KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The slumping shooter cannot hide. The misses are there for all to see. The defensive slump may be more subtle.
The feet aren’t moving as well, positioning is off, screens work.
Kansas’ Travis Releford believes he may be there.
“I haven’t been defending the way I was at the beginning of the season,” Releford said. “Going into the postseason, I need to concentrate on that more.”
The Jayhawks’ postseason begins today at 2 p.m. with their quarterfinal Big 12 Tournament game, and Releford said he has rededicated himself to the task.
“Oh, yeah, I’m up to it,” he said.
Defense is the calling card for the 6-foot-6, fourth-year junior who played at Bishop Miege.
He can score. Earlier this season Releford picked up a Big 12 player of the week honor for setting career scoring highs in successive games with 16 against Kansas State and 28 against Oklahoma.
But he’s taken great pride in building an identity as a stopper. Releford usually takes the opponent’s top wing scorer, and along with Jeff Withey’s shot-blocking prowess, Releford’s sticky defense is a major factor in Kansas’ lofty Big 12 rankings.
The Jayhawks lead the league in field-goal percentage defense at 38.2 and are second in scoring defense at 61.1 points entering the tournament.
But last Saturday, Releford took his turn on Texas’ J’Covan Brown, who scored 29 of his 33 points in the second half. None of the Jayhawks could stop Brown.
Coach Bill Self has issued the challenge.
“It’s time to get that back,” Self said. “And he can get in back in practice with his mindset.”
That mindset has to be to play defense before the opponent gets the ball.
“The key to being a good defender, in my opinion, is to limit good touches,” Self said. “When you let a player get good touches the advantage goes to the offense.
“If a guy doesn’t shoot it, he’s probably not going to score.”
Self didn’t single out Releford, mentioning fellow guard Elijah Johnson as well.
But Releford accepted the coaching as it if was single-minded in purpose.
“He knows I can be that guy (defensive stopper), and like I said, I haven’t been doing that lately,” Releford said. “I need to step it up.”
For the most part, Releford has done just that in his first year as a starter. He’s the team’s fifth-leading scorer at 8.6 points, third rebounder at 4.3, third in assists (60) and his ability to step outside and take the three (33.8 percent) means that part of his game has to be respected.
He doesn’t often look for his shot. Over a three-game stretch which included his two big scoring games Releford attempted 34 shots, and he hasn’t come close to that since then. He defers to the top scorers, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, but is willing to take an important shot.
In the Jayhawks’ stirring comeback victory over Missouri two weeks ago, Releford contributed four free throws in the final seven minutes, including a pair that made it a one-point game with 1:49 remaining in regulation.
Offensively, for the most part, Releford pitches in where it can. But the defense is never supposed to rest, and that’s his mission in the postseason.