With senior big man Landen Lucas struggling so far this season, to the tune of 13 points, 8 rebounds and 9 fouls in just 49 minutes in KU’s first two games, the natural tendency of the KU fan base is to look to the bench to see who might be able to do better.
Add to that the fact that freshman center Udoka Azubuike was one of the top performers and a key part of KU’s Champions Classic win over No. 1 Duke on Tuesday night and the looks from the fans start to become less exploratory and more insistent.
Two games in to this 2016-17 season —and Azubuike’s college career — I already have heard all kinds of people ask if Azubuike should be starting in Lucas’ spot.
I don’t blame them for the inquiry. Azubuike has a ton of potential and his style of play is exciting. Beyond that, fans are gonna fan. But that’s why they’re fans and not head coaches making millions of dollars per year to run the program.
The man in charge of doing that, KU’s Bill Self, is not anywhere near ready to sit Lucas in favor of Azubuike and it’s because there’s so much more that goes into playing that spot — or any spot — for the Jayhawks than Azubuike even knows at this point.
Factors such as conditioning, IQ, experience and others all play into how much — and how quickly — Azubuike can have handle a bigger role on this team. Lucas is a pro in all of those areas and, as we saw last season, has a way of making things better for the other four players on the floor even if his numbers aren’t jumping off the page while he’s out there.
So the right move for fans wanting to see more of Azubuike is to pull for him to develop but not at the expense of Lucas’ minutes. Lucas will be fine. And Azubuike will get better. Perhaps quickly. But the whole thing is a process and one Self is just fine with thus far.
“No, probably not ahead,” said Self when asked if Azubuike’s early production had surprised him. “I don’t think he’s behind. He’s about what we thought. I think he’s improving so much so quickly and I think we thought that would happen so I’d say he’s right on schedule of what we thought he’d be.”
One thing that could change that is if he takes his performance against Duke — 6 points, 12 rebounds in 15 minutes — and uses that to springboard his development. I asked Self the other day if he thought playing that well against a team of that caliber could end up delivering 4 or 5 games worth of confidence and experience for the freshman big man and Self supported that thought.
“I think so,” he said. “I think he learned a lot. Conditioning’s important and he got tired. He’s worked his tail off conditioning, but he’s got another step he can take there. Offensively, all our bigs are too slow to catch, gather and go. They’re allowing small guys to basically become a defender on ’em. He’s gotta get better at that. As far as going after balls, he may have knocked some guys over to get ’em, but he went after some balls the other day that were pretty impressive.”
It's another big day for KU on the recruiting trail and, depending on how you look at things, the Jayhawks seem to be due for one of these to go their way.
Oak Hill forward Billy Preston, the No. 8 ranked player in the 2017 class according to Rivals.com said on Twitter earlier today that he was going to make his decision/announcement between 3-4 p.m. central time and it will be televised on ESPNU.
Sources have said that KU feels pretty good about their chances with Preston, who was one of several visitors at Late Night in early October.
Should Preston — 6-9, 220 pounds — pick the Jayhawks, they would be getting a versatile forward with power and the potential to deliver guard type skills from the position, as well.
Preston is down to KU, Syracuse, USC and Indiana and recently broke down all four schools with HoopPhenomReport.com:
On Kansas: “Coach Self and Coach Townsend are both great coaches. I couldn’t say anything bad about them because they have been recruiting since my 8th grade year. All through adversity, they still stayed with me through the process and the coaches want me to come there and play my game.”
On Syracuse: “Coach Jim Boeheim is a legend. He’s one of the greatest coaches to ever do it and you really can’t turn that down. Coach Autry has also been great to me since he’s my main recruiter up there and he tells me that there has been many guys like me that have been successful there and that I could be next.”
On Indiana: “Coach Crean is a great coach. He coached Dwyane Wade at Marquette. He really focuses on player development and I think as a player you don’t have any limits when it comes to developing and I think overall he could be a great coach for me.”
