Three Questions: Where Does Kansas Go From Here?Posted by Kory Carpenter on April 1st, 2014
It’s been a week since another tough NCAA Tournament loss for Kansas and fans are still scratching their heads at how the Jayhawks went out this season. Few people expected a Final Four berth if freshman center Joel Embiid remained sidelined with his back injury, but a third round loss to #10 seed Stanford was still a shocker. The Cardinal weren’t a particularly good team this season and didn’t appear to pose much of a threat heading into last Sunday’s game. But for the second straight season, the Jayhawks were reminded of how important guard play becomes in March. Starting point guard Naadir Tharpe finished with five points on 2-of-8 shooting with only two assists and two turnovers in the loss. Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden combined to shoot 2-of-11 with six points, and that was all she wrote for the Jayhawks in Saint Louis. Bill Self has plenty of talent coming back and a few top recruits arriving in Lawrence, but he will have some substantial holes to fill as well. Andrew Wiggins has already announced his departure, while Joel Embiid is still reportedly undecided, but it is expected that both players will enter the NBA Draft as high-lottery picks. Here are three questions surrounding the status of the Kansas program heading into the offseason.
1. Will Point Guard Troubles Doom Next Year’s Team Too? Kansas was sent packing early for the second straight season largely because of mediocre point guard play. Elijah Johnson was forced to play out of position at that spot last year because Self didn’t yet trust Tharpe in that role. Self had no other realistic choice at the position this time around, but his averages of 4.5 PPG and 2.5 APG against Eastern Kentucky and Stanford weren’t good enough for this time of year. Looking to next season, Kansas could remain in trouble at the slot. Tharpe will have another year of experience under his belt, but he also loses two of the better offensive weapons in the country. His backups — rising sophomores Frank Mason and Conner Frankamp — dabbled at the position but were unable to outplay him, leaving Self to go with Tharpe in the NCAA Tournament. On the recruiting trail, Tharpe’s just-good-enough game may have scared some better prospects away. Kansas went hard after five-star point guard Tyus Jones, but did the talented freshman want to risk losing playing time to a senior in Self’s system? Heading to Duke might have been the safer bet.
2. Is Perry Ellis a Three or an undersized Four? Ellis is generously listed as 6’8” but he struggled against big frontcourts for much of this season. He was bullied against San Diego State’s size on January 5, finishing with four points on 1-of-7 shooting. Against Texas’ Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes — a pair who weigh a combined 525 pounds — he shot 40 percent from the field and averaged 9.5 PPG, well below his season averages 55 percent and 13.5 PPG. He has a good face-up game and an improved mid-range jumper, but if Marcus Morris couldn’t find time on the perimeter in Self’s system, it’s hard to imagine Ellis doing so either (especially with five-star wing Kelly Oubre on his way to Lawrence). That leaves the Jayhawks a bit undersized down low with Ellis and 6’9” freshman Cliff Alexander expected to join him in next season’s starting lineup. Unless five-star 6’11” center Myles Turner commits to Kansas this spring, there might not be a legitimate shot-blocking threat in the entire rotation.
3. How Will The Defense Improve? This year’s team didn’t execute a normal Bill Self defense. The Jayhawks finished the season 33rd in defensive efficiency, the worst mark in Self’s decade-long tenure (they finished in the top 11 in nationally in each of the last eight seasons). Now they will likely have to replace their best two defenders while hoping their worst — Ellis and Tharpe — significantly improve over the summer. This season, both players struggled to stay in front of their man and Ellis routinely got lost on perimeter ball-screens. Without one of the best shot-blockers in the country behind them, those mistakes will be much more costly (think about Duke’s defensive struggles this season). Wiggins and Embiid showed that freshmen can play great defense right off the bat, of course, but it would be wishful thinking to expect Oubre and Alexander to immediately impress on the that end of the floor.
There are plenty of questions for Kansas heading into a season where it will likely be ranked in the preseason top five. But as Jayhawks fans have hopefully realized the last decade, there are questions that Bill Self teams face in the offseason and there are questions everyone else faces. Anything but a Big 12 championship and top-three seed in next season’s NCAA Tournament would be a disappointment in Lawrence.