University of Kansas

Kansas has big conference lead, but problems persist

Kansas coach Bill Self did not waste many words this week while affirming his ongoing concerns with the turnover-prone nature of his basketball team.

“One-word answer,” Self said. “Yes. I could say hell yes.”

Those words came on Thursday, after the second-ranked Jayhawks began Big 12 Conference play averaging nearly 14 turnovers in their first seven league games. Now, as Kansas returns to the floor Saturday against Oklahoma State at 3 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse, they’ll face an inconvenient truth. KU (19-1, 7-0) may be the class of the league, but the Jayhawks are perfect in conference play despite committing more turnovers (95) than they’ve forced (87).

“I think that we are careless and lazy as much as anything else,” Self said. “Guys just pick the ball up, put the ball over their head.”

All the wasted possessions are one reason for some continuing — and well-documented — offensive struggles. Kansas is sixth in the Big 12 while averaging 67 points in seven conference games.

Senior guard Elijah Johnson is averaging four assists and 3.9 turnovers in conference play, and he had three of KU’s 16 costly turnovers in a tighter-than-necessary 61-56 victory at West Virginia on Monday night.

All the ball-handling questions have put Self in an unfamiliar place. For years, Self says, the KU coaching staff looked forward to playing teams that wanted to put pressure on KU’s guards. Any given year, Self would have the luxury of two or three playmaking combo guards in the backcourt, and more pressure usually meant more easy buckets for Kansas on the other end. In other words: Challenge Kansas’ guards at your own risk.

In seven games, that old sentiment has been turned on its head.

“Our guards have always been so good to get the ball behind the trap and then you’re playing with numbers,” Self said. “We talked (Wednesday) in practice; we’ve got to get back to being that, and I think we can.

“But we have been careless.”

If Self wants an up-close look at a dangerous combo guard, he won’t have to look too far against Oklahoma State. Cowboys freshman Marcus Smart is averaging 13.6 points and 4.6 assists while being discussed as a potential lottery pick in this summer’s NBA Draft.

The KU staff, of course, knows Smart well. Self recruited Smart hard, while also showing interest in his high school teammate, Phil Forte, whose father played football at Kansas. Smart and Forte wound up in Stillwater, but Kansas made a convincing push.

“Oh, no doubt,” Smart told The Oklahoman earlier this week. “Kansas is a great school, incredible tradition. They were definitely in my top five, top three. … I thought about going there at one point in time.”

Kansas, of course, is living fine without Smart. And a victory against the Cowboys would move them halfway to their ninth straight Big 12 title. Before the season, Oklahoma State was considered to be one of KU’s main challengers. But after seven games, the Cowboys already trail by three games. And the story is the same for much of the Big 12’s clustered second tier.

No, the Jayhawks aren’t exactly thinking title yet. But it does feel a little different to have a two-game lead after not even a month of conference play.

“It definitely helps,” KU senior Jeff Withey said. “If we can get these next couple wins, we have a chance to win the conference kind of early.”

For Kansas, though, the next step begins with the little things, like taking care of the ball and executing on offense. All year, the Jayhawks have won with defense, and that won’t change. But Self believes his team still has room to grow in the backcourt.

“You look at the makeup of our team,” Self said, “and we don’t have the same ball handlers … and passers as what we’ve had in past years, too. We’ve got to do a much better job of relieving pressure with our bigs and getting everybody to be a little bit less careless moving forward.”