In recent years, there's been a growing adage among college basketball fans, experts and coaches: Elite guard play wins in March.
Well, if that's indeed the case, the one-loss Kansas Jayhawks may be in for another early exit come tournament time.
This past Saturday, KU suffered their first defeat of the season at the hands of the now seventh ranked Texas Longhorns, 74-63. After jumping out to an early double-digit lead that they sustained through the game's first half, the Jayhawks were dominated by UT. Setting a new low for the Bill Self era and losing their 69-game home winning streak in the process, KU was outscored 51-28 in the contest's final 20 minutes.
Why? The Kansas backcourt was absolutely abused by their Texas counterparts. Each team played four primary "smalls"; the raw statistics of each group tell the whole story.
KU: 33 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, 13-32 FG (.406), 5-13 3PT (.384), 2-2 FT
UT: 56 points, 24 rebounds, 6 assists, 17-33 FG (.515), 5-11 3PT (.454), 17-21 FT (.809)
Given those simple numbers, its amazing Kansas was in the game at all. Only solid late efforts from star forwards Marcus and Markieff Morris kept this one from being a total laugher.
All season long, KU's bread and butter has been working the ball inside to the Morrises and Thomas Robinson. Finally facing a frontcourt that could match them for size, physicality and athleticism, the Jayhawks needed more than typical production from their guards. Instead, junior Tyshawn Taylor, senior Tyrel Reed and company were exposed.
There is always a performance in any given season that can be treated as an anomaly. Teams lose games they shouldn't and play more poorly than they normally do on occasion; that's the nature of college basketball. Given the fragile emotional state of the Jayhawks going into the match-up against Texas (Robinson's mother tragically passed away late Friday night), some optimistic KU fans are looking at Saturday's loss in that light.
Problem is, there have been muffled undertones of the backcourt's struggles all season long. Against an elite opponent, they were loud and vibrant enough for the entire country to hear.
Ignoring that Kansas' main perimeter quartetTaylor, Reed, freshman Josh Selby and senior Brady Morningstar has averaged a paltry 28.2 points per game in their last five outings, the problem with the Jayhawk guards is simple.
Where is the star? The guy who can take over a game? The surefire All-American or NBA prospect? The Sherron Collins? The Mario Chalmers? The Brandon Rush? The Kirk Hinrich?
Clearly, Kansas doesn't currently have a player of that caliber. Or, frankly, anywhere near it. Selby, ranked by some as the best high school prospect in the nation a year ago, was supposed to play that role. As planned, he'd get help learning on the ropes from KU's veterans, led by the undeniably talented but erratic Taylor. Instead, the only guard living up to his preseason billing is Reed, in the form of consistent role player. Obviously, that's not enough.
Maybe KU's backcourt is still getting adjusted to playing with Selby, who was suspended for the season's first nine games. Maybe the smalls are in a months-long shooting slump. Maybe coach Self has the proverbial trick up his sleeve just in time for the grind of conference play. Maybe wholesale changes in the form of new rotations are coming.
Either way, one thing is clear, and will only become clearer on Tuesday when the Jayhawks travel to Boulder to take on Alec Burks and Colorado: Kansas needs to get better on the perimeter to make an expected deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Much, much better.