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Overreaction SZN: Some possibly irrational observations from KU’s win over Michigan State

Kansas' Ochai Agbaji (30) gestures after making a three point shot during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Michigan State Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Kansas' Ochai Agbaji (30) gestures after making a three point shot during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Michigan State Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

There’s no time like the season opener to overreact to what you witnessed out of one player or an entire team on a basketball court.

And, man, did the Kansas Jayhawks’ season-opening win over Michigan State at Madison Square Garden provide opportunities to formulate some exaggerated assumptions.

Welcome to Overreaction SZN at KUsports.com.

Not even head coach Bill Self has a great feel for this team quite yet, and it might be January or February — or even March — before we know what the 2021-22 KU roster is truly capable of.

For the time being, though, here are some potentially overly irrational takes, based on what we saw in one game from a team that played six newcomers in its opener.

Could Ochai Agbaji be one of the best 3-point shooters in the country this year?

The senior shooting guard’s 3-point numbers weren’t insane, but they were more than respectable. Agbaji went 3-for-6 from deep to open his final year in a KU uniform.

Even more promising than Agbaji’s production were those new and improved mechanics on his shot. The 6-foot-5 veteran now gets those 3’s off so quickly and so smoothly and at such a high release point that it seems like every attempt is going to fall through the net.

After going 78-for-207 (37.7%) last year, Agbaji looks like an even better 3-point shooter now. The catch-and-shoot opportunities he had looked automatic.

Actually … is Agbaji just one of the best wings in the country?

Agbaji proved to be anything but one-dimensional offensively, and lit the Spartans up for a career-best 29 points. The efficiency was something to behold, too: 9-for-17 from the field, 8-for-8 at the foul line, the aforementioned 3’s.

The variety involved getting to the rim, making a point to get to the free throw line, scoring in transition off of steals and showing off his ball handling by going behind the back on the fly after receiving an outlet pass.

Who is this man? Because he doesn’t look like the Agbaji that was advised to return to KU for one more year instead of entering the 2021 NBA Draft.

Now that Marcus Garrett is gone, is KU just going to have to outscore everyone?

In the 2020 NCAA Tournament that never was, KU was the favorite to win it all, in large part because of the trio of defenders Self could rely upon: Marcus Garrett and Devon Dotson on the perimeter, and Udoka Azubuike in the paint.

Last year, the Jayhawks still had Garrett and still had a top 15-ish defense (12th, per KenPom).

Now Garrett is doing Heat culture things in Miami, and the Jayhawks don’t have any one defender who can shut down one side of the floor — Self just last week likened Garrett to Deion Sanders.

There’s no lockdown perimeter defender, nor an intimidator or shot eraser at the rim on this KU team. A Michigan State team that didn’t look too overwhelming offensively shot 46% from the floor and scored 40 paint points, despite its 16 turnovers.

The most energetic and willing defender for KU looked to be freshman KJ Adams. But the 6-7 wing’s likely a year away from playing major minutes (he played 4 vs. MSU).

Will this team have a defensive identity? Will the Jayhawks be able to make stops in a one- or two-possession game in crunch time?

Is Remy Martin touching the ball enough?

Obviously this was more of a first-half problem for KU: Martin didn’t even attempt a shot in the first 20 minutes.

Even though Martin finished with 15 points, it was odd to see him playing off the ball almost exclusively in the first half.

Martin is faster than almost anyone he will encounter — even with the ball in his hands. And KU becomes far more dynamic offensively when Martin is involved.

Dajuan Harris is KU’s point guard, but that doesn’t mean Martin should ever be a 2-guard relying on others to set him up. You can tell that Martin always wants the ball in his hands, because he’s a natural and confident scorer.

His shoot/score-first mentality might not be exactly what Self wants from him, but the more Martin gets chances to attack from the wing or the top of the key, the better it will be for the offense and KU’s longterm ceiling — especially if Self can get Martin to set teammates up, too, when he draws the defense in.

Zach Clemence might be the efficient scoring big KU wants David McCormack to be

Who would’ve thought freshman big man Zach Clemence would be KU’s second-leading scorer in the first half?

The 6-foot-10 backup came in ready to produce, and put up 7 points on 2-for-3 shooting in just 4 minutes of playing time.

Clemence looked confident and comfortable offensively inside, scoring a layup and getting to the foul line (2-for-2).

