Archive for Sunday, March 20, 2005

So, what happened?

Our sports writers answer the most pressing questions facing the Jayhawks

March 20, 2005


You have questions -- many questions -- in the wake of Kansas University's shocking 64-63 loss to Bucknell, a No. 14 seed, in the first-round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night in Oklahoma City.

Stunned fans have presented many queries to the Journal-World in the hours since the Bison handed Kansas its first first-round NCAA Tourney defeat since 1978.

We don't have all the answers. Nobody does. But here are the questions you've been asking and the educated responses from J-W sports editor Chuck Woodling, who has been covering KU men's basketball for more than three decades, and Gary Bedore, who has more than 20 years on the men's basketball beat:

Most people based this season's expectations on an experienced and talented senior class. Was the class overrated?

Wayne Simien is a top-of-the-line college player, but the pros are not that impressed. NBA scouts believe he stands closer to 6-foot-7 than to 6-9 and that he doesn't possess the athleticism to compete against NBA power forwards.

He can shoot, though, and had a monster year on the boards his senior campaign. Some scouts call him a first-round bubble player; others insist he's top-20 material.

Aaron Miles and Keith Langford are very good college players. Neither will be drafted. Michael Lee, who played so energetically against Bucknell, is an overachieving football player in a basketball uniform.

The quality of this year's seniors was overblown because too much emphasis was placed on how they had performed when they had been dovetailed with future NBA-quality players.

Would the four seniors have performed better if Roy Williams were their coach?

Hard to say, but the seniors never really seemed to be comfortable with Bill Self's halfcourt-oriented high-low offense. Easy buckets were hard to come by, especially this past season.

They had gone to two Final Fours using Williams' freewheeling offense, so the natural instinct was to be leery. Then again, those two Final Four teams had three NBA lottery picks in Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, and KU hasn't had a lottery-type player the last two seasons, with Simien projected as a middle first-rounder at best.

Why was Self's substitution pattern so erratic? Why did he use players in one game, then bench them for a number of games after that?

Self has always been big on matchups, trying to put a player on the floor who matches up best against an opponent defensively. Probably the classic example was Alex Galindo.

The 6-foot-7 freshman provided Self's best offensive punch off the bench, but Self was loathe to use Galindo if he would be mismatched on defense. Thus, Self often was criticized for not establishing a regular rotation. Also, injuries to all of KU's freshmen, save for Russell Robinson, took them off the practice court for periods of time, some long periods of time, and Self, like most all coaches, is big on playing the guys who earn their time at practice.

Why didn't the freshmen pan out as everyone had expected?

C.J. Giles and Galindo were not primary recruits. They had signed originally with Miami of Florida and Texas-Paso, yet they turned out to be the two best freshmen. Both were set back by significant injuries; Galindo missing several weeks of development because of a groin injury that bothered him about half the season, and Giles missing six weeks because of foot woes.

Touted early signees Robinson, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun were first-year disappointments. In hindsight, considering the surprise play of Christian Moody, it might have been wise for either Kaun or Jackson to take red-shirt seasons, considering both took up basketball at such a late age -- both definitely raw players.

In November, Self said he was hoping one of the three freshman big men ultimately would emerge as the starter over Moody.

That never happened.

In fairness to Self, he did turn to Giles as the starter in five of six games, then Giles went down because of his foot injury, greatly impeding his development.

Interesting, isn't it, how big man David Padgett would have helped this team. Basically run out of town in large part by criticism of his fellow students on campus, Padgett would have fit in nicely next to Simien and given the young big men plenty of time to mature.

How many of the five freshmen will be back next year?

No way of knowing -- Self will talk to all the players after spring break about their development and their plans -- but nobody would be surprised if Robinson departed for an East Coast school. Then again, Robinson has said he would be back, ready to compete for the starting job next season.

Did the Jayhawks miss assistant coach Norm Roberts after he left to take over as the St. John's head coach?

Freshman guard Robinson, who was recruited primarily by Roberts, showed some flashes early, but he hit the proverbial freshman brick wall, and his play deteriorated to the point where he rarely was used during the conference season.

Having Roberts around may have helped Robinson, who was plagued by turnovers, but otherwise Roberts' departure had minimal impact because replacement Kurtis Townsend was a popular addition.

Self's assistants are highly thought of. Tim Jankovich was a finalist for the Tulsa head-coaching opening in recent weeks, and Townsend also has heard from folks at San Jose State. Joe Dooley, a former head coach, has not had his name come up publicly for openings yet this offseason.

Was there dissension among the players?

If there was, it wasn't evident, although the late skid may have led to some finger-pointing. If chemistry is defined by crisp passing that leads to easy baskets and a plethora of open looks, then chemistry might be questioned. This year's team's easiest buckets often were off in-bounds lobs for wide-open slams.

Were players spending too much time taking advantage of the Lawrence night-life scene?

If they were -- and there is no evidence of it -- carousing would affect school work more than the level of performance on the court.

What did the late-season nosedive do to recruiting?

Time will tell. Prospects are interested mostly in potential openings. With four seniors departing, with three recruits (all McDonald's All Americans) and one transfer in the fold, KU still looms as a place with job opportunities. The Jayhawks, as usual, are on the lists of top underclassmen, whose recruiting sagas will begin to be chronicled in coming weeks.

