Allen Fieldhouse was built for games like this.
During the nine full seasons that Kansas went without facing its historical rival from across the state line, seldom did the name of an opponent alone drum up the type of atmosphere that makes college basketball, and this venue in particular, memorable. Outside of Kentucky running onto James Naismith Court to face the Jayhawks, nothing sets a KU home crowd off quite like Missouri.
Thanks to time healing some old SEC exit wounds, KU basketball versus Mizzou returned from its nine-year hiatus on Saturday. And KU’s fans ate up every second of it.
Between the pandemic diminishing crowds to more of an afterthought status for a full season and the renewal of the Border Showdown happening in Lawrence instead of Columbia, Missouri, the scene actually lived up to the hype — even if the 102-65 rout robbed it of drama or status as an all-time classic.
As much as senior Ochai Agbaji, junior Christian Braun and sophomore Dajuan Harris and their teammates deserve credit for executing on the floor, even Bill Self admitted the 16,300 in attendance deserved an assist for setting the tone. Self acknowledged that the maniacs who spent the afternoon jumping and screaming and occasionally yelling not so PG things at the Tigers actually had a lot to do with the Jayhawks’ energy and focus.
“It was great to start,” Self said of the Border Showdown’s return. “The crowd was amped and we were amped. Great atmosphere. We played extremely well, so that made it more fun — at least for us.”
This was a two-hour long party if you showed up wearing crimson and/or blue.
Though the game lacked entertainment value for any neutral observer tuning in on ESPN, it had everything KU fans who love to hate Mizzou had been missing all these years.
KU’s student section was littered with signs like, “Mizzou Hates Christmas.” The rabid fans got to jeer a Tigers coach for the first time in nearly a decade, and delighted in watching Cuonzo Martin get whistled for a technical foul.
And as loud as they got to erupt following a 3-pointer from Harris or Agbaji or Braun’s hammer dunk in the first half, they also got to boo their hearts out. When a replay on the video board showed that Mizzou big man Jordan Wilmore gave a get-off-me arm extension in the general direction of Mitch Lightfoot’s head, the fans showered their rivals with boos, and then got to celebrate the technical foul that followed.
The game turned into the type of bloodbath that ravenous, KU-loving, Mizzou-loathing fans live for. They got to revel in the Tigers’ misfortunes. The student section got to swoon for mulleted cult hero walk-on Chris Teahan with minutes left in the second half instead of seconds. And they got to explode when super-senior Teahan released a pure 3-pointer to put KU over the century mark.
Agbaji, Bruan and Harris said they never had heard the fieldhouse as loud as it was Saturday.
“You play off of it,” Agbaji said of the impact the mob had on the Jayhawks. “But coach was talking to us, you kind of already have that energy going into the game, even in warmups. So you kind of have to find that happy medium of being composed and having the energy, playing with energy.”
KU’s fans and students don’t have to worry about finding that equilibrium. And both Agbaji and Braun expressed their appreciation for the raucous student section in particular.
Braun said: “Some of those students camped out for a week to watch us play. So they’re passionate. We’ve got to give them something in return. We appreciate that and all that they do for us, so that passion and energy was matched.”
This rivalry is so good that a game that didn’t even count in October of 2017 — an exhibition inside then-Sprint Center, in Kansas City, Mo. — had the vibes of a battle in late February.
Now the games count again. And Kansas, Missouri and college basketball are better for it.
And the KU fan base can once again scratch that notorious black and gold itch.
Prepare yourself for even more snarls and swagger from Kansas junior Christian Braun. He won’t be able to hold back. Not with that black and gold he knows all too well in his line of sight.
To say that Saturday’s Border Showdown revival means more to Braun than most current players on either side of the college basketball state line is an understatement. While the 6-foot-7 guard from Burlington, like all of his KU teammates, has never faced the Jayhawks’ old conference rivals, Braun has spent most of the 20 years of his life embedded in the rivalry.
Braun is the rare KU player who might actually look at Missouri with the same disdain as many of the Jayhawks’ crazed fans. So much so that Braun’s passion for the rivalry couldn’t be concealed when he spoke with reporters on Thursday.
“I’m proud to wear Kansas, and I’m going to be proud to get this win on Saturday,” Braun said.
Already playing the best basketball of his career (16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, 62.8% shooting), and doing so while successfully toeing the line between confidence and cockiness, that brazen approach will only intensify against the Tigers. And he has his family to thank for that.
