I was going to being this post with a line something like “An incredibly important week for KU began with a disappointing – and avoidable – loss.”
But then I realized pretty much every week is incredibly important in the Big 12 this season.
A week ago KU went through K-State at home (fortunate to win), West Virginia on the road (a huge, potentially season-altering, win), and Baylor at home (another very fortunate win). That was no joke.
Getting through that week 3–0 while the rest of the league slipped seemed massive.
Then this week rolled around. At Oklahoma and Trae Young last night. Texas A&M at home on Saturday, which although it has nothing to do with the league race is still an important game for gauging how this team will handle the back half of the league schedule, and then at K-State on Monday. Even throwing out the A&M game, all the good fortune of last week could be wiped out with two losses to their conference foes.
So things looked awfully good midway through the second half last night. KU had built solid leads twice. Oklahoma carved into those leads then KU re-extended. Devonte’ Graham was slowing Young, taking away the deep bombs to give up drives to the rim. KU was actually rebounding well. Svi and Malik were hitting shots. Udoka Azubuike was just destroying folks inside. You knew there would be another run, but I felt confident as hell that KU would hold it off.
I should note here that because of the 7:00 eastern tip and some kid activities, I chose to watch the entire game on delay. And I’m always like 75% less stressed in those situations. Had I watched live, I might have had less faith. But on my DVR, I thought KU would close it out, even with the inevitable offensive lull that always comes late in games.
And then Lon Kruger did something interesting. He put in a kid who hadn’t played all night specifically to foul Udoka. Four times. And it would have been five if Matt Freeman hadn’t picked up a foul on the offensive end, too.
Of course it freaking worked. Udoka went 0–5 down the stretch. OU turned the ball over three times in that stretch but finally got a three from Christian James to take the lead, then another from Brady Manek to ice it.
And now KU fans are reminding themselves they can love their coach and still be pissed at him.
Listen, I get what Bill Self was trying to do. Udoka is a kid that doesn’t exactly exude confidence. He gets down on himself quickly. He’s already a terrible free throw shooter. If you take him out there, does his 40% FT rate drop even lower the rest of the year? Is it worth sacrificing one game to try to give him a shot of confidence for the next 15 games?
Maybe. Although going 0–5 sure isn’t going to make Udoka feel better about himself going forward.
So you can talk me into the strategy on the front side. But after the second intentional foul, I think you have to yank him. Especially given that Mitch Lightfoot had played really well. Eight points, five boards in 17 minutes. Mitch shoots 84% from the line this year, although that seems artificially high. His free throws aren’t always pretty. But even if he’s a 60% shooter, that takes away that option for Kruger. Or maybe they foul Lightfoot too and he hits three of five.
The thing that really upset me, though, was Self’s strategy after the third foul on Dok: sticking him in the corner and making him stand there. So now you’re not getting the value you want from him, either as an offensive threat or a presence on the boards, and you allow OU to play 5-on–4 on D because there’s no need to guard Dok way out there.
A pretty epic brain fart by Self. At least he owned it immediately after the game.
And I’ve won exactly zero college games and have a roughly .500 record coaching first, second, and third grade girls. So what do I know?
KU probably still should have won. They missed a number of good looks on late possessions. Graham, who was fabulous defending Young, was awful from the field and even missed two free throws. If he can even go 6–19 from the field instead of 4–19, KU likely wins.
So it feels like a missed opportunity.
But I’m not super worked up about it. Even if KU loses Monday, that still puts them in, at worst, a multi-team tie for first entering the second half of the schedule. It would be nice to start the last nine games up one or two, but being even is better than being behind. And I figured they weren’t going to win the Big 12 this year, anyway, so I’m remaining a lot more even-keeled than I normally am after close loses this time of year.
As for Trae, man, what a player. I thought KU played him great: take away the deep looks and hope that his drives result in more layups than open 3’s off his passes. That strategy worked most of the night, although KU struggled to shut down those looks by other Sooners. I thought Graham was fantastic staying on Trae all over the court. But I also thought Trae was really good in not forcing stuff. He only took three 3’s, which seems insane.
I kept trying to think how I would compare Trae to Kevin Durant. Neither player is/was really guardable. KD could shoot from anywhere, get to the rim, post up. Trae can shoot from anywhere, get to the rim, and has unreal court vision. I think I give the edge to KD simply because at 6’11” he was such a freak doing all the things he did. I think it’s easier to at least try to game plan for Trae. He might blow it up, but at least you give yourself hope you can do something to slow him down.
Then again, does Trae make his teammates better than KD made his? KD was a solid passer, but Trae sees things no one else can see. He makes some crazy ass passes. But, to he fair, those are passes that get caught and converted in the NBA.
I think the margin is pretty close, though. There have been a lot of great players roll through the Big 12. Trae has already passed everyone not named Durant. And if he keeps going for 30 and 10 a night, he just might leap KD.