As we leave the holidays behind and move forward, conference play in this year’s college basketball season lies ahead. A tough Big-12 schedule draws closer for the Kansas Jayhawks following their approaching collisions with Toledo and #20 San Diego State. For now we’re going to take a look back at how Kansas has faired up to this point and what needs to be done moving forward.
The #16 ranked Kansas Jayhawks have climbed as high as #2 on the poll this season before their 3 loss in 4 game slide, which kicked them back to as far as #18. Kansas entered the holiday break with an 8-3 overall record, including a marquee victory early in the season over the #4 ranked Duke Blue Devils. The Jayhawks carried their winning streak to five games before falling to Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. Their other losses included consecutive visits to Colorado and Florida.
Freshman F Andrew Wiggins, former #1 recruit in the nation, has been seemingly effective, yet has not delivered as expected by most around the country. Despite Wiggins favorable numbers (30.4 Min, 15.5 PPG, 5.5 RBP, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.9 BPG while shooting 47% from the field, 74% from the FT line, and 35% from three-point range ), there are certain aspects of his game that could and should be addressed by Coach Self.
The first issue is Wiggins’ aggressiveness offensively. Most of the time we find Wiggins floating around outside the three-point line when he is not directly involved in the action. Wiggins is a phenomenal cutter and has a vast basketball IQ. He is much too good of a player to be taking any plays off and spectating. Moving without the ball is a monumental key to a successful basketball offense and Wiggins needs to begin to capitalize on those opportunities as they present themselves. Another questionable attribute of Wiggins game is his predictability with the basketball. From what I can see, Wiggins is not a fan of going to his left and majority of the time when he goes to his right it results in his patented spin move. If Andrew is able to turn up the aggression and get to the basket as he is so well known for doing, the Jayhawks stand a much better chance at success.
The Point Guard play was woefully absent early in the season, but Coach Self got the attention of Naadir Tharpe after benching him and starting Mason in his place. Since the benching occurred, Tharpe began to show progress and took control of the situation. He regained his starting position in the Jayhawks 80-63 victory over New Mexico, a game in which Naadir Tharpe finally arrived on the scene. The Junior Guard handled his situation with grace and maturity, actions which have aided him in his overall progression. Tharpe has been showing shades of a true point guard by taking care of the ball and putting his fellow teammates in positions to make plays and be successful. Every team needs a leader, a role which Naadir Tharpe has began to buy into.
Kansas as a unit has been phenomenal shooting the basketball (when they manage to get a shot off), ranking 10th in the country in field goal percentage with 50.3% field goal shooting. Scoring points is a massive key to the success of Kansas, as it would be to any and every team to ever play a sport. Digging deeper in, the Jayhawks are an impressive 7-0 when they score a total of 80 points or more per game. When scoring below the 80 mark, Kansas is a dismal 1-3 overall. By weaponizing their 50/50 field goal shooting and 68% free throw shooting, KU must strive to eclipse the 80 point mark every game. Transition play is a key element that can favor the Kansas Jayhawks succession. With athletes like Wiggins, Embiid, Selden, and others, getting out and running the floor for easy points can strengthen their task. Averaging 13 turnovers a game, Kansas must aim to take better care of the ball entering the conference portion of their schedule as well.
Interior play needs to be the focal point of the Jayhawks offense. All four of the Kansas big men that see regular playing time shoot over 60% from the field (Traylor – 71%, Embiid – 68%, Black – 64%, Ellis – 60%). The Jayhawks aren’t the best three-point shooting team, only averaging 32% from deep, but implementing a high emphasis on the inside game will open higher percentage opportunities for the Jayhawk wing players to cash in on. This will force the opposition to make a decision: pinch down and double team the post and leave the three open, or leave the post one on one where the Jayhawks thrive the most. On the other hand, the Kansas big men have to keep themselves out of foul trouble for this style of play to prosper. Playing to the team’s strengths will have ample effect on the future prosperity of Kansas.
This bring me to my final point, a point that I have been preaching religiously since the beginning of the season: Joel Embiid. In my eyes, Embiid is the most important player on the Kansas Jayhawk roster, even more important than Andrew Wiggins himself. Averaging 10.5 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game, Embiid is a rare breed of player and has a plethora of ways to get to the rim. Standing at 7-1 with the graceful step of a ballerina, Embiid is incredibly mobile and can thrive in all situations. The offense needs to run through the big men as I touched on above, particularly Embiid. In doing so, pressure and attention will be slightly removed from Andrew Wiggins, giving him more comfort and breathing room to do his thing. Embiid is a mad man on the defensive side of the ball as well and acts as the defensive anchor for the Jayhawks. Rim protection can greatly aid the Jayhawk defense.
The Kansas Jayhawks have a roster that has the potential to take them all the way. Unfortunately, potential is only part of the equation. Being a young team, most of the Jayhawk players are learning how to deal with the on-the-court adversity on the fly. Can Kansas allow themselves to buckle down moving into the thick of the season or will they continue to be their own worst enemy?
Kansas begins the second half of the season on December 30th versus Toldeo.