Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Kansas’ Big 12 streak looks shaky

Iowa State forward Abdel Nader, left, steals the ball from Kansas guard Wayne Selden during Monday’s second half.
Iowa State forward Abdel Nader, left, steals the ball from Kansas guard Wayne Selden during Monday’s second half. AP

As someone posted on Twitter on Monday night, somewhat facetiously after KU’s 85-72 loss to Iowa State, “The sky is falling.”

That is an overblown reaction to the Jayhawks’ miserable second half and overall struggles since getting to 14-1 and taking over as the No. 1 team in the country.

Since that time, KU is 2-3. The Jayhawks have lost at West Virginia and Iowa State, certainly nothing to hide their faces over. But the loss to Oklahoma State in Stillwater last week was weird. Embarrassing, even.

KU beat TCU at home, but with no resound. The Jayhawks played a nice second half to overcome Texas at Allen Fieldhouse over the weekend. And they took the energy out of Hilton Coliseum on Monday night with impressive play before forgetting to re-fuel at halftime.

To beat Iowa State in Ames requires two outstanding halves and Kansas wasn’t up for the challenge.

The over-reactors are out in full force, some even going as far as saying Bill Self is past his time as an effective coach.

Which, of course, is blatantly ridiculous. Such, though, is the level of expectation for KU hoops.

The Jayhawks are gunning for their 12th consecutive Big 12 championship and, despite the recent struggles, are just a half-game behind Oklahoma, West Virginia and Baylor, tied atop the conference at 5-2.

We’re not even at the halfway point in conference play. Kansas could get on a roll. And this isn’t the first time the Jayhawks have encountered rough waters on the way to another Big 12 title.

Last season, after a 3-0 start, Kansas went 10-5 the rest of the way. It wasn’t always pretty.

In 2013-14, KU won its first seven conference games before winning seven of its final 11.

And in 2012-13, the Jayhawks dropped three in a row to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma while tying Kansas State for the Big 12 championship at 14-4.

Kansas has a way of recovering from these pangs of inconsistency, so fans shouldn’t panic.

But the causes for concern are real.

KU hasn’t made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament since 2012-13, when the Jayhawks lost to Michigan, in overtime, in the Sweet 16.

Is this the Kansas team capable of making noise in March and early April?

The signs are discouraging. Veterans Frank Mason and Wayne Selden, after promising starts to the season, have gone into funks. Mason has a do-everything mentality that can be more hindrance that help, as it was against Iowa State. Putting your head down and driving to the basket is sometimes commendable, but most often it’s a mistake. And Mason’s six turnovers against the Cyclones were deflating.

Selden is shooting barely over 40 percent in KU’s past five games after burning nets in the non-conference portion of the season, when he shot 55.4 percent overall and 52.5 percent from the three-point line in 12 games.

Much has been made of KU’s inability to identify a consistent starter at the center position. But in Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor, Hunter Mickelson and Cheick Diallo, the Jayhawks have plenty of options. So what if there aren’t any big scorers at this position? Selden, Mason and senior forward Perry Ellis are capable of carrying the scoring load.

And Ellis has. Even though this January of discontent, Ellis is scoring 19 points per game and shooting nearly 48 percent in conference games while averaging 7.1 rebounds.

One of KU’s problems is a lack of floor leadership. And seeing Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet as much as I do, it’s a weakness that really stands out for the Jayhawks.

Mason doesn’t have the patience to be a floor leader and Graham at times struggles with that, too.

In 12 non-conference games, the assist-to-turnover ratio for Mason and Graham was 109-25, a more than four-to-one ratio. That’s outstanding.

In Big 12 play, though, that ratio is 60-39. Not good.

Kansas is easily rattled on the road. The Jayhawks’ faces went flush as Iowa State mounted its second-half rally Monday and Kansas was at a loss. The camera shots of Self on the bench were telling. At one point he was chewing on his fingers. At another he rubbed his face. Nowhere did it appear he had an answer.

That’s the worrisome part. This isn’t a particularly deep Kansas team, which is different from what we thought early. Diallo and fellow freshman Carlton Bragg are apparently not ready for big roles, unlike some prize freshmen from Kansas’ recent past.

Where can Self turn?

It’s going to be up to Mason and Selden, in particular, to find themselves and to start playing more like anchored, poised juniors than frightened, panicked kids.

They’re capable. They’ve shown it.

There are plenty of difficult games left for the Jayhawks, who get a respite Saturday against Kentucky — Kentucky a respite? — before a home game against Kansas State.

KU still has West Virginia and Iowa State at home and road games against Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas. The 12-year streak of conference titles is in serious jeopardy. It has been before, but the Jayhawks have figured out a way.

They might again this time. But there are enough warning signs as to make it iffy.