Self laments KU’s lack of ‘firepower’ by season’s end

Kansas head coach Bill Self turns in frustration after a string of buckets by Gonzaga during the second half on Saturday, March 23, 2024 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Nick Krug

Salt Lake City — Before Kansas even started its run in the NCAA Tournament, head coach Bill Self gave a glimpse into how he viewed the Jayhawks’ up-and-down campaign when he was asked what he considered the most challenging part of the season.

“I would say really probably not knowing day to day what your hand is,” he replied, back on Wednesday. “You go into a practice and you say that we’re going to practice this way with these guys, and that may not even be the team you start the next day. Hey, injuries are part of it. Maybe we should have been a little deeper so maybe we could overcome some of those things better.”

Self reflected further on his team’s lack of depth after Saturday’s 89-68 loss to Gonzaga, which brought KU’s season to a close. He said that as he saw his team play with eight scholarship athletes for much of the last month, he began to think about next season.

“We could have done a much better job as a staff of putting more guys out there that we could play,” he said. “And so that’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time. And the thing about it is, in basketball, early on you can play through some things. But the course of a season, there’s a grind that goes with it and bodies get run down, injuries occur. That’s all part of it.

“And when you don’t have as much firepower that maybe you’ve had in past years, it certainly showed this year.”

The Jayhawks lost five of their last seven games and went 10-10 in their last 20, playing eight times without injured star Kevin McCullar Jr. The result was the most losses — both in conference play and overall — in a year since Self took over in 2003.

Both references to depth, on Wednesday and Saturday, got at a common theme for the 2023-24 Jayhawks: a simple lack of bodies. And that resulted from a variety of factors.

The Jayhawks needed to shave scholarships off the back end of their roster due to self-imposed restrictions — related to the now-concluded Independent Accountability Resolution Process case — requiring them to reduce total scholarships by three over the course of three years. They devoted a scholarship to one player in Zach Clemence who, despite his past experience, agreed to redshirt as part of his unexpected return after initially entering the transfer portal. Another player slated to be a major contributor, Texas transfer Arterio Morris, never played a game for KU after getting charged with rape and dismissed from the team.

Then there were injuries. Most notably, the graduate senior McCullar was not as effective after suffering a bone bruise to his knee in January and, despite sitting out the Big 12 Conference tournament to recover, was unable to return for March Madness. The Jayhawks also had center Hunter Dickinson sit out their lone conference tournament game due to a dislocated shoulder and reserves Parker Braun and Jamari McDowell miss time due to an ankle injury and an illness, respectively.

And among the eight scholarship players KU was left with by the end of the year, not all always lived up to preseason billing. Sixth-year senior transfer Nick Timberlake and freshman Elmarko Jackson struggled to assert themselves until March, and that was with Jackson starting for the first half of the season.

Fellow freshman Johnny Furphy did shine earlier than predicted, as Self said throughout the season and once again after his first year concluded Saturday.

“Johnny’s year has been exceptional, considering what expectations were,” Self said. “Elmarko’s year probably hasn’t been as good, considering what expectations were. So much of it is when you go into a situation, expectations are so high that sometimes you really can’t do as much as you need to, to live up to the expectations.”

Furphy, for his part, said postgame, “I’ve learned a lot. I think I’m a different player than I was to start the season. It’s definitely made me realize I’ve got a lot to improve on.”

Much of the core of this year’s squad can return. Braun, McCullar and Timberlake have exhausted their eligibility. But starters KJ Adams, Dickinson, Dajuan Harris Jr. and Furphy are all capable of returning, though Dickinson has been mum on his plans, and Furphy has a potential future as an NBA Draft prospect as early as this season. Freshmen Elmarko Jackson and Jamari McDowell are also able to come back.

The Jayhawks have three incoming freshmen signed in Flory Bidunga, Rakease Passmore and Labaron Philon and have already reportedly contacted several of the marquee players in the transfer portal.

Kansas guard Johnny Furphy (10) looks up at the scoreboard after being pulled from the game with several other starters late in the second half on Saturday, March 23, 2024 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Nick Krug


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