Kansas struggling to define itself in early-going
LAS VEGAS -- Kansas coach Bill Self says he has no clue as to his team's identity, who he can count on and which of the Jayhawks are reliable enough to help the team win. At least, not yet.
Top-ranked Florida has no such issues. The Gators know exactly who they are at this early juncture of the 2006-07 season. And to those who aren't quite sure, well, pay heed to the words of Western Kentucky coach Darrin Horn.
After Florida dismantled his Hilltoppers -- who won at Georgia earlier this month -- by a count of 101-68 Friday night, Horn said he hadn't seen a team this good since the early-1990s UNLV Runnin' Rebels.
"It's unbelievable," Horn said of the 2006 NCAA Tournament champion Gators. "I haven't seen anything like it."
Kansas will get a first-hand look at Florida Saturday night (ESPN2, 11 ET) in the predetermined Las Vegas Invitational headline game at the Orleans Arena.
In Friday night's warmup, Kansas slugged its way to a 64-46 win over Ball State. The Jayhawks shot 27 percent from the floor in the first half (and were still up nine) before finishing with 17 turnovers overall. Sure, Kansas pulled ahead in the second half, was much more active on the glass and hit three key 3-pointers to stretch the game in the final 20 minutes. Even so, this was a team that was looking for some sort of guidance on the eve of, since it was put on the schedule months ago, the game of the nonconference season.
Self said the Jayhawks are playing as if they they exist on separate islands, too far apart, and that explains why the offense played in spurts.
Self said plenty of teams can count on a consistent source of output every game, whether it's rebounding, defense, or field-goal defense. As for the Jayhawks, he said, "I'm not so sure. I don't know yet."
Look, Self is a believer in this squad. He is unequivocally on the side that the Jayhawks will be a winner this season, a team that can be a national player throughout the year. Defending isn't as much of an issue, albeit the Jayhawks struggled to guard the 3-point line in their home loss to Oral Roberts. But it's the lack of cohesion on the offensive end that has left Self so perplexed.
To be fair, Self said, the team is still trying to be reshaped following the dismissal of center C.J. Giles and Sasha Kaun's injury. Kaun is back but the Jayhawks center has played in only two games after suffering a knee injury in late October. He was noticeably out of sync Friday night (1 of 6, and the shots were from close range).
Brandon Rush, the Jayhawks' All-America guard, was floating around during the game, finally hitting his stride late, but was still 3 of 10. The constants, for the most part, are that Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins will make sound decisions, and that Darrell Arthur and Julian Wright are athletic enough inside to cause plenty of havoc. But still there is something missing, especially early in the games, for the Jayhawks to be assertive from the outset.
"If you asked our guys you'd get 10 different opinions on our identity right now," Self said.
Self's perspective on the early upsets of the season really does apply to his team, as well. He said the high-major programs have better prospects but the mid-majors have better basketball players who have been together longer (that was definitely the case with Oral Roberts).
First-year Ball State coach Ronnie Thompson said he saw "so much talent" on Kansas and that its agility and length was a problem for the Cardinals. Still, they were able to frustrate Kansas defensively throughout the first 20 minutes.
Kansas obviously can't afford to start slow against Florida. While Billy Donovan expects his Gators to face a Lawrence-like environment -- the crowd that is expected to be 80 to 90 percent pro-KU in the 8,500-seat Orleans Arena -- the edge still goes heavily toward Florida. Kansas assistant Tim Jankovich was in awe in watching Florida pass the ball so effortlessly and selflessly in its win over Western Kentucky. He said he was impressed watching the Gators on tape but even more so in person Friday night.
Horn said if there is a weakness it's the Gators' ability to guard off the dribble. But their length allows them to recover quite well as exhibited by Corey Brewer. Brewer, who was playing with a bout of the flu and had to get fluids at one point, approached triple-double territory with 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
The Hilltoppers held a fleeting 26-22 lead at one point before Brewer, who was handling the point while Taurean Green had two fouls, took over the game. He created a break that ended up with a fast-break Walter Hodge layup, nailed a pull-up jumper, and created another break with a feed to Hodge.
"It's not established yet but it's starting to come," Green said of the Gators turning quick break points off turnovers. "We try to force other teams into turnovers and get good shots. We know everybody is going to come at us, so our level of focus has to be there every game. We know Kansas has a great team, so we'll be ready."
No other team outside of Pitt so far this season has been as impressive as Florida. Sure, Butler won the NIT Season Tip-Off by knocking off high-majors at every stop, but no teams other than Florida and Pitt have been as dominant.
And that's because both squads return oodles of experience and are playing with so much cohesion as well as passing the ball with a purpose.
The kudos from NBA scouts, coaches in the game, and those about to face Florida Saturday night, was endless. The overall appreciation for Florida's five starters and to some extent its bench, for its passing more than anything was hard to ignore. No one is projecting a walk for the Gators on Saturday but clearly Kansas is taking longer to find itself than Florida.
This, of course, makes complete sense since the Jayhawks lost a projected starter in Giles and are integrating two freshmen -- Arthur and Collins -- deep into the rotation.
Florida, in case you forgot, won the title last April with the same core group of players who just happened to be even better and more complete, to start this season then they were at any point last season.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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