LAWRENCE — It’s early. The Jayhawks are young. It’s a work in progress. Listen to Kansas coach Bill Self talk about his team, and most of the thoughts include these words. It’s not even Thanksgiving, the leaves are still on the trees around Allen Fieldhouse, and Kansas has played just three games.
But if Self has seen one troubling trend in the season’s opening weeks, it’s the kind of thing that flies in the face of his basketball DNA.
“We don’t play very tough yet,” Self said.
It’s been a common theme for Self in the season’s first few weeks, as his Jayhawks have lumbered through a couple less-than-pretty performances. The Jayhawks fell to Michigan State on Tuesday in Atlanta before coming out flat against Chattanooga on Thursday night at Allen Fieldhouse. Some of it is to be expected. The Jayhawks have added three freshmen to their regular rotation, and it could take weeks or months before KU is at full tilt.
But unlike last year’s team, which excelled when the games got a little murky, Self is looking for stronger leadership and toughness from his upperclassmen.
“We had two guys last year that were assassins,” Self said, mentioning forward Thomas Robinson and guard Tyshawn Taylor.
The implication is that KU’s seniors — namely Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey — need to develop some of those “assassin” characteristics. The next opportunity comes on Monday night, when No. 7 Kansas takes on Washington State in the semifinals of the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center. The winner will play the winner of Saint Louis-Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
Kansas City is not quite Maui — the tournament where the Jayhawks came together last season — but the friendly confines could fit KU’s needs just fine.
“It’s gonna be good for the young guys to be on the road,” Withey said, “but not really on the road.”
It’s not all toughness, however. In the days after the Chattanooga game, Self had another directive for his team: Play faster. In three games, including two against some small-school competition, the Jayhawks are averaging 69.0 points per game while shooting 24.5 percent from three-point range.
“We’re not even close to being where we need to be,” Self said. “Our timing is not any good. We don’t know where our shots are coming from. Our big guys haven’t figured out how to score.”
Some of this is to be expected. But some of the efficiency issues may be helped if Kansas can find some easy baskets off turnovers and in its secondary break. The Jayhawks have the athletes and speed to do it, but Self used the word “lazy” when describing how his team — save for freshman Ben McLemore — has run the court this season.
“We can’t play fast enough,” Self said. “Hey, let’s just call it like it is: We don’t look athletic to me at all. We look athletic in one spot: McLemore. The other guys are just average athletes, as far as being able to run.”
Self added that KU’s other guards, including senior Travis Releford and Naadir Tharpe, need to pick up the pace.
“Are they average athletes? No,” Self said. “But they’re playing slow. And it starts with your point guard. Elijah’s playing extremely slow. Our bigs don’t run for a purpose at all. Travis isn’t playing fast at all. Naadir gives us no pace. I’m disappointed in how fast we’re playing.”
Speed, of course, was rarely an issue last season, when Taylor drove the Jayhawks from the point-guard spot. It wasn’t always beautiful to watch. Taylor was good for at least one inexplicable pass per game. But he also played fearlessly. And that is something, Self says, that these Jayhawks must learn to do.
“We didn’t win pretty last year,” Self said. There’s no difference. The difference is this team just isn’t quite as tough yet.… That’s the biggest difference.”
Lucaus will redshirt — Self confirmed that KU freshman forward Landen Lucas would redshirt this season. The news, which was expected, came during a Q&A with fans at the College Basketball Experience.