Though Clemence did fire up and hit a 3-pointer during his limited minutes, he looked much better showing his good hands on a Bobby Pettiford drive and dish for a lay-in.

If you can score against Michigan State in Madison Square Garden in your college debut, you can score against anyone, anywhere.

McCormack scored 10 points, but he was 4-for-11 and forced too many of his attempts in the post. The Jayhawks are talented enough on the perimeter offensively this year, that they don’t need to try and play through McCormack nearly as much as they did last year.

Reply 11 comments from Ted Hume Scott MacWilliams Dirk Medema Pius Waldman John Strayer Shannon Gustafson David Robinett Keithii Alan Dickey

Undersized Dajuan Harris didn’t need to hit a shot to have an enormous impact vs. Kentucky

Kansas redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris defends the ball during a game against Saint Joseph's on Friday Nov. 27, 2020. The Jayhawks earned a 94-72 win over the Hawks in the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida.

Kansas redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris defends the ball during a game against Saint Joseph's on Friday Nov. 27, 2020. The Jayhawks earned a 94-72 win over the Hawks in the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off at the Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Florida. by Photo by Chris Tilley

In a primetime battle between two traditional college basketball powerhouses, a redshirt freshman guard who lacked the size and wingspan of most of the players on the court helped carry Kansas past Kentucky.

Dajuan Harris, all 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds of him, didn’t even make a field goal for the Jayhawks in a 65-62 win Tuesday night at the Champions Classic. But everything else the backup point guard did made it possible for KU to win.

Other than Jalen Wilson, who handled much of KU’s scoring load on a double-double night (23 points and 10 rebounds) for the other redshirt freshman, Harris, head coach Bill Self declared, was the best player in the game.

That’s because, along with Wilson, Harris allows KU to unlock its best lineup, a five-guard combination that spreads the floor and moves the ball on offense, and can switch every screen defensively.

Harris’ final stat line read: two points (0-for-1 field goals, 2-for-2 free throws), one rebound, five assists, four steals, one block and no turnovers in 25 minutes. And over in the plus/minus column, the slight guard with the knack for making winning plays posted a team-best plus-12. KU outscored Kentucky, 53-41 when Harris was in, and the Wildcats held a 21-12 advantage when Harris sat.

How does a young player, especially at his size, come in on such a stage and impact the outcome of the game against No. 20 Kentucky?

Self during his postgame video press conference provided a rundown of all that Harris provides when he steps on the floor.

“He’s a great charge-taker. He’s got the best hands. He doesn’t really try to do much offensively except move the ball, which every team needs somebody like that,” Self began.

“His understanding defensively and his hands are terrific. He had four steals and I don’t know how many other deflections he had led to potential steals or steals,” Self added. “I thought he was great, and I’m really happy for him.”

Harris, who only played three minutes versus Gonzaga and 16 against St. Joseph’s, essentially became KU’s fifth starter against Kentucky, as Self again turned to five guard lineups when starting junior big man David McCormack ran into some issues against UK’s long and athletic front court.

As it got late in the second half, and No. 7 KU trailed Kentucky, 49-45, with 6:41 to go, Self subbed in Harris and Wilson for McCormack and Bryce Thompson.

Before long both igniters were making game-altering plays, just in different fashions. For Harris, a true old school, pass-first point guard, that meant hitting Wilson for a made 3-pointer, calmly knocking down a pair of free throws and securing a steal — and making the pass — that led to an Ochai Agbaji breakaway jam, as KU built a five-point lead a little more than four minutes after Harris and Wilson checked in.

Wilson called Harris’ impact “phenomenal.”

“That’s two games in a row when Dajuan has came in when we need a spark off the bench and he’s given us everything that we need,” Wilson said. “It’s nothing shocking to me. I see ’Juan do this every day in practice, and I hope he continues to do this.”

Agbaji has known Harris dating back to before their time as KU teammates, as both players came up through the MOKAN AAU program. The junior thought the young guard was “special” versus Kentucky. And Agbaji thinks Harris can sustain his early season success, too.

“I’ve known him for awhile. I know that this is how he plays, just his IQ,” Agbaji said. “And the way he thinks and breaks down the game is great.”

