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.
Further along than most freshmen in his position might be thanks to an ideal frame of mind, Christian Braun knows he doesn’t have to score to make an impact when he checks into a game off the Kansas bench.
But when Devon Dotson’s hip injury kept the Jayhawks’ leading scorer out of the lineup at Oklahoma, Braun actually could have taken a more assertive approach and heard zero complaints from his coaches or teammates.
KU head coach Bill Self, in the middle of complimenting the backup guard for his competitive nature after the Jayhawks’ win at OU earlier this week, pointed to one way that the freshman can be a little more fierce with the ball in his hands.
“How many shots does he turn down?” Self asked. “He’s a good shooter.”
Self thought Braun, the 6-foot-6 freshman who a year ago starred at nearby Blue Valley Northwest High, otherwise played well enough in just his second career Big 12 road game. It was just that KU (13-3 overall, 3-1 Big 12) actually needed more scoring than usual out of its role players, with Dotson sidelined.
A 37.9% 3-point shooter so far this year, Braun played 25 minutes against the Sooners and shot 0-for-2 from beyond the arc (0-for-3 overall).
In retrospect, Braun knew he passed up on some potential 3-pointers.
“Yeah, I think I was a little too passive on the offensive end,” Braun said after the road victory. “That's something that comes from me just thinking too much, you know, trying to get in the right spot all the time, but sometimes you’ve just got to let it go.”
It was the second game in a row that Braun went without a made field goal, but this time around having to play out of position some seemed to contribute to that. That overthinking he referenced came because with Dotson out, Braun had to spend some minutes as KU’s four-man and a couple of others at point guard.
“When Christian struggles, it’s not fair to him,” Self said, explaining most of the freshman’s repetitions this year have come as the two-guard or at the three position. “He knows the plays from those spots. But he was either running the four or the one (at OU), and he doesn’t know the plays from either of those spots, so we got screwed up a couple times that way.”
It’s actually a strength of Braun’s that he’s so versatile that Self could ask him to play at four different positions, depending on the lineup on the floor. But Braun admitted the variety got to him a few times.
“I had to run a couple plays from the one, from the two, the three, so I got a little confused out there today at some plays in some spots,” Bruan said, before adding he was thankful Marcus Garrett played 38 minutes at the point, so he didn’t have to worry about extended minutes trying to play that spot as naturally and effectively as the junior Garrett did.
That’s not to say Braun doesn’t strive for having that type of responsibility. In yet another promising development during his ongoing on-court education, he holds himself to a high standard. It’s part of what has made him a dependable part of the rotation, when as recently as early December he wasn’t even playing 10 minutes a game.
“I try to do my best just knowing all the spots, as many spots as I can,” Braun said. “And playing hard covers up for most of that, so I think I did a pretty good job doing that (at OU).”
The elder Garrett was a lot more forgiving when assessing how Braun played against the Sooners. The veteran praised the freshman’s basketball IQ and said there was “a lot” to appreciate about what KU got out of Braun in the road win.
“Energy,” Garrett said of how Braun impacted the result. “That’s the big thing we tell him with him coming in, being a freshman — if you can’t score and you can’t do those things, you can bring energy, attack, just know the scouting report.”
Averaging 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 25.5 minutes through his first four Big 12 games, Braun scored both of his 2 points at OU at the foul line, but also provided six rebounds, one assist, one block and one steal as a backup.
His commitment to playing hard often helps KU get defensive stops. And by the end of the win at OU, Braun was a part of the five-player lineup Self used most in Norman, Okla. The group of Garrett, Isaiah Moss, Ochai Agbaji, Udoka Azubuike and Braun played a total of 18:21 and proved to be the most effective lineup. When Self had those five on the floor, KU outscored the Sooners, 34-18. None of the eight other lineups Self used had a plus/minus higher than plus-three.
Typically, Dotson is part of KU’s best lineups. But with the starting point guard and leading scorer out at OU, all the role players had to find ways to step up. Braun explained how he went about approaching the game, knowing his responsibilities would be greater than usual.
“Just stick to the things I always did,” Braun said. “I’m never going to be the guy that scores the most points or anything like that, especially my freshman year. But just get loose balls and try to get as many possessions, because you know in games like that it's going to be tough. So you’ve got to get as many extra possessions or offensive rebounds, stuff like that, as you can.”
It’s that exact mentality that fast-tracked Braun’s role this season, and it will do him well moving forward, too, particularly once Dotson returns to the lineup.
