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More active than ever, Udoka Azubuike finally defensive anchor KU needs

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) elevates to stuff a shot by East Tennessee State guard Bo Hodges (3) during the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) elevates to stuff a shot by East Tennessee State guard Bo Hodges (3) during the second half on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2019 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

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.”

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Devon Dotson gets back on track as finisher, distributor

Kansas guard Devon Dotson, center, drives to the basket between Iowa State's Rasir Bolton, left, and Tre Jackson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Kansas guard Devon Dotson, center, drives to the basket between Iowa State's Rasir Bolton, left, and Tre Jackson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) by Associated Press

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.

Reply 1 comment from Surrealku

Postgame Report Card: No. 3 Kansas 79, Iowa State 53

Iowa State guard Prentiss Nixon steals the ball from Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Iowa State guard Prentiss Nixon steals the ball from Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji, right, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) by Associated Press

Ames, Iowa — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 79-53 win over Iowa State on Wednesday at Hilton Coliseum.

Offense: A-

• 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.

Defense: A-

• 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.

Frontcourt: B+

• 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.

Backcourt: B+

• 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.

Bench: B-

• 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.

Reply 1 comment from Dale Rogers

Foul trouble plaguing Kansas guard Marcus Garrett of late

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) knocks the ball loose from West Virginia forward Derek Culver (1) during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Marcus Garrett (0) knocks the ball loose from West Virginia forward Derek Culver (1) during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

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.

Reply 1 comment from Cshjhawk

Even in limited minutes, David McCormack can be impactful for KU

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) pulls up for a shot over West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) pulls up for a shot over West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

David McCormack is in a tough spot, which is a strange thing to say about a big man who starts for the No. 3 college basketball team in the country.

It’s just that the Kansas sophomore never knows from game to game how much playing time will be coming his way.

The Jayhawks, of course, open up against their opponents with an imposing frontcourt tandem in the 6-foot-10 McCormack and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike. However, KU often turns to four-guard lineups quickly, making it hard for McCormack to find minutes behind the team’s primary low-post player, Azubuike.

In the past two games, his 11th and 12th starts of the season, McCormack logged 11 minutes at Stanford and just 10 minutes — his fewest this year — against West Virginia.

Theoretically, it seemed KU might be able to get away with playing both of its big bodies versus WVU because the Mountaineers also start two behemoths, with 6-9 Oscar Tshiebwe and 6-10 Derek Culver. It turned out Saturday in Allen Fieldhouse wasn’t McCormack’s day, though.

“David got off to a terrible start,” head coach Bill Self said after KU beat WVU. “I don’t mean to be negative, but he got off to a terrible start. And then we put him back in there and he gambles (defensively) and misses on a guy who isn’t going shoot the ball from outside of 4 feet and gives him a dunk and it’s like he was just too sped up. He wasn’t himself.”

As a result, KU didn’t turn to the potentially powerful McCormack when the second half began, and he finished the Big 12 opener with 2 points and three rebounds. Those were actually an improvement on his scoreless outing at Stanford on Dec. 29, when he recorded two rebounds and turned the ball over three times.

Nevertheless, the former McDonald’s All-American didn’t leave the win over WVU without showing a positive sign for the future. McCormack only played three minutes in the second half, at one point giving Azubuike a breather and later on allowing KU to play in a tight game without its worst free-throw shooter, Azubuike, on the court.

Fewer than 3:30 remained on the clock when McCormack, with KU up 6 points, delivered a critical and impressive sequence. McCormack first skied over Culver for a defensive rebound, then headed down to the offensive end, where his activity and instincts led him up to the rim to finish off a lob from Marcus Garrett for a slam, as well as what was KU’s largest lead of the game up to that point.

“David is usually the kind of guy with poise, and when he went back in the game down the stretch, he was great,” Self said. “And he went and got that ball, he went and got that rebound and Marcus made a perfect pass to him when we set something up for (Garrett) to drive it downhill.”

Those plays in crunch time by McCormack proved he can come through even when he’s had a subpar outing or he’s not playing 20-plus minutes like he did against Duke, BYU and Villanova.

McCormack’s only playing 16.5 minutes a game. More often than not, KU (11-2) will need him to do his best Azubuike impersonation as the No. 2 center for the Jayhawks’ four-guard lineups.

The physically gifted sophomore is capable of performing that role well this season. Set high ball screens and roll or slip for lobs. Post up and score from the blocks when defenses aren’t doubling KU bigs inside. And, of course, defend and rebound.

