Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 74-68 win over Tennessee on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
• The Jayhawks got off to a slow offensive start, with a couple of turnovers and a 2-for-7 shooting mark — with one of those makes coming on a goaltending call.
• KU opened 2-for-10 from the field before its guards began seeking out the paint instead of settling for jumpers. The offense picked up for a few minutes with the improved approach, but it became harder for everything to function when Udoka Azubuike left the court with foul trouble.
• Once Azubuike returned for a stretch, the Jayhawks thrived, going 6-for-9 from the floor in the minutes leading up to halftime. The Jayhawks were shooting 48.4% with 3 turnovers at the break. They scored 22 of their 37 points in the paint.
• The Jayhawks hit 46% of their shot attempts on the day, went 4-for-17 on 3-pointers and edged Tennessee, 34-32, in the paint.
• KU’s defense took a serious hit when Bill Self had to play five guards, because Azubuike picked up two fouls midway through the first half. The Vols scored in bunches, inside and out, as KU’s five-guard lineups had trouble making stops.
• But after Azubuike checked back in with a little less than 6 minutes left in the first half, the Vols only scored two more baskets before halftime.
• Tennessee shot 50% from the field in the first half but turned the ball over 9 times.
• The Vols shot 40% on the day and made 6 of 15 3-pointers.
• Azubuike’s teammates had a hard time getting the ball to him inside early on against the Vols. It took a little more than 8 minutes of action before the 7-foot senior finally got a field goal attempt, as a Devon Dotson attack off the bounce drew the defense up the paint and the point guard lofted up a lob pass for an easy Azubuike slam.
• The big man’s offensive success in the first half soon proved short-lived, though, once he picked up his second personal foul with 10:46 left until halftime.
• He returned at the 5:48 mark, with KU down, 26-19. Within seconds he was catching a pass in the paint and finishing with a slam.
Appropriately, getting Azubuike the ball inside became a priority and the Jayhawks’ offense played its best stretch of the half with the guards repeatedly setting him up in ideal spots to turn and finish. The only KU big on the active roster put up 9 points and 5 rebounds in the first half, helping his team take a 37-30 lead into halftime.
• Azubuike had to take an early seat in the second half, with 8:25 to play and KU up 8, when he picked up foul No. 4. He checked back in with 4:27 left, and the Jayhawks’ lead stood at 66-63.
The big man went for 18 points and 11 rebounds and 4 blocks on the afternoon, with his defense dominating the game’s last couple of minutes.
• Sophomore point guard Dotson was in attack mode throughout the first half, driving to both score the ball and dish to open teammates. By halftime Dotson had 5 assists, more than he posted in any of his previous three outings.
Dotson’s speed made a real difference for KU, as he kept finding lanes for layups, and he produced 22 points and 7 assists.
• Ochai Agbaji’s scoring picked up in the first half after four mostly unproductive games in a row. Agbaji scored 7 points in the first half and was one oft Jayhawks to actually make a 3-pointer before intermission.
The points kept coming early in the second half, with Agbaji finishing an alley-oop and draining another 3. The sophomore guard finished with 16 points.
• In a rare start, senior Isaiah Moss didn’t always look totally comfortable early on, making a few ill-advised passes. Moss went 1-for-5 in the first half, finishing one layup through contact, and misfired on all three of his first-half 3-pointers.
Moss contributed 2 points in 20 minutes.
• Marcus Garrett’s assertive offensive mindset never looked tougher than when he went up in transition one-on-one to attempt a dunk over the Vols’ Olivier Nkamhoua. He took an elbow to the head for his efforts and crashed to the floor hard. In typical Garrett fashion, he got right back up and kept playing.
Most of Garrett’s work came on the defensive end, where he swiped 4 steals.
Garrett’s final line read: 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists.
• With KU’s rotation down two bodies due to the suspensions of Silvio De Sousa and David McCormack, there weren’t many expectations for the bench’s production versus Tennessee.
• With Moss stepping into the starting lineup, freshman Christian Braun became the sixth man for the Jayhawks. The offense looked stale and passive in the opening minutes, until Braun came in and took an assertive approach on a drive and tough finish for a layup.
Braun started the second half instead of Moss. The freshman came away with 7 points and 4 rebounds and looked assertive more often than not, even when shots weren’t dropping for him.
• Freshman Tristan Enaruna became the unlucky guard who had to play center when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor. The Jayhawks’ defense was impacted most during those minutes.
