There's always an invisible line. In every team's season, there comes a time when the optimism must fall away. The time is different every season, and for every team, which makes it hard to precisely pinpoint. But every team has the threshold across which the hopeful "ifs" of the preseason -- if we shoot it better, if Player X guards on the wing, if Player Y gets healthy -- no longer apply. The line says that if those things haven't happened yet, they won't ever happen. Past the line, you are who you are.
On Wednesday night, after an ugly performance that was nonetheless good enough to survive Georgetown on the road, Bill Self indirectly referenced this invisible line. His Jayhawks weren't very good yet, he said, but he was hopeful for the future -- his team is young and figuring it out and still winning these ugly games anyway. In other words, there is a gap between how good his team is right now and how good it might conceivably become.
Three days later, in a 63-60 win over No. 13 Utah, the 10th-ranked Jayhawks displayed how wide that gap really is.
Saturday's first half against Utah was probably Kansas' best half of the season. The Jayhawks were 12-of-20 from the field and 5-of-8 from 3, and it wasn't as simple as making shots -- Kansas was running good offense and creating good, makeable shots in the first place. Defensively, the Jayhawks were as taut as ever, forcing Utah into tough looks, few free throws, and just 21 first-half points.
The second half, or the first 17 or 18 minutes of it, was a reversion to everything the Jayhawks don't do well. Kansas made just six of its 23 field goals and committed seven turnovers, several of which were more or less unforced. Wayne Selden struggled anew. Cliff Alexander was nonexistent. And the Jayhawks' defense was shredded by Utah guard Delon Wright -- who ended the game with 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, plus four steals and four assists -- as Utah erased a 21-point second-half deficit.
In the end, the Jayhawks made a series of key plays -- a Perry Ellis bucket here, a steal there -- to salvage the win. But the difference between the halves was the real takeaway. In the first, Kansas was everything its deep crop of talent hints at: fluid and versatile offense, ferocious man-to-man defense. In the second, all of the struggles were back on display.
The best news is that Kansas has a long time before it reaches the line -- the point at which it can no longer expect to transform. It's nowhere close to that line yet. Even as the Jayhawks keep winning, there remains a huge gap between what they are and what they might become. Their project over the next month is to erase that gap.