On Wednesday night, Kansas opened its Big 12 season against a Top 25 team that features one of the nation's best and physical rebounders on said Top 25 team's hostile home court. A pugilistic mess ensued. The No. 12 Jayhawks traded 52 possessions with Baylor and, somehow, just 20 fouls. Baylor made eight 3s but just 10 2s. Kansas made five 3s and shot six free throws. The 21st-ranked Bears should have taken the lead with 13 seconds left, but Rico Gathers missed an open putback at the rim. Baylor had a chance to win the game on the final possession but didn't muster a shot. The final score was 56-55.
The Jayhawks won in the same way the man with less arterial leakage won the knife fight. Great win ... but hey, man, you don't look so good.
This is the defining dilemma of the 2014-15 Kansas Jayhawks, and it's the same one that has existed since our first glimpse in November: Is this team actually good?
There are points and counterpoints. In the "yes" column, you can add the fact that Wednesday's win moved Kansas to 12-2 on the season. They've achieved that mark against one of the nation's toughest -- maybe the toughest -- nonconference schedules. The Jayhawks beat Georgetown in a true road game. They held off a very good Utah team in Kansas City, Missouri. They scrapped to a neutral-court win over Michigan State.
Kansas does that -- it scraps. More than any other, a vague sense of toughness might be the Jayhawks' most impressive quality. Maybe it's the only obvious one.
Either way, you have to be tough to win games like Wednesday night's. Perry Ellis, KU's ostensible leading man, was held to just four points on 2-of-8 shooting. Baylor's shifty lane-packing zone made Ellis' night miserable; he rarely got a clean catch. Kelly Oubre, a newly minted starter and would-be freshman star coming off a 12-point, 10-rebound performance in a win Sunday over UNLV, made just one shot (a 3-pointer) and missed his only two free throws of the night. Kansas scored just 18 first-half points. But the Jayhawks got big contributions from elsewhere. Frank Mason was steady. Brannen Greene had 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting. Cliff Alexander did just enough as a dump-off target on the low block.
Most important were Wayne Selden and Jamari Traylor. Traylor came first. Midway through the second half, as Kansas made the closest thing either team would have to a spurt, Traylor suddenly morphed into a zone-breaking high-post monster. He collapsed the defense and found Alexander for two unguarded buckets. Traylor drove the zone and finished at the basket. And then, with five minutes left, Traylor fouled out -- at which point Selden made three straight buckets from three different spots (one 3, one tough leaner, and one finish at the rim) to push Kansas narrowly through the finish.
There's toughness in that. The Jayhawks have enough pieces that someone is always likely to step up. After all, how many teams in the country can afford to see their best player struggle as Ellis did and still come away with a road win? This is yes-column evidence.
But there are plenty of nos, too. The Jayhawks' two losses have been utter blowouts -- the first to Kentucky in November, the second at Temple in December -- doubling the number of 25-point losses in Self's previous 11 years. Kansas is questionable defensively: To date, the Jayhawks rank 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. That's hardly terrible, but it's on pace to be the worst of Self's KU career. (The 2013-14 Jayhawks were his first to rank outside the top 25, at No. 31. From 2005-06 to 2012-13, KU's average defensive rank was 5.25.) The Jayhawks don't force many turnovers, and they can be physically overwhelmed. Baylor grabbed almost half of its misses, with the 6-foot-8 Gathers bludgeoning his way to eight offensive boards.
Oubre is still struggling with his role. Alexander looks only slightly less raw than when he arrived. Ellis is inconsistent, which is not the best trait for a quietly productive scorer. Selden has moments like Wednesday, but he's shooting 35 percent from inside the arc, and sometimes he just disappears completely.
Kansas' offense can be effective, but it's rarely fluid. This is not a vintage passing attack. Self's trademark high-low sets haven't quite materialized. When you watch the Jayhawks, you can't help but feel like something's missing, some intuitive sense of tactical cohesion. Seven weeks in, KU is still less than the sum of its parts.
And despite all that, the Jayhawks are 12-2, winners of every close game they've played, the latest and closest of which came in Wednesday night's Big 12 opener. It was a simultaneously promising and disconcerting start to the conference campaign, and it came just after a promising and disconcerting nonconference run. There are positives and negatives, pros and cons, but no definitive answer to the overriding question of whether Kansas is actually good.
Give the Jayhawks this much -- they're tough. Whether that's enough is a question only the 2014-15 Big 12 schedule will be able to answer.