His mother, Lisa, was a three-time All-Big Eight basketball player at Missouri. His uncle, Mike Sandbothe, played basketball for Mizzou. So did his aunt, Lori Sandbothe.
“They don’t really let me stop hearing about it, to be honest. My uncle Mike talks about himself all day,” a grinning Braun reported.
So when Braun says this particular game means “a lot” to him, he’s not overselling it.
He ended up on the crimson and blue side of the rivalry thanks to his dad, Donny, a former KU walk-on who would eventually transfer to Saint Louis.
“Me and my dad were always kind of on the other side. But I always tell people, I was always on the winning side,” Braun said. “So it feels good to be a winner. That’s why I chose here. I never really looked over in Mizzou’s direction, even though my brother was there.”
That’s right. Even his brother, Parker, wanted to play at Mizzou. At least for a few years. Parker, who was a walk-on with the Tigers, this past offseason transferred to Santa Clara. But Braun doesn’t think playing against his brother this year would have made the rivalry game more fun. He said he’s happy for Parker, now a starter with the Broncos, instead of a backup with the Tigers.
Braun said his brother learned a lot from Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin, and credited Martin with helping Parker grow as a person.
And then Braun’s inner Jayhawk got the best of him.
“They’re playing really good basketball over there (at Santa Clara), and that’s something (Parker) hasn’t seen,” a smirking Braun added, not missing an opportunity to take a jab at the Tigers. (Santa Clara is 7-3, and during the three years — one as a redshirt — Parker was at Mizzou, the Tigers were 15-17, 15-16 and 16-10.
Braun was asked if Parker will be cheering for his KU-loving brother in the rivalry game.
“Oh, absolutely,” he responded, almost appalled by the question.
In fact, Braun said all of his aunts and uncles and family members will be on his side of the border rivalry for this matchup.
“There’s no question. They’re all Kansas fans now that I’m here.”
He then suppressed a laugh, while adding: “We kind of give them something to cheer for.”
Though the KU-Mizzou rivalry disappeared for nine years for some, it didn’t for Braun.
“It never really died to me,” he said.
Kansas City, Missouri — With Kansas boatracing UTEP Tuesday night at T-Mobile Center, in what will soon be a footnote of a meaningless nonconference December game, the conditions were ripe for the Jayhawks’ reserve guards to slide into starring roles for a change.
And head coach Bill Self surely would have let the team’s veteran leaders, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun, rest a lot more in a 78-52 win that never was in doubt if he trusted KU’s backups more.
When Joseph Yesufu and Jalen Coleman-Lands subbed in during the first half, their performances inspired their head coach to wait as long as possible in the second half before letting them have another crack at it.
Yesufu turned it over twice, but worse, never looked comfortable when he got his first half audition.
Coleman-Lands was confident enough to come in looking for shots off the bench, but he took that approach too far for Self’s liking.
So as the second half played out, Self stuck with the KU players he trusts right now: the five starters and subs Mitch Lightfoot and Jalen Wilson.
There were less than five minutes left in a blowout before Yesufu made his way to the scorer’s table to check in for the first time in the second half. And Coleman-Lands subbed in not long after.
A 6-foot sophomore guard who transferred to KU from Drake, Yesufu’s second half redemption project began promising enough, with him contesting a 3-pointer right off the bat. But as KU moved to offense, an overzealous left-handed scoop off the glass from Yesufu didn’t even draw rim.
What would Self like to see from Yesufu (zero points) and Coleman-Lands (six points) when he turns to his reserve guards?
“Anything, really,” Self said during his postgame press conference.
“Our bench hasn’t been good, just to be real candid with you,” Self continued, before amending that statement to praise super-senior big Lightfoot, and say that he appreciated freshman forward K.J. Adams’ energy late in the tame.
“You know, Joe was not very good, and Jalen was not very good,” Self added.
With freshman guard Bobby Pettiford out due to injury, the Jayhawks needed much more from Yesufu and Coleman-Lands. And that will continue to be the case, maybe for several weeks, depending on the length of Pettiford’s absence.
The competition is about to tick up about a thousand notches, too, with Missouri coming to Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday.
You better believe Self will play his backup guards — both played 10 minutes against UTEP — even less versus the Tigers if they don’t attack the game the right way.
“We make the game harder than what it is. You just pass it to the next guy, and he passes it to the next guy and you take advantage of that. But those guys, when you say, ‘be aggressive,’ they think one thing: just shoot the ball,” Self said.
