GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The question marks continue for another day.
On a night when Kansas coach Bill Self started four freshmen for the first time in KU's long and storied history, the young Jayhawks took their lumps against a veteran Florida team.
After nearly getting run out of the building in the first half, Kansas’ late comeback effort came up a few possessions short in a 67-61 loss to No. 19 Florida at the O'Connell Center in the inaugural year of the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
In the span of 12 days, No. 13 Kansas has now suffered three losses in four games — the first time KU has recorded three losses on or before Dec. 10 since the 2005-06 season. That, of course, was the last time Self attempted such a dramatic program reload. And in those uncertain days, a young core of Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Julian Wright needed a couple of months to find themselves.
All three of Kansas' losses have come away from Allen Fieldhouse, with the string starting in a loss to Villanova on Nov. 29 in the Battle 4 Atlantis. But aside from the location, there are some other common themes.
For another night, the Jayhawks (6-3) struggled to attack a zone defense, crumbling under the weight of a 21-0 Florida run during the first half. For another night, the Jayhawks’ two point guards — Frank Mason and Naadir Tharpe — struggled to keep the offense in a rhythm or flow. By the end of the night, the Jayhawks had recorded 24 turnovers.
The defense gave Kansas a chance, holding Florida to just 37 percent shooting. But the rash of turnovers and offensive problems gave Kansas its second straight road loss.
After falling behind 36-21 in the first half, the Jayhawks cut the lead to 47-39 on a three-pointer from Mason with 11:55 left. But Florida would push the lead back to double-digits on a trey from Dorian Finney-Smith, his fourth of the game. And moments later, Andrew Wiggins would turn the ball over in the lane, the Jayhawks’ 21st turnover on the night.
Even when Wiggins hit a three-pointer to trim the Gators’ lead to 58-52 with 1:20 left, it didn’t quite seem like the Jayhawks were really within striking distance.
Wiggins added another three-pointer with just under a minute left to cut Florida’s lead to 60-55, and the Gators made one of two free throws on the other end to push the lead back to six.
Wiggins finished with a career-high 26 points on 7-of-15 shooting, including 4 of 9 from the three-point line. He was more assertive, and appeared more confident. He didn't have a lot of help.
Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who finished with 18 points and six assists, hurt the Jayhawks all night, drilling well-timed three-pointers and hitting a transition layup that pushed the lead to 54-43 with just under six minutes left. If this was what a veteran point guard can provide a team, it stood out in stark contrast to the Jayhawks’ point guard play.
In the opening 20 minutes, it all went very bad, very quickly.
The Jayhawks began the game on a 10-3 run before the first media timeout. But then the dam broke, and Florida rolled off a 21-0 run while taking a 36-21 lead at halftime. For a Kansas team that entered the night with two losses in its last three games, it was the last thing Self needed to see.
The atmosphere for the marquee non-conference matchup, part of the inaugural Big 12-SEC Challenge, was packed and loud. No. 19 Florida was finally healthy, returning senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and freshman Kasey Hill to the court. And the veteran Gators put on a clinic during the opening 20 minutes.
What all went wrong? Start with the first half, when the Jayhawks clearly looked like the younger team.
The Jayhawks finished the first half with 16 turnovers while attempting just 19 field goals.
Kansas again struggled against a zone defense, failing to create offensive flow and finishing the half with just three assists.
And after Mason hit a three-pointer to give the Jayhawks a 10-3 lead with 15:55 left, the Jayhawks scored just 11 points the rest of the half. At one point, the offensive drought lasted nearly nine minutes before sophomore finished a bucket to cut Florida’s lead to 24-12.
It was the second straight game that Self had switched up the starting, trading experience for youth. After starting Mason in place of junior Naadir Tharpe during KU’s loss to Colorado on Saturdaynight, Self went with freshman center Joel Embiid in the post instead of senior Tarik Black.
During the season’s opening month, Self kept saying that the Jayhawks have the right pieces ... but they just don’t quite fit yet. For another night, the right combination eluded Kansas again.