Still time left to fight through February funk

Still time left to fight through February funk

In this transitional season of Kansas basketball, we've witnessed far more slipping and sloppy than efficient and elegant.

No stretch perhaps has better characterized the Jayhawks' lack of consistency than the past couple of weeks, with double-digit road losses at Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas interrupted by home floor struggles to victory against Baylor and Iowa State.

What's a spoiled KU fan, accustomed to the high-flying, higher-scoring, formidable Final Four teams of the past two seasons, to make of it all?

Well, what in the name of James Naismith did you really expect? A lot, apparently, and nobody knows that better than first-year Jayhawk head coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks will take a 17-7 overall and 9-4 conference mark into Sunday's 1 p.m. battle with Oklahoma (16-7, 6-6 heading into tonight's game at Colorado).

As he approached the podium Wednesday for his weekly media pow-wow in John Hadl Auditorium, Self grinned and joked about how he was really feeling the heat. For the record, the self-effacing coach (no pun intended) was speaking of the excessively warm auditorium, but he also acknowledged that the seat he inherited from Roy Williams last April had been hot since the day he first laid hands on it.

"I think the expectations are great because you are at a place where people expect it," Self said. "I don't think the expectations were unrealistic because if we play at our very best we can still play at a level that is high enough to play with anybody-I still believe that and the players still believe that.

"I am not going to make excuses but we lost quite a bit. We lost a lot more than Syracuse lost and they lost a great one (Carmelo Anthony). We lost two great ones (Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich). We lost a lot more than Texas lost. They lost one (T.J. Ford) and we lost two that were of the same caliber.

"That's not an excuse. (But) we are replacing those seniors with freshmen and it takes time-it's difficult for all of the other guys. It's hard to replace guys with young kids after they score so many thousands of points and pull down so many rebounds. That's not easy to replace overnight and a lot of people think it can be done-it can't.

"With all of that being said-I don't think we have been playing at the level that we are capable of playing at. Expectations around here are high and whether or not they are too high or not-I am not going to get in a debate about that because we have good enough players to play at a really high level."

Tell us how you really feel, coach.

"Whenever you get close to the season's end there is a sense of urgency for everybody," Self said. "Time is running short for everybody and this is when you need to be playing your best ball and we are not right now. We need to do it and we need to do it fast."

Certainly, losing Collison and Hinrich-and adjusting to a new coaching staff and different style of play-has affected this team's development. Just as certain, Self and his staff have known-and have preached-from early on that this group would have to find ways to win that were different from the past couple seasons. The strengths are just not the same as a year ago.

"I think it has taken the guys some time," Self said. "I think now that if you were to ask them what we need to do, they would all say the same thing.

"But saying something and doing something are two different things. I think all of the guys understand that we need to be great rebounding the ball and great on defense. Those are things that we can control. You can't always control the ball going into the hole. For some reason our shooting, offense and perimeter shooting has been fairly inconsistent. Those are things that should not be inconsistent. Those are things that should be the cornerstones, especially on a team that needs it to be. I would say that our defense and our rebounding has been good at times but has been very inconsistent-especially the last three weeks. If you look at the first half of Big 12 play we are 7-1 and our defensive stats are the best in the league. The last few games it has gone the other direction."

So how near is this team to realizing its potential?

"I think we are still quite a ways away," Self said. "I don't think we are ready to play post-season right now. I don't think that the way we performed the last two weeks we want the post-season to come tomorrow. It's good because we still have some time to get things right before we do go to post-season. I still think we are a ways away. I thought we were much closer after the Texas Tech game. We are 2-3 since then and really haven't played well away from our building at all."

The recent tough times have meant Self has fielded phone calls and e-mails from his closest supporters.

"You know things aren't going well when you get calls from your family members and coaches you worked with," he said. "Our games are all televised so everybody can watch us play. The coaches that I know well know me, and they have watched our teams play in the past. Certainly this team has not performed at the consistent level that this team has played at in the past, nor at the consistent level of the teams I have coached in the past, for the most part. I think there are reasons for that being the case-it's very evident if you watch the games."

That said, Self does believe his team can and will improve.

"I think that the guys try hard and their focus is good," he said. "We have to play more physical and do a lot of things-we have to make shots. I think if you brought that effort that we played with at Texas to a majority of the other games we wouldn't be 9-4-we wouldn't be 13-1 either. I always believe that you can get better and there are a lot of teams out there getting better right now.

"We have been a team that is just treading water and we are due for a spurt. This would be the most opportune time to get some momentum going into the post-season. We have two games at home against quality opponents (Oklahoma and Nebraska) and one (Missouri) against a team that is probably as tough as any team you would play against. We have our work cut out in our next two home games but I do believe we will play well at home."

Not surprisingly, the one-step-forward, two-steps-back journey of the past two weeks has taken its toll on Kansas' collective confidence, Self said. But not as much as some might imagine.

"I would say that our confidence is not at an all-time high," he said. "When we had a press conference last Monday-that's when your confidence should be low. We ended up getting Baylor by 20 and won a great game against Iowa State-confidence should be back up. I don't think we will lose a lot of confidence from the Texas game. I think the guys felt that even though we didn't do the things to win-I think they felt that we did some things better than the way we have been doing them. I don't think that one game will cost us confidence. I really don't. The last two week stretch in general could cause a drop of confidence but at least we got a few wins in there and we are coming back home. Hopefully that will not be a huge issue with us although it's not as good as you would hope-it never is when you lose games. I don't think Monday's game will rattle us from a confidence standpoint."

Kansas' first opportunity, post-Texas, to confirm that will be this Sunday in the Phog, when the Jayhawks tangle with an Oklahoma team that has experienced its own set of struggles this year.

"Kelvin Sampson's teams have been as tough as any team around, over time. He does a great job in that area," Self said. "They fight and scratch for everything. I think Kansas teams in the past have been tough and have been very skilled as well. Our team isn't quite as skilled as the team was last year. You have to rely on some other things. We will show them a lot of tape on Oklahoma to let them know how they play. The guys will know they have to play tough in order to have a good chance on Sunday....

"I think it will be a grind it out game, a tough game. They will play a lot of zone because that is what they have been doing. They are very long in the back line. They are a team that has labored scoring, but is also a team that has scored with the ball like we did against Texas Tech. If you let their guys get comfortable-those guys have shown that they can score points in bunches. Lawrence (McKenzie) had 16 points in the first half of a low scoring game against Nebraska. Jason (Detrick) has had several big games. De'Angelo (Alexander) is as good of an offensive shooter that we have in the league. They have some pieces so you can't let them get comfortable."

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