Life has a way of reminding people about what’s actually important and what’s ultimately of far less consequence.
On a Monday afternoon that many of us would’ve spent scrutinizing the still fresh NCAA Tournament bracket, and maybe even getting into occasionally heated debates about which teams could or should actually advance, many local media members dialed in to a teleconference to hear from Kansas basketball coach Bill Self.
The conversation, of course, had nothing to do with the Jayhawks’ upcoming path to a national championship, but rather the unforeseen and surreal way the postseason came to a conclusion before it even really got started.
The head coach of the No. 1-ranked team in the country spent plenty of time discussing how life has changed for his players and how the canceled tournament could impact what’s to come on a number of fronts. But Self diverted briefly to consider how sports actually might have played a momentous role in this country by getting people to recognize the seriousness of this COVID-19 pandemic.
“How big of a positive was it that Rudy Gobert tested positive?” Self said of the Utah Jazz center contracting the virus and essentially putting the entire NBA season on pause.
Gobert's diagnosis came this past Wednesday, which in its aftermath now feels like a month ago. The NBA suspending play became a tipping point for sports leagues throughout this country. And a worldwide story that might have seemed too far away for some in the U.S. to take seriously just a week ago suddenly became a lot more real.
Self marveled that sports as we know them getting wiped out actually became a driving force behind a movement, with more people paying attention to the virus and the possible repercussions of it spreading.
“I do think that could be a positive that came out of this — a very big one,” he said.
Indeed, this abnormal new reality for the Jayhawks and everyone else comes with some life lessons. According to Self, one that hit home for him is that everything is relative.
“No matter what we’ve got going on or no matter who we think we are, there’s always something more important actually taking place than what we’re doing,” Self said. “Sometimes we get caught up in our own world so much that we think what we’re doing is actually more important and affects more people than what it actually does.”
That’s been one of the most sobering aspects of existing in the sports world this past week. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be tied to the industry in one way or another have been reminded that the drama and intrigue surrounding sports may be captivating at times, but it lacks the gravity of these unpredictable days in which we now exist.
“I do feel so sorry for local businesses and people employed at local businesses,” Self said. “And how do they keep the doors open and stay in business? There are so many things going on in addition to health that it certainly got everyone’s attention. And I do think sports has helped create that.”
Maybe Self’s right, and this country is now a little further ahead of schedule in responding to this outbreak than it would’ve been without the sports world taking the lead. If sports helped just a little, it’s a nice reminder that they have the potential to make a far-reaching impact for good sometimes. Once in a while sports can be more than just a game.
It's normal for players on Bill Self’s Kansas basketball teams to wind up on All-Big 12 teams in March, but not once in his previous 16 seasons did Self coach a team with two stars so productive that either could easily have won conference player of the year.
Of course, that changed in year No. 17, thanks to Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson.
A 7-foot senior center, Azubuike ended up sweeping the Big 12 player of the year awards, earning the distinction from both the conference’s coaches and the Associated Press.
But that didn’t mean Azubuike was the obvious choice. AP voters gave the big man 10 votes, but seven went to his teammate Dotson, a sophomore point guard.
Azubuike intimidated on the interior, while Dotson reigned on the perimeter. They formed an ideal complementary duo and made up the driving force behind KU’s incredible 17-1 run through the Big 12.
Was one more responsible for the Jayhawks’ success than the other? You could make strong cases for either and still not convince someone on the other side of the argument. Ultimately, both sides are right, because the dominating center and high-speed point guard formed a reciprocal pairing that resulted in KU emerging as the top-ranked team in the country.
Self said earlier this week he never had before coached a tandem with such a hefty one-two punch that it was difficult to discern which player was actually better.
“Yeah, when we had Marcus and Markieff, they were hard to distinguish,” Self joked of the Morris twins. “From a postseason award standpoint, I don't know that we've had anything like this before.”
Just in two of the previous three seasons, Self coached clear-cut All-Americans in Frank Mason III (2017) and Devonte’ Graham (2018) who were obvious choices for Big 12 player of the year. The same was true earlier in the decade, with Marcus Morris (2011) and Thomas Robinson (2012). And even though Mason and Graham were teammates in 2017 and Morris and Robinson played together in 2011, there was always clear separation between those KU duos in those particular seasons. Robinson and Graham each stepped up to become “the guy” after a teammate with a key role moved on.
In Azubuike and Dotson, Kansas (28-3) has two of “the guys” entering the postseason together.
