Questionable Moves Leave Kansas Looking Up

I'm usually not one to second-guess KU basketball coach Bill Self. After all, he's getting the big bucks to make the tough-decisions. I also rarely point to one or two plays or coach's decisions and say that it won or lost a given game.

But after watching an otherwise terrific basketball Saturday in historic Allen Field House ruined by a 69-66 punch-in-the-stomach loss to Texas A&M, even I can’t help but wonder what the coach was thinking as he watched the Aggies finish on a 17-4 run, thanks in large part to two decisions on the part of the KU head man.

After a nip-and-tuck first half in which KU settled for too many perimeter jump shots, the Jayhawks took a 35-30 lead into the half.

The second half started with the Jayhawks attacking the basket much more often and with success. Once again, Sherron Collins was the spark for KU, knifing into the lane for circus shots around the basket and knocking down two three-pointers at crucial junctures in the second stanza. He finished with 18 points (6-of -9 shooting, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc) in 23 minutes. In short, he had the hot hand.

The added aggression showed both on the court and on the scoreboard as KU added to their lead slowly but surely.  Finally, with 9:54 left in the game, Russell Robinson hit a short jumper in the lane to put KU ahead 57-46.

Texas A&M wasn’t going away, however. Led by playmaking senior guard Acie Law, the Ags began to chip away at the KU lead, and KU suddenly went cold. With four minutes left in the contest, Kansas still held a six-point lead.

At this point, Self made two interesting choices.

Kaun stays in the game

First, Self left junior Sasha Kaun on the floor. Now, understand that I like Sasha Kaun. I don’t think he gets enough credit for all the things he does for the Jayhawks.

Kaun had struggled against Texas A&M’s big, physical inside game all night, however, collecting just two points and five rebounds in 19 minutes of work. He’s also a career 50 percent free throw shooter. At the dog track, even money is good. In crunch time in Allen Field House, it’s not.

Texas A&M’s Marlon Pompey fouled Kaun away from the ball with 3:52 left in the game and KU nursing a 62-56 lead.

Postgame, Self said he wanted to leave Kaun in to “gain confidence.” He said that his center would undoubtedly be in this kind of a situation again and needs to learn how to respond.

Unfortunately, the ensuing response wasn’t what Kaun, Self and 16,000 KU faithful were hoping for. Kaun missed the front end. The Aggies rebounded the miss, and 23 seconds later, Acie Law hit a mid-range jumper to make the score 62-58.

Two minutes (not to mention two dead balls, when a substitution could have been made) later, with the score now 64-61 in favor of the ‘Hawks, Pompey again sent Kaun to the free-throw line. Side note: I will pay anyone who reads this $1,000 if they can give me a good explanation as to why Kaun was still in the game at this point.

For the second time in two minutes, Kaun missed the front end of the one-and-one. A&M’s Joseph Jones rebounded the miss, the Ags patiently ran their offense and Antanas Kavaliauskas converted a traditional three-point play to tie the game with 60 seconds remaining.

Chalmers becomes KU’s first option

In the last minute, KU and A&M exchanged baskets – a driving lay-up by Julian Wright and a surprising three-pointer by Acie Law. With Texas A&M leading 67-66 and 20 seconds left, Kansas had plenty of time to run a play.

The Aggies hadn’t figured out a way to stop Collins all night, so I – along with about 16,000 other people in the gym – expected the Chicago guard to drive the lane once again to either take the big shot, draw a foul or find an open teammate.

Instead, the Jayhawks ran a play designed for Mario Chalmers. Chalmers had eight points on just six shots to that point and hadn’t really found an offensive grove all night. Chalmers took a pass from Russell Robinson, drove into the lane and put up a short jump shot that came off the front iron. Pompey grabbed the rebound and quickly dealt off to Acie Law, who was fouled with five seconds left.

After hitting both free throws, KU found themselves needing a three to tie the game with seconds remaining. Sherron Collins took the inbounds pass, sprinted upcourt and handed the ball off to Chalmers for a contested 25-footer that bounced off the back of the rim.

There’s still a ton of Big XII basketball left; however, this loss has implications, some obvious and some not-so-obvious.

KU is now a game down in the conference race in the loss column. It’s a fairly safe assumption, however, that Texas A&M will drop a couple along the way. They still have a Big Monday contest at Texas and games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

But with this loss, Wednesday night’s game against Kansas State is now a watershed game. Since the injury to much-hyped freshman Bill Walker, first-year coach Bob Huggins is coaching the rest of his Wildcat squad way up. The ‘Cats are buying what Huggins is selling in bulk, and the ghosts of Jim Wooldridge and Malibu Tom Asbury are tiny in the rearview mirror.

Finally, one has to wonder if the Jayhawks’ collective psyche has become fragile. The question of why this Kansas team can't hold a lead was being asked loudly again after Saturday night’s game. If Wednesday night’s game is close heading into the last five minutes against a Kansas State team that is a poor man’s mirror image of Texas A&M, the Jayhawks need to put their late-game demons to rest in convincing fashion.

Another conference home loss also means that KU finds itself squarely in the middle of the Big XII pack, fighting to avoid playing on Thursday in Oklahoma City.


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