On USC: “It’s home. I’ve known Coach Enfield and Coach Hart since my 8th grade year and they have stayed loyal to me all throughout this process. Just like Kansas, I couldn’t say anything bad about them… I love those guys.”
Stay tuned to KUsports.com later today for coverage and reaction from Preston's decision.
While many local Kansas basketball fans were rejoicing over the Champions Classic being televised on ESPN and not one of the handful of early-season games that KU fans have a difficult time getting through their cable systems, a good chunk of the rest of the world was watching the game online.
I'm sure several KU fans went this route, too, but regardless of the demographic make-up, KU's 77-75 victory over No. 1 Duke on Tuesday night set a record for ESPN's online streaming services.
The streaming audience of 83,000 average viewers per minute made KU-Duke ESPN’s most streamed men’s college basketball game of all-time, topping last year’s Kentucky-Duke Champions Classic game, which drew 78,000 steaming viewers per minute.
According to ESPN, the total live audience for the game, which includes television viewers and the streaming audience, topped 2.4 million, up 28 percent from last year's KU-Michigan State game, which drew a combined audience of 1.9 million.
For comparison, the first game of Tuesday's Champions Classic doubleheader, No. 2 Kentucky’s 68-49 win over No. 13 Michigan State, picked up a total live audience of 2.15 million viewers, including a streaming audience of 67,000 average viewers, making that game one of the top five largest men’s college basketball regular season streaming games on ESPN.
The two Champions Classic games combined had a streaming average minute audience of 76,000 viewers, up 21 percent from the 2015 event.
The Champions Classic is owned and operated by ESPN Events, a division of ESPN, and recently signed a three-year extension to play the event through 2019.
With the way people are watching their sporting events changing by the day, with more people abandoning cable and going with online streaming services, the numbers figure to continue to rise into the future, as consuming games in this manner, be it at home on the couch or on the go on a tablet or cell phone, certainly seems to be a sign of the times and a legitimate part of the college sports experience.
New York — There’s so much that goes into the Champions Classic year after year, but that’s especially true when the game is played in New York City at Madison Square Garden.
The hype goes up a level or two, the stage is a little bigger and brighter and the outcome, good or bad, seems to carry the weight of more than a single victory.
That was just one of the benefits KU received from Tuesday’s, grind-it-out, 77-75 victory over Duke that came when Frank Mason III drilled a pull-up jumper with 1.8 seconds to play to give the Jayhawks’ the victory.
The fact that Kansas beat Duke clearly meant a lot to the team and the fan base, as it would any day of the week, any time of year. But the fact that the Blue Devils were ranked No.1 in the nation when this one came only added to the excitement surrounding it.
No one in Jayhawkland is walking around today believing that this win was as good as bringing home a national championship. But you can’t blame them if it helped validate all of those dreams they’ve had all offseason about this being the team that could bring another title back to Lawrence.
Say what you will about Duke being short-handed — although, to the Blue Devils’ credit they said nothing about it — but this Kansas victory was big time and for more than just evening the record at 1-1 and helping the Jayhawks avoid an 0-2 start for the first time in more than 40 years. KU gained confidence, proved itself as a legit national title contender with a couple of big time players and also got enough from some of its young-and-still-developing players to put a serious boost into the hope and expectations for what guys like Udoka Azubuike, Lagerald Vick and others can be, perhaps sooner rather than later. In short, coming off of a tough Indiana loss in a game the Jayhawks probably should have won, this was the perfect answer for this team at this time.
1 – Frank Mason’s a boss. All offseason, people wondered who would lead this team in scoring. And the options were many. Some said freshman Josh Jackson, others picked Devonte’ Graham and a few others even said Carlton Bragg. I was in the Graham camp. Shame on me. And shame on the rest of us. Mason is this team’s heartbeat, and, better than anyone on the roster, he has the ability to rise up to meet any challenge and deliver. The fact that he can do it in multiple ways — with the drive, with the jumper, on defense, etc. — only makes him seem like more of a bad man. It’s still early and Mason might not end up leading this team in scoring, but I wouldn’t bet against it at this point.