Self thought the only time KU could have had a somewhat similar scenario was 2014, when the Jayhawks’ top two freshmen, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, went on to become two of the top three picks in the draft. Of course, that combo never got to realize its March Madness potential, as Embiid suffered a season-ending injury late in the regular season and KU lost as a No. 2 seed in its second game of the NCAA Tournament.
Azubuike and Dotson are more likely to become two of the top three picks in the second round of the draft, but they’ve turned into highly effective college stars. The Jayhawks haven’t benefited from the presence of such a valuable pair of players since the year before Self arrived. In 2003, big man Nick Collison and fleet-footed guard Kirk Hinrich took KU all the way to the national championship game.
Azubuike and Dotson are the most impactful Kansas duo since, and exceptional enough in this college basketball season that they could take the Jayhawks one step further — and maybe help deliver KU its first national championship since 2008.
With the regular season officially behind them, the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks should feel right at home when they’re away from Lawrence this postseason, and not just at their mid-March home in Kansas City, Mo., for the Big 12 Tournament.
Kansas fought its way to a 10-1 road record, bolstering its claim to the No. 1 overall seed on this upcoming Selection Sunday.
By definition, the Sprint Center and every NCAA Tournament venue in which KU could play in the weeks ahead, is a neutral site. But that’s open to some interpretation. Kansas fans could gobble up tickets in Kansas City this weekend, turning those contests into pseudo home games, the same way KU’s annual regular-season dates in Sprint Center masquerade as a home game on the schedule.
Once the Jayhawks (28-3) begin their NCAA Tournament run, though, their experience as road warriors this season should come in handy in high-pressure games, in Omaha, Neb., the opening week, and possibly Houston or Indianapolis the following one.
Even though KU is likely to be well represented in the stands at various stops during the 68-team national tournament, any sense of a home-court advantage will be out the window.
“I think when you're rated high,” KU head coach Bill Self said Monday during his press conference, “a lot of times if the game's close in the NCAA Tournament, the majority of the people in the building that aren’t a KU fan would certainly pull for the underdog or the upset, so to speak.”
It’s in those moments that the tension ratchets up in a hurry, potentially infiltrating even a great team’s collective psyche.
That’s when these Jayhawks can lean on their familiarity with winning games outside of Lawrence.
As Big 12 Player of the Year Udoka Azubuike said Monday, the Jayhawks’ confidence entering the postseason is only reinforced by their impressive record on opponents’ home floors.
“Some of the games, we didn’t really play well,” Azubuike said, regarding KU’s 10 road wins. “But we played good defense and we paid attention to details and that kind of helped us. Moving forward, we know we’re not always going to play well offensively, but we’re going to find a way to grind it out defensively.”
That defense, of course (No. 2 in the nation in adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.com), is what makes the Jayhawks a favorite to win it all. And they’ve been so locked in on that end of the floor this season that getting stops and winning has become second nature, and they don’t need the boost of the Allen Fieldhouse crowd to make it happen.
All-Big 12 point guard Devon Dotson said KU’s run through its road schedule highlighted the players’ resiliency.
“That shows that we have some strength and toughness — like mental toughness — to overcome runs or bad moments that we have,” Dotson said. “We can overcome it. That’s a positive, that we can overcome that.”
Self’s KU teams often fare well on the road, and that doesn’t necessarily guarantee postseason success — we’re talking about March Madness after all. Still, their 10-1 road record this year gives Self confidence about this team’s potential as the Jayhawks head into postseason play.
“We've had some teams here that you knew that we would get a great effort and you knew that you would probably have a great chance to win, because you knew our crowd would be so good and get guys jacked to play,” Self said. “I don't I think this team needs that as much. At least I hope not. We haven't so far.”
KU road records in Self era, and NCAA Tournament result
2003-04 — 5-5; Elite Eight
2004-05 — 6-4; lost in 1st round
2005-06 — 6-2; lost in 1st round
2006-07 — 8-2; Elite Eight
2007-08 — 8-3; National Championship
2008-09 — 6-4; Sweet 16
2009-10 — 9-2; lost in 2nd round
2010-11 — 9-1; Elite Eight
2011-12 — 8-2; National runner-up
2012-13 — 7-3; Sweet 16
2013-14 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2014-15 — 5-6; lost in 2nd round
2015-16 — 7-3; Elite Eight
2016-17 — 10-1; Elite Eight
2017-18 — 7-3; Final Four
2018-19 — 3-8; lost in 2nd round
2019-20 — 10-1; ???