He could even turn into a more effective scorer by taking Azubuike’s approach to shot attempts when McCormack is in for the 7-footer. Per hoop-math.com, Azubuike attempts 75.8% of his shots at the rim (with dunks and layups). McCormack has only taken 39.7% of his shot attempts in that high percentage portion of the paint. On his 31 tries to date on layups and dunks, McCormack is converting 74.2% of the time, second among Jayhawks only to Azubuike’s 87.5%.

A starter and a role player all at once, McCormack has the right attitude and skill set to pull it off, difficult as it may be. The more effective he can be when it’s his turn to be KU’s only big on the floor, the better the Jayhawks will be overall.

Reply 3 comments from Robert  Brock Barry Weiss Surrealku

KU’s best lineup emerged out of the muck in win over WVU

Kansas guard Christian Braun (2) goes hard for a bucket and a foul against West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Christian Braun (2) goes hard for a bucket and a foul against West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

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.

Reply 8 comments from Dillon Davis Barry Weiss Surrealku Dirk Medema Brjam Dale Rogers Robin Smith

Postgame Report Card: No. 3 Kansas 60, No. 16 West Virginia 53

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) gets tangled with West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) and West Virginia guard Miles McBride (4) for a rebound during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) gets tangled with West Virginia forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) and West Virginia guard Miles McBride (4) for a rebound during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 60-53 win over West Virginia on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.

Offense: C+

• Hardly any of the Jayhawks looked ready for West Virginia’s physical defensive style in the game’s opening minutes, and the Mountaineers built a 17-7 lead less than 8 minutes in.

Nine Jayhawks played in the first half, and only three scored: Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike.

• KU shot just 8-for-22 from the field in the first half, and turned it over 10 times. What’s worse, the Jayhawks made only 6 of their 13 free throws and 2 of 11 3-pointers.

• Relatively speaking, KU’s offense picked up in the second half, even if most possessions wouldn’t qualify as pretty. The offense came more easily for the Jayhawks, though, as they mostly rolled with four guards.

Kansas shot 44% in the final 20 minutes and outscored WVU 36-23.

Defense: A-

• KU’s players certainly heard from head coach Bill Self and his staff that finishing on defense would have to involve extra effort on the glass, to keep WVU from getting offensive rebounds and easy second-chance points — a staple of Bob Huggins teams for years.

Yet the Mountaineers found those extra looks that extend possessions and dishearten opponents by grabbing offensive rebounds early in the first half, as they build their lead.

With Oscar Tshiebwe destroying KU on the offensive glass, WVU scored 10 second-chance points in the first half alone.

• KU’s defense also didn’t protect the paint too well early, despite having the bodies to do so. WVU put up 14 points in the paint by halftime.

• The Jayhawks’ defensive efforts improved dramatically in the second half, as Self relied on Dotson, Ochai Agabaji, Garrett, Azubuike and Christian Braun as his primary lineup, until Garrett got into some foul trouble.

The Mountaineers shot just 7-for-25 in the second half and turned it over 11 times.

Frontcourt: B-

• Udoka Azubuike spent a lot of the first half getting fouled by WVU and going to the free throw line, where he’s known to struggle, instead of getting the chance to score inside.

Once KU began using a four-guard lineup in the second half, Azubuike found his offense coming much more regularly. With KU’s guards having the room to drive and set him up or throw lobs up to the rim, Azubuike finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

• Starting big David McCormack spent much of the first half on the bench, once KU went away from its two-big look. Though the 6-foot-10 sophomore had the physique to match up with WVU’s bigs, he wasn’t too effective against them on either end of the floor.

McCormack played just 10 minutes against WVU. But he had a massive defensive rebound followed by a one-handed alley-oop around the 3-minute mark of the second half.

Backcourt: B-

• For portions of a fistfight of a first half, it seemed Dotson was the only Jayhawk who could score from the field — not that KU was exactly cashing in at the foul line, either.

The sophomore point guard made both of KU’s first-half 3-pointers and scored on a couple of layups, too.

Dotson finished the victory with 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting.

• Meanwhile, junior Garrett was often the only Jayhawk who could create shots for teammates against WVU’s stellar defense throughout the Big 12 opener. Garrett had 3 of KU’s 4 assists in the first half, when the Jayhawks also suffered 10 turnovers.

Garrett’s distribution skills set up a tying 3-pointer early in the second half, when he drove to kick to Agbaji for a right-corner 3. There was plenty of time to play, but it was one of the few sequences in the game to that point when KU seemed to have some life on offense.

Garrett contributed 12 points and 6 assists. HIs drive and layup near the 1-minute mark put KU up 54-49.

• Sophomore Agbaji played almost all of the first half but went primarily unnoticed, other than his defense. His ability on that end of the floor, though, proved crucial in such a physical game.