But even when KU is at full strength again, Braun shouldn’t forget that this team needs 3-point shooting anywhere it can get it, and both his teammates and head coach like the odds of those shots falling when the ball is in Braun’s hands and he has a good look from deep.
Norman, Okla. — Anyone who has watched Udoka Azubuike play knows he can score over the top of defenders when opponents allow him to catch the ball inside and don’t quickly and aggressively double team the big man.
His 16 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the Jayhawks’ road win at Oklahoma? That’s nothing new. When Azubuike’s healthy, this type of performance against that type of defense has been the norm since he emerged as a low-post force as a sophomore.
The defense being played by the Kansas basketball team’s starting center this year, though, is revelatory. It was Azubuike’s exertion on that end of the floor at OU that made winning without Devon Dotson manageable.
The 7-footer’s defensive success in a 66-52 victory had Bill Self gushing.
“I think Dok’s the best defensive big around. I don’t know of anybody who can move his feet like that, who’s 6-foot-11, 270 pounds and played (33 minutes),” Self marveled.
KU’s head coach never would have been able to effuse in such a way about Azubuike in past seasons. Conversations about the center’s defensive footwork actually headed the opposite direction more often than not.
To earn Self’s praise is no small feat. It took Azubuike being much more than a large defender lurking around the rim as an intimidator to pull that off.
Oklahoma’s starting bigs aren’t cast from the same offensive mold as Azubuike. The Sooners, as Self put it, “flip the court” by often getting the ball to 6-foot-7 Kristian Doolittle and 6-9 Brady Manek on the perimeter. Earlier in Azubuike’s career, Self didn’t totally trust his center to defend bigs with those kinds of skills. As a senior, Azubuike is proving those days are gone.
“They played to the matchup of Doolittle and Dok,” Self pointed out of the Sooners’ strategy, “and I thought Dok was fabulous.”
Doolittle shot 5-for-18 versus KU, missing eight jumpers and going 2-for-7 on 3-pointers.
Azubuike’s defensive endeavors didn’t end there. At one point, 6-1 OU guard De’Vion Harmon caught the 7-footer on a switch, but couldn’t get past KU’s invigorated big man.
The senior from Nigeria said afterward he knew coming into the game the Sooners would try to isolate him and play to matchups on the perimeter that might challenge him.
“I’ve always got confidence in my feet. I really can move my feet and I know they’re going to do that,” Azubuike said, before hinting he viewed OU’s game plan as a slight. “If you say I can’t do something I’m really good at proving you wrong.”
His reliance on his defensive mobility has reached an all-time high lately.
“I think I showed that today,” Azubuike said.
Of course, the most menacing defender in a KU uniform also helped KU control the paint at OU, with his 14 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Sooners went 1-for-8 on layups and dunk attempts, with misses at the rim coming from Jalen Hill, Harmon, Manek (three) and Austin Reaves.
Azubuike swatted away a Manek layup attempt, a Reaves jumper outside of the paint and a Harmon layup to end the first half. And his presence influenced many other shots and would-be drives.
The No. 6 Jayhawks (13-3 overall, 3-1 Big 12) dominated OU inside, outscoring the Sooners, 32-10 in the paint, and won the rebound battle, 46-32. It’s a team game, and Azubuike isn’t the only Jayhawk responsible for those numbers, but he’s the majority stakeholder.
Think back two years to when KU tried to stop bigs who could shoot — Villanova at the Final Four comes to mind — and knew Azubuike couldn’t hold up on that end of the floor. You never would have heard these words come out of Self’s mouth regarding the center’s defense.
“That’s impressive what he did, physically,” Self said.
Baylor wasn’t the first team this season to scheme a game plan around taking away Kansas center Udoka Azubuike. And especially after the Bears’ win at Allen Fieldhouse, they won’t be the last.
Sticking to a Baylor blueprint, though, will be more easily devised than executed for future opponents in search of the best formula to knock off the Jayhawks.
KU usually outscores its opponents by double digits in the paint (plus-15.9 points per game this season), and Azubuike helped the Jayhawks do that in 11 of their first 14 outings. But when Baylor won the battle for high-percentage points, 28-26, and beat the Jayhawks, 67-55, it became just the second opponent to outscore KU inside.
The 7-footer’s teammates, as head coach Bill Self bemoaned on Monday, didn’t get Azubuike the ball enough. And sometimes they simply couldn’t.
