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Knoxville, Tenn. The nation’s No. 1-ranked college basketball powerhouse made seven of 27 three-point shots, committed 16 turnovers, forced just eight, and lost Sunday to a team that used six scholarship players and three walk-ons.
Such numbers, viewed in a vacuum, suggest poor guard play caused Kansas University’s 76-68 loss to Tennessee in juiced Thompson-Boling Arena, where coach Bruce Pearl’s daughter, Jacqui, belted out a memorable national anthem and the band kept the buzz percolating with lively renditions of “Rocky Top,” the school’s cool unofficial fight song.
KU’s guards didn’t play nearly as well as Tennessee’s band, but to pin it all on them would be to grant an undeserved pass to the big, talented, passive post players.
Size matters in basketball, but how big you play means more than how big you measure. The suddenly regressing Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, for the second game in a row, resembled spectators and produced seven points and four turnovers in 38 minutes. Against Cornell, in 43 minutes, they scored five points.
Preseason All-America center Cole Aldrich dominated the boards Sunday, getting as many offensive rebounds (eight) as the entire Tennessee team. Yet, Aldrich attempted just five field goals and two free throws. Not all of the boards were right under the hoop — he picked up one near the free-throw line, chased down another in the corner — but even on the close ones, he looked first to pass.
Aldrich totaled 18 rebounds and four blocked shots, but scored just seven points. Vols center Wayne Chism, dogged by foul trouble, played only 19 minutes. Thanks to 6-foot-8 reserve Kenny Hall playing more physically than Aldrich and preventing KU’s center from establishing position, Chism wasn’t missed.
Meanwhile, Steven Pearl, Tennessee’s 6-5 junior forward on the team because his father, Bruce, is the coach, gained positioning advantage on both Morris twins, purely by putting forth more effort.
In the final eight minutes, the post players didn’t attempt a shot as Kansas played catch-up. To blame the guards for that would be to forget that the big men didn’t do enough to establish themselves as threats for the first 32 minutes.
Kansas coach Bill Self was asked what Aldrich needs to do to get more shots.
“He had the ball three or four times at two feet or one foot and didn’t shoot it,” Self said. “Obviously, he’s not aggressive. Our whole team’s not. That’s one thing we’ve been on Cole about, to catch it and go score, and certainly he’s not doing that. ... at least be an offensive presence because right now he’s not. He’s looking to pass way too much without giving himself a chance to score.”
Aldrich knows what he needs to do to become more aggressive.
“All our bigs need to continue to fight in the post,” Aldrich said. “Sometimes it gets really rough down there, and we’ve just got to keep fighting.”
Tennessee’s shorter bigs fought a lot harder than KU’s, and look what happened.
Maybe the loss will make KU realize the intangibles needed to stay on top. The road gets tougher. In league, only half the games are played at home, sweet, home. After that, none.