Names change, but Kansas doesn’t
Norman, Okla. ? Start with a 33-3 college basketball team. Subtract two NBA lottery picks, Cole Aldrich and Xavier Henry, plus the team’s leading scorer, Sherron Collins, who also made his way onto an NBA roster for a few months.
Now subtract Josh Selby, the highest-rated recruit of coach Bill Self’s career, for nine games at the start of the season because of an NCAA-imposed suspension. Another guard, Elijah Johnson, joined him in street clothes for the first two games, serving a suspension for violating an unspecified team rule.
Next, Mario Little’s status with the team became uncertain after his arrest in the middle of the night, which led to a six-game suspension.
Then, in rapid succession, Thomas Robinson, the team’s energizer, buried two grandparents and his mother, leaving him worried about his 7-year-old sister back in Washington, D.C. Between trips back home and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee for a torn meniscus, he missed five games.
Swing man Travis Releford developed into a valuable reserve and was playing easily the best basketball of his career when he went down because of an ankle injury. He missed five games and hasn’t performed to pre-injury level since.
Selby appeared on the verge of improvement when he suffered a foot injury that cost him three games and caused his game and confidence to regress.
The latest roster hit came when Tyshawn Taylor violated an unspecified team rule that earned him an indefinite suspension that likely is on the verge of ending after two games.
A musical-chairs roster normally equates to uneven team chemistry and choppy on-court performances, an underachieving season.
Not so for this Kansas basketball team. Saturday’s visit to the Noble Center to take on talent-short Oklahoma started with Johnson handling the point, but he was unavailable for the final 14:55 after suffering a neck injury his coach said won’t keep him out of the lineup again. Lose a body, gain a victory, leave the opposing coach raving about the team’s remarkable offensive efficiency. Typical day.
At Saturday’s end, the Jayhawks had an 82-70 victory, a 27-2 record and a two-year record of 60-5. How in the world have they done that with constantly changing player availability?
Marcus Morris, the team’s best player and therefore the last guy who has to worry about buttering up the coach, fielded the question and then did what he always does. He spoke from the heart. He’s as honest an interview as you’ll find in today’s careful world.
“It’s got to be the coaches,” Morris said. “We had three NBA players leave us last year, and nobody really gave us much of a chance. Kansas State was No. 1 in the conference because of all our (personnel) losses.”
That’s the way the Big 12 coaches saw it, ranking the Wildcats No. 1 in the preseason poll. K-State’s playing much better now and still has a chance to finish fourth. Kansas moved into a tie with Texas for first in the Big 12 with two games remaining.
“It all comes down to coaching,” Marcus continued. “Coach Self is just a great coach. The coaching staff is one in a million to me. Having D. (Danny) Manning coaching us every practice, giving you insight on what move you should make and what move you should get to, you definitely have to cherish that because it isn’t going to happen all the time.”
He’s right about the coaching staff playing a huge role in the remarkable run of success. If KU can hold onto its share of first in the Big 12, that would make seven in succession. Self is the constant presence. He has kept Kansas at the top with rotating stars, ranging from Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles to Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright to Darrell Arthur, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, to this year’s juggernaut.
To some extent, a coach is only as good as the coachability of his players. The four players who haven’t missed a game because of injury or suspension this season rank extremely high in that area. Two role players from Kansas. Two stars from Philadelphia. Two seniors. Two juniors. Four players blessed with terrific instincts for what to do with the basketball when it’s in their hands.
Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed never struggle with illusions about the best place for the basketball to end up, which of course is in the hands of either Marcus or Markieff Morris. Nearly as important, both guards have no hesitation about shooting when the defense makes that possible. All four players have an innate understanding that when passed as soon as it’s caught, the basketball travels faster than humans, which leaves the defense forever trying to catch up. Kansas spaces the floor so well and passes it so quickly it gets high-percentage shots from confident scorers. Opposing coaches marvel.
Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel became just the latest in a string of Big 12 coaches coming off a loss calling Kansas, “incredibly efficient on the offensive end.” They say without saying it what everybody knows. KU isn’t as good defensively, either on the perimeter or in the post, as offensively. Every team is different. Self has had better defensive teams than this one. He’s never had one that moved the ball any better than it did in Saturday’s first half.
It’s a tough call as to whether this team can get enough defensive stops at crucial times to make it to the Final Four. Oklahoma, for example, scored on eight consecutive possessions in the last half of the second half Saturday.
This much we do know: Posting a .923 winning percentage the past two seasons with such a revolving personnel door blows the mind.