The youthful ‘Hawks dug themselves into an eight-point hole in the a first-half in which they handled the ball like it was going to explode and the basket didn’t count unless you shot the ball hard enough to go through the backboard.
KU head coach Bill Self, showing the kind of exasperation known only to coaches, George Bush’s handlers and first-time parents, cited mental errors, particularly in the first half.
“We didn't come as individually ready early in the game as we should have. We made so many silly plays, and it was just a mess in transition,” Self said. “The next thing you know, you're behind the eight ball. We were fighting from behind all night long.”
Self has talked all season about how there would be times this team would labor to score, and Thursday night’s first half was one for the text book. The Jayhawks shot just 34 percent, including 1-for-8 from long range to go into the locker room down, 35-27.
“Our guys tried hard, but they were nervous, and when things don’t go right early, they lose a little energy,” the coach said. “We were just dying the first half to try and make a basket. From my standpoint, it looked like we were just waiting for somebody else to do something as opposed to guys stepping up.”
In the second half, Kansas played much better, shooting 53.6 percent from the field, and even took a three-point lead with 4:22 left in the game. However, a more experienced Nevada club made free throws down the stretch – they were 21 of 24 (87.5 percent) on the night – to come back and then keep the Jayhawks at arm’s length.
“They’ve got a good, experienced team. They make their free throws. They’re well-coached. And they played through their best player. They’ve got a really nice team,” Self said.
The coach said that his biggest frustration was not physical mistakes on the way to losing but rather mental errors and a youthful mindset.
“Nevada, in all honesty, they probably scored 55 to 60 points against defense and they probably scored 12 to 17 points against our mental mistakes,” Self said, shaking his head. “Just so many mental mistakes.”
He added, “This team is going to have to learn that it’s a lot easier to play with a lead than to play from behind. We let them get a lead early by not making plays – by making mental mistakes as opposed to poor play.”
Self said he didn’t think the Jayhawks played badly, but that they’re aren’t good enough yet to make the same mistakes a more mature club can make and get away with it.
“We fouled when they’re not looking to score. Those are tough to come by when teams are just trying to get to the house and hope that you foul and give them some free points and certainly we helped them. If we hadn’t helped them, the outcome might have been different. That’s part of growing pains, I guess.”
“We’re so young, we’re just a little – ‘timid’ isn’t the right word – non-aggressive as far as understanding what wins games. If you can’t get the ball, you can tap it or beat it out of bounds,” he said. “We have to get into that aggressive mindset.”
So, the Jayhawks are 2-3 for the first time since Rick Suttle and Tommy Kivisto’s relatively inexperienced 1972-73 Jayhawks started that way. One might worry about this young team’s confidence. Self admits that they team “needs something good to happen,” but he isn’t concerned.
“These guys are young. (Their confidence) shouldn’t be too shaken. We knew going in that there were going to be some ups and downs. Of course, we wish we were 4-1 instead of 2-3, and we could easily be better.”
Sure, Self’s right: they could be better, record-wise. But to steal a line from KU football coach Mark Mangino, this team truly is “a work in progress.”
After a brutal first half, the Jayhawks showed character and heart – not to mention a lot of raw ability and a little bit of attitude – in bouncing back against a legit Nevada team. That ability will be there all season long. So as long as the heart is still there, the players, coaches and fans should be encouraged.
That combination of ability and heart is also what makes this sluggish start tough to take. However, like it or not, this loss to the Wolfpack was a classic example of the ups-and-downs that this young team’s going to experience this season – at least, for awhile.
If we all remember to breathe – don’t lock your knees or you’ll pass out – and just enjoy the process of watching this team grow up, the trials and tribulations of November and December will make January and February and maybe even March just that much more satisfying.
By the way, the 1973-74 Jayhawks went to the Final Four.