More Than Just a Loss: Kansas Needs Elijah Johnson to Bounce Back, and SoonPosted by KoryCarpenter on February 6th, 2013
It certainly isn’t the worst sports cliche, bur the phrase “I could see them losing in the second round or making the Final Four” we hear this time of year is cringe-worthy. In the age of parity, of Butlers and George Masons, VCUs and Norfolk States, a lot of teams can lose in the second round or make the Final Four.
With that in mind, I’ve been trying to stay away from that cliche regarding these Kansas Jayhawks. They are 19-2 and have won 18 of their last 19 games. They’re first in the Big 12 and, with wins this weekend at Oklahoma and at home against Kansas State (assuming TCU isn’t a roadblock tonight), they should cruise to their ninth straight Big 12 championship. Travis Releford and Jeff Withey are two of the best defenders in the country, and Ben McLemore will be a top five NBA draft pick in June. Bill Self is one of the best coaches in the country. So why is everyone asking what’s the matter with Kansas? Well, for teams like Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, and North Carolina, wins are nitpicked, losses are sensationalized, and seasons are judged by Final Fours and National Championships. A loss isn’t just a loss, it’s a reason to be concerned about possible NCAA Tournament struggles. Most of the time, those concerns are overblown. Over a five-month season, players are bound to lose focus or catch a hot team or suffer a cold shooting night at least a few times. It happens.
Kansas’ 85-80 loss to Oklahoma State last Saturday wasn’t one of those games, but more of a justification of the concerns people have had for most of January. In December, Kansas won all five games by an average of 27.4 PPG, and that included a 12-point road win at then-#7 Ohio State on December 22. But Ohio State wasn’t the only solid team they faced in that stretch. They also beat up on Colorado and Belmont by 36 and 29 points, respectively, two projected NCAA Tournament teams. But then came January and five close wins in spite of sloppy play. They were doing enough to win and keep most of the chatter in the background, but the loss to Oklahoma State was enough to bring the talk to the light. “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”
Sloppy guard play, of course. Starting point guard Elijah Johnson is averaging 3.5 turnovers per game and backup Naadir Tharpe is a 35.6% shooter contributing only 2.5 APG. Freshman guard Rio Adams is still a year or so away from making an impact, unable to crack the rotation early in the season. After the Oklahoma State game in which Johnson fittingly dribbled the ball off his foot while trying to execute the game-winning Mario Chalmers play, Bill Self said, “We don’t have a point guard.” He has since backed off that comment, probably realizing that Johnson is his best option heading into the NCAA Tournament. On Monday, Self called Johnson “his guy” and the player he’s sticking with the rest of the season. It’s not a question of whether Self is sticking with Johnson (he has no other choice), it’s really whether Self’s confidence will boost his guards’ overall play as March looms. A month ago, nobody would have looked twice at the road game at TCU on February 6. But a great game from Johnson — no matter the opponent — coupled with a newfound confidence from his head coach could propel him to another stretch similar to last year’s NCAA Tournament. A tough outing against a team as bad as TCU, however, could leave people scratching their heads and doubting Kansas’ ultimate potential next month, if they aren’t doing so already.