LAWRENCE — The Kansas basketball education of Isaiah Moss remains an ongoing endeavor.
That said, there’s a truth about coach Bill Self that the senior guard and former Iowa graduate transfer has come to understand across his first and only year with the Jayhawks (14-3, 4-1 Big 12).
“He doesn’t really care if you make mistakes. He just wants you to play hard,” said Moss, speaking ahead of No. 3-ranked KU’s 6 p.m. Tuesday clash with Kansas State (8-9, 1-4) at Allen Fieldhouse. “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it going 110%. You’ve got to continue to go hard.”
Moss and teammates may understand that the Hall of Famer has that philosophy, but applying it on a game-to-game basis has too often proven itself a challenge.
Self on Monday lamented a lack of aggressiveness from a number of players on his squad, particularly on the offensive end. Guards Devon Dotson and Marcus Garrett and center Udoka Azubuike combined for 39 of the Jayhawks' 53 field goal attempts in last Saturday's 66-57 victory at Texas, with the other six players that saw the court pitching in just 15 total points.
Dotson and Garrett also teamed up for 10 of their team's 11 assists in that contest.
“This is sad to say — not sad, but this is a true statement that I’m not really proud of — is that offensively against Texas we had three guys try to score, try to do anything," Self said. "And so when you only have three out there that’s aggressive at all and one of ’em (Azubuike) never touches a ball unless he touches it three feet from the basket, that puts a lot of pressure on two guys just to be aggressive.”
For Self, the lack of scoring isn’t as troubling as the limited number of attempts, perhaps pointing to an inability or unwillingness to get in a position to take a shot that the coach said puts the team's facilitators in the difficult spot of needing to make something happen late in a possession.
“I think (Dotson and Garrett) are tough in that regard, but I also think that’s not best for us moving forward,” Self said. “They need to be able to continue to do what they do, but they’ve got to get some help as far as other guys stepping up and being aggressive and taking the pressure off of them to go make a play at the end of the shot clock.
"I really believe that’s going to be a telltale sign on whether we become a really, really, really good team, is whether or not there’s five guys out there you have to guard as opposed to just a couple.”
Moss, who was named the Big 12 newcomer of the week Monday, was 2 of 3 in 32 minutes against Texas. Ochai Agbaji finished 1 of 6 in 30 minutes.
Self acknowledged that he has been surprised that offense has been such a grind for this particular group.
“We’ve shown flashes. There’s no doubt about it. It’s just not been consistent,” said Self, whose team averaged 65.2 points across its first five Big 12 contests. “I know we’ve got it in us, and I know individuals have it in us and those sorts of things. So I think we’ll continue to improve moving forward. I still think that we’re young in many ways.”
While Moss can’t be considered a young player, his inexperience with the Jayhawks and under Self shouldn’t be understated. Still in the feeling out process, Moss said he’s discovered that Self “loves defense,” stresses toughness and always wants his players thinking next play.
Self’s own scout of Moss (averaging 8.1 points on 43.4% shooting this season) is also an ongoing one.
“He doesn’t really probably have as much confidence as maybe a Devon does about (how) it’s OK to be aggressive and screw up,” Self said. “But sometimes guys just want to play safe, and playing safe gets you beat. You’ve got to go take it and you’ve got to push the envelope.
“There’s times you want to be semi-conservative, but not to the point that I feel like our guys are playing just to be safe. If teams are good defensively and they’re able to pressure you and you kind of have that mindset, you don’t get much done. Certainly I think we’ve got plenty good enough players to be more aggressive.”
When he speaks of “playing it safe,” Self clarified that he isn’t strictly talking about shooting.
“(It’s) moving at a pace that the defender has a hard time recovering from,” Self continued. “I mean, if you’ve got a guy open on the post and it’s a 90-10 pass (and) you don’t throw it because you’re worried about the 10, that’s the kind of stuff that I’m talking about.”
The evaluation of the Agbaji (averaging 10.5 points on 44.2% shooting) struck a similar note to the coach's breakdown of Moss. Self said he simply wants the sophomore guard to be more aggressive.
“I don’t care about scoring points. I don’t care about missing shots. I don’t care about that. But put yourself in a position to impact each possession,” Self said. “I think he has the talent and the athletic ability to do that on both ends. And (Saturday) I didn’t feel like he did that as much, but we know he’s got it in him. He’s done it too many times.”
There may be one factor out of KU's control that's working against the team's offensive success — just don’t call it a silver lining.
“I think our league is the best defensive league in the country,” Self said. “... I don’t think our offense is very good, but I texted with a coach yesterday and said the best way for many offenses to look good is to play poor defensive teams. That’s not going to happen in our league. It’s not going to happen.”