Kansas fans have been spoiled. It doesn’t take a genius to see that. Eight straight Big XII championships, all the Final Fours, National Championships and tradition will do that. The mere fact that they haven’t had a three game losing streak in the better part of a decade speaks volumes. What it also does is put this team into some context that might not paint the best picture.
The last time Kansas found themselves coming off three straight losses was in 2005. This was only Bill Self’s second season and featured a team prominently comprised of Roy Williams’ players. Self hadn’t fully established himself as the coaching force of nature that he is today and players had to stomach playing Self’s grind it out Big XII style that they didn’t sign up for. They were coming off an Elite Eight and two straight Final Fours in the three previous years, respectively.
Before that it was a Roy Williams team in 1994 coming off their second Final Four in three years. The previous streak before that team came in 1989 in Williams’ first year and after they had captured a national championship the year before and been to two out of three Final Fours.
This year KU is in the midst of their own streak and they’re trying to stop the bleeding against the newly minted top ten Kansas State Wildcats. This year, of course, sees the Jayhawks coming off a National Championship appearance and an Elite Eight bow out the year before. Notice a pattern emerging?
While it’s not exactly conclusive, periods of elongated seasons and increased expectations can have an adverse effect on a senior laden team.
And it’s not all about the physicality. Sure, playing between 4-10 extra games is nearly an extra third of a season, but there’s more to it than that. It’s hard enough being a student-athlete at one of the most prestigious men’s basketball programs in the country, but the weight of constant expectations has to make things even worse.
Every new Final Four this program makes it to, the bar is artificially raised. When you take into account the fact that this team is chock full of seniors who have been through multiple long tournament runs and one conference championship after another, the mental weight becomes staggering.
Self has typically shown himself a master at finding ways to help young men deal with this impact that reverberates on campus from Allen Fieldhouse. Every once in a while, though, there is no answer. Because of Self’s excellence it’s a far more rare occasion than other schools, but it can still happen at Kansas.
It doesn’t help that Self doesn’t have the answers he has accustomed himself with. He doesn’t have a 2012 Elijah Johnson to throw in there like he did when Bad Tyshawn Taylor showed up. He doesn’t have a sparkplug off the bench like Thomas Robinson when the Morris twins weren’t being effective, or the luxury of Jeff Withey to settle things down when Robinson got a little too carried away.
Without those options Self has to place more faith in his players than he might normally if he had the depth that is normally taken for granted in Lawrence. And the weight of the season only gets heavier on the ones who must shoulder the load. It’s a situation Self hasn’t found himself in since his early days before starting their current streak of consecutive Big XII championships.
If there’s anybody in the nation who can fix a team like this, it’s Self. He has done a masterful job with teams in the past. What Self has excelled at is reaching different players on different levels. Not every person is the same and takes different coaching to be successful. The great coaches are who they are because they don’t have a cookie cutter style and can relate to players in multiple ways. Self seems to be struggling with that this year and needs to find a way to get his players to respond.
Self’s struggle with that also brings up the impact that the loss of Danny Manning could be having on this year’s team. With McDonald’s All-American Perry Ellis coming in it seemed like Kansas was in good shape in the frontcourt. Ellis was thought to be a great compliment to Withey, but at the moment is struggling to see minutes. Ellis’ improvements have been minimal and that’s not what we’ve come to expect from KU big men.
Manning’s absence mean’s that Self has to shoulder more of the responsibility that Manning once had and as the head coach simply can’t devote as much time as Manning did. I’m not privy to the dynamics of the current coaching staff but it’s safe to say that there’s not anybody of Manning’s caliber when it comes to coaching players in the paint. How big or small the impact actually is can’t be clear, but to say it isn’t in impact probably isn’t being honest.
Last year with their backs against the wall in nearly every tournament game the Jayhawks responded and marched to the National Championship game. Too often this program is evaluated based on their tournament success. With their backs against the wall, their success will depend on Self’s ability to deal with mostly unchartered waters and this team’s unforeseen ability to respond.