Miami — Kansas basketball coach Bill Self is not known for easily handing out high praise to his KU defenses, even in the biggest moments and after the most impressive performances.
That's what made his postgame love for the second-ranked Jayhawks' stifling, first-half defense in Saturday's 76-60 victory over Syracuse at American Airlines Arena so noteworthy.
“They missed shots, but I thought it was pretty good,” said Self of KU's defense, using verbiage that helped him adhere to his own standards about his favorite end of the floor. “You can't do much better than hold them to 21 points (in the first half). So I was pleased with it. It was the reason we had the lead at halftime. It certainly wasn't because our offense was so fluid.”
View a gallery of images from the Jayhawks' matchup against The Orange on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017 at American Airlines Arena in Miami.
On a night when Kansas got yet another career performance from senior point guard Devonte' Graham, who tied a career-high with 35 points on 10-of-17 shooting — including seven dagger-like 3-pointers — the Jayhawks (7-0) needed every ounce of defensive focus they could muster and they delivered.
Syracuse (6-1) shot 32 percent for the game — 22 percent from 3-point range — and made just five field goals during the entire first half.
“Kansas is a tremendous team,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, matter-of-factly, after his team's loss. “But we have to play better offensively against them. Our offense just wasn't good enough today. And part of that was they're a very good defensive team, as well.”
That's quite a comment coming from a coach whose team, for decades, has been known for its vaunted 2-3 zone. And the Orange saw it work well in the early going against the high-scoring Jayhawks.
Kansas made just one of its first six 3-point attempts on Saturday but soon saw that slump straighten out when Graham began to heat up. KU finished the half sinking five of its next 10 3-pointers and drained 11 of 31 for the game, doing just enough to shoot past the Orange and their zone.
“Kansas is averaging 90-some points a game,” Boeheim said. “Our defense wasn't the problem.”
With KU's usual bombers struggling to get going — Malik Newman was 0-of-6 from deep, Lagerald Vick 1-of-5 and Svi Mykhailiuk 3-of-7 — the Jayhawks often looked for other ways to go over the top of the zone, and they came in the form of crowd-pleasing, momentum-changing lobs.
Udoka Azubuike finished a few. Vick stole the show with two of his. And even Mykhailiuk and Mitch Lightfoot found themselves on the receiving end of those passes, most coming from Graham (five assists) and Vick (seven assists), who carried the Kansas offense in just about every way possible.
On the whole, Saturday's game felt like one of those grinders that you get in March, even though the Jayhawks owned a double-digit lead for nearly all of the second half.
After leading by 14 at the break, KU ripped off a 6-0 run to start the second half, pushing the lead to 20 and forcing Boeheim to take a timeout. It worked.
Midway through the second half, the Orange had trimmed KU's lead to as low as seven, but every time they threatened to get closer, Graham showed why people are talking about him as a legitimate candidate for some serious honors in a few months.
“He picked his spots well,” Self said of his point guard, who again showed he is the emotional and performance leader of this Kansas team.
Foul trouble also played a part in this one, though it did not cost Kansas nearly as much as it looked like it could.
After picking up his first foul at 17:07 and No. 2 a little more than three minutes later, Azubuike sat for the final 10:39 of the first half. While that might not be that bad most nights, it was made worse by the fact that sophomore sub Mitch Lightfoot joined him for much of it. That forced Self to turn to walk-on Clay Young, whose nine strong minutes helped Kansas extend its lead from one when he entered to 14 by halftime.
“The refs, they were calling everything,” Azubuike said. “That's the game sometimes. You have to work through stretches like that and Clay came (in) and helped us out a lot.”
Added Self: “I thought at halftime that there was no way that Mitch and Dok would commit six fouls in the second half, so I didn't even think we were in foul trouble with those guys. I thought they could both play substantial minutes and they did that for the most part.”
Graham scored 19 of his career-high-tying 35 points in the second half and also was on the passing end of what proved to be the exclamation point in this one.
With the Jayhawks racing up the floor for a rare fast-break opportunity, Graham fired one of those lobs to Vick, who hammered a nasty dunk down with his left hand and saluted the Kansas bench with his right as he landed.
That pushed KU's lead to 64-47 and Syracuse never crawled closer than nine the rest of the way.
“I've been throwing him pretty bad alley-oops lately,” Graham explained after the win. “I've been throwing them too far back. When I threw it to him, I didn't think he was going to catch it, but he went up and made an athletic play and hopefully we make SportsCenter.”
If that play was not on the popular highlight show on Saturday, there's little doubt that several others made by Graham were.
After returning home, KU will face Washington on Wednesday at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.