“They should look to shoot. But you don't have to hunt. And I feel like sometimes (Coleman-Lands) hunts a little bit, which is OK, as long as you move the ball and guard. But he over-dribbles it and Joe over-dribbles it,” Self said.
Those two will hear more about those topics in the days and weeks to come. And if they don’t adapt, Self proved Tuesday night in K.C. he’s not going to trust them.
Lightfoot, a six-year veteran, provided some sage advice for KU’s reserve guards after the loss, when asked what the bench unit needs from them.
“First off, we need somebody that there's no dropoff. I think those guys all have the ability to do that,” Lightfoot began. “What I mean by no dropoff is when we sub, the deficit has to decrease or the lead has to grow. I think that all the guys, like I said, can do that.”
And while Lightfoot didn’t bring up hunting shots or over-dribbling, he knows from experience a helpful tip for anyone in a KU uniform looking for more minutes.
“Playing defense is an easy way — make sure your man doesn't score, making sure they don't score when you're out there — is a really easy way to make your coaches happy with you,” Lightfoot said. “So I think that's something that we all can do.”
What can you learn about a powerhouse team playing its third game of the season — at home, against a team ranked No. 201 by Kenpom, no less?
Probably not a ton. But you can make some rash declarations about what transpired.
It’s still Overreaction SZN here at KUsports.com.
Suspended for getting a DUI, Jalen Wilson hasn’t even played for the Jayhawks yet. Remy Martin tweaked his back recently and only played 18 minutes in KU’s 88-59 win over Stony Brook. But the game still had moments worthy of disproportionate responses.
They are as follows:
Would KU have lost this type of game last year?
OK, maybe not. But it probably would’ve been a grinder that the Jayhawks eventually won by 10 or 12 because they showed up to the game with better players.
Point being: they didn’t have to ugly their way to a win after Stony Brook gave them a tough first half. And that’s because this season KU has an offensive player who can put a team on his back.
This year’s Ochai Agbaji is nothing like last year’s. And junior year Agbaji wasn’t that bad.
Senior year Agbaji (25 points vs. SBU) wills his way to the rim against weak opponents and strokes 3-pointers (4-for-11) anytime an open look comes his way.
Most importantly, even without Martin (0-for-2 in 18 minutes), the Jayhawks weren’t worrying about being able to weather whatever storm the Seawolves brought, because Agbaji’s playing at such a high level that it gives the whole team confidence.
Zach Clemence is going to start playing more
Shouldn’t a freshman big man’s minutes actually go down with Wilson about to return to the lineup?
Hey, what type of rational question is that?
Zach Clemence is too uniquely skilled to ignore or get buried on KU’s bench.
The 6-foot-10 modern big has made at least one 3-pointer in each of his first three games in a KU uniform, and he put up 11 points in just 12 minutes vs. SBU.
Clemence is playable, too, on both ends of the floor. He will need to get a lot stronger in years to come to be more impactful inside, but he was almost always in the right position defensively Thursday night. Plus, Clemence has the footwork to defend a big facing up or trying to take him off the bounce.
Then there’s the real reason KU needs to play him: that smooth stroke from behind the arc. Clemence fires away like he’s convinced the ball’s going in every time it leaves his hands. He went 2-for-4 against Stony Brook. He even looked like a veteran filling the lane on one fast break, and then spotting up on the left wing to knock down a 3.
Clemence is a stretch-5, and that makes him unique — even on this deep and talented roster.
Christian Braun should assert himself offensively
Obviously, Christian Braun could’ve gone scoreless and KU still would have had no problem winning this game.
But especially on a night when Martin wasn’t in the mix as a scoring threat, it was surprising to see Braun only took five shots — he went 4-for-5 and scored 11 points.
Braun, a junior who is going to play a ton of minutes this year because of his intangibles, is going to be needed offensively some nights in the near future. If there are games when Agbaji and/or Martin are in foul trouble or just don’t have it going for whatever reason, the Jayhawks will need someone on the perimeter to step up.
With 38 career starts and the ability to live up to Bill Self’s expectations on both ends of the court, Braun should be KU’s third-best scoring guard.
And he’s trusted enough — and knows how to play the right way — that no one is going to call him out for taking too many shots or anything like that.
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.
The man most everybody inside Allen Fieldhouse came to see Wednesday night didn’t even start for No. 3-ranked Kansas. But basketball aficionados no doubt derived some entertainment out of watching a different style of lead guard, and one who actually started, while they were waiting for the main event.