How good are KU's incoming freshmen?

Mario Chalmers is expected to replace Miles at point guard. He is known as a scorer, something KU hasn't had at the point in a while.

Micah Downs is a deep-shooting threat who will take some of the three-point shooting pressure of the frustratingly inconsistent J.R. Giddens, and Julian Wright is a forward/guard. He's a hoops junkie expected to bring a winning presence and strong work ethic to that class.

However, if the incoming freshmen are no more precocious than this year's fivesome, the Jayhawks will struggle.

Is there any indication Rodrick Stewart, the transfer from USC, will be of significant help?

Stewart doesn't have a track record of being much of a shooter, but his athleticism, which has impressed at practice, should help. He is expected to be a lock-down-type defender.

Is Self's halfcourt offense worthy of criticism?

A common complaint is the Jayhawks don't run enough and don't pressure enough. When asked about running, Self invariably says he wants to run, is not against running and encourages the team to run, but, he adds, the team doesn't have, say, a Hinrich and/or Collison, who were two of the fastest players in college basketball. Miles also has said the team wanted to run, and the coach didn't discourage it.

So, if the coach and players truly want to run, how come the team so often is walking, not running? Fans' venom seems to come out the most when discussing Miles' walking the ball up court instead of at least jogging, if not racing.

The bottom line is Self's offense looks a lot better when shots are falling, not 10 of 11 threes clanging against Bucknell.

His teams looked exciting enough this year the nights the shots were falling.

What will Self do if a scholarship becomes available?

He needs someone who can muscle up front, a Jeff Graves-type player, and he may have to dip into the juco ranks to find one. He could use one of those instant-offense type guys that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State seem to find sometimes.

Did the Jayhawks play such a tough schedule that they simply ran out of gas?

Of KU's 11 nonconference opponents, eight qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and the other three were invited to the NIT. KU played the toughest schedule in the nation, and it very well may have worn the Jayhawks down. There is a fine line between winning and losing, and KU's six losses in the last month were by an average of only about three points. The Jayhawks dropped a pair of one-pointers (Texas Tech, Bucknell), a two-pointer (Iowa State), a three-pointer (Oklahoma State), a four-pointer (Missouri) and that eight-point loss at Oklahoma. The Labor Day trip to Canada and extra couple weeks of practice, coupled with Boot Camp, made it a pretty long season.

How serious were the injury problems?

Kansas survived for four games without Simien in December, but struggled later without Moody and Langford. Perhaps the Jayhawks were able to hang on without Simien because they had fresher legs than they had in February. KU lost four games with starters out, and the unexpected loss of Moody was a killer prior to the deflating home loss against Iowa State.

Langford's flu and ankle woes cost the Jayhawks when it counted the most. KU led, 11-3, at Missouri when he twisted his ankle and didn't return. Of course, Self hoped Langford's teammates would respond positively that game, but didn't, and Self was puzzled by a lack of intensity that game.

KU went 1-1 without Langford at the Big 12 tourney, and it was glaringly obvious two weeks off his feet affected him against Bucknell when all of his outside shots were either short or way off the mark.

What will the Jayhawks' late-season pratfall do to the athletic department's point system for obtaining tickets for games in Allen Fieldhouse?

It's too early to tell. KU fans are stunned, angry and mostly puzzled about what went wrong. The knee-jerk reaction in some cases may be to bail out, but when it comes time to renew their season tickets, it's unlikely there will be mass defections.

Is Self on the hot seat?

Of course. Any coach whose team fails to live up to expectations is ripe for second-guessing, particularly at Kansas, where the residual effect of back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2002 and 2003 looms like an albatross over the head coach. Fortunes can change abruptly, though. Few remember, for example, that Kansas had back-to-back sinking spells in 1998-99 and again in 1999-2000, losing 10 games each season. Self is no prima donna and knows the territory. He said Friday that he and the players had accepted the praise when things went well and needed to accept the criticism as well.

Why wasn't Self able to get this team to play together consistently?

No team plays at the same level of focus throughout the season, but it was clear this club often suffered from senioritis. Too many times its veteran players went through the motions against teams they thought they should defeat, then stepped it up against prestige opponents.

The more the Jayhawks escaped defeats by just showing up, the more it reinforced the notion they could do continue to use that approach.

But it caught up with them in Oklahoma City. KU led Bucknell, 5-0. It was mighty early, but never too early to put the hammer down and put the Bison in their place. A four-point play took care of that 5-0 lead, that is for sure. The players said many times, for whatever reason, they often never started playing until it looked like they actually might lose or be in for a severe test. Not a good idea in this age of parity.

Why didn't Self do a better job of inspiring his players to perform?

You can't whip a dead horse. Every head coach has been frustrated at one time or another by his players' lackluster performances. Ask Roy Williams, who had KU teams that lost twice in the second round when they were No. 1 seeds.

What are the hopes for next year?

Kansas will not be favored to win the Big 12 Conference championship. Neither will Oklahoma State, which will lose six seniors. That leaves Oklahoma as the preseason title favorite. The Sooners will have almost everyone back. Texas will be in the mix, too, if P.J. Tucker regains his eligibility and LaMarcus Aldridge recovers from hip surgery. KU will have a new batch of players, primarily Self's, who will need to be focused from the start, facing a tough field in the season-opening Maui Invitational.

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