Even when you get past the obsession with the rapid fluctuation of Andrew Wiggins' and Joel Embiid's draft prospects, the No. 15 Kansas Jayhawks have exposed themselves as perhaps the most intriguing nightly watch in all of college basketball.
Monday night's victory over Iowa State brought them to 12-4 on the season and a perfect 3-0 in Big 12 conference play. Embiid and Wiggins did enough to make scouts drool and pick up their drool off the ground just to allow it to escape one more time.
Embiid, the seven-foot Cameroonian center who some are beginning to call a better prospect than his more hyped teammate, scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and swatted five shots. As the Cyclones missed multiple bunnies down the stretch, one couldn't help but be transfixed by the impact of his sheer size. If Roy Hibbert can intimidate LeBron James from attacking the rim, Embiid sure as hell can fluster DeAndre Kane.
Wiggins, meanwhile, strangely resembled another star from last season's NBA playoffs: Kawhi Leonard. Flying in with reckless abandon, Wiggins scooped up a career-high 19 rebounds—just the second time in his collegiate career he'd had more than eight boards. Five of those rebounds came on the offensive end, matching Embiid for a team high and helping give the Jayhawks critical extra possessions.
Sure, Wiggins was still a brickmaster on jumpers. Sure, possibly the future No. 1 and No. 2 picks in June's NBA draft combined for 13 turnovers—an unfathomable number only mitigated by Iowa State's baskets being roughly seven inches in diameter. And sure, junior Naadir Tharpe was arguably better than either player, scoring his game-high 23 points on only nine field-goal attempts while adding six boards and four dimes.
No matter. This game was the mark of a young team that may have found itself amid the early-season muck.
"The thing about it is, if you have followed our team closely, you could make the case that this team probably enjoyed playing less than other teams we've had," Kansas coach Bill Self said, via The Associated Press (h/t ESPN). "But since we started conference play, they're having as much fun as any team we've ever had."
Of course, winning always begets some measure of joy. Kansas began the season as the fifth-ranked team in the country, in large part due to Wiggins, the most hyped (not the best) prep prospect since LeBron James. It won a Nov. 12 clash against Duke as part of a six-game run to start the season, earning the Jayhawks a No. 2 ranking in the country and talks of a national title run.
And then reality set in.
Starting with a Nov. 29 loss to Villanova, Kansas was toppled in three of its next four games. The lone victory was a 67-63 nail-biter against UTEP, about which the less is said the better. Teetering on the brink of implosion, the Jayhawks won their next three games to settle the Lawrence faithful—right before closing out their nonconference schedule with a loss to San Diego State.
At Allen Fieldhouse. On national television. Before throngs of supporters wearing blue and red at the Phog. The loss ended a 68-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents. And more than concluding a mostly arbitrary winning streak with no actual value, it raised a host of questions about this team and where it was headed.
Why is it still in the Top 25? Is Wiggins a bust? This team is laden with NBA talent—what the hell is Bill Self doing? Hey, that Embiid kid is pretty good—why aren't the Jayhawks playing him more?
While usually coated with the irrationality of a fanbase used to excellence, each of those points had some merit. Kansas was the only ranked four-loss team in the nation. Wiggins was a bust, at least relative to the unrealistic expectations foisted upon him by media types (yours truly included). Self wasn't managing his talent well, specifically Embiid, who didn't get nearly enough minutes early in the season.
Of course, the worries consistently missed the most salient point of all: Kansas was losing to some of the best teams in the country. Villanova, Florida and San Diego State each rank inside the Top 10. Colorado is the only outlier, but it's sitting plum in the No. 21 spot.
None of those teams were any better than 19th at the time they beat Kansas. And despite all the warts exposed in those contests, the Jayhawks didn't lose any of those games by more than six points. All but one of them came at a place that isn't Lawrence, Kansas.
Per Ken Pomeroy, Kansas has the most difficult strength of schedule thus far, and it's not even particularly close. Boston College is the only other major-conference team that ranks among the 10 hardest in the country. At his team's nadir, Self told Gary Bedore of the Lawrence Journal-World he hoped the difficult schedule would start paying dividends soon:
Basically, hopefully, and I'm believing it's true...because of the schedule we played we'll be better prepared for conference season because things haven't been masked, so to speak. That's the positive spin I'm putting on it, but it's the way I actually feel. I feel we could potentially get more out of our nonconference schedule than we did last year.
Now Self is finally seeing the fruit of his labor. Kansas' intraconference schedule is already a gauntlet, starting with a trip to Norman—not exactly easy, as Iowa State found out—before jetting around the conference for four straight games against ranked opponents.
The Jayhawks are 2-0 on that stretch already, waxing Kansas State and hitting the road for the aforementioned tilt in Ames. Marcus Smart and No. 9 Oklahoma State visit Saturday, and No. 12 Baylor two days later. It won't be for nearly another month until Self's squad has back-to-back games against squads outside the Top 25.
This, of course, could be either a gift or a curse.
The Jayhawks are not without their flaws—ones that could come back to haunt them in a major way, ones that haven't even been fixed during this nice run to start conference play.
First and foremost, of course, is they can't shoot. Kansas hits just 34.8 percent of its shots beyond that line arbitrarily painted 20 feet, nine inches beyond the basket. The youthful, athletic bunch only takes 28.3 percent of its shots from beyond the arc as well, a rate that ranks 280th in the country, per Pomeroy (subscription required).
As our knowledge of what constitutes the most efficient form of basketball increases, one thing continually stands out: Taking more threes is almost universally a good thing. It's true at the NBA level and even truer in college, where players are even closer to the basket.
Kansas is still able cobble together a very solid offense without shooting from distance because of its athletic advantage, but that's not always going to work. Florida and Colorado both employed a zone that suffocated the Jayhawks' offensive rhythm, a problem that's been prevalent throughout the season. Kansas scores 0.89 points per possession against zone defenses, ranking No. 215 in the nation, per Synergy Sports (subscription required).
Smart teams are already recognizing this, as they are about the Jayhawks' lack of elite ball-handling. Kansas rarely uses pick-and-rolls and scores at a below-average rate when it does, per Synergy.
How far will Kansas make it in the NCAA Tournament
These problems need fixing if Kansas wants to be taken seriously as a Final Four contender.
But it'll have plenty of time to do so. As these Jayhawks have proven, getting exposed by top-flight teams only leads to much-needed adjustments. Embiid is now starting and playing extended minutes. Self has installed a few actions that help against zone defense, and having an athlete like Wiggins crash the boards will hurt zone-playing teams that are lazy on box outs.
It's all a part of a long process that will either build toward a team peaking in March or one again exposed for its shortcomings. We'll have to see which scenario plays out.
But based on early returns in Big 12 play, these Jayhawks might live up to their preseason hype after all.
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