Jayhawks still seeking identity as Big 12 play begins

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick (2) lays out for a loose ball during the second half, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017 at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Austin, Texas — As the Kansas men’s basketball team prepares to tip off Big 12 Conference action tonight at Frank Erwin Center against Texas, KU coach Bill Self is in search of answers.

“Who are we? How do we make people play bad? Are we only going to win when we make shots,” Self pondered this week when asked to assess his squad entering conference play. “That’s kind of the personality that we have right now and we’ve got to get out of character a little bit to get tougher. We’re not as tough as we need to be.”

After going 10-2 through what, on paper, seemed to be an easier-than-normal non-conference slate, the 11th-ranked Jayhawks are still in search of a true identity. Self has said for the past couple of weeks that, outside of a bad five-day stretch that led to upset losses to Washington and Arizona State, the Jayhawks have been pretty consistently good.

But producing teams described by words like “pretty” and “good” are not what Self strives for year after year and the veteran KU leader is hoping that the tougher competition that awaits his team in the coming days and weeks will inspire the kind of elevated focus and play that takes the Jayhawks from good to great.

“I know we’re just coming off of break, but this is not a team that is anywhere close to being a championship caliber team yet in our league,” Self said this week. “Not even close. We make so many mistakes and our energy level’s still average and we’ve got to get a couple individuals pumping some energy into the room. I like our guys a lot, but we are still a big time work in progress.”

So just what could this team’s identity look like if everything starts to click? Well, that depends on who’s on the floor. With 6-foot-9 freshman forward Silvio De Sousa now officially on the roster and the Jayhawks still hoping to get 6-10 freshman Billy Preston back sooner rather than later, the Jayhawks have a chance, with those two in the mix, to become more of a true Bill Self type of team that plays through its big men and beats people up in the paint and on the glass.

But saying that will be this team’s identity is putting an awful lot of faith in the development of two young players starting from behind and might not even be possible to achieve until Feburary.

So what else is there?

Obviously, this team is loaded on the perimeter and its guards are as talented as just about any in the country. They play well together, move the ball like magic and feature four players who all can knock down 3-pointers at an impressive clip.

But jump-shooting teams have never been clubs Self is comfortable relying on and that figures to remain true even with this group and even if that ends up being the identity that this team has to embrace.

That leaves defense. And it’s probably the one personality trait that Self believes can be obtained no matter who is on the roster or what style the Jayhawks are playing.

So far, the Jayhawks have struggled in half-court defensive sets with keeping the ball in front of them and preventing opposing guards — particularly smaller, quicker guards — from getting to the rim.

Fixing that overnight is not a given, nor is it easy. And this group, perhaps as much as any in recent memory, probably will have to rely on superior team defense over terrific individual defense if it hopes to play the kind of D that Self typically demands.

Getting De Sousa and Preston back would go a long way toward helping this team defensively in that it would add bodies in the paint that could help protect the rim and control the glass. But neither player is known for his defense and 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike remains a bit of project in becoming that true presence in the paint that the Jayhawks both want and need.

At this point, the smart money appears to be on this team’s identity continuing to be tied to its offensive production, particularly long-distance shooting. There are varying points of view on whether that can be a recipe for success, but the way I see it is this: It’s better to know what you do well and do it than to try to force something you’re not as good at and pay for it.

That’s not to say this team won’t get better defensively or strive to play through its bigs if/when they’re on the floor. But added bigs or no bigs, better defense or not, it’s hard to beat the experience and talent of Devonte’ Graham, Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk, who, when they’re playing well and together, are about as tough of a trio to contain as any in the country.

Besides, if those are the guys upon which KU relies for its identity, the odds increase that the rest of the team will watch its confidence grow simply by playing with them.

“Ultimately, everything’s up to the players,” Self said. “If you take a test, you can get tutored for it, but still the ultimate responsibility is to take that tutoring or studying and go perform well on it. So I think the ultimate responsibility is on the guys, but that is coaching — getting guys to believe that they’re actually something that they may be a little bit better at than they actually are. We’re a little ways from that, but I think a lot of teams are.”