With a bench that’s thinner than the traffic going from Lawrence to Arrowhead Stadium will be today, Kansas University’s basketball team can’t afford for any of its four juniors new to the starting lineup to flop.
Based on the way they played in the Maui Invitational, it looks as if they’re ready for the responsibility.
Thomas Robinson’s strong play was expected and not what left those who made the trip to watch KU feeling better about the team.
Elijah Johnson showed he has the versatility to create his own shot driving to the hoop and stopping and popping long three-pointers. He made KU’s biggest bucket against Georgetown on a drive and hit the biggest shot in the Duke game, putting Kansas up 61-60 with 1:33 left by drilling a three-pointer with a defender in his face. In the game between those two big shots, Johnson torched UCLA for 23 points.
Jeff Withey, after watching most of the Georgetown game because of foul trouble, played much better against UCLA and had a particularly strong first half against Duke and finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and two blocked shots.
While the contributions of the improved Johnson and Withey screamed loudly, it was stealth standout Travis Releford’s play that came as the biggest relief.
Slowed by a long-lasting ankle injury that hit just as he was starting to come on a year ago, Releford played poorly in Madison Square Garden in a 10-point loss to No. 2 Kentucky. He had four points, three rebounds, didn’t have an assist and turned it over five times.
Was it just an off night or was he out of his league? Considering he’s not a particularly gifted passer, dribbler or shooter, it seemed like a fair question. He answered it in Hawaii by playing well against strong competition.
Releford put the big-time clamps on Duke’s leading scorer, Seth Curry, holding him to single digits for the first time all season. Curry made just two of eight shots and scored nine points.
Against Georgetown, Releford was extremely productive late in the game, converting a weak-side offensive rebound into a bucket, chasing down a loose ball and hitting a pair of free throws. He scored 10 points and also held Hoyas sharpshooter Hollis Thompson to four second-half points.
Coming into the season, Releford knew where he needed to excel.
“Defense has always been a strength,” he said. “Coming into games, I’m always thinking about the things I need to do on defense. I never go into a game thinking about anything on the offensive end. If I stop the other team’s best player, that gives us a chance of winning, and it keeps me on the court.”
Playing behind Brady Morningstar, Releford studied the things that made him a standout defender.
“He was always getting in the guy’s head, changing how the guy’s playing, making him uncomfortable,” Releford said. “He was real smart on defense. He knew how to get around screens and get under guys. He did stuff you can’t teach. I’m longer, stronger, taller and hopefully just as good.”
Or better. KU needs to play great defense to win, and Releford needs to be the best of the bunch. Nobody in Maui defended better than Releford.