Kansas Basketball: 5 Improvements Jayhawks Must Make Before NCAA Tournament
It is easy to overreact to Kansas' loss to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday, but really it may just end up as a wake up call that jolts the Jayhawks for the rest of the season. As sports fans though, we love to analyze what it means and what needs to change, so that's what this is about.
If we are looking at the Kansas Jayhawks as national title contenders once again (and I believe that they are), what improvements need to be made for this team to actually win those six straight games in the tournament?
Here's a hint: The point guard is major part of it.
Toughness is usually a characteristic of championship teams and Kansas has not shown much of that physical and mental toughness this season. The turnover by Elijah Johnson at the end of the Oklahoma State game was an obvious example of this.
Oklahoma State also exposed the lack of physical strength of this years Kansas team.
"We're not a physically strong team," Coach Bill Self said after that Oklahoma St. game. "Today it showed. I mean, they whipped us from a strength standpoint."
The biggest sign that his team is soft, Self said Saturday, is that they gave offensive rebounds on free throws. The loss at home could be a wake up call that energizes the team for the rest of the season, but the team is going to need to find a way to be mentally tough to make up for the lack of physical toughness.
"All coaches go through stages when their team plays soft," Self said. "I've said all along that we're never going to be a physically tough team. We can be a mentally tough team and play more physical."
Mental toughness consists of making the right plays and not panicking under pressure. Those are two things that Jayhawks failed at on Saturday. They did not take the best shots and they didn't make the right plays, but most of all when the game was in the clutch, Elijah Johnson appeared to panic with the ball in his hands.
With the experience of playing in a Final Four and having four seniors in the starting lineup, mental toughness should be an important strength of this Kansas team, but it does not seem like that is the case at the moment.
It's safe to say that the players will hear what Self thought of their toughness until it makes them sick, and possibly tougher.
Rhythm is a word that is always talked about in basketball, and in all sports really. All good offensive teams are able to score in the rhythm of the game, and the Jayhawks have appeared to have no rhythm for some time now.
It was obvious in the West Virginia game, and exposed once again against Oklahoma State. Elijah Johnson, or sometimes Naadir Tharpe, dribbled to bad spots on the court or made bad passes.
The most important thing that rhythm does is open up shots. Players get the ball in scoring opportunities that are set up by passing and ball handling. That rhythm has not been there for the Jayhawks for at least a few games now.
This is another issue that Kansas should not be dealing with because it has the experienced players that should be plenty familiar with the rhythm of the offense and Coach Self's style of play.
Often rhythm shows up as a team starts playing better and builds from there. The Jayhawks have been inconsistent lately, but if they begin to build up a rhythm just before the tournament begins they have the talent to become a legitimate scoring threat despite how bad the offense may have seemed at times.
Rhythm really is the difference between a team that is playing and well and one that is struggling. The Jayhawks have been struggling by their own high standards.
Ben McLemore and Travis Releford are both players that could be very dangerous if they get into a rhythm, but they are also players that need that rhythm to be set by other ball handlers and passers.
The effectiveness of Elijah Johnson as point guard depends on him taking care of the ball and avoiding turnovers. He has not handled it well in the past few games, and that was never as obvious as it was when he lost the ball in an attempt to cross-over with a few seconds left in the loss to Oklahoma St.
The reason Johnson's ball-handling is so important to the team is that both scorers on the wings, Releford and McLemore, do not score often off their own dribble. They need Johnson and Tharpe to set them up for scoring opportunities because both Releford and McLemore's strengths are the way that they finish.
Kansas has not been awful in terms of turnovers this season, but it has not been a strength. The Jayhawks need to take care of the ball on the offensive end and create scoring chances from their defense.
A team that turns the ball over is a team that is likely to be upset in the NCAA tournament. Between offensive rebounds and turnovers the Jayhawks are giving their opponents way too many extra possessions.
"We don't have a point guard," Self said. "We're playing with 2-guards, which is OK, a lot of teams have to do that."
The Jayhawks would be a much better team in March if the point guards, Elijah Johnson and Naadir Tharpe, can improve their ball-handling skills. It is not easy to do in the middle of the season, but mental toughness is part of it as well.
Kansas has shooters (McLemore), shot blockers (Withey), defenders (Releford) and energizers (Young), but they need somebody to become a playmaker.
Ben McLemore has certainly shown signs of being a play maker, but there is still room for improvement. The shots that McLemore made against Iowa State were a perfect example of the ability he has, but more often than not he has not been able to create his own shots this season.
If McLemore is still counting on Elijah Johnson to create rhythm and scoring opportunities for him in March, then this team could be in trouble. It seems more likely that McLemore would become a playmaker than Johnson becomes a trust-worthy ball-handler.
Obviously, it's not easy to create shots off the dribble when ball-handling is a weakness as it is for McLemore, but he does not need to drive his way to the basket to create these scoring chances. McLemore has an ability to rise over defenders on his shots that few other players in college basketball have right now.
It would be a big step in McLemore's game if he could learn to use his ability to rise up off one dribble into a mid-range shot, as he did against Iowa State.
McLemore would be an unstoppable scorer with a dribble move to free himself up. This goes back to the improvement needed in ball-handling; it goes deeper than the point guard position.
Travis Releford is more set in his skills as a senior, but with the involvement he has in the offense he may need to become more of a playmaker also. The Jayhawks need players that they can go to under pressure and feel confident that they can find a way to score.
Right now, the shots have to be set up.
This could be wrapped up into all of the Jayhawks problems.
Kansas has not only committed turnovers from bad passes, but they have struggled to create assists. Elijah Johnson is averaging nearly 5 assists on the season, which really isn't as bad as you might think, but he probably does need to continue to push that number up.
Johnson has made more assists than he had at this point last season, so there has been some improvement, but he has also had the ball in his hands more often, with more assist opportunities.
Self said that Johnson is his guy. That means that Johnson will need to make improvements in passing, but Self also made clear that Johnson hasn't been happy with his own play, which is the first step to making improvements.
As a team the Jayhawks had 15 assists against Oklahoma St. and 16 turnovers. They made bad passes and bad decisions.
The key to the Jayhawks improvement will be passing. If they can improve the way they move the ball through the offense, then the other four areas that I've mentioned are sure to follow, and in some cases (rhythm and ball handling) they are directly related to how the team passes.
Teams that win in the tournament are teams that make the most of every possession, and passing is the biggest factor in that.