Bench: C+

• KU’s bench contributions were few and far between through most of the first half. Isaiah Moss misfired on a couple of 3-pointers and the only sub who could be seen working particularly well was Braun, who looked tough on defense and held his own.

Braun impressed enough to open the second half as a starter, in place of McCormack. The freshman immediately helped out by grabbing an offensive rebound off a missed Azubuike free throw. Braun dished to the big man for an easy score.

The ever-improving Braun came through with 6 points and 5 boards.

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Jayhawks should be better on road this season — and now need to prove it

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) and Arizona State guard Luguentz Dort scramble for the ball during the first half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) and Arizona State guard Luguentz Dort scramble for the ball during the first half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) by Associated Press

After suffering through repeated road issues a season ago, the Jayhawks would like to avoid in the months ahead the trend that dogged them so thoroughly during the 2018-19 campaign.

With just one true road game out of the 11 on the schedule behind them, they have a long way to go to prove those difficulties are all in the past.

KU relinquished a 4-point lead with fewer than two minutes to play in this season’s road opener at Villanova, and the Jayhawks’ waved goodbye to their No. 1 ranking as a result.

Squint just right and the narrow, pre-holiday break loss might begin to look similar to the one from the previous season, when KU lost by 4 at No. 18 Arizona State. In the 1-point defeat at then-No. 18 Villanova a year later, KU had an even better chance to win.

Still, a clear-eyed view of the current KU roster unveils a group of Jayhawks who shouldn’t in the next several weeks falter so often in an opponent’s arena the way their predecessors did — even though some of the names and faces are the same.

Beginning on Sunday at Stanford (11-1), these No. 5 Jayhawks (9-2) can take another step toward proving road defeats won’t become the new normal again, after KU went 3-8 in true road games during a 26-10 season.

KU head coach Bill Self described on Friday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse some of the attributes that should, theoretically at least, make this team better on the road.

“I think we defend better,” Self said. “You defend and rebound, you probably have a better chance on the road, I would think. Doesn’t mean it’s always going to play out that way. But us losing to Villanova didn’t have anything to do with 20,700 people in the stands, where it may have had something to do with it if we lost last year.”

That’s a telling statement about one of the many differences between this season’s KU team and last year’s. Those Jayhawks often weren’t ready for the hostile environments that await KU teams. This group should be.

For one, returning sophomores Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack now have a real sense of what type of efforts bring about road success and which kinds send you back to Lawrence licking your wounds.

Plus, as junior Marcus Garrett quickly brought up while discussing KU’s road woes from a year ago, most of those came without 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, who suffered a season-ending injury in early January.

The lessons learned in those Udoka-less losses should inform how members of KU’s now more experienced core go about their business when they step on an opponent’s home court.

“We have to go into them more focused,” Garrett said of road games. “We’ve got to learn how to finish games. A lot of those road games we had the lead, we had momentum and we would just give a game away.”

Sounds a lot like KU’s loss at Villanova this past week. Of course, that has been on the mind of all the Jayhawks lately, especially after Self spoke to them on Thursday.

“We talked about finishing,” the coach shared, “quite a bit.”

Self said KU didn’t play to its strengths at the most opportune times at Villanova.

“When you win on the road you’ve got to make free throws late, you’ve got to do things — you’ve got to make sure you get a shot every possession. You’ve got to understand when you’re up 2 with 20 seconds left the last thing you can do to a group that’s already shot 40 3s is to let them shoot another 3,” Self said, rattling off the crunch time problems that cost KU at Villanova. “That is something that we’ll learn from. But that’s all part of finishing a game.”

Dotson didn’t play to his potential late in KU’s loss at Villanova. So the lessons from the first road game of his sophomore season shouldn’t soon be forgotten.

His teammates saw the miscues up close and personal, too, and heard about them more from Self when they got back to Lawrence.

We should get a glimpse this weekend, when KU plays at Stanford, of how ready they were to digest those hard to swallow bits of knowledge. They understand winning on the road isn’t easy. Now what are they willing to do about it?

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Ben McLemore salvaging NBA career by fitting in with Rockets

Houston Rockets' Ben McLemore (16) dunks the ball against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Houston Rockets' Ben McLemore (16) dunks the ball against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Earlier this year, six seasons after leaving the University of Kansas early for the NBA, Ben McLemore’s future within the world’s preeminent basketball league was beginning to look iffy.

McLemore never had taken off the way many — including the Sacramento Kings, who drafted him seventh overall in 2013 — figured. And when the organization that seemed to know the 6-foot-3 shooting guard best waived him this past February, ending his second stint in Sacramento, it looked like the rest of the NBA might be ready to move on without McLemore.