Self described KU as “tiny” compared to Kentucky. But that’s perfect for these Jayhawks, who actually play their best with the 6-8 Wilson serving as the small ball stretch-5 and the undersized Harris utilizing his instincts on both ends of the floor.

As Agbaji pointed out, playing Harris also takes some pressure off of senior Marcus Garrett as the point guard.

Self used the five lineup of Harris, Garrett, Christian Braun, Agbaji and Wilson more than any other combination in the win, and that group outscored UK, 40-29, in 16:01 of action.

KU would’ve been in real trouble without Wilson’s scoring. But the Jayhawks needed Harris’ unselfishness and intangibles just as much.

“I thought he was really good tonight,” Self reiterated, “and certainly we don’t win the game without him.”

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Winning experience gave Michigan State edge against KU

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) chases down a ball during the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 at United Center in Chicago.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) chases down a ball during the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 at United Center in Chicago. by Nick Krug

The more you think about it, the more you realize the college basketball world should have seen a Michigan State “upset” of Kansas coming at the Champions Classic.

Sure, the No. 4 Jayhawks headed to Chicago with a higher ranking than No. 13 Michigan State. And, yes, KU had more recognizable returning players on the floor than MSU.

But Tom Izzo’s players — senior guard Denzel Valentine in particular — had winning experience on their side.

Look at the core of Kansas veterans — senior forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and junior guards Frank Mason III and Wayne Selden Jr. This is their third season together, playing key roles in KU’s rotation. While all of them have produced their share of memorable moments and helped Kansas continue its string of regular-season Big 12 titles, they haven’t done much damage in big non-conference games away from Allen Fieldhouse.

Facing Michigan State at the United Center is on par with a Sweet 16, Elite Eight or even Final Four matchup in March. This group has yet to learn how to win on that stage.

Freshmen in 2013, Ellis and Traylor played a combined 20 minutes in KU’s Sweet 16 loss to Michigan at Cowboy Stadium.

Mason and Selden, of course, have never gone any deeper in the NCAA Tournament than the Round of 32. And the past two years, Ellis and Traylor played much larger roles for KU teams that flamed out in the first weekend of March Madness.

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) puts a shot up over Kansas forward Jamari Traylor (31) late in the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 at United Center in Chicago.

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) puts a shot up over Kansas forward Jamari Traylor (31) late in the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 at United Center in Chicago. by Nick Krug

As for Valentine — you know, the guy who put the Spartans on his back and delivered a monster triple-double of 29 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists? He helped guide Sparty to the Final Four this past spring. Valentine and company knocked off Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville on the way to the national semifinals.

KU’s core of veterans has wins over Eastern Kentucky and New Mexico State in the past two postseasons, and losses to Stanford and Wichita State.

Valentine, like Ellis and Traylor, played in a Sweet 16 as a freshman. But he and MSU followed that up with a trip to the Elite Eight his sophomore year and a 2015 Final Four appearance.

Twice Tuesday night, down 13 in the first half and trailing by 11 in the second half, it seemed the Spartans didn’t have the depth or size to knock off Kansas. What they did have, though, was a talented star who knows what it takes to win those type of games.

Shot selection and defensive mistakes led to KU blowing its double-digit lead, but being unfamiliar with how to prevail in those types of games — away from Allen Fieldhouse — had to contribute to those mental errors.

The Jayhawks have four months to keep evolving and improving (and, who knows, maybe KU wins that game if Cheick Diallo is available) but this core of veterans has to find stability and consistency on both ends of the floor for Kansas to achieve all of its goals, come March of 2016.

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Getting to know No. 13 Michigan State before the Champions Classic

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo watches the action during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in East Lansing, Mich. Illinois won 59-54. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo watches the action during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Illinois, Saturday, Feb. 7, 2015, in East Lansing, Mich. Illinois won 59-54. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

The college basketball season is less than a week old, but thanks to the Champions Classic, in Chicago, fans don’t have to wait any longer to see some of the nation’s top programs going head to head.

Bill Self’s No. 4-ranked Kansas Jayhawks take on Tom Izzo’s No. 13-ranked Michigan State Spartans Tuesday (approximately 9 p.m., on ESPN) at United Center, right after No. 2 Kentucky takes on No. 5 Duke.

Self and Izzo, of course, are plenty familiar with each other. Izzo has a 6-5 edge facing Self (1-0 when Self was at Tulsa, 2-3 when Self coached Illinois and 3-2 since Self took over at KU).

