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.
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.”
In the heat of a Big 12 road battle Saturday in Austin, Texas, the Kansas basketball team’s typically ample nine-man rotation shrunk.
It wasn’t injuries that had the Jayhawks shorthanded. Rather head coach Bill Self decided for the stretch run he liked his chances with six players in particular.
“I obviously was so frustrated with the bench in the first half,” Self said after a 66-57 KU win, “that I really didn’t give them a chance to play.”
The only sub Self trusted to play in the second half at Texas was graduate transfer Isaiah Moss. After brief appearances in the first half, freshman Christian Braun (four minutes), junior Silvio De Sousa (two minutes) and freshman Tristan Enaruna (one minute) didn’t play at all.
KU’s bench got outscored, 13-5, at UT, marking the 10th time in 17 games this season an opponent’s reserves produced more points than KU’s. Moss, of course, scored all 5, shooting 2-for-3 from the floor over the span of 32 minutes. Moss knocked down one of KU’s two 3-pointers on the day in the first half, then buried a fadeaway baseline jumper in the second half.
That was the extent of KU’s bench scoring, making it the fourth time this season the Jayhawks’ reserves combined for 6 or fewer points, and the sixth time they failed to reach double-digit points.
“We’re not going to be any good over time unless Tristan, Christian and Silvio, not only give us more, but because I give them an opportunity to play more,” Self said. “But I thought we were so timid when we went to our bench (in the first half). So timid.”
Moss wasn’t exactly assertive at Texas, but just having KU’s best 3-point shooter on the floor helps the Jayhawks’ spacing on offense. That’s why the 6-foot-5 senior who played his first three seasons of college basketball at Iowa as a starter opened the second half on the court.
In fact, Self never subbed Moss out in the game’s final 20 minutes, when KU outscored Texas, 40-26.
As usual, it wasn’t KU’s starting lineup that spent the most time on the court. It was a four-guard look that made a difference, with Moss, over the course of the victory spending 15:36 playing alongside starters Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and Udoka Azubuike. That lineup outscored Texas, 28-18, and turned the ball over three times.
While Self found a group that worked in the ugly road win at UT, he prefers having more flexibility and expects more from the Jayhawks’ other backups. Their trip to Texas would have felt a lot less stressful for them if they could have gotten some productive minutes out of reserves not named Moss in the second half. But based on what he saw in the first half, Self didn’t even feel good enough about that possibility to give it a chance.
“We did enough,” Self said of the six players who helped KU win in the second half. “Not pretty by any stretch, but we did enough.”
Braun hadn’t played so few minutes since early December and seemed to have solidified his spot in the rotation. But Saturday was a reminder that Self has a shorter leash with freshmen and less experienced players and will lean on veterans if that’s what it takes to win.
Just like Braun, De Sousa and Enaruna will continue to get their chances in the weeks ahead. But they will have to impress Self when they check into a game to make sure they get additional cracks at contributing.
That will be even more important during KU’s five remaining Big 12 road games. Self says there are no upsets on the road, and he enters every one of them expecting it’s “going to be tight.”
He wouldn’t mind being proved wrong on the subject between now and the end of conference play if that meant KU’s reserves had turned a corner and helped the Jayhawks expand their leads when starters need some rest.
This team will be much better suited for a deep run in March if Braun, De Sousa and Enaruna are playing consistent minutes. And those won’t come without them showing Self they can play up to his standards.
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.
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.
Norman, Okla. — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 66-52 win over Oklahoma on Tuesday at Lloyd Noble Center.
• As KU, in the second half, got better used to playing without injured point guard Devon Dotson, the offense started to become a little more effective.
The Jayhawks shot 50% from the floor after halftime, and got a significant boost from its 3-point shooting, with Isaiah Moss contributing 4 of KU’s 6 made 3’s in the second half.
• Kansas also got back to its paint dominating ways after being outplayed inside in a loss to Baylor. The Jayhawks destroyed OU inside, with a 32-10 advantage in points in the paint.
• Scoring 66 points in the Big 12 this year is actually beginning to look like a relatively decent result, and KU did this on the road while playing without its starting point guard.
• Again, playing without a key perimeter defender in Dotson, KU held the Sooners to 52 points and 30.6% shooting on their home court.
• The Sooners couldn’t score inside, making just 1 of 8 layup and dunk attempts, and missing four other shot attempts in the paint.
• OU’s three best scorers on the season, Kristian Doolittle, Austin Reaves and Brady Manek combined to shoot 10-for-43 (23.3%).
• Udoka Azbuike came through with one of his most complete games, overwhelming the Sooners on both ends.
The 7-foot senior put up a 16-point, 14-rebound double-double, was credited with 3 blocks and controlled the paint.
• David McCormack played only 15 minutes in his typical staring role, finishing with 4 points and 3 rebounds.
• Despite the loss of Dotson, Marcus Garrett proved he can take on the lead guard duties for even longer stretches than usual.
Garrett did his defensive thing, as usual, but also embraced the chance to be the primary ball handler and driver from the perimeter. Garrett shot 5-for-12, scored 15 points, hit a key 3-pointer in the second half, and added 5 assists and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes, with just 1 turnover.
• Moss was the catch-and-shoot weapon KU needed him to be, as he occupied the starting spot left vacant by Dotson.
Moss knocked down 6 of 11 3-pointers and even passed up some more looks from beyond the arc. The Jayhawks desperately needed some scoring with Dotson gone, and Moss came through with 20.
• Ochai Agbaji got more effective offensively in the second half, and put in the work defensively KU had to get out of him. Agbaji finished with 7 points on 3-for-11 shooting, with 5 boards and 3 assists.
• KU only scored 4 bench points, but freshman Christian Braun kept the team afloat even if he wasn’t scoring (2 points on 0-for-3 shooting). That’s because his effort and rebounding (6) help KU maintain a level of competency.
• Tristan Enaruna looked more assertive and comfortable than usual in the second half.
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