No. 9 Kansas eyes turnaround, defensive improvement in blue blood battle at Kentucky

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) attempts to pass the ball around Texas Tech guard Lamar Washington (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)

As if his 30.3 points-per-game average was not enough for his team during No. 9 Kansas’ current three-game losing skid, now KU junior Jalen Wilson is keeping an eye out for trends.

Specifically, Wilson has looked closely at why the Jayhawks have struggled so mightily out of the gate in those three losses and what they can do to change that.

“After losing three games in a row, we’re all just like, ‘What do we need to do to win,'” Wilson said Thursday while previewing the Jayhawks’ upcoming battle at unranked Kentucky at 7 p.m. Saturday in Lexington on ESPN.

The answers to that question are many, but many of them start and end on the defensive end. Although he, too, would like to see his team play better defense in the weeks ahead, Kansas coach Bill Self made it clear throughout the week that he was not ready to hit the panic button just yet.

For one, the three teams that Kansas has lost to in its last three outings are all ranked in the Top 20. For two, the play and evolution of last year’s national championship team on the defensive end of the floor is still fresh in Self’s mind.

“It wasn’t any good in January, but (last year’s team) certainly became a great defensive team,” said Self of the 2021-22 squad. “And this team has got to do the same thing.”

Self added: “When I look at our team and say, ‘What do we do great?’ It’s the same thing I asked last year’s team. Last year’s team didn’t have an identity until March on what we actually did well. And last year’s team finally figured out that we can win if we make other people play poorly.”

According to Wilson, who has been a part of two significant, late-season defensive overhauls during his Kansas career, it all starts with players locking in and putting out maximum effort and focus to try to stop their opponents.

The offense will come. Wilson believes it. Self preaches it. And these players have seen it. They’ve even seen the current team play the type of high-quality defense that is the standard at Kansas. It’s just come a little too late in their most recent outings.

“Jalen said it really well to me yesterday,” Self said on Thursday. “When we’ve gotten behind (in) two of the last three games, we became a good defensive team after we got behind. The problem is there just isn’t as much margin for error.”

In all three games, even the 23-point loss at home to TCU, KU erased or significantly cut into early double-digit deficits to get back into the ballgame.

The Jayhawks trailed 20-7 to Baylor but had a lead early in the second half. They trailed 33-13 to TCU but were down by just seven at the break. And they trailed Kansas State 33-19 at one point before taking several leads in the second half and having a chance to win at the end of regulation and overtime.

In all three cases, the concept of climbing uphill to overcome that slow start proved to be too exhaustive and took too much out of the Jayhawks to leave anything left in the tank to close out the games.

Both on Thursday and in the immediate aftermath of Monday’s loss at Baylor, Self emphasized “how exhausting it is over time” to try to win that way.

“When you’re behind, it takes more energy, everything’s magnified, it takes more effort,” he said. “And when you’re playing with the lead, obviously you’re looser, everything’s not life or death.”

That’s what makes this weekend’s clash with Kentucky so interesting. Sure, it’s a matchup of the two winningest teams in the history of college basketball — KU leads UK 2,373 wins to 2,367 in that race — and, yeah, it will forever be the marquee game on the docket in the entire country no matter how the teams are playing, when it’s played or where.

But while those elements all mean a great deal to each fan base and casual fans of college basketball, gearing up to do battle in the middle of conference play doesn’t always benefit the two programs.

“The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is great because it’s a day where our leagues get all the attention across America,” Self said Thursday. “But from a playing and coaching standpoint, it can’t come at a worse time.”

Self continued: “The Champions Classic (in November), you don’t have to win that game, but that’s a big momentum get if you win that game. To me, this game, the way it’s panned out because both leagues are so good, it’s a seed-line game. It’s two blue bloods playing against each other and the two winningest programs and all that stuff, and that’s important. But I guarantee both of us feel that (we) don’t want anything to happen in this game that would affect us negatively next week. … It’s a big game, and we’ll approach it that way, but this game will not have any impact on what is most important, which is your second season, and that includes your conference. This one game is part of your first season and it’s not quite as important as your second season.”


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