Enaruna played 5 minutes and scored 1 point.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 81-60 win over rival Kansas State on Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
• A few unimpressive possessions in the game’s first couple of minutes wouldn’t become the trend. After three turnovers and two misses on long jumpers, Bill Self abandoned his two-big starting lineup.
What followed in the next 8 minutes amounted to a clinic, with the Jayhawks showing the assertive approach on offense Self has been looking for lately.
Smart passing and some patience in the half court led to both layups and 3-pointers, as KU sprinted to a 17-point lead.
• KU scored 20 points in the paint in the first half and went 5-for-13 on 3-pointers. The Jayhawks also kept active, with 8 offensive rebounds.
• The Jayhawks’ offense started to look a little sloppy early on in the second half, often as they were a little too eager to pull the trigger on 3-pointers.
• KU reached 70 points for just the second time in Big 12 play and shot 46% in the Sunflower Showdown victory. The Jayhawks were 9-for-26 on 3-pointers and scored 40 points in the paint.
• KU’s energy and effort was just as evident on defense in the first half, as they tried to bury their rivals in a hurry. K-State opened the game 4-for-13 from the floor, and also turned it over 8 times in that stretch. K-State also had two shot clock violations during that span.
The Wildcats ended up shooting 40% from the field in the first half, but their 11 turnovers led to 18 points for KU.
• The perimeter defense by KU kept K-State junior guard Cartier Diarra ineffective much of the night.
• The visitors from Manhattan, down 16 at the half, shot 39% in the final 20 minutes and 39% on the night. K-State definitely missed some open looks, though.
• Udoka Azubuike proved to be as crucial a player as KU had on the floor, even though he only scored one field goal in the first half. The Wildcats’ defenders spent so much time focusing on the 7-footer and collapsing on him when he caught the ball that it left plenty of space for the rest of the Jayhawks to operate in the half court.
KU outscored K-State by 20 when Azubuike was on the floor in the first half, and he scored 4 points.
The big man ended up controlling the glass, though, securing 14 rebounds to go with his 10 points and a double-double.
• David McCormack missed a long jumper from the baseline and turned the ball over in the game’s first couple of minutes, leading to him spending most of the first half on the bench and KU playing four guards.
Just like he did at Texas, McCormack opened the second half on the bench, with Christian Braun replacing him. McCormack finished with 2 points and 4 rebounds.
• Devon Dotson again relied on his speed on both ends of the court to help KU create separation early, coming up with steals, layups and trips to the foul line.
In his second game back since missing KU’s game at Oklahoma due to his hip pointer, Dotson finished with 18 points and 3 assists, plus 5 boards.
• Ochai Agbaji didn’t let some missed shots keep him from asserting himself on offense. Better yet, his activity led to 4 offensive rebounds.
As usual, it was Agbaji’s defensive work that kept him on the floor. The sophomore guard produced 6 points on 3-for-11 shooting.
• Marcus Garrett didn’t stand out quite as much as usual in the first half, and a lot of that had to do with KU’s other role players coming out eager show they could in fact chip in.
Garrett’s defensive awareness and ability to keep KU functioning on that end kept the Jayhawks comfortable most of the night.
Statistically, Garrett’s night picked up in the second half, as the spacing on the floor and his drives and all-around smart decisions helped him give KU 8 points and 5 assists in the win.
• When Isaiah Moss barely played more than one minute as the first sub of the night, before going right back to the bench, it was freshman Braun’s opportunity to shine.
Braun checked into the game ready to attack. His style of play was the exact opposite of the “timid” approach Self bemoaned regarding KU’s bench three days earlier, at Texas. With Braun as the fourth guard, the Jayhawks took off. He shot 3-for-4 from 3-point range and also showed off his finishing ability on a tough drive and finish over defenders, putting up 11 points in the first half.
On an impressive night for the freshman backup, Braun reminded everyone what great potential he has as a shooter (6-for-10 on 3-pointers) and often stole the show, putting up 20 points.
• Moss at least showed a willingness to catch-and-shoot on quality looks from 3-point range, even after missing his first couple tries early on. The Jayhawks need him taking those open looks from deep to space the floor, even if they’re not dropping.
Moss ended up 1-for-4 on 3-pointers, with 7 points.
• Thanks to Braun and Moss, KU outscored K-State’s bench, 37-8.
Austin, Texas — Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 66-57 win over Texas on Saturday at Frank Erwin Center.