2 – Let’s give Bill Self a little credit for handling the substitutions brilliantly. It can’t be easy to put guys in and pull guys out in search of some kind of rhythm and survival when fouls are being called at a record pace. But just about every button Self pushed worked out perfectly. He benched guys with two fouls, reinserted them even with they had four fouls and found enough of a way to create enough continuity and good energy on the floor to help Kansas pull this one off. The players themselves, of course, get some of the credit for this, but overlooking Self’s role in it and just how difficult it can be when the whistles are blowing like they were, should not be done.
3 – Carlton Bragg’s coming. He’s still got a long way to go, looks slow and lost too often on defense and still could stand to be tougher, but his last two games — against big time competition — have been far better than his first two against exhibition foes. That’s good news for the Jayhawks. Not only did Bragg put together a decent night against Duke on the offensive end (9 points on 3-of-5 shooting, 3-of-4 from the free throw line) but he also made a couple of his biggest plays in absolute crunch time. One was a baseline jumper with the shot clock winding down and the Jayhawks fighting to hold Duke off. And the other was a big boy rebound on the defensive end, where he went up with authority and ripped it out of the air. He finished with five boards and needs to play more like that and worry less about his offense, but it sure looks like it’s coming.
1 – KU has to get better guarding the ball. Duke’s guards are terrific — as were Indiana’s — and there were a few times where the Jayhawks locked down on the perimeter. But there were still far too many times when the Blue Devils blew right past their men and got the rim for easy buckets. Self said the Jayhawks need to be better playing with their heads and their feet on the defensive end and the next few weeks should offer an opportunity to get there and feel better about it. But, if nothing else, this early season test has shown the Jayhawks that they absolutely need to become better one-on-one defenders if they want to contend at the highest level with the top teams.
2 – Landen Lucas is laboring. Maybe it’s the injured foot, maybe it’s the new rules emphasis, maybe it’s the new team and figuring out how the pieces fit. But Kansas needs him. I posted a blog earlier today that said there’s no reason to panic about Lucas’ start, but if there’s one area that is a concern here it’s that it looks like it’s bothering him. I don’t remember seeing Lucas look at the officials after no-calls or tough contact plays as much as last year and, to me, that’s a sign of a guy who’s battling through something — in this case a sore foot — and looking to get a little help to get through it. It’ll come. And Lucas will figure it out. But this team cannot reach its ceiling without him.
3 – Self talked about it after the Indiana game and it’s still a little bit of an issue. The Jayhawks pick some weird times to take some awful shots and have a little bit of poor shot selection plaguing them right now. Luckily for Kansas, the big time scorers on this team have it figured out and rarely jack up bad shots. But the other guys taking those bad shots takes an opportunity away from the front-line guys to take good ones, which only compounds the problem. Again, it’s early, but that’s among the biggest areas of this team’s offense that needs to be cleaned up.
Kansas’ wild road trip from Lawrence to Hawaii, on to New York and back to Lawrence is over and the Jayhawks will host Siena at 7 p.m. Friday in their home opener. The opponent and the venue both will be welcomed for this team that has to be a little exhausted, physically and emotionally.
— See what people were saying about KU's matchup against Duke during KUsports.com’s live coverage.
For the fifth season in a row, it looks as if Kansas big man Landen Lucas is going to have to spend some time figuring out exactly what his strengths are, what he does well and where he fits into this Kansas team.
And it’s not his fault.
Because Lucas, the 6-foot-10 forward from Portland who finished the 2015-16 season as one of the most consistently solid players on one of the country’s best teams, played so well down the stretch a year ago, the belief among many Kansas fans was that he was bound to pick up where he left off and build on that strong junior season.
And if Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, Brannen Greene and Cheick Diallo all were back as a part of Bill Self’s rotation, Lucas may have done just that.
