No. 17 Kansas Jayhawks (17-7 overall, 11-5 Big 12) vs. No. 14 Texas Longhorns (13-6 overall, 7-5 Big 12)
Time: 8 p.m.
Location: Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas
TV: ESPN | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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1. It’s a pride game
The last time this Kansas team saw the Texas Longhorns, the Jayhawks were in the top five in the country, 8-1 overall and 2-0 in Big 12 play, heading toward what they believed was another special season.
And then Texas came to Allen Fieldhouse and blew up those plans with a 25-point win, which tied for the worst home loss in KU history.
Things have changed a lot for both teams since Jan. 2. The Jayhawks have entered into and come out of a mid-season slump that may have started with the UT loss but now features the Jayhawks riding five consecutive wins.
And Texas, which spent its share of time in the top 10 throughout January, has lost four of its last six games and is fresh off of run-ins with historically bad weather and pandemic-related delays.
Regardless of what was then or what is today, the Jayhawks have just one thing on their mind as they look forward to this one.
“We can’t wait for that game,” KU junior David McCormack said in a postgame radio interview following KU’s 67-61 home victory over Texas Tech last Saturday. “I can’t say much more, but we’re just really looking forward to that game.”
The reasons are obvious and redemption plays a big role. The Jayhawks were embarrassed by their effort in the first meeting with Shaka Smart’s team. By their own admission, they lacked fire and fight, played poorly and let Texas get whatever they wanted on both ends of the floor.
“They beat us bad,” Kansas coach Bill Self said during Saturday’s postgame radio interview. “You don’t have to describe it. I remember it well.”
The KU coach doubled down on that concept during a Monday press conference, saying that 84-59 final score in Lawrence should be fresh in the minds of all of his players as they prepare for the rematch.
“I would think that there should be extra motivation for everybody on our team,” Self said. “I don't think that we played very well collectively as a group, I don't think we coached worth a flip, so I think there should be motivation for everybody because of that.”
That’s exactly the way redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson sees it.
“Having a team beat us in our gym like that is never acceptable, so it’s definitely going to give us a chip on our shoulder going to Austin,” Wilson said.
KU’s recent surge has caught the attention of Texas coach Shaka Smart.
“They’re defending at a high, high level,” Smart said of the Jayhawks. “So it'll be a heck of a challenge for us. But, as always, our main focus is ourselves (and) being truly connected around a common goal."
Smart on Monday did not put too much stock in how either team played in the first meeting. For one, it was nearly two months ago. And, for two, both teams have grown and changed in a variety of ways since then.
“We just played well and it probably wasn’t one of their better games,” he said of the Jan. 2 meeting. “Sometimes you lose sight of the fact that maybe it's somebody’s day or not somebody’s day.”
To that end, Self and the Jayhawks are confident that the opportunity to both add to their winning streak and atone for that disappointing loss to Longhorns would produce a much better effort this time around.
“I think they’ll see a different Kansas team than they saw in January,” Self said.
2. 3-point defense
The Jayhawks’ plan to give the Longhorns a different look and be successful as a result, starts with defense. While better play on that end of the floor has been the catalyst for their five-game winning streak, the specific area of defense that the Jayhawks are eyeing in this one lives behind the 3-point line.
“The main thing that stuck out to me was how comfortable they felt,” Wilson said. “Our defensive presence just wasn’t there and we can’t have that.”
The Longhorns hit their first six 3-pointers of the second half en route to finishing 12-of-26 from behind the arc for the game.
Kansas has made defending the 3-point a major point of emphasis in recent weeks — opponents have hit just 23.2% of their shots from behind the arc in KU’s last five games — and that figures to be as important as anything in this one. But Self said the idea behind quality 3-point defense has to be more general than specifically tied to scouting report.
Close out on shooters. Be there when they catch the ball. Challenge every shot. That type of approach can be something that works against all teams and the Jayhawks are working toward making that element of their defense second nature.
“Sometimes you can pay too close attention to scouting report,” Self said. “And when you pay too close attention to scout report, you let average guys get open looks and now average guys become good guys. And sometimes when you, when you guard it different, average shooters stay average.”
As a team, the Longhorns ranked 109th nationally in 3-point shooting at 35% and their roster features four players who play 10 minutes per game or more shooting 35% or better from long distance, including Courtney Ramey at 45% (37 of 82) and Kai Jones at 44% (11 of 25).
Asked Monday to share the key components of KU’s improved 3-point defense, sophomore Christian Braun said it involved two simple things.
“Just getting out to shooters and making them shoot tougher shots,” he said. “I think a lot of times in that little losing stretch, we were letting guys (take open shots). So it’s just getting out to everybody no matter who it (is). It’s college basketball; everybody can hit a shot that’s wide open.”
While it’s important to challenge the shots with intensity, Braun said what happens behind the play is key, as well.
“If you’re closing out to shooters hard, you’ve got to be able to rotate and scramble around,” he said. “I think we did a really good job against Texas Tech of not worrying about who you’re guarding necessarily but just finding a man.”
