LAWRENCE — By this time next week, Kansas basketball could very well be the nation's top-ranked team.
That said, Bill Self doesn’t seem to think the Jayhawks will live up to that distinction without the addition of one key ingredient missing to this point in the season.
“I think we have had a drop off (with our substitutions),” Self said Thursday. “And that’s not being negative. I think a lot of the drop off is not anyone’s fault. It’s just maybe confidence and being reactionary as opposed to thinking.”
The No. 2 Jayhawks (8-1) earned a 95-68 home victory over Milwaukee on Tuesday night, an eighth straight win and an outcome that could help catapult Self’s squad to the top of next week’s polls, assuming KU can take care of business at 4 p.m. Saturday against UMKC (5-6) at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
However, in that victory over the Panthers, the Jayhawk bench was outscored 26-22, continuing a troubling trend — KU’s reserves have been bested by their counterparts five times this season, including in three straight contests by a combined margin of 69-37.
The Jayhawks have only outscored their opponents in bench points twice — in Game 3 versus Monmouth (66-33) and in Game 5 against Chaminade (30-10).
“We do have to have our young guys play older,” Self said. “That’s not a problem with (sophomores) Devon (Dotson) and Ochai (Agbaji) for the most part, but it is with Christian (Braun) and Tristan (Enaruna) and Silvio (De Sousa). We need to get those young guys certainly playing older to give us more depth and more production off the bench.”
KU raced out to a 45-15 lead against Milwaukee, but that 30-point advantage was cut to just 16 late in the second period, with the Panthers doing most of their work against Jayhawk reserves — the five best plus-minus differentials were all held by KU starters, with Braun’s plus-17 mark the only other double-figure total on the team. Enaruna and Isaiah Moss were the next-best contributors at just plus-4.
“Start of the second half, we didn’t do a very good job of just putting ’em away,” said Braun, a 6-foot-6, 205-pound freshman guard out of Burlington. “We’ve got to do a better job of when we get a bigger lead of just keeping piling it on. Some of that’s the reserves, the backup guys’ fault, because we’ve got to give those other guys a break. They play a lot of minutes, so it’s kind of our job to come in and when we come in, the lead is supposed to expand. They’re not supposed to come back on us.
“We didn’t do a very good job of just putting the hammer down on them, but we’ll do a better job in the future.”
Braun finished with three points on 1-for-5 shooting and four rebounds in 15 minutes against the Panthers. Self labeled Braun “the best loose ball getter, extra possession guy” that the team had during its September and October practices — “Nobody close,” the head coach emphasized — but said that attribute hasn’t materialized across the Jayhawks’ first nine games.
Self theorized Braun may be “worried not to screw up,” a reality the freshman himself later confirmed in remarking that he is “hesitating” a bit in his first action on the college stage.
“There’s a lot of ups and downs and stuff. I’ve got to find myself on the basketball court,” Braun said. “Right now, I think I’ve been doing a better job. I think last game I tracked down a couple balls. But yeah, for sure. When I came here, that’s what I tried to hang my hat on, but I think I’ve been doing a better job and I'm just continuing to get better. I think that’ll all come.”
Enaruna, a 6-8, 200-pound freshman guard/forward out of Almere, Flevoland, Netherlands, tallied four points on 2-for-3 shooting with one rebound in 10 minutes against Milwaukee. Labeled by Self as “one of the best athletes on our team,” Enaruna has not played to those abilities, the head coach said, the result of getting “tied up ... thinking-wise.”
Enaruna indicated he isn’t quite to the point where what he should be doing on the court is instinctive.
“Obviously I’m still going through the process of getting used to everything,” Enaruna said. “I still kind of sometimes more tend to be thinking a lot instead of just doing it, you know? Those are moments where sometimes I can make a mistake on offense or I miss a read or just make bad decisions. But overall, I feel like that’s getting better, though. But I mean, sometimes that’s kind of tough.”
De Sousa, a junior forward, had four points on 0-for-1 shooting with six rebounds in 11 minutes against Milwaukee. That contest represented just his 29th career collegiate appearance.
“I think with Silvio, opportunity is a big part of it,” Self said. “But even last game (when) he was in there, he did fine, (but) he just didn’t have anything really happen good. You play well and you go (4 of 6) from the free-throw line and miss a bunny — just didn’t have a chance to play and get numbers.”
Interestingly, Self lumped one of the Jayhawks’ oldest players into his assessment of the team’s youth.
Moss, a senior guard, is “a young guy compared to Devon Dotson” in Self’s eyes because Moss is a first-year Jayhawk — the Chicago native and former Iowa standout was an offseason graduate transfer into the program. Two preseason hamstring injuries likely slowed Moss’ integration process, Self stressed, but with the capable 3-point shooter now healthy, he must expand his presence when appearing off the bench.
“I think he needs to shoot more. I think he turns down shots,” Self said. “I think that he needs to have a free (mind). He’s trying really hard to do what we want him to do, but I think he needs to be more aggressive offensively. ... When you’re not healthy and you know your body can’t do what your mind wants it to do, I think sometimes you take a little bit more of a reserved role. I do think moving forward though, he’s healthy and he needs to be more aggressive.”