• The Jayhawks opened up their afternoon versus Texas looking for high-percentage offense and capitalizing. They picked up plenty of buckets at the rim off both drives and passes to bigs inside, outscoring UT, 12-2, in points in the paint eight minutes in, setting them up for an early 17-13 lead.
• However, KU fell behind soon after in the first half, mainly due to wasting offensive possessions. The Jayhawks had 6 turnovers in the first 12 minutes, and the Longhorns were able to take a 21-17 lead.
• An ugly offensive first half — 9-for-21 shooting, 7-for-12 on free throws, 7 turnovers — had KU in a 31-26 hole at intermission.
• KU finished its latest road trip with a 40-30 advantage in points in the paint. The Jayhawks shot 47% from the floor.
• KU’s first half woes worsened when it had lapses in defending the 3-point line. The Longhorns at times forced the issue with their attempts from behind the arc, but other times KU invited Texas shooters to fire away by leaving them open. UT led by as many as 8 points in the first half, when it connected on 5 of its first 9 3-pointers.
• The Jayhawks’ defense in the second half looked more active and UT began struggling to find points, even though their designed play out of the break led to a Sims alley-oop.
However, beginning at the 8-minute mark, UT found some new offensive life, with the crowd suddenly into it and the Jayhawks giving up a string of baskets inside.
• UT shot 40% from the floor, 6-for-20 from 3-point range (30%) and turned the ball over 9 times.
• Udoka Azubuike had a hard time getting going offensively, primarily because the Longhorns did a great job of hitting him hard any time he caught the ball in the paint and had a chance at an easy basket.
Azubuike went 3-for-8 at the foul line and 2-for-3 from the floor in the first half.
In the opening minutes of the second half, though, the tide turned for the 7-footer, and for the Jayhawks, too. Azubuike put up 8 points inside in the first four minutes of the half, helping the Jayhawks regain the lead.
The senior center put up 17 points and 9 rebounds.
• Most of KU’s lineups weren’t gelling offensively in the first half, so Bill Self actually played David McCormack more than usual, with him giving the two big combinations more chances. Most of McCormack’s impact came on the glass. And he threw a solid lob pass for an Azubuike jam when it looked like he was about to take one of his long jumpers.
McCormack finished with 6 points and 7 boards, as the minutes he spent in a reserve role in the second half provided KU with some punch.
• Back in the starting lineup after missing KU’s win at Oklahoma while dealing with a hip pointer, Dotson looked a little rusty, dribbling too long, resulting in a shot clock violation. He eased his way back into the flow with an early 3-point try and drawing a foul in the open floor to get to the foul line.
Before long, Dotson started looking more comfortable, and he actually ended up being one of KU’s more effective players in a rough first half, with a team-best 8 points.
Dotson played the entirety of the first half in his return to the lineup, and finished with 21 points and 3 assists in 39 minutes.
• Marcus Garrett continued to be a persistent driver in the half court and the team’s best passer and defender, but his shots weren’t falling early.
One of his second-half attacks off the dribble resulted in Garrett hitting the court hard after some body to body contact from Jericho Sims. The junior was able to return to the floor, though and finished with 13 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, after finding layups down the stretch.
• Ochai Agbaji struggled on both ends in 14 first-half minutes, and Self looked particularly disappointed in some of the guard’s defensive decisions.
Agbaji provided 4 points on 1-for-6 shooting.
• Competing on the road would have felt a little easier for the Jayhawks if they had gotten some production from their bench.
An Isaiah Moss 3-pointer in the late stages of the first half were the only bench points KU had as late as the midway point of the second half, when Moss hit a little fall-away baseline jumper off the dribble.
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.
Maybe it was because his points and assists — and his team’s road win — came so easily Wednesday night at Iowa State, but no one on the Kansas basketball team spent much time during postgame conversations discussing the performance of point guard Devon Dotson.
That included Dotson, KU’s turbo-powered sophomore.
“It wasn’t the most complete game we’ve played,” Dotson said following his team’s thorough, 79-53 whooping of the Cyclones. “I feel there’s some things we can learn from and springboard into the next conference (game). It’s just getting started. We’re looking to improve each and every game.”
From an individual standpoint, Dotson unquestionably did just that in Ames, Iowa, a good setting for that type of offensive revitalization this season. Not all defenses are as inviting to playmakers as Iowa State’s. But Dotson did himself and his teammates a favor by indulging in the Cyclones’ hospitality.