“I think, you know, we're a team that as much as I would like to say that we have no holes or weaknesses, we do,” Self said, “just like everybody, for the most part does.”
Baylor fronted Azubuike in the post and then kept a well-placed help-side defender in position to either sneak in and knock away any pass over the top, or just discourage a passer from even trying it. That wasn’t a new defensive look for KU’s guards or go-to 7-footer to navigate. But the Jayhawks weren’t able to force the Bears out of it as they had other teams.
“They were able to take away things that allowed us to get Dok easy baskets by throwing over the top and things like that. And then, you know, they did a good job playing to scouting reports,” Self began, while explaining how BU proved so effective defensively. “Say what you want — those guys can really guard. And they pressured us and they didn't let Marcus (Garrett) and Devon (Dotson) get downhill. And then you put the ball in other guys’ hands to try to make some plays and they're not quite as good at doing that.”
Therein lies the problem for upcoming KU opponents. They can definitely try and replicate what Baylor (13-1 overall, 3-0 Big 12) pulled off. But do they have defenders on the perimeter who are strong and smart enough to swing it?
West Virginia — like Baylor and KU — appears to have one of the best defenses in the country, but the Mountaineers could only make Azubuike go missing offensively for a half. Perhaps Texas Tech (ranked No. 11 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com, where WVU is No. 2, KU is No. 3 and BU is No. 5) will be able to implement something as effective. But to do that so well for so long seems like a tall task for the rest of the Big 12.
And, really, KU (12-3, 2-1) could have solved Baylor’s defense with some better awareness on entry passes to the largest man on the floor.
“Even as good a job as they did,” Self said of the Bears’ defense, “there were still four or five more easy touches he should have got for baskets that I think a lot of our teams in the past — not necessarily last year's team — but a lot of our teams in the past that would have been able to make those plays, that certainly we’ve got to get better at.”
Few of KU’s guards, as Self pointed out, are precise passers when it comes to feeding the post, or throwing lobs for dunks for that matter. But there are other ways to get Azubuike the ball.
Garrett, a capable driver and passer, is the most likely Jayhawk to keep opponents from sticking with the BU scheme that surrounded Azubuike. Garrett is crafty and persistent off the bounce, and he should be able to get to the paint, draw the defense to him and set up Azubuike. The Bears’ guards were too sound defensively for either Garrett or Dotson, KU’s two best ball handlers, to make that happen.
Sophomore KU big David McCormack said it’s “definitely” safe to anticipate other teams trying to copy what Baylor did. We’ll see Tuesday night at Oklahoma (11-4, 2-1) whether Lon Kruger’s Sooners (No. 62 in KenPom’s defensive rankings) can put it into practice.
McCormack also expects Self and his staff to put the Jayhawks in position to counter those looks they know are coming.
“We know how to either go around it, play around it, or defeat its purpose,” McCormack said.
The Jayhawks head into every game banking on defenders attempting to limit the overpowering Azubuike (78.3% from the field during his senior year). Now they’ll have to learn from Baylor’s defensive mastery and make sure no other opponent so brilliantly accomplishes that again.
A look at Udoka Azubuike’s offensive effectiveness
Azubuike points | FGM-FGA | Team points in the paint +/-
vs. Duke: 8 points | 3-4 FGs | KU +10
UNCG: 10 points | 5-8 FGs | UNCG +2
Monmouth: 12 points | 5-5 FGs | +22
ETSU: 21 points | 10-13 FGs | +30
vs. Chaminade: 15 points | 7-8 FGs | +28
vs. BYU: 11 points | 5-6 FGs | +24
vs. Dayton: 29 points | 12-15 FGs | +30
Colorado: 12 points | 6-7 FGs | +16
Milwaukee: 15 points | 7-7 FGs | +6
Kansas City: 9 points | 4-4 FGs | +28
at Villanova: 12 points | 6-10 FGs | +18
at Stanford: 2 points | 1-2 FGs | +8
West Virginia: 17 points | 6-6 FGs | +10
at Iowa State: 10 points | 3-5 FGs | +12
Baylor: 6 points | 3-6 FGs | Baylor +2
This Kansas basketball team may not have a next-level human shot eraser manning the paint, but as the Jayhawks’ defense and toughness have emerged as their supreme traits this year, there’s no question Udoka Azubuike’s improvements as a defender have made that possible.