Road records of NCAA champions, since 2004
2004 — Connecticut, 6-4
2005 — North Carolina, 8-3
2006 — Florida, 6-4
2007 — Florida, 5-4
2008 — Kansas, 8-3
2009 — North Carolina, 11-2
2010 — Duke, 5-5
2011 — Connecticut, 5-5
2012 — Kentucky, 8-1
2013 — Louisville, 8-3
2014 — Connecticut, 6-4
2015 — Duke, 9-2
2016 — Villanova, 10-2
2017 — North Carolina, 6-5
2018 — Villanova, 9-3
2019 — Virginia, 10-1
(Road records of NCAA champs via teamrankings.com)
With No. 1-ranked Kansas playing so well and so many pages of documents to scour in KU’s response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, it’s easy to forget that the Jayhawks are about to add another big man to their lineup.
With one game left in the regular season, Silvio De Sousa is officially back. His 12-game suspension ended, coincidently, as the Jayhawks wrapped up at least a share of the Big 12 title without him.
So now, a week into March, for the first time since Jan. 21, when De Sousa made some heat-of-the-moment errors in judgment during a fracas with Kansas State that he now regrets, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward returns to the lineup versus Texas Tech.
Just in time to help KU try and win the 2020 league title outright. What a story, right? Well, not really.
It would have felt crazy to say, write, hear or read before the season began, but the fact is the Jayhawks don’t even really need De Sousa to achieve that goal or the larger ones they still have in front of them.
Even before De Sousa threw punches at K-State players and hoisted a stool above his head during a rivalry game skirmish, actions he would later describe as “unacceptable behavior” and a “poor representation” of his team and his “own character,” the backup big man’s impact for KU was sporadic.
Having De Sousa back in uniform will become a luxury for the Jayhawks (27-3 overall, 16-1 Big 12). In his six appearances in league games in January, before his suspension, he only played 6.2 minutes on average — and that was when KU coach Bill Self still used two-big lineups at times.
So what does De Sousa’s role look like now, with the Jayhawks playing one big with four guards almost exclusively? Even Self admitted he doesn’t know the exact answer.
“I know he's going to travel with us. And he'll suit up. I don't know — that doesn’t mean he'll play or play much or anything,” Self said.
Basically, De Sousa has become an insurance policy and a No. 3 center. If anything were to occur that would lead Self to have both Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack on the bench — for instance, they both have two or more fouls before halftime — then the post spot goes to De Sousa.
“We've been kind of set in how we've done things and everything,” Self said of his team’s rotation, after the Jayhawks won their 15th game in a row. “And David's played really well, so I don't see Silvio's eligibility impacting David's minutes. So I don't know what that’ll look like.”
When many people think about De Sousa’s potential, his role in KU’s run to the 2018 Final Four first comes to mind. A freshman who didn’t even join the lineup until January of that year, the reserve from Angola gave the Jayhawks 4.8 points and 5.4 rebounds off the bench during the NCAA Tournament. As the only backup big for Azubuike versus Duke in the Elite Eight, De Sousa came through with 4 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes on a day that Azubuike fouled out.
Before he got the chance to continue his promising trajectory, De Sousa ultimately lost his entire sophomore season, as the NCAA ruled him ineligible in the wake of a federal investigation into corruption in college basketball. KU remains in hot water as the result of that investigation and the federal trial that followed it. The NCAA alleges, among other violations, that De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne, received $2,500 from an agent in an effort to get De Sousa enrolled at KU.
The university’s lengthy response to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, made public Thursday, includes numerous references to the recruitment of De Sousa — his name is simply redacted from the published version of the document.
De Sousa’s return coinciding with the response makes the timing strange. And that’s actually appropriate, because his two-plus years at KU so far have involved bizarre twists and turns, including being reinstated by the NCAA for the 2019-20 season only to lose a chunk of it because of his involvement in the K-State fight.
“I do know he's paid a pretty heavy price,” Self said of the 12-game suspension. “It’s basically cost him the season. So we'll be excited to have him with us.”
As much as De Sousa has practiced with KU since getting to campus in late December of 2017, the on-again, off-again nature of his college career has stunted his development as a player. In-game reps are a crucial component of that growth. It doesn’t seem like he’ll get many of those in the weeks ahead either.
Perhaps De Sousa’s senior season at KU will be the one where he finally becomes a regular contributor. In the meantime, the Jayhawks have an emergency center who would start for many other college programs.