KU’s leading scorer (18.6 points per game), the 6-foot-2 lead guard went 15-for-45 (33%) from the floor in KU’s previous three games, during which he averaged 3.0 assists. Dotson was exactly 5-for-15 at Villanova, at Stanford and versus West Virginia, and in need of a slump-buster.
He found it at ISU the wise way, with layups, free throws (4-for-6) and easy points.
This was Dotson at his best — 20 points, 7-for-13 shooting, six assists, three steals, five rebounds and two turnovers in 34 minutes.
Never lacking in the confidence department, Dotson’s assertiveness reached parallel heights. As devastating as Udoka Azubuike can be in the paint, with his monstrous jams, Dotson can similarly dismantle defenses by getting to the rim. He scored five of his buckets at ISU on layups, one of them a wicked reverse in the first half that split two Cyclones, midair.
Dotson finished two of his lay-ins after stealing the ball away from Iowa State. Another he converted off the bounce in the half court. A fourth came in transition, off his own defensive rebound. The last completed a beauty of a backdoor cut, when Marcus Garrett rewarded the point guard for another layup.
A 31.7% 3-point shooter through KU’s first 14 games, Dotson knocked down two of his five 3-point attempts on the way to his big night. The most impressive of the two of those dropping off a crossover Dotson took into a step-back over his defender.
Even more promising for Dotson was his passing. He hadn’t posted more than four assists since KU’s Dec. 10 win over Milwaukee. But against Iowa State those individual numbers piled up for him as the Jayhawks’ lead grew.
Dotson’s passes set up three of Ochai Agbaji’s four made 3-pointers. The sophomore also fed Azubuike on the fast break for a layup, David McCormack for a midrange jumper and Silvio De Sousa for an alley-oop.
With Dotson establishing himself as a threat off the dribble to drive the ball to score or assist, the rest of his teammates combined to connect on eight of their 14 3-point tries, with Agbaji (4-for-5) and Christian Braun (3-for-4) repeatedly making ISU’s defense pay.
“It opens everything up,” Dotson said of the importance of KU’s 3-pointers. “When myself and Marcus get in there, or anybody gets in there, the defense collapses and it’s an easy kick-out, and (the shooter) knocks it down. So it keeps the defense honest, and it’s just good.”
Getting to the paint and all the way to the rim won’t be as easy against many opponents, including No. 4 Baylor, KU’s Saturday foe inside Allen Fieldhouse. But Dotson needed to get right and get back to doing what he does best against ISU. It should serve as a reminder of how lethal KU’s offense can look when he’s seeking out forays to the basket as both a scorer and passer.
Ames, Iowa — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 79-53 win over Iowa State on Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum.
• The Jayhawks hit more than 50% of their shots in a game for the first time since their romp over Kansas City at Sprint Center. Scoring 30 points int he paint — 10 layups and five dunks — set up the nation’s No. 3 team for a high percentage kind of night and KU rolled by converting 28 of its 54 shot attempts (51.9%) overall.
• KU also enjoyed one of its better 3-point shooting nights at ISU, going 10-for-19 from deep — marking the only time so far this season the Jayhawks connected on at least half of their attempts from behind the arc.
• This isn’t a great Iowa State team, but the Cyclones have been good offensively this season. They entered the matchup with KU averaging 80.2 points per game and shooting 46.4%. However, the Jayhawks limited ISU to 34.5% from the field and 8-for-28 (28.6%) from 3-point range.
• The Jayhawks’ defense on star ISU guard Tyrese Haliburton, a stellar shooter and passer, set up the rout. Haliburton only yielded 2-for-7 shooting and 5 assists in 36 minutes.
• Both Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack got their chances to shine in KU’s impressive road win.
McCormack didn’t even let a rough start weigh him down. Early on in the first half, he kept hurrying and missing on one possession but his insistence on keeping with the play eventually paid off. His series of offensive boards would set up one last emphatic finish for the sophomore, on a lob from fellow big man Azubuike. McCormack came through with 16 points and 7 rebounds in the win.
• Azubuike might have impressed most at the foul line, by connecting on 4 of 5. But he also bothered Cyclones in the paint at times with his presence defensively, and also came away with 10 points and 7 boards.
• Devon Dotson took advantage of ISU’s lacking defense, and delivered one of his best offensive games of the year.
Dotson put up 20 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals, with 2 turnovers in 34 minutes of playing time. The sophomore point guard nailed 2 of 5 from 3-point range and went 7-for-13 from the floor, scoring five layups.
