With the momentous rematch between the Big 12’s two dominant teams drawing nearer by the hour, it’s important to remember that Kansas should be bringing a much different look into Round 2 with Baylor.
It was during the two teams’ first meeting on Jan. 11 that Devon Dotson suffered a hip pointer late in the first half. KU’s starting point guard and leading scorer would only play eight minutes in the second half due to the pain and clearly wasn’t himself during the 67-55 Baylor win at Allen Fieldhouse. The injury would force Dotson to miss KU’s next game, at Oklahoma three days later.
To say that Dotson’s injury altered the trajectory of the first matchup between the Jayhawks and Bears would be inaccurate. Baylor led by as many as 17 points in the first half, before Dotson got hurt, and BU took a 12-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
The hip injury did, however, keep the Jayhawks from being able to run out their best lineups as often as Bill Self would have liked against the Bears.
In recent weeks, as the Jayhawks (23-3 overall, 12-1 Big 12) have rattled off 11 consecutive wins since losing to Baylor (24-1, 13-0), Self has relied on some combination of four guards and 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to wear down lesser opponents on both ends of the court. And the best lineups, of course, always feature Dotson, KU’s fastest guard and leading scorer (17.8 points per game in Big 12 contests).
Because Dotson’s availability was altered, the Bears only saw a little more than 11 minutes of the very best units KU can put on the floor.
As Self has almost completely gone away from the two-big lineups that he even used as a starting five earlier in the season, the best combinations game in and game out have included Dotson, Marcus Garrett, Ochai Agbaji, Azubuike and either Isaiah Moss or Christian Braun.
Listen here to our latest KU Sports Hour podcast, breaking down the KU-Baylor battle:
Against Baylor, KU’s lineup of Garrett, Dotson, Moss, Agbaji and Azubuike played 8:55, outscoring the Bears, 17-14, in that time. Swap in Braun for Moss and the 1B lineup spent 2:15 on the floor, with BU holding a 7-4 advantage.
Look at those same lineups in more recent KU games and you’ll see that the Jayhawks typically get to play longer with their most effective groups than the 11:10 they had versus Baylor.
In their past five outings, the Jayhawks used their two best lineups 18:02 against Texas, 16:05 at TCU, 22:02 at West Virginia, 22:19 against Oklahoma and 14:02 versus Iowa State.
Sometimes it’s the Moss lineup that works better and other days the one with Braun does the trick. But Self always has time to figure out which one will be best for a given opponent in the flow of each game.
When its two best lineups were on the court, KU outscored Texas by 10, TCU by 9, WVU by 19, OU by 26 and ISU by 10.
Baylor is obviously better than every other Big 12 opponent on KU’s schedule. The Bears’ defense, led by Davion Mitchell, Freddie Gillespie and Mark Vital, has proven fierce in the half court, regardless of the level of competition. Much like KU, Baylor’s defense (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com) has made it elite this season, as the Bears take a Big 12-record 23-game winning streak into Saturday’s rematch in Waco, Texas.
Dotson and Garrett will have to find the driving lanes that seem so impassable against Baylor’s perimeter defense in order for the Jayhawks to find success offensively. And every KU guard will have to be ready to knock down 3-pointers off whatever penetration and Azubuike post touches KU can muster.
With a healthy Dotson in the mix for the rematch, the Jayhawks should at least get more cracks at solving the Bears.
And they won’t be wasting any time with lineups that don’t function at all.
KU started Azubuike and David McCormack earlier in the season. That two-big look didn’t do the Jayhawks any good against Baylor.
The starting lineup of Garrett, Dotson, Agbaji, McCormack and Azubuike played two stretches against Baylor, totaling 5:20. The Jayhawks were outscored, 13-3, a virtual disaster offensively and a bad matchup defensively versus the Bears.
On Saturday, Baylor won’t see that KU lineup, but the Bears should get plenty of chances to try and prove they can stop the Jayhawks when they’re at their best.