No, not Chris Teahan, the sixth-year walk-on and student section favorite who replaced highly anticipated Arizona State transfer Remy Martin in KU’s starting five. Dajuan Harris, the redshirt sophomore who isn’t as likely to frequent the highlight reels on social media as the flashier Martin, but plays the type of basketball that coaches love.
Harris fits in so well on both ends of the court that head coach Bill Self might have even started the wiry point guard over Jalen Wilson (suspended) for the 86-60 preseason warmup versus Emporia State.
Martin (15 points on 7-for-10 shooting) proved to be electric with the ball in his hands from the moment he checked into the exhibition about six and a half minutes into the action.
But it was Harris who gave the Jayhawks their first spark of the night a few minutes earlier, diving onto the floor to give KU some defensive energy, which it had sorely lacked most of the opening minutes. Harris’ hustle turned into a KU steal and soon after a Christian Braun bucket in transition. It was one of those underrated moments that gets a team that should be dominating on track.
Harris, the quiet, 6-foot-1 guard from Columbia, Mo., had a low-key night in the box score, too, finishing with six points, two assists and one steal in 22 minutes.
As Self said Harris told him after the exhibition, it was an “OK” performance. But that doesn’t mean Harris’ spot in the starting five will be in jeopardy. Harris attacks the game in a way that his coach appreciates.
“Juan has been as good a player as we’ve had,” Self said of what the Jayhawks have looked like during their preseason practices, “so Juan’s going to start. I don't know if that'll be for all season long or whatever. But for the foreseeable future, for sure, we’ve got to have Juan on the floor. Juan and Remy can play together, they can both start together. But Juan has been very consistent so far. He's got good hands.”
Self didn’t start Martin against Emporia State, but he did start Harris. Self said Martin coming off the bench had to do with the coach expecting his players to play a certain way. He mentioned Martin is quick, but doesn’t use that quickness on the defensive end of the court.
Harris and Martin are two very different types of guards, but there’s got to be some benefit to the more experienced scorer taking on some of the traits of the reserved sophomore.
Martin is a shot-maker. A walking bucket, as the kids like to say. And no one with KU, including Self, wants that to change. When Martin checked in Wednesday night, the former All-Pac 12 guard saw defenders in front of him that he knew he could cook, so he did — even though his coach at least a couple of times in the first half would’ve preferred to see Martin move the ball and run the half-court offense instead of going one-on-whoever-was-in-front-of-him and scoring.
Harris is as old school a point guard as you’ll come across these days. He’s all about running KU’s sets, finding teammates, and getting to the right spots on the floor.
You could call the contrasting styles of Martin and Harris just a case of both players playing to their strengths. The thing is Martin could be even more crucial for the Jayhawks by adding some of those Harris attributes.
Self knows both guards go about their business in ways that benefit KU.
“I think Remy can just kind of understand ball and body movement gives the post guy a better touch than him just holding it, trying to get the ball to the post guy,” Self gave as one example of how Martin could emulate Harris.
This is the long game for Self: bring Martin off the bench now, in an exhibition that doesn’t matter and you’re obviously going to win anyway. Send a message about the type of basketball you want him to play. Not only do you get to see how he reacts, you also send a reminder to everyone on the roster that if you’re not willing to approach the game in a certain way — the way Self wants — then you could end up on the bench, whether you’re the 10th man in a deep rotation or the preseason Big 12 player of the year.
You can never tell much about KU from these lopsided exhibition blowouts in early November. But Self made it more interesting than expected with a bold move, bringing a star — the students showered Martin with chants of “Remy” moments after the exhibition as he did an on-court interview — off the bench.
The way the Jayhawks struggled to score inside this season, Kansas was going to need some good fortune in terms of March Madness matchups to make any kind of deep run in 2021.
In the NCAA Tournament’s 68-team field, there might not have been any team more perfectly suited to knock out Kansas than USC.
Considering how often the Jayhawks (21-9) had issues converting around the rim throughout the season, it was going to take an out of character or out of body experience Monday night in Indianapolis for them to turn a weakness into a strength.
So, of course, missed shots inside cost them in a second-round drubbing at the hands — attached to long, distracting, shot-altering arms — of the Trojans.
Bill Self knows this team better than anybody, and shortly after KU’s season ended a round shy of the Sweet 16, Self said during his postgame video press conference late Monday night that he knew USC was not an ideal matchup for the Jayhawks.