• Ochai Agbaji came out of the gate knocking down a 3-pointer and the sophomore proved much more of a factor offensively at ISU than he was in KU’s Big 12 opener. Agbaji finished 6-for-7 from the floor and drilled 4 of 5 from long range on his way to 16 points.
Like Dotson, Agbaji’s defense was crucial, too, as the Cyclones’ guards couldn’t get rolling.
• Marcus Garrett hurt his ankle pretty badly early in the first half, limiting his effectiveness in the win. He played 19 minutes and totaled 4 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
• Freshman Christian Braun continued his upward trend in his first ever Big 12 road game. Braun looked very much like the stellar 3-point shooter his teammates so often describe him to be, burying 3 of 4 from downtown.
Braun’s not just a shooter, either. He grabbed 5 rebounds and dished 2 assists, while also playing a key defensive role on the perimeter.
• KU at least got some minutes from other substitutes without losing momentum or their hefty lead.
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.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 56-55 loss to Villanova on Saturday in Philadelphia.
• This game was ugly offensively on both ends throughout the first half. The Jayahwks didn’t even shoot 50% in the paint (8-for-17) and turned the ball over 7 times in the first 20 minutes, when they shot 10-for-27 overall from the field.
KU had to work for its points in the paint, and wasn’t able to get out to a big lead, because many of the contested looks that came in the paint wouldn’t drop.
• The offense muddied even further in the opening minutes of the second half, allowing Nova to build an 8-point lead. KU turned the ball over 3 times and shot 2-for-7 in the first 5 minutes of the second half.
• Scoring in the paint would be the key for KU, but the Jayhawks found in the second half they could do that with their guards driving inside, allowing them to keep it competitive.
Those high-percentage looks came with the floor opened up by the presence of four guards on a day that KU had spent most of the first 25 minutes or so playing two bigs.
• KU shot just 43.6% in the loss, going 3-for-13 on 3-pointers and 4-for-10 at the free throw line.
• Give the Jayhawks’ defense some credit for Villanova’s struggles through much of the first half. The Wildcats took even more 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes than one might expect, jacking 21 from deep. But Nova only made 5 of those looks, keeping the home team from ever leading by more than 2 in the first half.
Villanova shot 9-for-31 (29%) in the first half.
• The Wildcats’ offense improved in the second half as they started playing more assertively and scoring inside the arc more frequently. They shot 40.6% from the floor in the final 20 minutes, with 8 of their 13 baskets coming on 2-point attempts.
• It was not a pretty shooting day for Villanova but Jermaine Samuels was able to nail a huge 3-pointer with about 20 seconds to play, giving the home team a 56-55 lead.
Nova made only 10-for-41 (24.4%) from downtown.
• KU played to its size advantage out of the gate, deliberately getting the ball inside to either of its starting bigs, Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack.
That worked fine for a bit. But the Jayhawks ran into some issues defensively against Villanova’s smaller lineup, with the Wildcats wanting to stretch the floor. Plus, playing through the KU bigs proved to be hit and miss, as Villanova’s undersized defenders were tough enough to challenge their larger foes.
• The best thing about playing Azubuike and McCormack against Villanova seemed to be that their size and forcefulness would take its toll on smaller Nova defenders. In the second half Azubuike was able to play as the featured big and came away with one of the most emphatic dunks of the season in the final minutes.
Azubuike provided 12 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks, while McCormack finished with 6 points and 7 boards in 25 minutes.
• Ochai Agbaji’s energy on the defensive end of the floor stood out from the game’s opening minutes. Incredibly, the sophomore had been credited for 3 steals by the second media timeout of the marquee matchup in Philly.
Agbaji did a nice job finding teammates, too. Even though it wasn’t one of his best-case shooting days (1-for-4 on 3-pointers), he gave KU 4 assists and 11 points, to go with his defense. His cut for a layup late put KU up 53-51.
• When the offense for both teams finally picked up near the midway point of the second half, Devon Dotson began to stand out for KU, driving to the paint for a layup on one possession and draining a 3-pointer when left open a couple minutes later.
In such a low-scoring game, Dotson’s 10 2nd-half points felt even larger. The sophomore point guard seemed ready for the big stage, even though his shots weren’t always falling. But he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with KU down a point with 17 seconds left.
The heady defensive play of the point guard would help make up for that shortly thereafter, as he leapt into the air to disrupt an inbound pass for Villanova. The officials ruled the ball went out of bounds off Villanova thanks to Dotson’s hustle. So KU got the ball back, trailing 56-55 with 11.2 seconds left.
