Despite 30 points and 14 rebounds from junior forward Dedric Lawson, the top-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team dropped its first game of the season on Saturday night in the desert, 80-76 to No. 18 Arizona State.
After the loss, Lawson and freshman point guard Devon Dotson pointed to the team’s mistakes down the stretch and inability to close out a game which it led for more than 37 minutes as the biggest reasons why things went south at the end for the 10-1 Jayhawks.
And while Kansas coach Bill Self wholeheartedly agreed with both of those issues, the KU coach, as he usually does, also offered an alternative look at what cost Kansas.
“We didn’t make shots and we forgot who our best player was for a key stretch,” Self said.
That player, of course, was Lawson, who, at times, looked unstoppable, getting deep post position, working for easy buckets and shooting soft jump hooks over the Arizona State defense to carry Kansas.
Few plays this entire season, if any, have looked as smooth as his driving layup out of a spin move in transition that put the Jayhawks up 34-24 late in the first half.
But in the second half, the Sun Devils made it clear that they were not going to sit back and let Lawson alone beat them. And the Jayhawks aided their cause by shooting too many quick-trigger 3-pointers instead of giving their versatile power forward a chance to make something happen.
“He needed to be great if you don’t make shots,” Self explained after the loss. “And 7 of 28 from 3 is awful. The thing about it is, when you go 7 of 28, the thing that tells me is why’d we shoot 28? I mean, geez. Throw it to (Lawson) and just exercise enough patience to make sure he gets a chance to score. And we didn’t do that.”
For three consecutive seasons, the Jayhawks have set school records for 3-pointers made in a single season, knocking in 304 during the 2015-16 season, 318 the season after that and a whopping 391 last season in an average of 38 games per season.
Those marks were good for an average of nearly nine 3-point makes a game and the Jayhawks were able to consistently carry that kind of firepower throughout each of those seasons.
So far this season, a much different looking Kansas team has made 78 of 217 triples, good for 36 percent.
Projecting that pace out over 38 games puts the Jayhawks on track to make 267 3-pointer this season, their lowest total since the 2014-15 season, when they made 213 and Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk combined to make just 32 in limited minutes.
Even that, however, is not a given when you consider that Kansas, in its first 11 games of 2018-19, already has made fewer than seven 3-pointers four times, a reality that, if it continues, would knock that pace well below 267 by season’s end.
KU freshman Devon Dotson made 2 of 4 3-point attempts against the Sun Devils, marking just the sixth and seventh 3-point makes by Dotson and Quentin Grimes (0-for-5 vs. ASU) in the past eight games.
Grimes enters winter break shooting 11 of 38 (28.9 percent) from 3-point range — 5 for 28 (17.9 percent) since the opener — and Dotson has made just 9 of 21 through 11 games, even with Saturday's 2-for-4 effort.
Until Saturday, even off-shooting nights from those two and others had not cost Kansas, which, be it through defense, transition offense or clutch play late in games, had been able to avoid disaster against the nation’s sixth toughest schedule.
"We had some individuals that aren't making shots and still kept shooting," Self said Saturday. "It's good to have confidence and to keep firing, but not at game point."
That might have been the most frustrating part of Saturday’s loss for the Jayhawks, who struggled to accept their inability to close after playing a spectacular first half and leading by eight at the break.
“We played beautiful basketball early in the game,” Self said.
ASU shot 29 percent in the first 20 minutes and 53 percent in the second half. And even that might not have mattered had KU played with more poise in getting the ball to Lawson when it mattered most.
“The second half, I thought they did a much better job of getting to our shooters and we didn’t really do much from beyond the arc,” Self said. “And when you don’t do that then you’ve got to get the ball to Dedric and have him get touches. … Hopefully we’ll learn from it. We didn’t close the game right at all, so hopefully we can learn from that and get better from that.”
That was the plan and few players articulated it as well as Lawson, who said the loss was “very tough” and added that he would prefer to see the Jayhawks have better balance offensively to keep teams on their heels.
“Yeah, yeah definitely,” Lawson said. “You always need guys to step up and things of that nature. It’s something we’ve got to learn from. It’s behind us and now we’ve just got to keep moving forward.”