“I would never say this to our team, but I wouldn't have been disappointed if Drake had won the game against SC,” Self said of the first-round game that determined KU’s second-round opponent, “not because Drake is not good, just because it's hard for us to match up with length and athletic ability. That's been the downfall of our team all year long. I think that was probably as evident tonight as it has been in a long time.”
While 16 teams remain in the hunt for the 2021 NCAA championship, the Jayhawks’ season ended with them converting just five of their 13 layup attempts against a USC defense that Self had said the day before the loss reminded him a lot of the long arms of the Texas Longhorns, who swept KU in the regular season.
Per hoop-math.com, KU completed the 2020-21 schedule converting on only 58.1% of its shots at the rim. As of Tuesday, that percentage ranked 219th in the country, miles behind unbeaten Gonzaga (72.5%, first in the country), but also trailing the likes of Kansas City (62.9%, 65th) and Kansas State (61.5%, 101st).
It’s hard to build momentum in a high stakes March Madness game when you struggle to score right around the hoop, and before long USC was sprinting away to the next round, as the Jayhawks became more discouraged about their inability to go find easy baskets inside.
In what proved to be KU’s worst margin of defeat in an NCAA Tournament game, 85-51, the Jayhawks shot just 12-for-32 (37.5%) in the paint.
The Jayhawks’ issues finishing at a high rate inside were prevalent throughout the season. But it proved difficult to solve the problem. As Self said several times during the past few months, KU lacked “guys that play above the rim.”
Self said after USC exposed KU’s weaknesses that he hoped to address the team’s glaring need for length and athleticism through recruiting. This year’s roster had some solid players, but none of them would be considered strong finishers at the rim.
According to hoop-math.com, senior guard Marcus Garrett ended up leading KU in made baskets at the rim, with 73, just ahead of junior big man David McCormack’s 70. Garrett scored 58.9% of the time at the rim, while McCormack was only slightly better, at 60.9%. Among KU’s rotation players, senior Mitch Lightfoot had the best percentage, 66.7%. But as a reserve playing limited minutes, Lightfoot only contributed 20 buckets from point-blank range during the course of the year.
KU’s 58.1% field goal percentage around the rim was uncharacteristic of Self’s teams. In seven of the past 10 seasons, the Jayhawks have shot 64% or better around the rim.
With this KU roster, it was going to take a stellar defensive performance as well as a solid, if not spectacular, night from beyond the arc for the Jayhawks to give USC a fight. And the Jayhawks got neither.
Jayhawks’ FG% at the rim, 2020-21
• Marcus Garrett - 73-for-124, 58.9%
• David McCormack - 70-for-115, 60.9%
• Jalen Wilson - 56-for-110, 55.4%
• Ochai Agbaji - 54-for-85, 63.5%
• Christian Braun - 33-for-69, 47.8%
• Mitch Lightfoot - 20-for-30, 66.7%
• Tyon Grant-Foster - 19-for-28, 67.9%
• Tristan Enaruna - 15-for-25, 60%
• Dajuan Harris - 12-for-25, 48%
• Bryce Thompson - 11-for-23, 47.8%
• Latrell Jossell - 1-for-1, 100%
• Gethro Muscadin, 1-for-2, 50%
KU FG% at the rim, past 10 years
(Player with most made shots at rim listed)
• 2011-12 — 64.4% (Thomas Robinson, 163-for-253, 64.4%)
• 2012-13 — 64.2% (Jeff Withey, 138-for-201, 68.7%)
• 2013-14 — 67% (Perry Ellis, 112-for-172, 65.1%)
• 2014-15 — 56% (Perry Ellis, 90-for-155, 58.1%)
• 2015-16 — 64% (Perry Ellis, 124-for-200, 62%)
• 2016-17 — 65% (Josh Jackson, 127-for-184, 69%)
• 2017-18 — 64.7% (Udoka Azubuike, 176-for-214, 67.2%)
• 2018-19 — 62.9% (Dedric Lawson, 138-for-211, 65.4%)
• 2019-20 — 64% (Udoka Azubuike, 144-for-169, 85.2%)
• 2020-21 — 58.1% (Marcus Garrett, 73-for-124, 58.9%)
This year’s NCAA Tournament will be remembered for years to come by those who live and die with March Madness outcomes. And around Lawrence, where the absence of brackets and a potential national championship run in 2020 still stings for some, it will be impossible to look back on the 2021 tourney without thinking of Jalen Wilson.