But this is a different team, one with different strengths and weaknesses, and it looks as if it’s going to take Lucas — and just about everyone else for that matter — a little bit of time to find out exactly how he fits and what his role is with this bunch.
Searching for those answers against the likes of Indiana and Duke to kick off the season only magnified the process that lies ahead. Had KU opened with a couple of patsies, Lucas likely would have performed much better and looked a lot more like the player he was as a junior. But the fact that he hasn’t is not necessarily a bad thing for him or the Jayhawks.
Lucas is arguably the smartest guy on this roster and he, perhaps more than anyone, goes to work throughout each day by studying himself as much as he studies opponents. Getting the opportunity to face two Top 10 teams out of the gate will expedite his opportunity to learn what he’s all about with this year’s squad and there’s no doubt in my mind that the lessons he learned in the two high-profile games to start the season will serve him well along the way and late in the season, when he thinks back on what went right and what went wrong in order to prepare for similar opponents on other big stages.
It’s not as if Lucas has a notebook he keeps on the bench and he jots down little nuggets and tidbits into it along the way. But it would not surprise me for a second if he had one in his dorm room.
Let’s also not forget that Lucas has been dealing with a sore foot that may very well be worse than any of us realize. It’s hard enough to battle against these types of teams and players at full strength but being asked to do that when you’re dealing with an ailing foot — kind of an important body part for a basketball player — certainly can impact your effectiveness and confidence.
I haven’t noticed too much wincing or pain in Lucas’ body language in the first two games and neither he nor Self are the types to blame the foot for Lucas’ slow start. But you have to consider that it has played a role, perhaps a big role.
Regardless of what’s been ailing him and the slower than expected start that Lucas has gotten off to, you can’t convince me for a second that this is the type of season the KU big man is going to have. He’s too smart, works too hard and cares too much to limp to the finish line.
Having to prove himself in the face of a little adversity has been a staple in Lucas’ KU career and it looks as if, with one season of college basketball still left to play, he’ll have to do it one more time. Count on him getting it done.
— See what people were saying about KU's matchup against Duke during KUsports.com’s live coverage.
Quick grades for five aspects of KU’s 77-75 victory over No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic on Tuesday night in New York City.
Kansas shot 51 percent for the game, including 61 percent in the second half, and nearly hung 50 on the Blue Devils in the second half. This would have been an easy A — and possibly an easy win — if Kansas had hit better than 2-of-17 from three-point range and 9-of-19 from the free throw line.
The Jayhawks were good when they had to be and great at times, but still let the Blue Devils drive the ball to the rim and into the paint way too easily and also missed some opportunities to close out to three-point shooters. Beyond that, they committed several silly fouls. But they cleaned up the rebounding and forced 16 Duke turnovers.
Udoka Azubuike was a beast and gave this team 15 big minutes. Landen Lucas struggled with foul trouble yet again and only grabbed one rebound and Carlton Bragg, though clutch with a couple of buckets late, still looked passive too often and lost at times.
The three best players in the game for Kansas were the Jayhawks’ starting backcourt and one of them hit the game winner. Enough said.
As noted above, Azubuike was big off the bench for the Jayhawks on a night when they needed him, but so, too, were Lagerald Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. The two bench guards combined for 11 points and seven rebounds in nearly 30 minutes a piece and were ultra aggressive attacking the rim as both scorers and rebounders.
New York — The Kansas basketball program’s 1-4 record in the Champions Classic, which resumes tonight at Madison Square Garden in New York City, where Kansas will face No. 1 Duke at 8:30 p.m., hardly comes as a surprise when looking at some of the individual statistics in the showcase from some of the top players on this year’s squad.
Before finally breaking through with a victory over Duke in Chicago early in the 2013-14 season, the Jayhawks opened the six-year old classic with back-to-back losses to Kentucky and Michigan State in 2011-12 and 2012-13.