College basketball awards season isn’t too far away now, and when it arrives, Kansas head coach Bill Self knows what he would be looking for in a Big 12 Player of the Year.
Self didn’t make a case Thursday during his weekly press conference for either of his team’s legit contenders, Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, but rather shared his thoughts on the criteria he would use in selecting a conference’s top performer.
It was during this mental exercise that Self explained why he doesn’t first look to statistics when considering candidates.
“In general terms, I think winning is obviously very important,” Self replied, when asked how to best gauge such awards. “I believe sometimes putting up numbers is overrated a little bit if you have a lot of balance on your team.”
Self knows that from firsthand experience, thanks to one All-Big 12 first team from a decade ago that looks laughable in retrospect.
“I remember when we won the national championship in ’07-’08, we had three guys that should’ve been on first team. And zero made it in the media poll,” Self recalled, “because our leading scorer averaged 13.”
Indeed, the Associated Press All-Big 12 first team in 2008 included not a single Jayhawk. No Darrell Arthur. No Brandon Rush (the aforementioned leading scorer). No Mario Chalmers. All landed on the second team, presumably because KU was so balanced that they split the vote. So the AP first team was comprised of Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, Texas’ D.J. Augustin, Baylor’s Curtis Jerrells, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin and Nebraska’s Aleks Maric.
While one could view this stroll down KU basketball memory lane as a lesson that voters should include Azubuike, Dotson and Marcus Garrett on this year’s All-Big 12 first team ballots, Self also pointed out that Baylor has “such good balance” this season, that the Bears’ individual numbers might go under-appreciated by some when it’s time to dole out postseason accolades.
“They’re not going to have a guy with the elite numbers as far as scoring output,” Self said of BU, led by Jared Butler’s 15.7 points per game and MaCio Teague’s 14.1.
When Self looks to identify the best players around, the hall of fame coach thinks about each man’s value to the team, and what that team would look like without a given player.
“To me those are all things that are somewhat intangibles,” Self said, “but I think they all would play a huge role in who would be a player of the year in every conference.”
Few would be surprised to see either Azubuike or Dotson take home the 2020 Big 12 Player of the Year. And Garrett has been so crucial to KU’s success this season that some would argue the junior guard and defensive savant is actually KU’s most valuable player.
Even Self admitted it can be difficult from week to week to identify which of KU’s three most important players is the team’s MVP. Not that he cares to choose one.
“We’ve had a pretty decent year up until this point, and we’ve had three guys play particularly well,” Self said of his No. 1-ranked Jayhawks. “But I think it will probably distinguish itself over the next three games, because guys have got to play in the biggest games, and these three are obviously pivotal if we’re going to have a chance to win the league.”
Regardless of how the awards and all-this-or-that teams shake out, KU has three team-first players in Azubuike, Dotson and Garrett, who are poised to take the Jayhawks on a deep run through the NCAA Tournament.
A supporting starter for the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Ochai Agbaji often blends in more than he stands out.
That doesn’t mean his head coach, Bill Self, wants Agbaji playing passively on offense. With the attention Kansas opponents must give to the Jayhawks’ inside-outside duo of Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson, opportunities for Agbaji often materialize. And when they do, KU needs the agreeable Agbaji taking advantage.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard’s defense, athleticism and energy keep Agbaji on the court for Kansas (25-3 overall, 14-1 Big 12). That’s why he played 39 minutes in the Jayhawks’ vital win at Baylor, despite going scoreless for the first time this season and just the third time in his 44-game college career.
“I was definitely happy for my teammates, happy for the outcome of the game,” Agbaji said of his zero points in a crucial victory. “Our main goal was just go down there and win, no matter what. Any way we can do it. So, I mean, if it takes me not even scoring and us getting the ‘W,’ then I'll have that every single day.”
Even so, with just a handful of games left in the regular season, Monday night’s matchup with Oklahoma State was no time for Agbaji to fade into the background, on the heels of an 0-for-5 outing at Baylor.
So Self was pleased to see Agbaji produce 15 points, while going 5-for-9 from the field and 2-for-6 on 3-pointers versus the Cowboys.
“A lot better,” Self said of Agbaji’s offensive approach in an 83-58 KU win. “Aggressive. Shot a couple balls right off the bat.”
It all began for Agbaji with an assist from the Jayhawks’ dominating big man, Azubuike. Dotson had just thrown KU’s senior center an entry pass into the paint, and as Azubuike gathered inside, OSU took for an ultra-aggressive approach, sending four defenders at the 7-footer. Azubuike reacted by spotting Agbaji in the nearby left corner, and the sophomore side-stepped into a successful 3-pointer for KU’s first basket of the night.