An essential member of KU’s lineup in his first full season of competing at the college level, Wilson contracted COVID-19 just as the postseason got underway. And when the Jayhawks had to withdraw from the Big 12 tournament as a result, no one was immediately sure how long the redshirt freshman would be away from the team or whether he would be able to return and rejoin his teammates at all in their pursuit of a memorable March run.
Remarkably, similar to what the Jayhawks experienced with David McCormack in the first round, Wilson not only reunited with his teammates in Indianapolis following a bout with COVID, the 6-foot-8 wing from Denton, Texas, actually was able to play and contribute, too.
Wilson didn’t need to play like he was in midseason form on Monday night against USC to give KU valuable minutes. No one anticipated the young wing to be able to totally change the game against the Trojans the way McCormack did two days earlier versus a lesser foe, Eastern Washington.
As head coach Bill Self said during a pregame radio interview, all the Jayhawks wanted from their typical starter was for Wilson to come off the bench and play solid defense and compete on the boards.
Self finally called upon Wilson nearly nine minutes into the first half against the Trojans, as the team’s best rebounder and one of its most reliable 3-point shooters took the floor for the first time in 11 days, dating back to when KU beat Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo.
It didn’t take long for Wilson to at least give the Jayhawks some needed energy. After watching his teammates struggle to score over the length of USC’s defense, Wilson put his head down and got inside to try and give the team a lift on the scoreboard. His well defended layup wouldn’t drop, but his willingness to go make something happen instead of playing with hesitancy was welcome, given how things were going for KU offensively.
He kept it up, too, with a steal and a much needed assist on a rare successful KU 3-pointer in the first half. But a couple of quick whistles on Wilson made his first stint a quick one, even for a player on a minutes restriction.
And while Wilson is a lot of things for KU, he isn’t a miracle worker. He played eight minutes and scored two points via free throws in an 85-51 USC rout.
Again, no one expected for Wilson to be some kind of one man conqueror. As much as KU struggled against Evan and Isaiah Mobley and the wiry, long-armed men of Troy, the Jayhawks would’ve been even worse off without Wilson.
His presence was nothing but a bonus after spending more than a week in isolation, away from his teammates and undoubtedly wishing he could change what transpired over the past couple of weeks.
Wilson is a competitor, and was going to give KU everything he had. And because of that, just having him available to defend USC’s tall frontcourt players and put a body on the Trojans when a shot went up made him effective.
Regardless of Monday’s outcome and the what-ifs that inevitably come from KU diehards when they reminisce — or commiserate — about Marches past, Wilson and McCormack deserve credit for their efforts to make the most of an awful situation.
Imagine you’ve worked most of your life to become a Division I basketball player, and you were so successful in those endeavors that you landed a scholarship to one of college basketball’s most renowned programs, Kansas.
You watched March Madness when you were a kid, dreaming about what it would be like to get out on that court with the nation watching. You wondered what it would feel like to lead your team to a Final Four.
For Wilson, McCormack and Tristan Enaruna — who wasn’t able to return to the team as quickly — to go through quarantine in March had to be mentally exhausting.
It’s hard not to feel bad for these players who had the virus impact such a massive aspect of their lives at a time of the year that comes with such anticipation and excitement.
While neither Wilson nor McCormack were available for postgame comments after the loss, Self shed a little light on what it’s been like for two of KU’s most important players. Self said the Jayhawks got “lucky” in the first round to win when they weren’t at full strength.
“We tried to put a Band-Aid on it. But this team, down a starter or down a couple of starters,” Self said, “even if guys are actually playing in the game, but don’t have rhythm and certainly haven’t practiced and those sorts of things, that puts us in a situation where our margin of error is even smaller.”
So when you look back on the 2021 NCAA Tournament months or years from now, it’s all right to think about what might have been — the way many surely do when Joel Embiid’s injury-shortened 2013-14 season is on their minds. Just be sure to remember how incredibly hard the COVID pauses and unexpected breaks from basketball — during the height of March Madness — must have been for Wilson, McCormack and Enaruna.
They will remember this March much more than any observers will. And both McCormack and Wilson did as best they could for KU when they weren’t at 100%.
“It’s been difficult,” Self said. “I’m proud of our guys that we made it to the tournament. I’m proud of the guys that we were a three seed. I’m proud of the guys that we won a game in the tournament. I’m just not leaving out of here, nor are they, remotely proud about how we performed or prepared or how we got them ready tonight.”
