Jayhawks look for focus in solving problems

At least Kansas competed for the whole game -- a distinct change from their previous two outings.

Updated: February 24, 2004, 12:45 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

AUSTIN, Texas -- At least Kansas competed against Texas for the whole game.

The Jayhawks didn't at Nebraska. They got run out of Oklahoma State. And in those two road games, the Jayhawks lost by an average of 19.5 points.

So, the Jayhawks can take solace in knowing that they competed in losing by 15 points at Texas on Monday night.

What can Kansas do with that?

"We're OK, we realize that we can't win the league, but we can still win the Big 12 tournament to get to the NCAAs,'' said freshman David Padgett. "We just have to keep our heads up.''

The Jayhawks didn't quit. But how did this happen? How did Kansas go from a one-time No. 1 in December to a team that can't win on the road in the Big 12 and is limping toward the NCAAs?

Kansas has likely played itself out of a high-enough seed (top five) to be in Kansas City for the first and second round. That means the Jayhawks could get shipped to any of the other seven regions.

Kansas junior Wayne Simien said such a situation would probably help this team. Getting away and becoming more insular would eliminate distractions and keep them more focused. But he said there is still a lot to do before the NCAAs.

He's right and a lot of what they have to fix begins with keeping Jeff Graves on the court and handling losing better, especially on the road. The Jayhawks have had a tendency to bury their heads and fold when they fall behind on the road. They did that at Oklahoma State and Nebraska, but didn't at Texas. They just weren't strong enough to hang with the deep Longhorns, who held a 12-point points-in-the-paint advantage and a seven-point second-chance points edge.

The Jayhawks are thin. They're not very talented beyond Simien, fellow juniors Keith Langford and Aaron Miles and the young, but inexperienced freshmen Padgett and J.R. Giddens.

"We are who we are,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. "Up until recently, we didn't handle adversity well.''

Simien, Miles and Langford went to back-to-back Final Fours. They were undefeated as freshmen in the Big 12. They lost only two league games a year ago. With Monday's loss, the Jayhawks fell to 9-4 and only a game ahead in the loss column over Texas Tech, Colorado and Missouri for third place.

"This does bring a new perspective,'' Simien said. "We're definitely learning from this. We've got to start being more poised and smarter and remember what got us here.''

Simien wasn't initially talking about Graves' basketball IQ, but he did address it after a few minutes. The players weren't thrilled with Graves' technical foul for throwing a basketball at Texas' Brian Boddicker with 12:58 remaining and the Jayhawks only down by eight.

The ball hit Boddicker's feet.

James Thomas went down the other end and made two free throws to push the lead to 10. Graves then shot his foul shots and made 1 of 2. But Self pulled him since he had four fouls, and Graves didn't get off the bench the rest of the game.

The Longhorns continued to beat up the Jayhawks inside as they were forced to go with the slender Padgett and Christian Moody against Thomas, Brad Buckman and P.J. Tucker.

Although Graves was benched for two games earlier this season for insubordination, Self said after the game that he wasn't punishing Graves by not putting him back in the game.

Graves wasn't so sure, since he said he wanted to go back in. He said he didn't throw the ball intentionally at Boddicker because if he did he would have "hit him in the head."

"I'm trying to stay in the game and I'm not trying to hurt my team,'' Graves said. "I'm trying to play the way I was taught to play.''

But Graves has become an enigma. This was the type of game the senior forward could have excelled in because of his size and strength. Instead, he finished with two points, two rebounds and four fouls in 13 minutes.

"It's frustrating,'' Miles said. "We need him in the game. He does good things on the court and it was physical out there. We can't let him get frustrated. I'm going to talk to him, but he'll be all right.''

"His actions off the court can carry onto the court,'' Simien said. "We could have cut the lead down to (six). You can't have those kind of mental breakdowns. We need him tremendously.''

Getting Graves to stay on the court would help solve some of Kansas' problems. But the lack of experienced depth, the shooting woes (1 of 4 on 3s in the first half), the lack of weakside rebounding and the inability to halt offensive runs continue to haunt Kansas.

Can this team go on a run and be a factor in March?

"I believe in my heart that we'll get back to the Final Four and win a championship, regardless of how the season is going now,'' Miles said. "It could still turn out great for us.''

At least they haven't lost their optimism or their confidence. That may be a start to saving a season that started with expectations that were probably out of reach for a team with a new staff and without Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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