3. Continue to limit turnovers
Texas Tech came to Allen Fieldhouse last weekend as the country’s eighth best team in forcing turnovers, and Kansas turned it over just six times, with two of them coming off of sloppy errors by the KU offense that had very little to do with what the Tech defense did.
In this one, the Jayhawks are facing a team that is far less impactful with its defense. UT ranks ninth in the Big 12 in turnover rate, at 17.1%, far behind Texas Tech’s mark of 25%.
In the first meeting between these two teams, the Jayhawks turned it over 12 times, which is right about their season average.
Kansas has been much improved in that area during their recent winning streak, however, with its turnover totals registering in single digits in three of the last four games.
Like with their improved defense, the Jayhawks have approach ball security with a big-picture approach, as more of a mindset thing than any one specific focus.
“You can shoot 40% and win if you turn it over six times,” Self said Monday. “If you turn it over 15 times and shoot 40%, that’s not very good. … You could shoot 50% and turn it over 20 times and people would say you shot the ball great, but your offense still stunk.
“That is a big part of a winning,” he added of taking care of the basketball. “And we have done a better job.”
KU is +4.4 turnovers per game during its current five-game winning streak.
KU big man David McCormack vs. Texas’ long, tall, athletic front line
When asked on Monday what about Kansas’ offense stood out to him in recent weeks compared to what he saw in person when the Longhorns visited Lawrence, Smart did not hesitate to give his answer.
“Dave McCormack more than anyone,” Smart said of KU’s junior forward. “Man, he’s playing with great confidence, with great aggressiveness, just playing at a high level. That’s probably the biggest thing that stands out watching them on tape.”
It probably stands out on tape, as well. In the first meeting with the bigger, taller, longer Longhorns, McCormack was held without a field goal and limited to just 14 minutes on the floor.
He scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds, but all eight points came at the free throw line (many of them late) and UT’s athletic front line and 3-point barrage from the outside took McCormack almost completely out of the game.
Since then, all McCormack has done is score in double figures in 11 of KU’s next 14 games, including eight games of 17 points or better.
In addition to becoming a more reliable offensive weapon, the 6-foot-10 junior has become a dangerous passer out of the post and brought good energy to the floor that has shown up in the form of ball-screen defense and work on the glass.
In many of those games, McCormack has gotten off to slow starts and had to play through it. Last weekend, while putting up 17 points and eight rebounds in a win over Texas Tech, McCormack started hot and helped Kansas take control of the game from the jump.
Texas forwards Jericho Sims, Kai Jones and Greg Brown all present different challenges for McCormack, with their length and athleticism being a shared trait. But McCormack has physicality and bulk on all of them. And his ability to deliver at the free throw line plays to his favor, as well.
There will be a lot of factors that determine how this one ends up, but it’s hard to picture Kansas faring any better than it did in Lawrence if McCormack is not more of a factor.
With that said, Self thinks McCormack can be that by staying with himself and not trying to do too much.
"I just want David to keep doing what he's been doing and playing with a free mind," Self said. "He's playing pretty confidently right now. He's not playing perfect by any stretch, but (it) certainly seems like to me he's getting better, for the most part, each outing."
After four wins over unranked teams sitting in the bottom half of the Big 12 Conference standings, the Jayhawks picked up a big win over Texas Tech last weekend and proved that their hot streak was not limited to sub-par competition.
Now, the test is even harder, with a top-15 Texas team on the road followed by a visit from No. 2 Baylor on Saturday.
The Jayhawks are still eyeing a second-place finish in the Big 12, and if they can get there, they could see their NCAA Tournament seed climb to as high as the 3 line.
In order for that to happen, though, the Jayhawks are going to have to win at least one of this week’s games and show well in the Big 12 tournament in mid-March.
As if that’s not enough motivation for this team to do what their coach has asked and play their best basketball of the season down the stretch, the still-fresh scars from getting rocked by Texas in January have played into this week’s preparation, as well.
“It was at home, so that hit us even harder,” Braun said of his team’s 25-point loss to UT in early January. “We’ve learned a lot since then, though, and we’re just excited to have another opportunity to play them.”
The Jayhawks lead the all-time series with Texas, 35-10, including an 11-7 mark in games played in Austin. The series has been heavily slanted in KU’s favor in recent years, with KU winning 13 of the last 15 meetings, 18 of the last 21 and 21 of the last 25 matchups, starting with the Big 12 tournament championship game in 2008.
KenPom.com lists Texas with a two-point advantage (71-69) and gives KU a win probability of 41%.
Oddsmakers in Las Vegas see it about the same, with Texas opening as a 2-point favorite.
No. 17 Kansas
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 195, Sr.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Jr.
G – Christian Braun, 6-6, 205, Soph.
G – Jalen Wilson, 6-7, 190, RS-Fr.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Jr.
No. 14 Texas
G – Matt Coleman III, 6-2, 180, Sr.
G – Andrew Jones, 6-4, 192, Jr.
G – Courtney Ramey, 6-3, 185, Jr.
F – Greg Brown, 6-9, 205, Fr.
F – Jericho Sims, 6-10, 245, Sr.