Well, it’s been some start to the new college basketball season for the mighty Kansas Jayhawks.
A highly enjoyable and entertaining overtime loss to Indiana in Hawaii on Friday night, and a less enjoying but equally thrilling last-shot win against #1 Duke in New York late last night. Even as an Indiana resident, if KU had to go 1–1 in these games, this is the split I would prefer.
A quick aside about having these marquee matchups so early. Every year college basketball comes up with new areas of emphasis for the referees. Sometimes they tweak or change a few rules, too. And, so, every November-through-early December games can border on unwatchable until the coaches and players adjust, and the refs do a little natural regression. It seems like a waste for KU to play IU and Duke, Kentucky to play Michigan State, etc. while we’re still going through this normalization process. I remember when the first Saturday of December was always the big, non-conference day of the season. But with football conference championship games taking up that day, and college basketball often not wanting to go big as Christmas gets closer, so many of these games are pushed to the worst part of the season. In a perfect world, we bump this Champions Classic, and other non-Thanksgiving week events, back to early December. I think there would be more casual interest in the games, and the product would be better for both the casual and hardcore fans.
Of course, other than all the whistles, both of KU’s games were highly entertaining. So I’m probably just an idiot. As always.
What do we know about the Jayhawks after 85 minutes of ball? I think we have just glimmers of knowledge about them at this point. Bill Self’s teams usually don’t play their best until we get into the heart of the Big 12 season. I think that’s going to be even more the case this year.
My biggest worry right now is the inside game. Simply put, there isn’t a good inside scorer on this team. Landon Lucas, bless his heart, tries hard every minute he’s on the court. He’s going to win the team 2–3 games this year. But he is also so limited on offense that you can’t throw him the ball every time down the court. Even when he’s wide open for a dunk or layup, he puts the ball down around his waist and gets ripped by littles who are cruising by.
A lot was expected of Carlton Bragg this year, mostly based on his high school ranking and his comfort and confidence last year as a freshman. “When he gains 20 pounds, he’s going to be a beast!” was the common refrain from KU fans last year. Well, he gained his 20 pounds. But whether it’s the pressure of not being an energy guy off the bench or just needing to grow his game more, he has not looked good through the first two exhibition and regular season games. I’m hopeful he’ll make strides this year; he has a good basketball IQ and seems to understand his role in the offense. But, man, right now he’s a mess on offense. When he posts, he takes terrible shots. He’s struggled to rebound. Sometimes it looks like he can’t hold onto the ball.
And then there’s the big fella, Udoka Azubuike. You can’t expect much from a very raw, 17-year-old freshman who just dunked on everyone in high school. But I thought he was fantastic last night against Duke. He was aggressive on both ends, he seemed to understand what he was supposed to do within the offense, and he made a handful of extremely important plays. If he can harness that and repeat even 75% of it for 10–15 minutes a night, he makes KU a much better team. Of course, you have to know there are going to be nights when he gets four fouls in six minutes and has no impact. Cheick Diallo looked really good in his first game last year, too, so we’ll see.
All that combines for something really strange: a Bill Self team with no good inside scorer. The past couple years, Perry Ellis was limited when faced with bigger guys, so he often worked away from the low block. But still, you got him the ball inside the paint, you expected a score last year. This year…I don’t think you can trust any of those guys.
So that’s the big concern. What is it balanced by?
A fantastic backcourt, led by the cold blooded assassin FRANK Mason. He almost single-handedly erased a late IU lead and got Friday’s game into overtime. He was pretty much KU’s only offensive option late against Duke and hit the game winner. I’ve always been reluctant to compare him to Sherron Collins, simply because Sherron was a much better outside shooter. But I’m starting to consider whether FRANK is the better all-around player. Dude just will not let his team lose.
Devonté Graham really hasn’t gotten going yet. I expect a huge year from him. Hopefully he can get these cramping issues under control and be a little more consistent.
Josh Jackson broke out in the second half last night, scoring 15 points in limited minutes. Since you always compare players to those who are physically similar, he looks a lot more comfortable and assured than Andrew Wiggins did three years ago. Wiggs was a better athlete and had a different aura to him. Josh, though, seems like a guy who is going to pick everyone up and make them better. Josh, FRANK, and Devonté together is quite a group, both in terms of ability and brashness. Last night was not the last T that trio is going to be responsible for this year.
LaGerald Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk offer a couple nice pieces off the bench. I’ve been impressed with Vick’s confidence and he is a tough defender. I think Svi is one of those guys who is either on or off, so he’ll look really good some nights, and you wonder why he’s on the court other nights.
Here’s the thing that really struck me through the first two games: it’s the most Bill Self KU team ever. What does that mean? Even Self’s best, most talented teams have gone through stretches within games where offense becomes a slog and you wonder what the hell they’re doing. His goal, though, is always that the guys who can’t shoot straight are also tougher than their opponent on the other end. When the shots don’t fall, win ugly by digging in on defense and getting the tough rebounds.
This team is going to be very, very ugly on offense at times. I think offense will get better, as Self is learning how to run things for four littles rather than three perimeter players and two bigs. He’ll keep adding stuff and the offense should offer more opportunities to score by January. I still think there are going to be a lot of times when we just get the ball to FRANK or Devonté and tell everyone else to get the hell out of the way.
I’m really heartened by the defensive efforts in the first two games. IU and Duke are very tough teams to guard because of how good they are at spreading the court and using movement to create open looks from outside. KU did a fantastic job on IU for about 25 minutes Friday, and the middle 20 minutes of the Duke game. You can always hang your hat on defense, and the young guys will just get better moving forward.
That said, whether it’s an adjustment in philosophy or just a matter of reinforcing that philosophy, KU’s perimeter players have to stop leaking off their men to swipe at guys driving in the lane. KU is giving up nearly 50% from behind the arc through two games. Granted, IU and Duke are both really good from deep. But every time a Hoosier or Dukie got an open look because a KU defender tried to harass a driver in the paint, I had shivers thinking of the same thing happening late in a game in March.
I think this team can be really, really good. They will also balance whatever level of greatness they can reach with moments that drive fans nuts. March is a long way away, and a lot will happen between now and then. For now, I’m going to try not to think of paths to the Final Four and how they can blow it, but rather enjoy a team that’s going to make big strides over the next three months.
You know what time it is…
Rock Chalk, bitches.