LAWRENCE — You probably know the old college basketball maxim about the span of time between the first and second semesters. The players are freed from their academic duties. A deserted campus limits distractions. And coaches are no longer bound to a 20-hour limit in practice time.
This is the time, coaches like to say, that college basketball teams can form an identity and take their most important strides.
It all sounds neat and tidy — except Kansas coach Bill Self will tell you that it doesn’t always happen. At least, it didn’t happen last year with a veteran squad. After rolling over everyone during a dominating December, that KU team backslid during those crucial weeks in December and January.
“You get into January, we start puttering around,” Self says.
It was that stretch, Self says, that really led to KU’s three-game losing streak in February. And one year later, Self would like to make sure his current Jayhawks doesn’t follow the same path. Of course, there’s logic to suggest they won’t.
Last year’s team was made up of four seniors, players that had mostly maxed out at the college level by December of their senior season. This year’s team, with three freshman starters, has so much more room to grow.
“You would think that the team that has the most to learn when you get more (practice) time would obviously absorb more,” Self says.
So will they? Will Kansas, 8-3, continue to progress after consecutive victories against New Mexico and Georgetown? Well, we will get our first chance to evaluate their progress when the Jayhawks return to the floor against Toledo at 7 p.m. Monday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
“Most other years (other than last year),” Self says, “we've been a team that basically kicked it in when we had a chance to spend some time together.”
So where can KU make the most progress? For starters, Self would like to see a little more consistency and production from his bench, especially the backcourt. Senior forward Tarik Black came off the bench and scored a season-high 17 points against Georgetown in the Jayhawks’ last game before Christmas, offering more evidence of KU’s frontcourt depth. But Self is still sorting through reserve options in the backcourt.
Sophomore wing Andrew White III missed the last two games while battling a hip-pointer injury, and freshmen guards Frank Mason, Brannen Greene and Conner Frankamp have battled growing pains. Mason, after momentarily replacing junior Naadir Tharpe in the starting lineup, has struggled from three-point range (five for 22) and against zone defenses. Frankamp, one of the best pure shooters on the team, is also just five of 20 from behind the arc.
“Our bench can certainly get better, especially on the perimeter,” Self said. “I think our interior bench has been great. But we’re getting better. We’re still a long ways away, but I do think we’re starting to understand better. They’re getting more comfortable.”
The Jayhawks’ evolution has continued as freshman center Joel Embiid has taken on a bigger role on offense. Embiid has averaged 12.7 points in KU’s last four games, and he’s done so while taking just 5.7 field-goal attempts per game. Embiid’s field-goal attempts, Self says, must increase, especially considering Embiid is now shooting 68 percent from the floor.
Kansas has had just four days of unlimited practice time since reconvening in Lawrence last Thursday. But while Self was looking forward to the extra time, he was also focused on getting his players healthy and refreshed with eight days between games. Take freshman guard Wayne Selden, who has been battling an assortment of minor ailments during the season’s first two months. Selden has been up and down, Self says, but he’s also had to play through the struggles. Now Selden and the rest of KU’s freshmen have some time to settle in.
“The past freshmen (we’ve had),” Self said, “when they were up, they played; when they were down, they sat. And here whether you're up or down, you play.”