Dotson would take the potential game-winning shot before time expired, driving at a larger defender. With the ball getting deflected on Dotson’s gather he wasn’t able to get his bank shot on target and Villanova won.
Dotson ended up with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists, with 3 turnovers. He was 4-for-7 at the foul line.
• A right ankle injury ended Marcus Garrett’s day prematurely, with a little more than 5 minutes to play in the first half. KU would miss one of its toughest and smartest players, who had 2 points and 2 rebounds in 13 minutes.
• Christian Braun was the first sub to impress at Philadelphia and it didn’t come until KU needed some more guard help early in the second half. Braun looked comfortable in the battle of elite college basketball programs, even though it was his first true road game at KU.
His drive and finish inside early in the second half got KU’s offense going and he would score an even larger layup with less than 2 minutes to play, pushing KU’s lead to 4. Braun finished with 6 points and 2 boards.
• With Garrett out, KU needed Tristan Enaruna’s versatility. The freshman’s defensive instincts showed up in crunch time when he, like Braun shortly before him, blocked a Villanova shot for a key defense stop. Enaruna also added 3 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists.
• Senior Isaiah Moss’ shot was off — 0-for-5 — keeping him from playing much at Villanova.
So much goes into assembling a superior college basketball team. Sure, you’ve got to defend and rebound. Taking care of the basketball and seeking out high-percentage shot attempts to maximize offensive efficiency is a must, too.
But sometimes less trackable intangibles are just as vital.
Kansas coach Bill Self has constructed enough consistently triumphant squads through the years to notice when those more abstract attributes are trending in the right direction.
Often in the past few months, Self has gone out of his way to hammer home that he really likes the players on this year’s team. He explained earlier this week why that is when one of his thoughts reminded everyone listening that not every basketball team is actually comprised of players who see eye to eye.
“I think they actually like each other,” Self said.
Maybe winning nine games in a row and achieving the No. 1 ranking in the country plays into that harmony, as KU (9-1) heads into its first true road game of the season, at No. 18 Villanova (8-2). But winning isn’t the only factor.
Senior center Udoka Azubuike deserves some of the credit for making this all work. A sullen starting center wouldn’t boost the team’s chemistry any. This year, the 7-footer’s energy has shot up, and he’s even become more of a leader than he ever thought about being before, through his improved approach.
Azubuike will tell you playing on this team, to him, feels a lot like playing with a bunch of buddies.
“As a team, we get along with each other,” Azubuike said. “Everybody loves each other, and we’re friends off the court.”
Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson agreed with assessments from Self and Azubuike that the current players all like each other and said that “for sure” helps them in the heat of a game.
“Everybody in the locker room has that same mindset — we want to win,” Dotson said. “And we're all competitive and have the same main goal, so that can help us out a lot on the court.”
The Jayhawks interact well together, which allows them to function at a high level and work through obstacles better. Their collective chemistry should serve them well as they try to win on the road against possibly the best offensive team they’ll face all season, Villanova — No. 3 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
From an environment standpoint, the Wells Fargo Center (20,056 capacity) will look vastly different than the tiny gymnasium in Hawaii where KU last played outside of Lawrence. Still, that experience of not only winning the Maui Invitational but also spending time away from their campus routines with each other on a lengthy but rewarding trip helped the Jayhawks gel. And they’ll need to work well together, especially on defense, to win at Villanova and maintain their No. 1 ranking — a tricky feat in its own right; just ask Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke and Louisville.
Azubuike said KU’s trip to Maui “played a huge part” in the players’ bonding. Sure enough, they didn’t falter in the title game as a talented Dayton squad pushed them to the limit.
“Being together, we kind of understand each other a little bit just from that experience,” Azubuike said of a victorious trip to paradise.
Dotson said KU’s chemistry can get even better, which makes sense when you think about how much growth could come in the next 30 or so games. The season is still relatively young. This team, currently ranked No. 1 in the country, has potential for further improvements. Without any tricky chemistry issues to deal with, that feels all the more possible.
Self likes this mix of personalities and talents.
“We’ve always had great kids — don't get me wrong,” he said. “But sometimes pieces just seem to fit better off the court than other times.”
When describing why he likes these Jayhawks so much, the coach began by calling them “respectful,” “hard working” and “responsible.”
“They seem to play for each other,” Self added, “for the most part — not always. But I think there's some qualities that all good teams have and, you know, we've got some of those.”