Kansas is pushing to be the No. 1 team in college basketball again -- and it's not even playing up to expectations
Here's a scary thought: Once Bill Self's Jayhawks begin clicking, will they prove to be superior to Duke and everyone else?
NEW YORK -- Their record is clean, but the greatest trick Bill Self and his 5-0 Kansas Jayhawks have pulled off so far this season is keeping on as a top-two team in college basketball despite not playing a complete game.
Or anything close to it, according to Self.
Kansas, Michigan State at the Champions Classic. On Friday night, an 87-81 overtime triumph against No. 5 Tennessee in what was a terrific top-five matchup, the kind of physical tussle we don't often see at this point on the calendar between two national championship contenders., has bookended the first 17 days of its season with neutral-court wins over top-10 clubs. KU opened the season with a 92-87 victory against then-No.10
In between those two games came wins against Vermont, Louisiana and Marquette, the last of which got out to a double-digit lead Wednesday on Kansas before the Jayhawks opened the second half on a 22-0 run and eventually won out 77-68.
The Jayhawks again look like a team built for a Big 12 regular-season title, a No. 1 seed and should have a good chance at making the Final Four.
But while much of college basketball's season has been focused on the pizzazz and star power of Duke -- in addition to the curiosities of Kentucky and the big-picture capability of Gonzaga -- Kansas has kept on as a group that's had every result finish in its favor, giving credibility to those who projected this team as best in the preseason.
Still undefeated and yet it's not close to looking complete. This is the sorcery of Self. KU has yet to play an "A" game. It probably hasn't even logged a B-plus. Yet it's ranked fifth in offensive efficiency and fourth in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. The numbers already looked good against a schedule that ranks top-10 in difficulty at this stage.
"I don't think we've played very fluidly in a game," Self told CBS Sports after the Tennessee win, then added some wonderment over how the metrics have rated his team. "We're in the top-five in defense? And people are shooting 42 percent from 3 against us. That surprises me. I do think we've been fairly efficient offensively, but defensively, I would have no idea. I thought tonight was by far the best we've guarded all year long."
In fact, Kansas' 3-point defense improved from 42 percent on the season to 37.8, which still puts the Jayhawks at 287th in the country in that category. Bad. But it was physical against Tennessee and still kept solid composure: Kansas logged 18 fouls altogether. This was a big-boy game. Both teams looked good, considering the resistance they were going up against.
Remarkably, beating Tennessee meant Kansas has won 13 consecutive games in the regular season against teams ranked in the top 10. Shooting 50 percent (30 for 60) against one of the brawniest teams in the sport will go a long way toward that. The Jayhawks needed those 2s to fall, because it made only five treys (a season-low). It wouldn't be a shock to see Kansas hit at least six or more 3s in every game from here on out.
"I don't really know what we have yet because, if you watched us play so far or studied us, it's almost been a different guy every night," Self said.
Given that Kansas hasn't gotten its roles established, that no alpha has stepped up, that it's been a different guy almost every night, that's a great sign for Self's squad. Dedric Lawson had 24 points, 13 rebounds and five assists against Tennessee. Afterward, Self expressed relief that Lawson was able to show some consistency. And K.J. Lawson came off the bench to have his best game of the season: eight points, six rebounds, two steals in 19 minutes.
"Charlie [Moore] and K.J. were great off the bench and played a key role," Self said. "Certainly I think we need to learn how to win that way. This team's never really done that, but we were able to do that tonight."
A lot of teams start off their seasons with inconsistencies and some unkempt play. Few can pull it off like Kansas, though. And a year removed from losing three games at home -- the horror! -- it's a relief to Self and KU fans that this still-jelling team is finding ways to win against different types of teams. Consider Duke, after all. The Blue Devils are approaching The-Beatles-in-1966 territory as a traveling roadshow and over-the-top television coverage. But Duke has looked the part. It has looked flashy, dangerous, hazardous to most others in the sport.
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, have been better on defense, better from 3-point range and turned the ball over less than the Blue Devils ... and is yet to look as clean, cool and controlling as the boys from Durham. To wit: Kansas fell behind by as much as nine on Friday to Tennessee, marking the fourth straight game KU's trailed by at least eight points.
"Sometimes I think we look better when we actually play small, guarding, because we can get to shooters better," Self said.
Kansas' guards are mercurial. What happens when they get good? Freshman Devon Dotson has been good defensively, but he's not a great decision-maker at this point. His speed is tremendous. He wants to distribute. But there's a lot to learn.
And then there's Quentin Grimes. The fact that Kansas is 5-0 despite its best projected NBA player shooting 32 percent and averaging 6.0 points in 27 minutes over the past four games should frighten anyone in KU's path. Grimes is going to get better, and when it clicks, that's when Kansas is likely to flick to elite-level team.
"It's mental," Self said of Grimes' struggles. "He needs a break. We don't play for eight days, which will be good for him. Get back and get in the gym, start seeing the ball go in the hole. Right now he's not even coming off trying to be aggressive. ... He's going through the freshman funk."
Grimes was a five-star prospect, someone who was expected to be a difference-maker almost immediately, has regressed after opening the season with a 21-point showing against Michigan State. Against Tennessee, Grimes was just out of it. He only managed to make it back into the game after team foul trouble induced Self to put him on the floor in overtime.
"Something's going on that he needs to get out of," Self said. "And I don't think it's all bad that we've been able to win some games without him doing that, because I think he'll respond in a very favorable way. He wants to be out there badly. He wants to do well, he plays for the right reasons, he plays for his teammates. But he has not been as mentally into it, I don't think, since our first game."
It's a good thing for college basketball that a debate is emerging over who is the No. 1 team. Duke's going to slip from the mountaintop, but will remain in that conversation alongside Gonzaga and Kansas. Others, such as Virginia, are right on the periphery.
None of those teams has the roster makeup of Kansas, though. Formidable, big frontcourt with slashing wings, fast playmakers and reliable 3-point shooting. If Kansas looks this good without playing great, then that's a scary thought for most others in college hoops.
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