That quick start had Agbaji confident enough to catch and fire quickly off a defensive stop on KU’s next possession. And although that 3 misfired, it didn’t put an end to his self-assured offensive mindset — which is exactly the attitude his head coach wants Agbaji to have.
He showed briefly he can do that as a playmaker, as well. At an early juncture of the first half, Agbaji dribbled hard toward the paint from the left wing, forcing the OSU defense to react. His decisive attack off the bounce created the opening Isaiah Moss needed to drain a wide-open 3-pointer and gave Agbaji an assist.
His most eye-popping moment, though, came above the rim. With a David McCormack block on defense serving as the catalyst for a fast break, Agbaji sprinted down the left side of the floor. His instincts and hustle led him to the rim, as Dotson served up a lob that Agbaji slammed.
Late in the first half, Agbaji again looked authoritative with the ball in his hands, driving right at OSU’s Lindy Waters III on a poor closeout, drawing a foul that led to two made free throws.
Even though Agbaji missed two well contested 3-pointers in the final seconds of the first half, with the clock influencing his decision to take those shots when he wouldn’t have to force them in most situations, he came right back out in the second half ready to help put OSU away.
A few minutes removed from the halftime break, Agbaji found a larger defender, Cameron McGriff, checking him on the perimeter. So Agbaji went into attack mode, crossing over the 6-foot-7 forward and finishing over McGriff with a runner off the glass while drawing a foul for a 3-point play.
Just more than a minute later, Agbaji caught a pass on the right wing with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Azubuike came up to set a screen for him and Agbaji used that opportunity to dribble into a 3-pointer that put KU up by 13 points.
Agbaji’s final points of his fifth double-digit scoring game in Big 12 play this season, once again, were the result of his firm response to a defensive opening.
When OSU opted to trap Marcus Garrett near mid-court, it left three defenders to cover four Jayhawks and a lot of space for Agbaji to operate once Garrett threw him a pass out on the right side. Agbaji wasted no time in determining a plan of action and dribbled into a rhythm jumper, which he buried from just behind the right elbow.
Self appreciated that Agbaji repeatedly sought out shots for himself.
“I don’t know football very well, but it seems like they’re playing nine in the box or whatever they call it,” Self said of defenses the Jayhawks have faced. “And it seems like to me you’ve got to throw long every now and then, even if it’s incomplete just to stretch the defense. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to shoot the ball to stretch the defense. When we do that, it opens up a lot more driving area and lanes.”
KU’s best and most used lineup versus OSU had Agbaji out on the court with Dotson, Azubuike, Garrett and Moss — KU’s starting five for the past four games. That unit played 15:09 versus OSU and outscored the Cowboys, 34-18.
What makes Agbaji (averaging 10.1 points a game this season, on 43% shooting and 34.1% 3-point accuracy) such a good fit as a third or fourth scoring option is KU doesn’t have to run actions for him for Agbaji to produce. Just as he showed versus OSU, reading and reacting can help him accumulate points effectively. Having an assertive approach in those moments brings out the best in Agbaji.
The Jayhawks don’t always need points from Agbaji, but his teammates and coaches do want him bringing an opportunistic attitude on offense.
“Defensively, he's been pretty solid and good, basically all year long,” Self said. “But tonight he was different. He was different offensively. Much more confident.”
Kansas guard Marcus Garrett is known neither as a shooter nor a scorer.
Still, when the Jayhawks’ indispensable veteran didn’t put a single point on the board in their win at TCU this past weekend, it was out of character.
Garret’s averaging 9.2 points per game during his junior season on 7.3 field goal attempts, converting 46.2% of his tries. But against the Horned Frogs, the Dallas native only put up four shots in his close to 35 minutes on the court.
Of course, Garrett still contributed statistically, with three rebounds, four assists and three steals. Plus, he’s the type of player who won’t allow himself to step foot on the floor without playing the type of staunch defense that makes opponents pray he’ll be guarding one of their teammates.
And that’s why Garrett remained one of the most important players on the court, even while going scoreless for the first time since KU lost to Villanova at the 2018 Final Four, when he was a freshman.
Bill Self called Garrett’s performance in a 60-46 road victory as average a game as the starting guard has had in a while, offensively.
“But he was still terrific defensively,” Self emphasized. “I mean, you can say what you want to and you can look at numbers, but numbers never tell the story. And after watching the tape he was still pretty good, even though I didn't think it was his best at the offensive end.”
