When Phog.net spoke to Kansas head coach Bill Self before the trip to Maui, he was not shy about pointing out his team’s strengths and weaknesses. He also confirmed that Maui would teach him even more about this year’s squad. So after going 1-2 in the Aloha State, Self came back with a laundry list of things for his Jayhawks to work on.
"In-game execution, getting stops when we need to get stops and the value of certain possessions are all things we need to work on. Our energy level at home has been better than it has been away from home,” Self continued. “It's like that with every team. If we can get a consistent level of energy defensively, that will really help us."
Though Self will always feel there’s room for improvement, so far the “D” has been a strong suit for Kansas. KU’s opponents are shooting 34 percent from the floor and only 33 percent from three. The first-shot defense has been terrific, but the defensive rebounding remains an area of concern. It also seems that Self has found an unlikely defensive-stopper in freshman Brandon Rush.
"Brandon's done a good job against the other teams' main guys, like (Arkansas guard) Ronnie Brewer and (Arizona guard) Hassan Adams. (Nevada’s Marcellus) Kemp would be a similar matchup for him. Brandon has made great progress. He's much better defensively than we thought he would be,” proclaimed Self.
The defense seems to be miles ahead of the offense right now. Kansas is shooting 47 percent as a team, and perimeter shooting remains a concern. The Jayhawks are shooting under 30 percent from three, and other than Rush, the numbers are simply --- ugly.
"I think they're all good shooters. (Jeff) Hawkins shot the ball very well up until a certain point. He's going to make some shots. He's a better shooter than what he showed in Hawaii. I think Russell (Robinson) is also a better shooter than what he's shown. Same thing for Mario (Chalmers),” Self continued. “You take the one game against Arkansas away, and Mario hasn't shot the ball consistently yet. The one guy who has made shots for us is Brandon (Rush). He shot the ball very well. All four of those guys can shoot it. We also have to get Micah (Downs) involved. He hasn't shot the ball too well yet, but I think he's going to be a good college shooter."
Offensively, Self admits his team is still searching for an identity. It’s has been, and will continue to be, a learning process for the third-year head coach and his team.
"I thought that we were a better penetrating and driving team than we were a shoot-off-the-catch-type of team. I thought our big guys would be better from a passing standpoint. We've known for a while that we weren't going to have Darnell, so we tried to play in a way that wasn't going to force us to play quite as big,” Self admitted. “To be honest, we probably didn't play through our big guys enough. Sasha (Kaun) and C.J. (Giles) have both improved a tremendous amount. I also thought the way we spread the ball and drive it would get us to the free throw line a lot more. We have to get to the line to give us a chance."
The trip to Maui provided plenty to be positive about. The scoring Self promised was there, as seven players are averaging six points or more. It’s not just the scoring that’s more evenly distributed -- so are the assists. This is clearly a much better passing team overall than last year’s.
"We have more guys that can feed the post this year. We might not have one guy average seven assists, but we could have three guys that average four. That makes you more balanced. Last year our team didn't have near as much balance," said Self.
The comeback against Arizona provided plenty of reasons for optimism. After a turnover-plagued start, the Jayhawks fought back from a 20-4 deficit and showed their fight. There were more reasons for optimism against Arkansas though KU failed to make the plays/stops necessary down the stretch. Finally, the Jayhawks took another step forward and fired on all cylinders against Division II Chaminade.
Maui proved it will be quite a rollercoaster ride for this Kansas bunch all year long.
“As a group, I think this is going to be a really good team. I don't think we can get too excited after a win or too down on ourselves after a loss. It's natural to go through ups and downs,” said Self.
But for Self, this young and talented group is a fun one to coach.
"Yes, they are. They're frustrating sometimes. I think that my intensity level is equaled by their's. A lot of that has to do with their youth. I've said all along that this is going to be a great team to coach. We're going to continue to get better and better,” Self stated.
The Jayhawks will attempt to showoff that progress Thursday night in the confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse. A ranked Nevada team is set to provide yet another test. The Wolfpack are led by one of the best big men in the country, Nick Fazekas.
"We did a pretty good job with Nick last year, but a pitiful job on him two years ago. I watched Nick play over the summer with USA Basketball. He's really a good player. He's a face-up guy with a low post game. We're going to have to be very sound defensively against him or he'll make our young guys not look very good. He has a knack for basketball,” Self continued. “You forget that he's 6-11. He's definitely a long guy. There's a certain way we're going to have to defend him to slow him down and not give him good looks."
It’s not just Fazekas Kansas has to worry about. Head coach Mark Fox returns four starters. KU will also have to contend with guard Marcellus Kemp who is currently Nevada’s leading scorer at 21.0 ppg off the bench.
"I think they're every bit as good as last year and maybe better because of Marcellus Kemp. They lost some guys, but Kemp, who was hurt last year, is really good. This team is also battle-tested,” confirmed Self. “They certainly have a legitimate ranking right now. I don't know if they'll be the best team we've played to date, but they certainly can play with anyone that we've played so far. This is going to be a very tough game for us."
With as much as we’ve already found out about the 2005-2006 Jayhawks, were about to find out more.
"I think this is a key stretch for us. We have a chance to play some very good teams coming up. We're going to find out a lot more about our team, more so than we did in Hawaii. Here, we'll have a chance to tweak things whereas in Hawaii there was no chance to make adjustments,” said Self.