The Jayhawks’ 7-footer is averaging a career-best 2.0 blocks per game through the first 14 starts of his senior season. That’s good enough to rank him just inside the top 50 nationally. And while that statistic is a fair example of Azubuike’s effectiveness on defense there’s more to his presence than those numbers indicate.
Per hoop-math.com, KU’s opponents are only attempting 27.3% of their shots at the rim, which ranks 19th out of 353 Division I teams. So far, the Jayhawks’ foes are only converting on 51.3% (31st) of their layups and dunks.
Azubuike deserves credit for those percentages more than anyone on the roster because he’s the colossus inside that widens the eyes and quickens the heart rate of drivers and finishers.
The Jayhawks’ most physically imposing defender said Friday, on the eve of No. 3 KU’s showdown with No. 4 Baylor, that he’s “definitely” trying to block more shots this season. Even when his long arms swing and miss, his activity is making an impact. And Azubuike, in his final season at Kansas, looks far more dynamic in protecting the paint than he ever has before.
“I’m trying to do more on the defensive end,” Azubuike said. “My priority right now is mainly on defense — getting rebounds, blocking shots. I think I’ve done a pretty OK job of doing that. I’ve just got to keep working on it.”
The big man known as Dok has made similar assertions in past years, but this season he’s actually making it happen. When he was younger, Azubuike was at times more likely to watch from afar than become engaged and seek out a stop.
With those improved efforts, the Jayhawks (12-2) have benefited from better rim protection.
“He’s probably more alert defensively,” KU head coach Bill Self said, “and certainly seems to be going after the ball more. His activity level’s higher — I think conditioning plays a big role in that. And he seems more explosive to me.”
KU’s best and most versatile defender, junior guard Marcus Garrett, said Self has been on Azubuike and the rest of the bigs to better defend the paint and the area around the basket since before the season began.
“We’ve got to protect the rim, and we’ve got to rebound,” Garrett said of Self’s perpetual message.
Those words definitely resonated with Azubuike (13.1 points per game, 8.8 rebounds), who is in the best shape of his career and appears to be enjoying an improved frame of mind, too. With all of that working in his favor, the center from Nigeria turned into the anchor of one of the nation’s best defensive teams.
“I just had a mindset, like I’ve just got to go after every ball and get every rebound,” Azubuike said. “I’ve just got to be mindful of what I’m doing.”
A knowledgeable veteran now at the old age of 20, Azubuike understands KU is winning games with its defense this season, and his teammates need him doing his part. He has rarely let up in that regard, and while the defensive prowess of KU guards Garrett, Devon Dotson and Ochai Agbaji make the whole scheme fit together so well, Azubuike has played a critical role in the Jayhawks’ rise to the No. 2 spot in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, where they trail only Virginia.
Azubuike’s expanded usefulness as a stopper hasn’t been limited to the painted area of the floor, either, another example of why KU is shining defensively.
“He’s been pretty active. He’s defended ball screens better — I thought he was terrific against Iowa State in that regard,” Self said. “He’s going after the ball.”
In order to truly feel comfortable with a given lineup, Bill Self likes to have at least two of his Kansas basketball team’s three best guards on the court. The Jayhawks’ collective effectiveness, after all, takes a hit without some combination of Devon Dotson, Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji out there.
In a perfect world, Self would be able to rotate one of those players in and out for each other during a given game’s second half. But a recent trend has made that a little more difficult to pull off.
Garrett, KU’s versatile junior guard from Dallas, has found himself in foul trouble in each of KU’s past two games, picking up his fourth with 8:17 left at Stanford and 9:08 remaining against West Virginia.
When Self can’t play Garrett with four fouls in a close game, Dotson and Agbaji aren’t afforded a breather, because the head coach doesn’t really want to experience a lineup that could prove more erratic.
Garrett, a creator with his driving and passing on offense, and the Jayhawks’ most sound and adaptable defender, missed close to four minutes of game time in the second half against both Stanford and WVU. He’s been whistled for four fouls in five of KU’s past seven games and six times overall this season — though he’s yet to pick up a fifth in any of the Jayhawks’ 13 games to date.
So what exactly is Garrett doing to get himself in fairly regular foul trouble?
“I don't know,” Self began, half-joking, “maybe guarding (6-foot-10 players) in the post and he’s a 6-4 guard.”