He didn’t latch on with another franchise, as roster spots became open. And even before the Kings cut McLemore, his 2018-19 season was one filled with inactive game days and instances of him suiting up but never checking in. McLemore encountered a slew of career lows: 19 games played, 8.3 minutes a game, 3.9 points per game, 39.1% field goal percentage, 66.7% free throw percentage, to name a few.

McLemore would have to wait until the summer free agency period to return to the NBA after getting waived. And it now looks like the Houston Rockets might have saved his career by signing him to a nonguaranteed deal.

In just a few months’ time, McLemore went from toiling and rarely playing on a sub-.500 team to becoming a key role player on one of the league’s most consistent winners.

The way McLemore explained it to The Athletic, head coach Mike D’Antoni “asked for me basically to be Ben McLemore. Shoot the ball, run the floor and guard.”

McLemore played on lousy to mediocre rosters in Sacramento during his first four NBA seasons and for another downright bad team in Memphis in 2017-18. In Houston, with a pair of former MVPs attracting all the attention, McLemore’s role really is as simple as he says. Defenders gravitate toward Rockets guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who handle the majority of the team’s shooting and passing.

Especially within the Rockets’ Harden-heavy half-court offense, McLemore often can just find an open spot behind the 3-point line, catch and shoot. The Rockets lead the league with their 45.2 3-point attempts a game, and even Harden and Westbrook can’t achieve that volume alone.

That’s where McLemore and Houston’s other complementary perimeter players come in. Through his first 31 appearances with the Rockets (21-10), McLemore is averaging 10.2 points per game — mostly off the bench — putting him in double figures for the first time since his second NBA season and only the second time in his professional career.

He’s making more 3-pointers per game (2.5) than ever before because he’s attempting them at a higher rate, too (6.9 attempts). While McLemore’s current 35.8% 3-point accuracy leaves him plenty of room for improvement, the Rockets want him taking those shots to space the floor for Harden and Westbrook, and because 3-pointers, layups, dunks and free-throw attempts are an emphasis for the organization — efficiency over everything.

Per stats.nba.com, McLemore takes 8.2 shot attempts per game, and 6.2 of those are catch-and-shoot 3-pointers — he’s making 36.5%.

Houston Rockets guard Ben McLemore (16) takes a 3-point shot next to Golden State Warriors forward Glenn Robinson III (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Houston Rockets guard Ben McLemore (16) takes a 3-point shot next to Golden State Warriors forward Glenn Robinson III (22) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Earlier in December, McLemore scored 17 points off the bench with the help of a 4-for-9 3-point shooting effort, helping Houston pull off a franchise-best 25-point comeback win against San Antonio. It was the ninth time this season — and fifth time this month — McLemore made at least four 3-pointers.

“Ben off the bench, starting, wherever you put him, he’s going to play really well,” D’Antoni recently told the Houston Chronicle. “His defense is always good. He’s a really good player that I can really count on, which is super.”

The Rockets need high effort, humble players to surround their two superstars, and McLemore appears to fit that mold perfectly.

The NBA’s leading scorer by a long shot, Harden (38.1 points per game) recently told The Athletic why he thinks McLemore quickly became an important supporting player for the team.

“He’s finally around some vets that know what they want (to) accomplish, and he knows his role,” Harden said. “Whether he misses or makes shots, I think his energy and his spirit he brings every game is something that’s huge for us.”

McLemore has never before been on a playoff team. That will change when this season ends. Come April, McLemore will get to experience his first postseason basketball game since he scored 20 points for the Jayhawks in a Sweet 16 loss to Michigan, in 2013.

He will never be a star in the NBA like he was for one All-Big 12 season at KU. But McLemore may end up adding several seasons to his NBA career with how well he has blended in with the Rockets.

Some advice Harden gave him a few months back, McLemore told The Athletic, proved useful as he’s redefining himself as an NBA player. The seven-time all-star and 2017-18 MVP told McLemore he could impact the game by doing “the little things” and providing energy.

“I just took that to heart. I want to do that consistently every night,” McLemore said. “It’s playing free, not thinking too much and just going out there and just playing the game.”

None by Houston Rockets

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Postgame Report Card: No. 18 Villanova 56, No. 1 Kansas 55

Villanova's Collin Gillespie (2) shotos over Kansas' Ochai Agbaji (30) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Villanova's Collin Gillespie (2) shotos over Kansas' Ochai Agbaji (30) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum) by Associated Press

Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 56-55 loss to Villanova on Saturday in Philadelphia.

Offense: C-

• 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.

Defense: A-

• 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.

Frontcourt: C+

• 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.

Backcourt: C+

• 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.

Bench: C

• 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.

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