The Day After: Survival at Sprint Center
Say what you will about the sluggish second half, the Kansas University men's basketball team on Saturday at Sprint Center again found a way to win a grinder, 63-60 over No. 13 Utah.
The game featured one of KU's best halves of the season and also one of its worst, as the Jayhawks (8-1) raced out to a 42-21 lead behind a strong first half and then saw that lead erased when a less-than-stellar second half.
Hot free throw shooting, more solid three-point shooting and that hard-to-describe quality that allows this team to scratch out a victory in the waning minutes all benefited the Jayhawks on Saturday in a game that featured a couple of teams that played incredibly hard but at different times.
KU was lights out in the first half. After struggling to get the offense going, the Jayhawks started making shots and never let their defense slip, suffocating the Utes into 35 percent first-half shooting and 10 turnovers.
The two teams flipped roles in the second half, when KU shot just 26 percent and committed seven turnovers, which allowed the Utes to climb all the way back into it and set up the dramatic finish.
Heading into the opening game of the Orlando Classic, the Jayhawks knew that they were in for a rough stretch of games. Rather than giving in to the difficulty of the schedule or leaning on their youth and inexperience as an excuse, the Jayhawks pulled together, played tough and won six straight games in the face of just about every kind of adversity you could imagine. This team is still a work in progress and there remains a lot of room for improvement, but what they've been able to do during the past few weeks makes you believe that these guys are ready to defend their 10 consecutive Big 12 titles and go hunting for No. 11.
Three reasons to smile
1 – For the second game in a row, freshman Kelly Oubre looked comfortable and made some consistent positive contributions. Oubre scored nine points in 17 minutes and hit all five of his free throw attempts while also grabbing three rebounds. It's not the numbers that are worth noting, rather the way he looks a look more sure of himself and confident in what he's doing.
2 – One of these days, KU's free throw shooting will just be a given and won't qualify as a reason to smile. Today is not that day. The Jayhawks drained 21 of 23 free throws, including all 10 they attempted in the first half and needed just about every one of them to hold off the Utes. Brannen Greene, who stepped into the starting lineup for Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk but didn't do much most of the game, knocked down four in a row in the final minute to help seal the victory. As a team, KU hit all eight of its free throw attempts in the final five minutes.
3 – Jamari Traylor came back with a purpose. Having a good game is no reason to excuse an arrest, but it was clear from the way he played that Traylor was trying to make up for his mistake. He still had a couple of inexplicable mistakes — a terrible pass here, a turnover there — but he hit 4 of 8 shots, all 5 of his free throws and finished with 13 points and 5 boards. The most impressive thing about Traylor's play to me was that he looked relaxed.
Three reasons to sigh
1 – KU's second-half offense was awful. Not only did the Jayhawks shoot just 26 percent and make just six field goals, but there were way too many one-on-five possessions, when the ball didn't move and the Jayhawks just threw up some wild shot or turned it over. With several guys on the roster feeling comfortable and looking locked in from three-point range of late, better ball movement and less pounding could lead to open three-pointers and better possessions. In short, pretty much what you saw in the first half.
2 – Landen Lucas' time in the starting lineup is probably pretty close to ending. Lucas missed his only two shot attempts — showing once again that he lacks the strength and explosion to finish at the rim — and the only other statistic he recorded was his two turnovers. No rebounds. No assists. No blocks. No free throws. Lucas has done an admirable job during the first nine games, but he's clearly not the guy the Jayhawks need out there and it seems the coaching staff gets that, as evident by his seven minutes against Utah.
3 – Remember that shoulder issue that once plagued freshman Devonte' Graham? It never really materialized into something to worry about, but the point guard's latest injury is. Graham is expected to miss four weeks — perhaps longer — with a toe injury and the news comes at the worst time. Graham played very good basketball in his past two games and really looked to be getting comfortable out there, both with his role on the team and with the jump to college basketball as a whole. His absence will be a blow to this team.
One for the road
KU's latest win in Kansas City...
• Extended its win streak to seven-straight games, matching its longest win streak of last season.
• Was the fourth-straight win for KU by six points or fewer.
• Made the Jayhawks 8-1 for the second time in the last three seasons and the sixth time in Bill Self's 12 seasons at Kansas.
• Improved Kansas’ lead in the all-time series to 2-0.
• Improved KU's record to 5-1 in games away from Allen Fieldhouse this season.
• Upped the Jayhawks’ all-time record at Sprint Center to 25-5 and 210-79 in games played in Kansas City.
• Gave Bill Self his first victory against Utah, making him 1-1 vs. the Utes, 333-70 at Kansas and 540-175 overall.
• Made KU's all-time record 2,134-823.
The Jayhawks will get a break from their rough and rugged schedule, as they'll be off all week until next Saturday's 2 p.m. home game against Lafayette.