LAWRENCE — The Kansas Jayhawks will hop on a charter bus and drive 42 miles into downtown Kansas City for a basketball game on Saturday night.
That’s the good news. No international flights. No cross-country travel. Nothing that requires a passport. Just a short trek down I-70 and a 6 p.m. matchup with New Mexico in front of a KU-friendly environment at the Sprint Center.
“I love going to Kansas City,” KU sophomore Perry Ellis said.
In the last five weeks, Kansas has covered approximately 7,140 miles, playing six of its first nine games away from Lawrence.
It’s the kind of schedule that would wear down any young outfit, a nonconference slate that, to this point, is rated as the nation’s toughest among major-conference schools by analyst Ken Pomeroy’s strength-of-schedule metric.
Compare that to this time last year, and the Jayhawks had traveled just 1,760 miles and played just one game outside of Lawrence and Kansas City. Maybe that makes it a little clearer why Self pins some of his team’s growing pains on factors such as logistics and competition.
“Over time,” Self says, “playing a hard schedule will be good for us.”
This is not to suggest that Kansas doesn’t have its problems to correct. The Jayhawks rank 250th in the country in turnover percentage, giving the ball up nearly 20 times for every 100 possessions. They rank 238th in three-point shooting at 31.7 percent. And for long stretches, KU’s young lineup has looked like a team still grasping the general premise of a zone defense.
Kansas looks like a team that lost all five starters, including four experienced seniors.
“Last year, we kind of took those seniors for granted probably a little bit,” Self says. “And I (could) look at them and say, ‘We’re not as quick, and we’re not as fast, and maybe we’re not as strong.’
“But the ball moved, we knew who was supposed to get shots and we didn’t break down. So you always put yourself in position to win.”
Earlier this week, Self began talking about his third season at Illinois in 2002-03. It was a year of change in Champaign, and the Illini had little choice but to go forward with a starting lineup that featured freshmen Deron Williams, Dee Brown and James Augustine. They were future stars, the core of a team that would reach the NCAA championship game two years later, but Self knew they wouldn’t be ready during the first months of their freshmen season. So he scheduled soft, gorging on directional schools and mediocre mid-major programs. The end result was a 10-0 start.
“We scheduled all ‘guarantee’ games early and guys got confidence from that,” Self said. “And they started believing they were good even though they weren’t playing great.”
For this Kansas team, confidence has been harder to come by — even after a victory over Duke at the Champions Classic. There have been limited patsies on the schedule, only three games total at Allen Fieldhouse. And it will not get easier on Saturday, when KU faces a New Mexico program that returns the core of a team that earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last March.
So when KU returned to Lawrence late on Tuesday night, following after another loss at Florida, the players met on Wednesday to do some venting and re-focus. It’s the same thing, Ellis says, that the Jayhawks did last season after losing three straight in Big 12 play.
“We all got together and really learned how to compete and just follow what Coach is saying,” Ellis said. “And it really just paid off.”
More than anything, Self says, his young team is starving for some confidence, something good to re-affirm that it’s on the right path. And that’s why Kansas has never been happier to see Kansas City. The Sprint Center isn’t Allen Fieldhouse. But after three weeks on the road, perhaps it could serve the same purpose.
“I never used youth as an excuse, so I’m not gonna start now,” Self said. “But you can tell there’s a physical difference; you can tell there’s obviously a mental difference when things start fragmenting.”