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No. 9 Kansas Eyes Turnaround, Defensive Improvement in Battle of Blue Bloods at Kentucky | News, sports, work

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) attempts to pass the ball around Texas Tech guard Lamar Washington (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Lubbock, Texas. (AP Photo/Justin Rex)

As if his 30.3 points per game average wasn’t enough for his team during #1 Kansas’ current three-game losing drift. 9, now young KU Jalen Wilson is keeping an eye on trends.

Specifically, Wilson took a close look at why the Jayhawks struggled so hard out of the gate in those three losses and what they can do to change that.

“After losing three games in a row, we’re all like, ‘What do we have to do to win,'” Wilson said Thursday while previewing the Jayhawks’ upcoming battle at unranked Kentucky at 7 p.m. Saturday in Lexington on ESPN .

The answers to this question are many, but many start and end on the defensive end. Though he too would like to see his team play better defense in the coming weeks, Kansas coach Bill Self made it clear all week that he wasn’t ready to hit the panic button just yet.

For one, the three teams Kansas has lost to in their last three outings are all ranked in the Top 20. For two, the game and evolution of last year’s National Championship team at the defensive end of the field is still fresh in Self’s mind. .

“It didn’t go well in January, but (last year’s team) definitely became a great defensive team,” Self said of the 2021-22 squad. “And this team has to do the same thing.”

Self added: “When I look at our team and say, ‘What are we doing great?’ It’s the same thing I asked the team last year. Last year’s team didn’t have an identity until March as to what we actually did right. And last year’s team finally understood that we can win if we make others play badly.”

According to Wilson, who took part in two significant late-season defensive overhauls during his career at Kansas, it all starts with players blocking out and putting in their utmost effort and concentration to try and stop their opponents.

The offense will come. Wilson believes it. Self preaches it. And these players have seen it. They’ve even seen the current team play the kind of high-quality defense that is standard in Kansas. It just came a little too late in their most recent releases.

“Jalen told me very well yesterday,” Self said on Thursday. “When we fell behind (in) two of the last three games, we became a good defensive team after falling behind. The problem is, there’s not much margin for error.”

In all three games, even the 23-point loss at home to TCU, KU erased or significantly reduced early double-digit deficits to get back into the game.

The Jayhawks trailed 20-7 to Baylor but led going into the second half. They trailed 33-13 against TCU but trailed by only seven at halftime. And at one point they trailed Kansas State 33-19 before grabbing several second half leads and having a chance to win at the end of regulation and overtime.

In all three cases, the concept of climbing uphill to overcome that slow start proved too exhaustive and took too much from the Jayhawks to leave anything in the tank to close out games.

Both on Thursday and in the aftermath of Monday’s loss to Baylor, Self stressed “how exhausting it is over time” trying to win like that.

“When you’re behind, it takes more energy, everything is magnified, it takes more effort,” she said. “And when you’re playing the protagonist, obviously you’re looser. It’s not all life or death.”

That’s what makes this weekend’s showdown with Kentucky so interesting. Sure, it’s a matchup of the two winningest teams in college basketball history — KU leads the UK in wins by 2,373 to 2,367 in that contest — and, yes, it will forever be the pick game on the record for the entire country, not it doesn’t matter how much teams are playing, when they’re playing or where.

But while all of these elements mean a lot to any fan base and casual college basketball fan, preparing to fight in the middle of conference play doesn’t always benefit the two programs.

“The SEC/Big 12 Challenge is great because it’s a day where our leagues get all the attention across America,” Self said Thursday. “But from a game and training perspective, it can’t come at a worse time.”

Self continued: “The Champions Classic (in November), you don’t have to win that game, but it’s a big momentum if you win that game. To me, this game, the way it’s played out because both leagues are so good, is a seed-line game. It’s two blue bloods playing against each other and the two biggest winning shows and all that stuff, and that’s important. But I guarantee that we both feel that (we) don’t want anything to happen in this game that would negatively affect us next week. … It’s a great game, and we’re going to approach it that way, but this game isn’t going to impact what’s more important, which is your second season, and that includes your conference. This game is part of your first season and not as important as your second season.

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