Iowa State before hosting No. 10 Texas.
“Our league is that good,” Self said. “It’s going to be a grind.”
The Jayhawks trailed by as many as 13 midway through the first half at Baylor. They took their only lead when Wilson swished a 3-pointer with 15 1/2 minutes left, but the Bears responded with a 12-3 run.
“The way that K-State played the first 10 minutes, the way TCU played the first 10 minutes, and the way Baylor played the first 10 minutes, if we had played really well, we would have still been behind,” Self said, before using a wrestling analogy prompted by seeing two former Oklahoma State classmates in the postgame interview room at Baylor.
Brad Livingstone was a senior at Oklahoma State during the 1981-82 season, when Self was a freshman for the Cowboys. Livingstone’s wife, Baylor president Linda Livingstone, also played basketball for the school in Stillwater where wrestling is big.
“When you’re on top and you can get riding time, it takes twice as much energy if you’re the low man in wrestling. … It’s exactly the way basketball is too,” Self said. “When you’re behind, it takes more energy, everything’s magnified, it takes more effort. And when you’re playing with the lead, obviously you’re looser, everything’s not life or death.”