Garrett’s real impact was more discernible in his plus/minus numbers from KU’s most recent road win. The Jayhawks outscored TCU, 52-38, when Garrett was on the court, while they were an even 8-8 with the Frogs in the five-plus minutes Garrett spent on the bench. The junior guard’s plus-14 led the team, even as standouts Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson filled up other columns in the box score.
While Garrett’s ability to attack off the dribble and get to the rim has proven to be a real strength for the No. 3 Jayhawks (20-3 overall, 9-1 Big 12) this season, TCU’s guards, unlike most teams, did a nice job of taking those opportunities away from Garrett, who ended up going 0-for-4, all on shots taken from 15 feet and in.
But Garrett is the rarest of basketball players, who doesn’t actually care that much about his individual scoring totals. And in that way, Garrett reminds Self of a former KU great.
Self shared this story with his Jayhawks about Mario Chalmers, who is famous for his clutch 3-pointer in the 2008 national championship game, but also loved racking up steals and blending in.
“We’re beating somebody here in our league bad, eight minutes left in the game. And I run a play for Mario, and I said, ‘I want you to shoot it,’” Self recalled.
Chalmers replied, “Why?”
Self told the guard he hadn’t attempted a shot. But Chalmers countered, “‘I don’t need to take a shot. I don’t need to score.”
Which brought Self to his point: “I think Marcus has that same attitude, as well.”
Azubuike and Dotson are the Jayhawks who will most often be mentioned as candidates for Big 12 and national accolades this season, but Garrett is just as essential to KU’s success.
Freshman guard Christian Braun said Garrett always brings much more to the lineup than his scoring ability, and Braun saw the upperclassman impact KU’s win at TCU in a variety of other ways.
“You know, at the end of the game, he got a good steal, just kind of took the ball from the guy,” Braun began, referencing a takeaway by Garrett that allowed him to feed Dotson for a transition layup, the first play of what became a 12-0 run that all but wrapped up the win.
“That's what he does is affect the game on the other end. And you know you're going to get that from him every game. So you know he's always going to have steals and be in the right place,” Braun continued.
“He kind of takes their best player away almost every game, too. And even if, like I think (Desmond) Bane ended up with 20 (points), it's always a tough 20,” Braun said of Bane’s 8-for-19 day versus KU. “They don't always get their normal stats or it's not as efficient, and that's because of Marcus most of the time. So like I said, it doesn't really matter what he does on the offensive end, because you know what he's going to do on the defensive end.”
After the Kansas basketball team yet again went on the road and held an opponent to a scoring total in the 50s, Marcus Garrett didn’t mind calling the Jayhawks’ defensive effort “great.”
The Cowboys’ 50 points marked the fewest by an opponent in a KU road game since the Jayhawks held Texas Tech to 46, in January 2013. OSU shot just 28.1% from the floor and 11.1% on 3-pointers.
“We know they have some great 3-point shooters over there, and that was the key coming in, to try and limit their 3s,” Garrett said. “I know we’re known for giving up a lot of 3-point shots. So we were big on that, knowing how well they shoot 3s. We were trying not to give them any good looks.”
Strong as the Jayhawks’ defense has been this year, it wasn’t that long ago that the way they guarded the 3-point arc raised some eyebrows. But they are shoring that up, too, of late, making it even more difficult for opponents to score.
While Oklahoma State as a team hasn’t been that dangerous from 3-point range this season, the Jayhawks limited the Cowboys to a 2-for-18 night and rarely allowed OSU’s best marksmen, Thomas Dziagwa and Lindy Waters III, good looks at the rim from outside. Those two combined to go 0-for-5 from deep.
KU coach Bill Self said Thursday during his weekly press conference that he has noticed the Jayhawks (17-3 overall, 6-1 Big 12) improving their defense of the arc over the course of the past few weeks.
And Self isn’t basing that opinion off shooting percentages. As he pointed out, the Big 12 hasn’t been a good 3-point shooting league. Besides, he said, statistics can be misleading.
“You can play really good defense and they take a guarded shot and make it, or you can play crap defense and they can take an uncontested shot and miss it,” Self said. “And the stats don't really show that.”
When Self says he’s noticed his players doing a better job of defending against shooters, he’s talking more about the Jayhawks following their scouting reports and executing strategically.
“The one thing I would say that we've done a better job of is we’ve run more people off the line,” Self said.
