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
"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
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
"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
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
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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