With a long and athletic USC defense standing in between Kansas and a trip to the Sweet 16, the Jayhawks are going to have to knock down some 3-pointers Monday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse to get out of the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
Anyone who has kept up with KU (21-8) knows that junior Ochai Agbaji (76-for-199, 38.2%) has been the team’s best and most consistent 3-point shooter over the course of the season’s 29 games to date.
But considering this is March and the Jayhawks have now played a few games this month, I thought it might be interesting to get a quick reminder of who’s been hitting from deep of late.
Looking at the past three games specifically — all of them played in March — Agbaji has continued to be KU’s best option.
That's to be expected from Agbaji at this point. But a couple of surprising contributors have kept KU's 3-point shooting from falling off a cliff in March, as some of KU's production from others took a dip and one shooter missed a game.
KU’s 3-point shooters in March
• Ochai Agbaji — 9-for-22 (40.9%)
• Marcus Garrett — 7-for-13 (53.8%)
• Dajuan Harris — 3-for-4 (75%; all attempts vs. Eastern Washington in 1st round)
• Christian Braun — 2-for-9 (22.2%)
• Jalen Wilson — 2-for-9 (22.2%; did not play vs. EWU)
• Mitch Lightfoot — 1-for-3 (33.3%)
• Bryce Thompson — 1-for-7 (14.2%)
Obviously the most surprising development behind the arc has been the shooting of renowned non-3-point threat Marcus Garrett, who is cashing in lately, after going 15-for-51 (29.4%) in his first 25 games of the season, before March got here.
Garrett, a senior, has gotten hot in one game from time to time during his career, but he had never made two or more 3-pointers in consecutive games until knocking down two against Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament and opening up the NCAA Tournament with three 3-pointers versus Eastern Washington.
So counting on Garrett to keep burying deep shots against USC might prove to be risky.
Realistically, KU needs solid 3-point shooting from its proven deep threats: Agbaji, Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson. Braun went 2-for-5 in his first career NCAA Tournament game, after going the previous three games without a made 3-pointer.
Wilson is obviously a wild card, having just rejoined the team, leaving KU coach Bill Self uncertain about how much Wilson might even be able to play against USC, not to mention how effective he will be coming off a COVID-19 pause.
So the Jayhawks’ overall 3-point success could come down to how often Agbaji and Braun find themselves with open looks.
And the ultimate X-factor might be how USC decides to defend Dajuan Harris. Harris is 8-for-13 on the season and isn’t going to shoot unless he’s left wide open and the opportunity comes within the rhythm of the offense.
But the redshirt freshman sure looked like a capable shooter in his March Madness debut, going 3-for-4 vs. EWU.
On the season, opponents are shooting 34.4% against USC from 3-point range. KU enters the game hitting 34.6% on the year — and 25-for-67 (37.3%) in March.
If facing one set of brothers in the NCAA Tournament translated to automatic success against any pair of siblings, then No. 3 seed Kansas would be a shoo-in for the Sweet 16.
With all due respect to Eastern Washington’s Groves brothers, the Jayhawks have an entirely different type of challenge on the horizon Monday night, when they take on USC and Evan and Isaiah Mobley.
Tanner and Jacob Groves may have lit up KU for a combined nine 3-pointers and 58 points in the first round. But the Groves were also drawing some comparisons on Twitter to Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in “Superbad.” They were more unassuming than menacing.
When you look at Evan Mobley in particular, USC’s freshman 7-footer with a 7-4 wingspan doesn’t exactly conjure up images from a slapstick bro comedy. It’s more like watching Chris Bosh 2.0.
“He’s a few pounds away from being an NBA All-Star,” KU coach Bill Self said during his Sunday video press conference. “He’s that good. That’s a big challenge.”
Evan Mobley (16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game) is so impressive on both ends of the floor he has a chance to surpass Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Evan Mobley’s the exact type of multi-talented prospect that could be a matchup nightmare for KU. The kind of player who can almost singlehandedly end a team’s season in March.
But Even Mobley isn’t the only athletic Trojan the Jayhawks have to worry about. USC (23-7) has become one of the best defensive teams in the country this season (currently No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com) by rolling with an athletic and long front line. Evan Mobley (34.1 minutes a game) is almost constantly on the court, and the Trojans team him with his older brother, 6-10 sophomore Isaiah Mobley, as well as either 6-8 junior Drew Peterson or 6-9 sophomore Max Agbonkpolo. A senior, 6-9 Chevez Goodwin also plays inside.
