LAWRENCE — Bill Self is at a crossroads with this Kansas basketball team.
For the first time since December 2015, the Jayhawks (7-2) are losers of back-to-back regular-season contests, including a 95-85 setback Sunday afternoon to No. 16 Arizona State that had Self calling this “the softest team that Kansas has had” in his 15-plus-year tenure. The stretch has Self looking for answers, and the longtime coach doesn’t seem eager to recycle the same day-after analysis of his struggling squad.
“Maybe, maybe I shouldn’t be as surprised, and maybe I need to change,” Self said Sunday. “I’m not ready to accept that that’s the best we’ve got, but it’s pretty embarrassing to keep looking at the game or the tape afterward and saying, ‘Well, this is what we don’t have.’ We’ve been saying it now the entire year, at least from a defensive and competitive standpoint.”
The defensive struggles — KU surrendered a 58-point second half to a Sun Devil squad that shot 57.6 percent in the period — had Self at least publicly toying with an idea that would’ve once seemed unlikely from the Hall of Fame advocate of man-to-man defense.
“Maybe we need to do something to shorten the game,” Self said. “Maybe we need to do something to figure out a match-up zone to play or something like that. … I’m talking about (changing) what we do to allow us to maybe better utilize our guys defensively.”
The zone was never really an option against the Sun Devils — “I mean, they were 14 for 28 from 3 against a man,” said Self, who added the scheme may have helped KU prevent easy buckets at the rim but would’ve done little else. It may, though, be an option moving forward for a Jayhawk team the coach said got “a little bit tired” and played “horrendous” defense in the game’s final 14 minutes.
Still, moving away from an exclusive man-to-man defense would likely limit what the Jayhawks are able to do from an activity standpoint and might further expose the team’s recent struggles defending the 3 — KU allowed ASU and Washington to shoot a combined 46.9 percent from beyond the arc in the back-to-back defeats.
Self appears to be weighing all of these factors.
“I’ve always been a believer that whenever you do things to bail kids out or bail a team out, it’s probably not best for your team over time,” Self said. “It may help you win a game or two, but come January or February, I’m not sure it’s what’s best for your team over time. What’s best for our team is that we develop a tougher mindset.”
The zone, Self added, wouldn’t be a cure-all scheme.
“It’s still a mindset,” Self said. “It’s a ball in the air, a 50-50 ball, who’s gonna get it? You’ve still got to guard. Even though it’s a zone, it’s still man principles when you’re guarding the ball. You’ve still got to keep the ball in front of you.
“There’s a lot of things that we’ve got to address from a competitive standpoint that I think we’ll get better at, without question, but right now it’s not clicking for us at all on that (defensive) end.”
While Self acknowledged the Jayhawks’ sluggish play down the stretch, he refused to use fatigue as an excuse for the defeat to an ASU team that played Friday night and saw five individuals play at least 32 minutes against KU. Fatigue didn’t stop the Sun Devils from playing man-to-man the entire way, either.
Toughness, Self argued, was the bigger factor in Sunday’s outcome.
“Whenever things aren’t going well you kind of grind through it a little bit,” Self said. “We just don’t have that right now. That’s what we’ve got to get as much as anything else. We’ve got to get to the point where we can make others play bad.
“See, they can make us play bad because they can tell Remy Martin to go guard the ball and he can get a deflection or a steal or whatnot. We don’t have people that can do that, so we’ve got to figure out a way to collectively not make people feel comfortable as a team, and that’s not working right now.”
Lagging behind in that regard is to be expected from first-year Jayhawk guards Malik Newman and Marcus Garrett, or from frontcourt players Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot, who are playing significant roles for the first time as sophomores.
Seeing that from Graham, Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk, Self said, is another story.
“Those are the only three players we have that have ever been in a war before, or a fight before, a real fight, but I don’t think they reacted very well,” Self said. “I think everyone is part of that issue, as not being as tough or not understanding what really wins when things aren’t going well.”
With six days until the Jayhawks’ next contest, a 7 p.m. Saturday clash with former Big 12 rival Nebraska in Lincoln, Self anticipates an opportunity to “put in some work.” He even tossed out the idea of slowing the offense down “so we’re not as fatigued defensively.”
As for their soon-to-vanish No. 2 ranking? Well, Self indicated the team will likely be looking up at that position from a distance for the foreseeable future.
“Our nonconference schedule is a lot harder than what it looked like going into the season. It’s going to be a dogfight,” Self said. “We don’t need to worry about getting back into the top five soon, so we need to enjoy the process and try to grind to get a little bit better each and every day.”