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Kansas really missing the point

 
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Oh, you can play without a true point guard. Sure you can. But this is what will happen:

Your offense will bounce up and down. For two weeks, you’ll glide like a gazelle. The next two weeks, you’ll waddle like a duck. You’ll win at Ohio State. You’ll lose at TCU. Your collective psyche will fishtail back and forth the way a Lincoln Town Car does on wet pavement.

You may stay on the road, but you’ll never be able to consistently stay in your lane. There’ll be nothing to lift you, nothing to center you, nothing to serve as your rock.

It’s the one sin that always finds a way to catch up with you. Always.

Kansas is 19-3. A flawed 19-3. A remarkable 19-3. With the fifth-ranked Jayhawks’ unfathomable 62-55 loss Wednesday at the hands of the Horned Frogs — who had dropped their first eight Big 12 conference tilts by an average of 16 points — Kansas fell to 7-2 in conference play.

Which is kind of incredible, really.

Especially when you consider that, in those nine conference games, Elijah Johnson — an off-guard stuck playing the point — has notched 35 assists, committed 34 turnovers and shot 30.5 percent from the floor. Plan B at the point, freshman Naadir Tharpe, is toting a 17-to-14 assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting 21.9 percent against Big 12 opponents. Against TCU, Johnson and Tharpe shot a combined 5-for-27 and turned the rock over five times.

The problem is not that Kansas has a problem. The problem is that there’s no immediate, obvious remedy.

It is what it is. And it’s killing them.

“It was the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor since Dr. (James) Naismith was there,” coach Bill Self, never one to sugarcoat, told reporters. “It’s not a bad loss. It’s an unbelievably bad loss.”

It’s the King Kong of bad losses, when you consider the context. TCU began the night ranked 238th out of 347 Division I schools in unofficial RPI; KU was sixth. Over the past decade in Lawrence, Self has yet to lose a regular-season Big 12 game to the league’s eventual last-place team. One longtime bracketologist deemed it the biggest upset, in terms of relative RPI strength, that he’d seen over the past 20 years.

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For Jayhawk fans, it was the perfect storm of bad. Kansas attempted 22 shots in the first half and made just three, a new low-water mark for the Self era. Stellar wing guard Ben McLemore missed his first six shots. The Jayhawks didn’t score their first bucket until the 12:43 mark of the first half. They trailed 17-4, then 20-6, then 22-13. With two minutes left until halftime, you expected Naismith’s corpse to rise from the ground, zombie-style, stagger to Fort Worth, and demand that Self hand over the clipboard.

Potential No. 1 seeds are bound to lay the occasional egg now and then. But they don’t drop a dozen in one plop.

No, something’s wrong here. Very, very, very wrong. There’s a disconnect somewhere, whether it’s confined to the locker room or between Self and his roster.

December’s juggernaut is now February’s enigma. Sloppy passing and ugly, disjointed home wins against Temple and Iowa State were shrugged away. Only it happened again at Texas Tech, then again at Texas. They’ll figure it out, we said.

But the same demons kept cropping up, this time at West Virginia, leading to another escape. Self warned us that KU would pay, and pay soon, for continuing to dance along a tightrope. So when Oklahoma State won last Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, snapping the Jayhawks’ home victory streak of 33 straight games, it was almost expected.

Nobody was expecting what came Wednesday night.

It’s the first time since 2006 that Kansas has lost back-to-back contests. More troublesome, though, are the whispers that this team reminds some diehards of the kids from 2004-05, the closest thing Self has had to a “down year” in Lawrence.

That group opened the season 14-0 and ended it at 23-7, closing the books with a loss to Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It’s remembered for its lack of chemistry, its inability to get on the same page, as much as anything else. Sound familiar?

“We are not a confident bunch,” Self told reporters Wednesday night.

And that confidence starts at the head of the table. It’s been an interesting few days for Self and his point guard, many of them unpleasant. On Saturday, following the Oklahoma State loss, the coach tossed Johnson under the bus. On Sunday, they had a private heart-to-heart talk. On Monday, Self called Johnson “my guy.”

On Wednesday, his guy was back under the bus again.

In the Jayhawks’ three defeats, Johnson is 12-for-41 from the floor. His running mate, senior guard Travis Releford, is 4-for-12 and was invisible against TCU, netting just 1 point in 36 minutes.

So, no, it’s not fair to put it all on Elijah. Then again, no one ever said this was fair; March doesn’t give a monkey’s backside about fair. Kansas goes as its backcourt goes. And, right now, that backcourt is threatening to drive the Jayhawks straight off a cliff.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at [email protected]
 

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