Limiting their opponents’ quantity and quality of 3-pointers is taking an already impressive KU defense to another level.
“I believe, since conference play started,” Self said, “there hasn't been near as many attempts, as what there was prior to that.”
He’s right, of course. During nonconference action, KU opponents hoisted 28.5 3-point attempts a game, and averaged 8.3 makes. Since league play began for the Jayhawks, their foes (including Tennessee in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge) have attempted 20.6 3-pointers on average and made 6.1 a game.
The Jayhawks’ opponents hit 29.2% of their 3-pointers in their first 12 games, in November and December. In the eight games since Big 12 play began on Jan. 4, KU opponents have hit 29.7% from downtown.
In a game KU led by as many as 27 points in the second half, the Cowboys only attempted six 3-pointers in the game’s final 20 minutes.
“I think we picked it up after halftime,” freshman Tristan Enaruna said of KU’s defense. “Coach talked to us in the locker room and reminded us of everything, reminded us about their guys and what they do a lot. I think we did a good job being sharp with that and implementing those things.”
Anyone out there pondering the pros and cons of the Kansas basketball team continuing to start two bigs — even though it ends up playing more four-guard lineups — isn’t alone.
Bill Self is right there with you.
While the Jayhawks’ head coach has started sophomore forward David McCormack in 16 of KU’s 17 games, Self these days seems more contemplative on the matter.
The way he explained on Monday his recent line of thinking, Self suggested slightly altering the starting five was on his mind this past week. He may have even come closer than ever to switching it up for one of KU’s road games at Oklahoma and Texas, but the moving parts gave him pause.
The Jayhawks didn’t know for certain going into those games whether sophomore point guard Devon Dotson, who was dealing with a hip pointer, would be able to play. Before the game at UT, Self said, if he decided to start senior guard Isaiah Moss instead of McCormack, and then Dotson wasn’t cleared to play, he would have essentially been taking McCormack out of the starting five just to put him right back in. The coach didn’t want to “mess with” his big man’s mind with any juggling.
“So I thought it was best just to leave a status quo,” Self explained, “so you’re only messing with one guy, as opposed to messing with two.”
Dotson, of course, ended up returning and starting at Texas, so Moss, who started in Dotson’s place at OU, was the only Jayhawk waiting to find out his role at UT.
The approach worked, as Kansas (14-3 overall, 4-1 Big 12), now ranked No. 3 in the nation, won back-to-back road games. But the fact that he thought so hard about the starting five leads one to wonder whether Self’s more open than ever to making a change.
He said Monday, ahead of KU’s Sunflower Showdown with Kansas State at Allen Fieldhouse, he doubted one was imminent. Even so, Self went on to describe a potential benefit of starting Moss.
“We know that our five most productive players on the floor is with Isaiah in the lineup,” Self said, clarifying that five-man group teams Moss with four other KU starters, Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Udoka Azubuike. “Stats, analytics prove that out.”
To Self’s point, in Saturday’s win at Texas, that lineup played 15:36 and outscored the Longhorns, 28-18, while committing three turnovers. The starting five, with McCormack on the court instead of Moss, played 7:32, was outscored, 15-10, and turned the ball over once.
McCormack, a 6-foot-10, 265-pound sophomore, still brings a different kind of presence to the floor that Self appreciates. The coach valued the big man’s play so much at UT that McCormack logged 20 minutes, a new high for him this season in Big 12 play. The starting forward who so often plays a backup’s minutes contributed 6 points and seven rebounds.
More importantly, overall, lineups with McCormack worked against Texas. When he was in the game, the Jayhawks outscored UT, 34-24. When McCormack sat, Texas outscored KU, 33-32.
“From a chemistry standpoint, I think up until this point it’s still been best for us to go the way that we've been going,” Self said of starting McCormack, “because you're still going to have ample opportunities to have that other lineup.”
Self wants KU to have experience playing bigger in case the Jayhawks need that type of lineup at some stage of the NCAA Tournament. And while a change to the starting lineup wouldn’t make getting those in-game repetitions impossible, it’s easy to see how it could be less appealing. Self didn’t hide the fact that KU has been better with four guards this season. If he removed McCormack from the starting lineup and gave the spot to Moss, carving out time to use two bigs probably isn’t going to give KU much of a spark against most teams.
Plus, if KU started four guards around Azubuike and didn’t at some point play two bigs, it would become even harder to find McCormack the minutes Self thinks the big man deserves.
Right now, Self is trying to take into account both chemistry and data as best he can.
