|Kansas was solid but lacked the toughness needed to upend Michigan State. (US Presswire)|
ATLANTA -- Bill Self has enough talent, but he isn't certain if his Kansas Jayhawks possess the necessary toughness.
A year ago, KU was led by Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor, two "dogs" as Self affectionately referred to them. The pair was as tough as just about any duo in the country -- and the Jayhawks rode them all the way to the national championship game.
"We don't have any dogs," Self said shortly after the Jayhawks lost to Michigan State, 67-64, in the first game of the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.
That could be a problem.
Elijah Johnson isn't a go-to guy yet, but the scoring-turned point guard will eventually emerge in that role. Jeff Withey will never be an offensive force, but he's improved on that end of the court. Redshirt freshman Ben McLemore finished with 14 points, but spent much of the second half without even looking at the basket. Travis Releford is a solid fourth or fifth option -- and freshman Perry Ellis will, like McLemore, eventually become more assertive.
All good players, but none who have that "killer" instinct. The closest thing, Self said, is redshirt freshman power forward Jamari Traylor -- a reserve and role player whom the staff has referred to as a poor man's Thomas Robinson.
Kansas had just a single offensive rebound in the second half of the game.
"One," Self said as he shook his head in disbelief.
Self was ecstatic with how his team played for the first 35 minutes against the Spartans, controlling the game and the tempo. But they were unable to close it out. Ellis made a nervous turnover down the stretch, Kevin Young came in and made a defensive mishap and the Jayhawks were unable to get key stops in the waning minutes.
This Kansas team remains the favorite to win the Big 12. The Jayhawks could return to the Final Four, but it's tough to imagine this team doing so without accumulating toughness along the way.
McLemore is extremely talented, maybe even a lottery pick.
"He doesn't know how to play yet," Self said. "He's going to be really good once he figures it out."
While it was basically a one-man show down the stretch with Johnson having to make each and every play for Kansas, Tom Izzo received contributions across the board. Freshman Gary Harris made a couple of huge buckets, Derrick Nix wanted the ball down low and Keith Appling came up with the game's two most important shots -- a 3-pointer with 1:34 left and a drive with 12.5 seconds remaining to give Sparty a three-point lead.
Self is hopeful that, in time, his team, too, will possess multiple options in crunch time.
"We're not nearly as good as our ranking, but I'm not sure we can't be really good," he said. "We've got to get tougher and learn how to close out games."