MANHATTAN — Bill Self offered two truths and a cliffhanger.
Moments after No. 13-ranked Kansas basketball dropped a 74-67 decision to rival Kansas State on Tuesday night at Bramlage Coliseum, the Jayhawk coach gave a postgame news conference that at several points offered big-picture views of his struggling team, just 7-6 in its last 13 contests and 1-6 in true road games this season. Now two full games back of the Wildcats in the loss column with eight games remaining, KU (17-6, 6-4 Big 12) faces an uphill climb in its pursuit of a 15th consecutive regular-season conference championship.
It’s a bed, however, that Self indicated the Jayhawks have both made and now must lie in.
“Are we in a great position to win the league? No. Do we deserve to be in a great position? Absolutely not,” Self said. “Can we flip the switch? Remains to be seen.”
KU stumbled both out of the gate and down the home stretch of what became only its fifth all-time defeat at Bramlage Coliseum, committing 23 turnovers and showing an absence of poise that has become a troubling theme for this group away from Allen Fieldhouse — even the team’s lone road victory, a 73-68 outcome at Baylor, saw the Jayhawks nearly blow a 21-point advantage in the final five minutes.
With a large enough sample size to now classify the road woes as a problem, Self gave his diagnosis for what’s gone wrong in those hostile environments.
“It’s not what you guys think it is,” Self said. “I really think people think there’s a common theme — turnovers. No, it’s leadership, it’s toughness, it’s inexperience. There’s a lot of things that go into it.”
KU’s ceiling isn’t nearly as high as it was just a few weeks ago, Self said, when the team had both 7-foot junior center Udoka Azubuike and sophomore defensive ace Marcus Garrett in the rotation. Azubuike is out with a season-ending hand injury, while Garrett has missed the last two games with an ankle sprain, though he didn't sport a walking boot Tuesday and could be ready to go for an 11 a.m. Saturday home contest against Oklahoma State.
Self didn't use the team’s injury troubles as a scapegoat for its lackluster stretch.
“Those aren’t excuses,” Self said. “Everybody deals with that crap, so we’re obviously dealing with our fair share right now, but just don’t put (our struggles) on turnovers or this or that. No, it’s leadership, it’s toughness, it’s paying attention to detail, it’s understanding what we’re doing.
“There’s a lot of things that happened before we even got to Manhattan that were reasons why we weren’t successful, not just after the ball was tipped.”
After mentioning for a second time his highly valued trait of toughness, Self was asked a follow-up question on whether he was speaking strictly from a mental standpoint.
“No, I’m talking everything,” Self clarified. “Mental, physical — yeah, this team doesn’t have much right now.”
Tuesday’s troubles were exacerbated by another substandard road performance from guard Lagerald Vick, the team’s lone senior. He finished with seven points on 2-for-5 shooting in 19 minutes, appearing in just four minutes before halftime. The Jayhawks were outscored by 23 points when Vick was on the court, far and away the worst mark on the team.
Reserve guard Charlie Moore started the second half in place of Vick, and Self said there were "other reasons why" he made that switch beyond simply wanting to see more from the starter. And while a subsequent response about the team’s lack of leadership didn’t mention Vick by name, it’s not difficult to read between the lines.
“You could tell right when the game started: There were two easy switches that we practiced the whole time that they get wide-open shots and then guys want to blame other guys (for that). That’s not how you win on the road,” Self said. “I think (leadership) is a collective effort, because we’re not going to have one guy that’s going to be a take-charge guy. We’re going to have to do it collectively. And we’ve had teams that have done it like that in the past. We won the national championship without a main guy. But we had about seven that really understood.”
The Jayhawks’ current league positioning is “obviously a concern,” Self acknowledged, but it’s a worry well behind the stress caused by the reality that this team simply struggles at the small things.
“I feel like I should be Jim Mora right now in my talk, because we shouldn’t even be concerned about a damn race right now,” said Self, referring to the former Indianapolis Colts head coach best known for his over-the-top response to a question about playoff positioning. “We should just be concerned about trying to win a game and playing the right way and having freshmen grow up and having some leadership and things (that were) obviously lacking today.”
Regarding his postgame locker room message, Self didn’t reveal much — not that there was anything to dish on regarding the three-minute address in the first place.
“It was like, ‘We got our ass kicked. Now we’ve just got to take it one game at a time,’ ” Self recalled. “That was the extent of that conversion.”