“It's something that I think’s fair,” Self said of sticking with McCormack, “and I've actually thought quite a bit about.”
To McCormack’s credit, he’s amenable to his coach’s instincts, even when those lead Self to play smaller. At Texas, KU opened the second half with its best four-guard look, and Moss in for McCormack.
“Same approach as always,” McCormack said of the eight minutes he spent as essentially a second-half reserve. “Control what you can control. Coach felt like it was a better lineup, like going smaller would give us a better chance to win. And that’s what I want. I want the benefit of the team. And, you know, it’s not the first time that he’s done that. So I just stick to it and give myself up for the team.”
Happy with McCormack’s play at Texas, Self said it was an example of why people shouldn’t get hung up on starting roles, based on how a certain player performs in one game, because McCormack “was probably better” than Moss versus the Longhorns.
“He just has a different type of role,” Self said of his sophomore big man. “But I know what I hope for, and it doesn't have anything to do with who starts. It has everything to do with how are we able to be successful playing two bigs? Because we're going to some. And then how do we maximize the opportunity to play small, which we have to the majority of time?”
Moss (24.8 minutes a game in Big 12 play, 23.2 minutes on the season) is playing more than McCormack (14.6 minutes in the Big 12, 16.3 overall) anyway. Swapping one out for the other in the starting five isn’t going to change that.
“We’re still going through the process of trying to figure that out,” Self said of finding the proper combination of two-big and four-guard lineups, “but I do think getting some offense off the bench (Moss is averaging 8.1 points per game this year) hasn’t been bad for us.”
Replacing the 18 points per game leading scorer Devon Dotson typically brings to the floor wasn’t going to be a cinch for Kansas at Oklahoma.
But upperclassmen Marcus Garrett (9.4 points per game), Udoka Azubuike (12.8 points) and Isaiah Moss (8.3 points) all provided more than their usual share.
What the Jayhawks lacked was some complementary production from the rest of the roster. Garrett (15 points on 5-for-12 shooting), Azubuike (16 points, 7-for-10) and Moss (20 points, 7-for-13) combined for 51 of KU’s 66 points in the win.
Garrett said that formula isn’t ideal if Dotson’s out, which may or may not be the case Saturday at Texas.
“I feel like we need to have more balanced scoring,” Garrett said of three Jayhawks carrying the bulk of the scoring load. “I think Ochai (Agbaji) can help us out a lot with his offensive threat. But I think we definitely need more balance than just three.”
In this year’s low-scoring Big 12, though, beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to points.
Ask head coach Bill Self if he’d like to see KU with more than three players acting as scoring options without Dotson and he explained why he’ll take what he can get.
“I get a kick out of that,” Self said. “We'd love to have more balance. But sometimes, you know, you get five guys to score 60, you get three guys to score 60. Let's just get to 60, somehow, some way.”
And he’s right, of course. If Dotson can’t play against the Longhorns, the Jayhawks (13-3 overall, 3-1 Big 12) won’t mind how the scoring is split up or who provides it — as long as it’s coming.
Self discovered a long time ago there are no absolutes in college basketball.
“I think it would be nice to have that, but I'm not going to say that that's a must,” Self said of spreading the wealth on offense and keeping defenders worried about more than three players.
In his early days on the sideline, when Self was in charge at Tulsa, he said, “one of the smartest players” he ever coached, Michael Ruffin, taught him a lesson about flexibility and adjusting.
“I said we’ve got to do this to win,” Self recalled.
Ruffin responded: “So, coach, if we don't do that, does that mean we're going to lose?”
Reflecting on the back-and-forth, Self called it “a great lesson” for him, and sometimes as a coach you just have to figure some things out as you go, within the flow of a given game.
“So, yeah, in a perfect world we'd love to have five guys in double figures, but I don't know if that's going to be possible,” Self said, “if you’ve got your leading scorer sitting out.”
The Jayhawks can’t bank on Moss getting 20 points again, like he did at OU, even if they’d love to see him once again go 6-for-11 from 3-point range. Maybe he will, but you can’t expect it.
They should be able to get more than the 7 points Agbaji had at OU. And it shouldn’t be too much to ask, between the four of them, for David McCormack, Christian Braun, Tristan Enaruna and Silvio De Sousa to put up more than the 8 combined points they contributed earlier this week versus the Sooners.
It doesn’t matter who shines, as long as the Jayhawks continue to play the kind of defense they have on the road this year (55.5 points per game for KU opponents) and cobble together 60 points. However they can get it.