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.
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
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.”
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 60-53 win over West Virginia on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
• 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.
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.