KU’s most effective lineups
Garrett, Dotson, Moss, Agbaji, Azubuike
• vs. Baylor on Jan. 11: 8:55, outscored BU, 17-14
• vs. Texas on Feb. 4: 10:55, tied UT, 17-17
• at TCU on Feb. 8: 9:40, outscored TCU, 18-9
• at West Virginia on Feb. 13: 16:12, outscored WVU, 29-10
• vs. Oklahoma on Feb. 15: 22:19, outscored OU, 54-28
• vs. Iowa State on Feb. 18: 10:02, outscored ISU, 24-21
Garrett, Dotson, Braun, Agbaji, Azubuike
• vs. Baylor on Jan. 11: 2:15, got outscored by BU, 7-4
• vs. Texas on Feb. 4: 7:07, outscored UT, 18-8
• at TCU on Feb. 8: 6:25, tied TCU, 6-6
• at West Virginia on Feb. 13: 5:50, tied WVU, 10-10
• vs. Oklahoma on Feb. 15: did not play
• vs. Iowa State on Feb. 18: 4:00, outscored ISU, 15-7
One poor opening to one Big 12 game isn’t going to cost Kansas big man David McCormack his starting job. But even if head coach Bill Self keeps the sophomore forward in that first unit for the remainder of the season, the Jayhawks still need a definitive four-guard lineup their coach can trust.
Self just may have found one in Saturday’s win over West Virginia, when McCormack’s presence in the first half wasn’t helping KU’s chances against the rugged Mountaineers.
The coach countered by identifying his team’s five toughest dudes: Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson, Udoka Azubuike, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun.
That combination could become KU’s best lineup as the Jayhawks trudge their way through the conference schedule, with March Madness getting closer by the day.
This particular group of five players didn’t revolutionize what Kansas can do on the floor this year — Self said his team went from “awful to bad” offensively with four guards. Still, most college basketball teams can’t defend like WVU does. Plus, Self’s tough guy lineup endured that challenge, often willing its way to high-percentage shots in the second half, when such looks felt impossible to discover in the first.
Self rolled out the Garrett, Dotson, Azubuike, Agbaji and Braun lineup to open the second half, with the Jayhawks trailing 30-24. By the end of a 60-53 KU win that group played 15:59 together, and when they were on the floor KU outscored WVU by 18 — 34-16. The Jayhawks scored 1.26 points per possession with those five on the court, better than any other combination Self used versus the Mountaineers. The second-best offensive lineup (Dotson, Braun, Agbaji, Azubuike and Isaiah Moss) scored 1.06 points per possession.
These five resilient Jayhawks worked well defensively, too. Remember: They played 16 minutes and WVU put up just 16 points against them. And Self might have been able to stick with those five for even longer if Garrett hadn’t picked up his fourth foul with nine minutes left.
This lineup functions offensively by giving Azubuike the space he needs to operate in the post and catch lobs off screens, and featuring two of the team’s best 3-point shooters, Agbaji and Braun. Keep in mind, those two weren’t even a factor from beyond the arc (1-for-6 combined) against WVU and the lineup still thrived against what projects as the Big 12’s toughest defensive team.
Self thinks this KU roster can deliver a special season if its shooters knock down 3-pointers, so Agbaji (25-for-66 from deep this season) and Braun (8-for-23) will need to make that happen for the Jayhawks to truly become devastating offensively. It will be easier for all of KU’s players to find open looks from downtown against other opponents. WVU ranks fourth nationally in 3-point field goal defense, holding teams to 24.9%.
Back in November, when the season began, it wasn’t clear which four-guard lineup would be KU’s best. Senior transfer Moss was obviously the team’s best shooter, making him a leading candidate to play with Dotson, Garrett and Agbaji around the powerful Azubuike. Freshman Tristan Enaruna, too, looked like a legit option, with his versatile game on both ends of the floor and long wingspan. But if Braun, whose steady improvements of late have turned him into a reliable role player, can avoid any type of freshman skid, he’s the man for the job.
It’s far better for KU (11-2) to have a go-to lineup than always having to mix and match and tinker to find one. The group that led the Jayhawks out of the muck against West Virginia has some work to do to peak, and these five appear to have the physical and mental fortitude to mesh and grow together to pull that off.
KU will still need McCormack, Silvio De Sousa, Moss and Enaruna, too, of course. But its emerging four-guard lineup looks like one that can raise the Jayhawks’ ceiling.