KU Concerns?

No team is perfect and that includes Kansas. But at 21-1 what do the Jayhawks need to address this month in order to be ready for March? Phog.net spoke with KU head coach Bill Self for some answers.

The college basketball world certainly boasts its share of tough critics. It is, like most sports, a "what have you done for me lately" world. You can be the flavor of the week for awhile (ala Texas) and then drop a couple of games and get the pundits to wonder what's wrong with the Longhorns?

It's an extraordinary year; one filled with constant chatter about who should be number one. Maybe it's because the number one spot has featured a revolving door this season. Teams have jumped in and out constantly. But it's Kansas that's stood atop the polls for more total weeks than any other. Minus a brain cramp at Tennessee, no one would be talking about who should be number one. The talk would be about whether or not Kansas could finish off the unthinkable and go undefeated. Think about it. Kansas is quite possibly a Skylar McBee three away from being THE talk of college basketball and 22-0.

Despite that fact the Jayhawks are not exempt from fielding questions about their well-being. If you win by ten people wonder why it wasn't 15 and no one seems to grasp just how hard it is to go on the road in conference and win games. Let's remember one thing - every road win is a good one.

On paper most will question how 11-11 Colorado could hang with the nation's number one team.

"The whole thing is when you say ‘games we didn't play as well'. If we make any free throws at all – you have your perimeter go 8-26 - you're starting perimeter 8-26 - and you go 18-38 from the line there's no way you should win that game on the road," said KU head coach Bill Self referring to the combined shooting numbers of Brady Morningstar, Sherron Collins, and Xavier Henry. "Colorado played pretty well but we made enough plays to win."

Making big plays to win games has definitely been a positive to accentuate for Kansas. In earlier games during this season the Jayhawks appeared to defer to senior Collins. While Collins continues to make big plays, he's gotten help from a variety of different people in close games recently.

"Oh absolutely," Self answered quickly when asked if it was a positive that others were making big plays. "These guys have obviously, well not every game because it didn't work that way at Tennessee, but they're starting to figure out ways to win games."

"People make a deal out of that we haven't played well. I don't think that's the case at all. You're not 21-1 not having played well. We've had games where we haven't played our best. But in those close games guys have stepped up."

And that's what you have to do when it gets tough on the road or when you have a poor shooting performance. As the stakes get higher that's how you survive and advance.

"There's no crystal ball but I definitely think we are better equipped to win a game when Sherron is not playing well, or when Sherron is not making shots, or when the defense is designed to stop Sherron. Last year we weren't as equipped."

So there are positives in these close wins. You don't breed this kind of confidence winning by 30 every night. Kansas features an entire starting five and part of a bench that made a key play or plays to win a game this season and that does nothing but give a boost in moral in tight situations. It allows players to say "been there, done that".

Freshmen Xavier Henry's play is a legitimate concern. Against Colorado Henry went 0-4 from the floor and scored just three points. Dating back to the Cornell game on January 6th Xavier is 23 for his last 79 from the floor shooting less that 30 percent (29.1 %). It doesn't get much better from the three-point line where he is 13-44 during that same span.

Xavier has a certain smoothness about his game and it was free flowing early on when he was KU's leading scorer. Right now it appears there is some indecision and maybe even a lack of confidence.

"I would say that's probably right," agreed Self. "He shot it and played so well early. I saw a stat the last 12 games he's averaging ten whereas the first nine or ten he was averaging 18. So I would say his production has fallen off but I don't think it is a reflection of anything other than him going through some stuff that everybody goes through especially freshmen."

Is Kansas equipped to withstand the freshmen blues from Xavier? Sure. But to really fire on all cylinders X needs to be a part of the picture. But his coach remains supremely confident in his McDonald's All-American.

"He just needs to break out of it. He'll have a game here soon where he breaks out of it in a big way and be heading down the right path," said Self with conviction.

When a player is in a "slump" like Xavier a coach walks a fine line between bringing it up and talking about it or just letting a player play through it. The numbers don't lie and Self has spoken with the talented 6-6 freshmen.

"We've talked," Self admitted. "I'm pretty open I mean it's pretty obvious when you look at his stats. He's shooting under 30 percent from the field and from three during conference play. But productivity is going down but I still have confidence in him to be a great player this year for us. It's going to happen and but he's a tough kid and he's just gotta stay aggressive and keep believing good things will happen and they're going to."

In talking to Self you can really hear in his voice there's not a shadow of doubt in his mind that Xavier will bust loose soon.

This is just one person's opinion but Xavier needs to get himself some easy, confidence-building shots. Instead of the first shot being a three or a contested drive it would be great to see him nab a steal and get an easy layup or even dunk, or maybe drive and pull up for a midrange J. Something with less pressure than hitting a three-point shot. If he gets a little confidence that pretty lefty stroke from three will return without a doubt.

He's also had some turnover problems lately including ten over the last three games. If he can keep it simple and make the easy pass for a bit the Xavier we all know will return soon.

For those concerned about the minutes being logged by Collins and junior center Cole Aldrich it is unlikely to change. The closer the game the more these two will play. There was so much talk about paring down the rotation earlier in the year and can Self play nine to ten guys? As we thought the rotation has really been reduced to the eight or nine guys Self trusts the most in critical end of game situations.

Self is not worried about having his two stars on the floor for 30 or more minutes a game.

"No. No, no," Self answered when asked if he was concerned about Cole and Sherron wearing down. "I mean Cole played 35 minutes last night. In a 40 minute game he played about 30. That's the right number of minutes for him."

Aldrich hasn't played less than 30 minutes in a game since a home win against Baylor when he played just 27. Ironically the 6-11 junior All-American candidate also notched double-doubles in all four of those contests. The stakes are getting higher and Cole's play has improved. You will not see him for less time in these situations that's for sure.

Going to the bench involves trust. The way it works for any coach is in the crunch they go with what they know and what they feel confident in. Arizona transfer Jeff Withey is a perfect example. He earned another chance and Self's confidence after a solid performance against Iowa State. Against Kansas State Withey turned it over and gave up two points. It suddenly puts doubt in the coach's mind. Your leash is a lot shorter when you're a bench player and when you do go in, you must perform.

But what about Collins who does a lot of the ball-handling and logs a ton of minutes? Will he be able to weather the storm without wearing down? Collins has played more than 30 minutes in ten of the last 13 games including 41 minutes in the last two.

"Sherron played 36 in a 40 minute game," Self said referring to the Colorado and K-State overtime wins. "You're not going to take guys out in overtime and rest them. That's too many minutes for Sherron. I felt like we needed him out there. But I think Cole can be a 30-minute-a-game guy and Sherron needs to be about 32-34."

In conference play Sherron is averaging 34.6 minutes per game and Aldrich 29.0 mpg. So both stars are playing just about the amount of minutes the coach thinks is right. That being said the last few games have been draining for sure. It probably wouldn't hurt the Jayhawks to be able to rest some guys on Saturday before heading to Austin to take on a talented and hungry Texas team that's for sure.

The scary thing is despite the concerns Kansas sits on top of the polls, on top of the conference, and yet to play its best basketball.

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