Of course, there’s more to it than that for Garrett (listed at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds). Thanks to the quickness and defensive instincts of Dotson (2.4 steals per game), Agbaji (1.7) and Garrett (1.7), KU averages 9.0 swipes per game. At times, Self noted, Garrett has shown a tendency “to take the bait” when he spots a potential steal.
“If somebody puts the ball out in front of them, he's going to try to take it,” Self said. “And that, you know, when you’ve got one foul early in the second half, no big deal. You’ve got three in the second half, you can't do that. You’ve got two early in the second half, you don't want to do that. He's kind of put himself in a situation where he's got one or two cheap ones each game, I think.”
In KU’s Big 12 opener, Dotson and Agbaji played all 20 second-half minutes as a result of Garrett’s foul trouble in a tight game. Garrett doesn’t have many defensive flaws, and even this one comes from a place of assertiveness and confidence — not at all bad attributes to possess when he’s trying to get stops.
Garrett is so smart with his decisions on the floor, it’s hard to imagine this remaining a consistent issue for him as Big 12 play picks up and his presence becomes all the more important. Look for him to adapt and adjust — and do his teammates a favor, by letting them get a rest now and then.
One poor opening to one Big 12 game isn’t going to cost Kansas big man David McCormack his starting job. But even if head coach Bill Self keeps the sophomore forward in that first unit for the remainder of the season, the Jayhawks still need a definitive four-guard lineup their coach can trust.
Self just may have found one in Saturday’s win over West Virginia, when McCormack’s presence in the first half wasn’t helping KU’s chances against the rugged Mountaineers.
The coach countered by identifying his team’s five toughest dudes: Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson, Udoka Azubuike, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun.
That combination could become KU’s best lineup as the Jayhawks trudge their way through the conference schedule, with March Madness getting closer by the day.
This particular group of five players didn’t revolutionize what Kansas can do on the floor this year — Self said his team went from “awful to bad” offensively with four guards. Still, most college basketball teams can’t defend like WVU does. Plus, Self’s tough guy lineup endured that challenge, often willing its way to high-percentage shots in the second half, when such looks felt impossible to discover in the first.
Self rolled out the Garrett, Dotson, Azubuike, Agbaji and Braun lineup to open the second half, with the Jayhawks trailing 30-24. By the end of a 60-53 KU win that group played 15:59 together, and when they were on the floor KU outscored WVU by 18 — 34-16. The Jayhawks scored 1.26 points per possession with those five on the court, better than any other combination Self used versus the Mountaineers. The second-best offensive lineup (Dotson, Braun, Agbaji, Azubuike and Isaiah Moss) scored 1.06 points per possession.
These five resilient Jayhawks worked well defensively, too. Remember: They played 16 minutes and WVU put up just 16 points against them. And Self might have been able to stick with those five for even longer if Garrett hadn’t picked up his fourth foul with nine minutes left.
This lineup functions offensively by giving Azubuike the space he needs to operate in the post and catch lobs off screens, and featuring two of the team’s best 3-point shooters, Agbaji and Braun. Keep in mind, those two weren’t even a factor from beyond the arc (1-for-6 combined) against WVU and the lineup still thrived against what projects as the Big 12’s toughest defensive team.
Self thinks this KU roster can deliver a special season if its shooters knock down 3-pointers, so Agbaji (25-for-66 from deep this season) and Braun (8-for-23) will need to make that happen for the Jayhawks to truly become devastating offensively. It will be easier for all of KU’s players to find open looks from downtown against other opponents. WVU ranks fourth nationally in 3-point field goal defense, holding teams to 24.9%.
Back in November, when the season began, it wasn’t clear which four-guard lineup would be KU’s best. Senior transfer Moss was obviously the team’s best shooter, making him a leading candidate to play with Dotson, Garrett and Agbaji around the powerful Azubuike. Freshman Tristan Enaruna, too, looked like a legit option, with his versatile game on both ends of the floor and long wingspan. But if Braun, whose steady improvements of late have turned him into a reliable role player, can avoid any type of freshman skid, he’s the man for the job.
It’s far better for KU (11-2) to have a go-to lineup than always having to mix and match and tinker to find one. The group that led the Jayhawks out of the muck against West Virginia has some work to do to peak, and these five appear to have the physical and mental fortitude to mesh and grow together to pull that off.
KU will still need McCormack, Silvio De Sousa, Moss and Enaruna, too, of course. But its emerging four-guard lineup looks like one that can raise the Jayhawks’ ceiling.