Michigan State has won three of the last four matchups with the Jayhawks, who beat the Spartans in Orlando last Thanksgiving weekend, at the Orlando Classic.

Kansas ran into little resistance in its season-opening, 109-72 thumping of Northern Colorado on Friday, but points won’t be nearly as easy to come by in game No. 2. Michigan State, which opened with an 82-55 home victory over Florida Atlantic limited FAU to 33.9% shooting and blocked 12 shots.

As usual, Izzo’s team dominated the glass in its debut. FAU only secured 5 offensive rebounds on its 39 missed field goals, and MSU snatched 35 defensive rebounds (53 total).

“We did enough work, but we know we’re nowhere near where we’re going to be,” Izzo said afterward, “and yet I think there were enough bright spots. At times, we showed we could be pretty good.”

Considering Izzo has taken MSU to seven Final Fours, opponents can always expect a fight out of the Spartans. And that’s exactly what a KU team with Final Four aspirations of its own will get Tuesday night.

Here are the Spartans the Jayhawks should be worried about headed into the early-season showdown.

SPARTANS STARTERS

No. 45: G Denzel Valentine | 6-5, 220, sr.

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) drives past Marquette Golden forward Steve Taylor Jr. (25) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Kissimmee, Florida. MSU on Sunday will face Kansas in the championship game of the Orlando Classic.

Michigan State guard Denzel Valentine (45) drives past Marquette Golden forward Steve Taylor Jr. (25) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Kissimmee, Florida. MSU on Sunday will face Kansas in the championship game of the Orlando Classic.

  • Easily the most complete player this season for the Fightin’ Izzos, senior guard Denzel Valentine led MSU with nine assists in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. Oh, yeah. he scored 13 points and pulled down 8 rebounds, too.

  • Valentine is the leading returning scorer (14.5 points), rebounder (6.3) and passer (4.3 assists) from MSU’s 2015 Final Four team.

  • One of four unanimous selections to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team, Valentine messed around and got a triple-double (14 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) in MSU’s first exhibition, against Northern Michigan.

  • Valentine is a threat behind the 3-point line, too. He made 102 from deep last season, connecting on 41.6%.

  • Valentine might not seem like one of Izzo’s all-time great players (yet), but with 114 career games played at MSU, Valentine is on pace to become the program’s all-time leader in games played — 32 more will do it….

  • … He also needs 46 assists and 184 rebounds to become the only Spartan in program history to finish in the top 10 in both categories. Plus, Valentine’s 163 career 3-pointers currently ranks him 7th in school history.

  • While the Jayhawks spent part of their summer winning the World University Games, Valentine played for USA at the Pan American Games, where the U.S. won bronze.

No. 11: G Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr. | 5-10, 175, soph.

Michigan State's Lourawls Nairn Jr. (11) passes as he drives between Ohio State's Amir Williams, left, and Jae'Sean Tate, right, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament in Chicago, Friday, March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Michigan State's Lourawls Nairn Jr. (11) passes as he drives between Ohio State's Amir Williams, left, and Jae'Sean Tate, right, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Conference tournament in Chicago, Friday, March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

  • Sophomore point guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn only averaged 2.2 points, 2.4 assists and 1.6 rebounds in 19.4 minutes as a freshman, but is bound to play a much larger role for the Spartans in his second season.

  • MSU went 13-4 when Nairn started last year. His addition to the starting unit helped in the NCAA Tournament, as the Spartans advanced to the national semifinals.

  • Not your typical college basketball guard, Nairn is more of a driver than shooter. He only took 10 3-pointers in 758 minutes as a freshman, making 3.

  • Nairn scored 8 points for his career high at Rutgers, as a freshman. He scored 7 points and passed out 4 assists (with 2 turnovers) vs. FAU on Friday.

No. 5: G Bryn Forbes | 6-3, 190, sr.

Kansas forward Landen Lucas, left, and forward Jamari Traylor (31) defend against a drive by Michigan State guard Bryn Forbes (5) during the second half on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014 at the HP Field House in Kissimmee, Florida.

