The Kansas men’s basketball team knew well before Thursday that its defense was an area of concern. An 85-82, quarterfinal loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament merely confirmed it.
So, now, while resting up, recharging and moving forward with a new mindset all figure to be benefits of the Jayhawks’ unexpected weekend off, the one aspect of improvement this team will focus on most between now and the opening tip in next week’s NCAA Tournament will be the one that let them down the most on Thursday.
“Defense,” said senior Frank Mason III when asked that very question. “On the defensive end, playing every possession like it’s game point and just giving 100 percent effort, making ’em work for everything.”
While that strategy sounds like a sure fix for KU’s problems, the fact remains that giving 100 percent effort all the time has been difficult for this team because of its lack of depth. KU’s starters — also by far its most talented players — often have played 35 minutes or more, a reality that has forced certain Jayhawks to pick spots to conserve their energy.
On Thursday, with freshman Josh Jackson serving a one-game suspension, Mason played all 40 minutes and the only action junior guard Devonte’ Graham missed were the five minutes he spent in the locker room getting an injury examined.
Beyond that, sophomore Lagerald Vick and junior Svi Mykhailiuk, two of KU’s less talented defenders, each played 35 minutes, with Vick, Mason and Graham all playing the entire second half.
While those heavy workloads are not ideal, they are this team’s reality. So instead of wishing for depth to magically appear or for reserves to suddenly start playing at a higher level, the Jayhawks (28-4) will move into the Big Dance with their sights set on finding a way to improve their defense. While some of that falls on the players rising to each occasion, as Mason suggested, KU coach Bill Self put a lot of the responsibility on his own shoulders.
“It’s a good learning experience,” said Self of Thursday’s loss and why it occurred. “I can do a better job, obviously I need to do a better job, of getting our defense together because it was not very good at all (vs. TCU).”
Asked what areas he thought needed work, Self responded with a single word.
“Everything,” he said. “Our ball screen stuff has been so much better but it wasn’t (vs. TCU). We didn’t shrink the floor, they shot too many layups. The 3-point ball didn’t hurt us, it was the fact they were able to get inside of us.... So we certainly gotta tighten up some stuff and a lot of that falls on me getting our guys more prepared.
“I don’t think (losing early in the Big 12 tourney is) the end of the earth by any stretch, but it is very disappointing. Hopefully that will be a good motivator for us moving forward. Doesn’t mean anything is broken, but certainly we’ve gotta tighten some things up.”