He spun to his left, pivoting hard and facing up to the basket against a swarm of Temple defenders. All around Perry Ellis, arms were flying and bodies were sliding and a tenacious defense was active.
Ellis, Kansas’ leading scorer and veteran power forward, pump-faked once, then again, then lofted a soft right-handed jump hook toward the front of the rim.
It bounced off. On Monday night, it always bounced off.
Amidst a joyous and surprised Wells Fargo Center sat pockets of Kansas fans, quietly watching in horror as another layup hit iron or simply missed completely.
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“I missed a lot of shots around the rim,” Ellis would say.
On a now forgettable night in Philadelphia, just three days before Christmas, this was No. 10 Kansas’ reality:
The layups never fell. The offense was ghastly. The result was often unwatchable. By the end, No. 10 Kansas had suffered a head-scratching, demoralizing, unanticipated beating, falling 77-52 to a Temple team whose previous best win had come at home against Louisiana Tech.
“Back to reality,” Kansas freshman wing Kelly Oubre said. “We see that we’ve got a lot of work to do now.”
If all this sounds like a mouthful, perhaps that is because Monday’s loss was a little difficult to digest, at least in the moment and especially for the players. Entering Monday, the Jayhawks had won eight straight and appeared to be ascending, ready to finish out a difficult non-conference schedule with a road game at Temple and two homes games at Allen Fieldhouse. Instead, the Jayhawks absorbed one of the most shocking losses — at least by margin of defeat — of the Bill Self era.
The 25-point margin was, according to first estimates from KU officials, the worst loss to an unranked team since a 17-point loss to Arkansas on Dec. 6, 1986. In other words, it was the kind of loss that Kansas has usually avoided under Self — until this year.
In 12 years, Self’s teams have lost just three games by 25 points or more. Two of those have now come in the last 40 days, with the other a 32-point loss to Kentucky at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis.
“We’re exposed again, and it’s the same way we’ve been exposed in the past,” Self said. “And I hope that we come back with a renewed vigor or interest level in becoming a very competitive, aggressive basketball team.”
On Monday, the Jayhawks simply looked tired and discombobulated. They shot just 32.1 percent from the floor, plagued by a season-long trend of poor production in the paint. Ellis finished just 1 of 10 from the floor while scoring five points. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander, who made his first career start, managed just one field-goal attempt while scoring two points. By late Monday night, Kansas’ big guys had combined to go 2 of 16 from the floor, and the Jayhawks were limited to just 29.7-percent shooting inside the three-point line.
As Self sorted through the wreckage, he tried to choose his words carefully.
“We got a lot of good things, so I don’t want this to come off negative,” he said. “But when you don’t have guys that can break you down off the bounce … like what Temple has, you got to run stuff. And when you run stuff, you have to execute it and play a certain way. And we didn’t do that tonight.
“We didn’t run our stuff very well, and we didn’t execute.”
For most of the season, Self has stated that he’s never had a team that struggles to score inside this much. Indeed, the numbers paint the picture of a team that is still trying to find its identity on the offensive end. According to advanced metrics, Kansas is shooting just better than 50 percent on shots at the rim, a woeful number for a program that has thrived on dominating inside play for the better part of a decade.
“Our margin for error isn’t as great,” Self said. “And if you generated points off your defense or off of offensive rebounds, that would be a little different. But tonight we didn’t do that. We played tired.”
While the offense was dismal, Self appeared more concerned with his team’s defense, which allowed Temple to shoot 58 percent and carve up the Jayhawks’ perimeter defense with an avalanche of drives. Temple led 35-25 at halftime, and with the recent addition of transfer Jesse Morgan, the Owls looked like the top-10 team. If it weren’t for 20 points from sophomore guard Frank Mason, the final margin could have been worse.
“Just terrible,” Self said, describing his team’s start.
In the locker room after the game, after Temple’s students had rushed the floor, Self stood before his team and talked about winning on the road. If you rebound and defend, Self said, you’ll always have a chance. If there was a message about the offense, it was relayed by sophomore Wayne Selden, who when asked about Kansas’ offense issues, simply said this:
“We got to defend.”
“It happens,” Ellis added, searching for the right way to describe the performance. “It’s over now, and we really wanted to come out of this [winter] break with some momentum, but unfortunately, it didn’t happen. We got to come back with a new mindset.”