Kansas forward Landen Lucas, left, and forward Jamari Traylor (31) defend against a drive by Michigan State guard Bryn Forbes (5) during the second half on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014 at the HP Field House in Kissimmee, Florida. by Nick Krug

  • Likely Michigan State’s most dangerous 3-point shooter, senior guard Bryn Forbes drained 3 of his 4 attempts in the season opener, giving him at least 1 made 3-pointer in 93 of his 104 career appearances in a MSU uniform.

  • If you include the Spartans’ two exhibition games, Forbes has made 14-of-21 3-pointers in three appearances (two don’t count) this season.

  • Forbes started 24 games last season, and averaged 8.5 points in 26.2 minutes.

  • By hitting 42.7% from 3-point range last season, Forbes ranked fourth in the Big Ten.

  • In his career, the senior has knocked down 212 of his 512 3-point tries (41.4%).

No. 2: F Javon Bess | 6-5, 220, soph.

Michigan State's Javon Bess, center, reaches for a rebound over Ferris State's Peter Firlik (32) and Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

Michigan State's Javon Bess, center, reaches for a rebound over Ferris State's Peter Firlik (32) and Michigan State's Kyle Ahrens (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball exhibition game, Monday, Nov. 9, 2015, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

  • An injury to his right foot shortened Javon Bess’ freshman season, when he only got to play in 12 games.

  • Bess averaged 2.7 points in 12.3 minutes while trying to acclimate himself to the college game.

  • Izzo thought enough of Bess to start him in three Big Ten games — vs. Maryland, Penn State and Nebraska — before the injury derailed the forward’s freshman season. Bess averaged 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in 18.3 minutes in those starts.

  • With 9 points against FAU, Bess matched his career high.

No. 10: F Matt Costello | 6-9, 245, sr.

Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) goes up for a shot against Michigan State forward Matt Costello (10) and forward Branden Dawson (22) during the first half on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014 at the HP Field House in Kissimmee, Florida.

Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) goes up for a shot against Michigan State forward Matt Costello (10) and forward Branden Dawson (22) during the first half on Sunday, Nov. 30, 2014 at the HP Field House in Kissimmee, Florida. by Nick Krug

  • More of a shot-blocker and rebounder throughout his Michigan State career, senior big man Matt Costello led Sparty with 15 points in the season opener against Florida Atlantic. That was just 2 shy of his career high of 17.

  • With 2 more blocks, Costello (105 career denials) will move into No. 5 in the Michigan State record books. If Costello can block 38 more before the season ends (he blocked 48 last season), he’ll sit alone at the top, and surpass Branden Dawson’s mark of 142.

  • Costello only started six games last season, and averaged 7.0 points and 5.2 rebounds in 20.4 minutes.

  • An effective scorer inside, Costello made 59.8% of his shots as a sophomore and 57.9% of his field goals last year.

SPARTANS BENCH

No. 23: F Deyonta Davis | 6-10, 240, fr.

None by Mike Mulholland

  • A big man with the skills and toughness that just scream Michigan State basketball, freshman forward Deyonta Davis became the third Spartan in team history to post a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds) in his college debut, vs. FAU.

  • When KU gets the ball inside, it likely will have to worry more about Davis than Costello. The freshman swatted away five blocks in his first game with MSU.

  • Davis’ monster wingspan of 7 feet, 2 and 1/4 inches, and max vertical jump reach of 12 feet and 1/2 inches make him an absolute terror around the rim.

No. 14: G Eron Harris | 6-3, 185, jr.

West Virginia guard Eron Harris pumps his fist after hitting a three against the Jayhawks during the first half on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at Allen Fieldhouse.

West Virginia guard Eron Harris pumps his fist after hitting a three against the Jayhawks during the first half on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

  • If the name Eron Harris sounds familiar to Kansas basketball fans, it’s not because the junior guard played well in recent MSU-KU meetings. This is Harris’ first season with the Spartans after transferring from West Virginia.

  • Another 3-point threat for Michigan State, in his last season at West Virginia, Harris scored 17 points and made 3 of 9 from downtown in a loss at Allen Fieldhouse (in 2014). Later that season, he torched KU for 28 points and nailed 5 of 7 from deep in win at WVU.

  • In that 2013-14 season, his most recent after sitting out last year as a transfer, Harris started 32 games for West Virginia, averaging 17.2 points per game (fourth in the Big 12).

  • Harris ranked third in the Big 12 in both 3-point shooting (42.2%) and free-throw percentage (85.6%) before transferring.

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