Those spry USC bigs and forwards, with wingspan for days, prompted Self to bring up the personnel of the Texas team that swept KU in the regular season.
“You think about Texas’ length and how much they bothered us with Kai Jones, (Jericho) Sims and (Greg) Brown. I see the same type of stuff,” Self said of what came to mind when he watched USC. “But I think Evan’s even longer than those guys. I think he’s even longer than Kai Jones (6-11).”
The Trojans actually play bigger than Texas. The Longhorns typically played with three guards, while USC only plays with two. And oftentimes head coach Andy Enfield has the 6-8 Peterson or 6-7 guard Isaiah White at one of the guard spots.
With all of those arms taking up so much air space defensively, the Trojans can torment foes on defense. Just ask Drake. The Bulldogs were down 40-37 at halftime to USC before they opened the second half going 2-for-23 from the field, missing seven consecutive shots at one point and 12 more in a row at another.
All of this from a Drake team ranked 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency by KenPom (KU ranks 45th). Drake coach Darian DeVries said the zone USC utilized at times also bothered his Bulldogs.
“That length (made it) hard for us to get in the interior and finish. We were trying to get it inside to anywhere around the rim where we could get some scores or some easy baskets,” DeVries said. “They're extremely long, and we couldn't get to the spots we wanted to and finish over them. We weren't able to get maybe as clean of looks as we would have liked on the 3’s against the zone.”
When a team is skillful enough to get into the paint against USC, the Trojans have one of the best shot blockers and alterers in college basketball waiting at the rim in Evan Mobley. Listed at 215 pounds, he doesn’t have any bulk on him yet, but that doesn’t make him any less effective at protecting the basket. Per KenPom, Evan Mobley ranks 32nd in the country with his 9.2% block percentage.
After he blocked three shots against Drake in the first round of the West region, Evan Mobley said he’s learned through the course of this season how to contest more shots without getting himself into foul trouble.
“Yeah, in college there's a lot more details that goes into defense than in high school,” the 19-year-old phenom said. “So I really just used what the coach taught me. Stay down — that was probably my biggest thing I learned, because I get jumpy sometimes. But I just try to stay down and contest the shot, if not block it.”
Evan Mobley hasn’t fouled out of a game all season, and has only picked up four personals twice, the last coming a month ago in a loss to Arizona.
Currently ranked No. 5 in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, Evan Mobley isn’t just a defensive menace, either. At 7 feet, he can actually handle the ball and attack off the dribble, too. ESPN draft expert Mike Schmitz recently praised Mobley for having touch all over the floor.
“He has those unicorn qualities handling the ball in space,” Schmitz said.
That rare combination of length and ball handling, Self said, reminded him of the Longhorns’ Kai Jones
“He was hard to guard because his one step equalled our two,” Self said, drawing the comparison between Jones and what Evan Mobley can do. “You’ve got to do a great job of keeping him in front of us, but still yet pressure him and not let him get to his spots.”
Defending a long and nimble 7-footer on the perimeter could prove difficult for KU junior David McCormack, who is best defensively closer to the basket.
Even so, the Jayhawks’ best big man said he is looking forward to matching up with the future lottery pick. McCormack also made it clear much more will go into the outcome on Monday night than any one particular matchup.
“It’s not player against player. It’s team against team,” McCormack said. “The team is the on that wins the game, not the individual.”
And it might take KU tinkering with defensive assignments to find the right defender for Evan Mobley, the Pac-12’s freshman of the year, defensive player of the year and player of the year. Marcus Garrett might be better equipped than anyone else on the roster to defend the versatile USC star outside. Plus, if KU took that route, McCormack and/or Mitch Lightfoot could defend the 6-10 Isaiah Mobley (9.2 points, 7.3 rebounds).
Evan Mobley, as the saying goes, is a problem.
“He’s unbelievably talented,” Self said. “He’s extremely skilled. He can play behind the arc and certainly play within it, and he can put the ball down.”
And even if the Jayhawks can limit him offensively, his impact defensively appears inevitable, particularly with his brother and a slew of other long defenders at his side.
Seth and Evan from “Superbad” aren’t running out of the tunnel Monday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse. More like Jules and Vincent from “Pulp Fiction.”
“Certainly we’ll try to compensate with the Mobleys’ length and athletic ability and skill set,” Self said, “by trying to do things a little bit different than what we did with the Groves brothers.”