Two players from this year’s team — seniors Frank Mason III and Landen Lucas — played in KU’s lone victory at the event and they enter this year’s showcase game as two of the most experienced players on such a stage for either squad.
But experience does not make for good numbers and neither Mason nor Lucas has fared particularly well in this event during their Kansas careers.
Mason, who played 23 minutes as a true freshman in that win over Duke, is just 8-of-31 from the floor in three career Champions Classic games. He has played an average of 30 minutes per game and has recorded what would be considered impressive numbers in just two categories during that time — free throw shooting and rebounding.
Mason is 20-of-24 all-time from the free throw line in this event and also recorded a respectable five rebounds during last season’s six-point loss to Michigan State in Chicago. If there’s a silver lining surrounding Mason’s Champions Classic numbers, it’s that they have improved with each season. What’s more, he is by far the most accomplished Jayhawk on the current roster in the season kick-off classic.
Asked this week what he remembered most about the Jayhawks’ win over Duke during his freshman year — this was the game that former Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins sealed with a transition dunk — Mason pointed to the obvious.
“I don’t remember much,” he said. “I just remember that we got the win. That was the most important thing. I think we played pretty well on the defensive end. We limited them to not too many second-chance shots and played pretty well on the offensive end.”
Like Mason, Lucas has appeared in each of the past three Champions Classic games, while junior guards Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk have played in the previous two. But none of them have approached the kind of minutes Mason has logged. Lucas has played just over 23 career minutes while Graham played 38 a year ago but just 14 the year before and Mykhailiuk has tallied a total of 35 minutes in his two games in the high-profile event.
Carlton Bragg Jr. — 4 points and 1 rebound in 11 minutes in last year’s game — is the only other Jayhawk on the current roster to have experienced this stage.
As a group, that foursome has combined to score 18 points on 6-of-29 shooting in all of those previous appearances. And of those 18 points, nearly a third came from the free throw line.
If the Jayhawks hope to tip their Champions Classic fortune to a more positive outcome, it’s going to take much better efforts than any player on the roster has given in this event to date, veterans and newcomers alike.
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self warned before the Jayhawks’ season-opener in Honolulu that KU would be in trouble if they did not defend Indiana’s three-point shooters.
Sixteen makes and 48 percent from three-point range later, the Hoosiers dropped KU to 0-1 on the season with a 103-99, overtime battle in the Armed Forces Classic.
Self and senior guard Frank Mason both admitted that part of the Jayhawks’ struggles against the three-point shot was that Indiana shot out of its mind and hit some very tough shots and incredibly clutch times. But that did not eliminate the fact that both believed the Jayhawks could defend better and Self said, yet again, that they better Tuesday night against No. 1 Duke in New York City.
“We’re capable of being a very good shooting team,” Self said. “But Indiana and Duke aren’t teams you probably want to get in a HORSE contest with and I think sometimes they can kind of goad you into that. They hit a three and you want to match it on the other end.”
That happened at times against the Hoosiers and Self said it easily could happen again against the Blue Devils, given the enormous stage, magnitude of the game and desire to right what went wrong in the opener.
“They’re about as good a shooting team as we’ll play all year,” Self said of 2-0 Duke. “We may play the best two shooting teams that we’ll play all year in the first two games. We didn’t do a great job defending Indiana and we’ve gotta be a lot better getting to the three-point shooters against Duke.”
One way to do that, according to Self, is to make Duke’s sharp-shooters work when they don’t have the ball.
“We need to do some different things to kind of create less rhythm for them offensively,” Self said. “And sometimes you can do that when you have the ball and make them guard you on the defensive end.
“You want to give the defense a chance to break down,” he continued. “The other thing is, when you’re in the bonus or double-bonus, a lot of times you’re bailing out the defense by not making them guard, especially when they’re calling it close. You want to put pressure on officials to make calls and the best way to do that is to put pressure on the other team to have to guard the ball.”
Self and No. 7 Kansas will face No. 1 Duke a little after 8 p.m. Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden in the Champions Classic.