Benton Smith: Defensive identity the reason these Jayhawks are elite

photo by: Associated Press

TCU guard RJ Nembhard (22) scores on a reverse layup against Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020 in Fort Worth, Texas. Kansas won 60-46. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Fort Worth, Texas — The Kansas Jayhawks are so good it’s confounding.

A college basketball team isn’t supposed to go on the road and win with only two players consistently producing. But, as the Jayhawks reminded everyone yet again in a 60-46 victory at TCU on Saturday, what they do defensively makes them a such a tough out, regardless of their offensive circumstances.

During the majority of their latest gritty road win, it was Udoka Azubuike (20 points) or Devon Dotson (18) or nothing for KU’s offense.

Starting guards Marcus Garrett and Christian Braun went scoreless in their combined 54 minutes.

Every once in a while, Ochai Agbaji or Isaiah Moss or David McCormack would put the ball in the basket.

And somehow the lack of variety in KU’s two-man show didn’t cost the Jayhawks a game in the standings in what looks like a Big 12 race that will come down to the last week of the regular season.

“If you think about it, who other than Devon and Dok really played well?” Self asked after his 700th career victory, which improved KU to 20-3 on the season and 9-1 in the conference. “I do think what all our guys did, I do think they guarded pretty well.”

The rest of the Jayhawks weren’t producing points the way Azubuike and Dotson were, but late in the second half their defensive efforts made all the difference after TCU cut KU’s lead to 4 with more than six minutes to play.

What followed were steals by Garrett, Agbaji and Moss, as well as a TCU turnover in the paint. When Dotson chased down a blocked Moss layup on the fast break and finished a lay-in of his own, KU was up 11 and in control because of its defense.

“We knew we had to lock in,” Agbaji said of the stretch that erased the possibility of a woeful finish for the Jayhawks, who improved to 5-0 in Big 12 road games.

These Jayhawks are no strangers to offensive lulls. But McCormack said when those happen they have proven to themselves they can create some positive energy with their defense and the ability to get their opponent to play just as ugly.

Right after a Garrett swipe turned into a Dotson layup, Agbaji mimicked it and got to the foul line to make two free throws.

“I just saw a pass I could run through. Ran through it. Got fouled, got to the line,” Agbaji said. “That changes the team’s mentality and energy.”

His free throws put KU up 9 with 5:47 to play. The lead hit 17 before long as the Jayhawks found the juice they needed to finish off the Horned Frogs (13-10, 4-6).

Some teams win games with offensive spurts. KU can pull off the defensive equivalent.

“I think the defense leads to the offense,” Self said. “You get three or four stops in a row… In that stretch where we went from four to 11 or whatever, do we even run offense? We didn’t. All we did was get a steal and make a layup. Our numbers are so inflated for the better because we got some steals and layups. If it wasn’t for that our offense would have been pretty inept.”

Azubuike put up 20 points on 10-for-14 shooting (read: with layups, jump hooks and dunk attempts), while Dotson shot 7-for-17. The rest of the Jayhawks combined to shoot 7-for-27 (25.9%).

When it was so difficult for the rest of the team to find some type of offensive rhythm, McCormack said the Jayhawks who were in a funk made sure to rally around their leaders.

“If they’re scoring they have the hot hands, play behind that,” McCormack said of the mindset he and the rest of his teammates took on. “Create driving lanes for Devon, open baskets for Dok. Just anything we can to rally behind it, because once (the Frogs) try to get that hot hand cold, it’s then our opportunity to step up as open.”

Agbaji, whose 7 points on 2-for-6 shooting were the only other scoring contributions from KU’s starting five, said Kansas players not named Azubuike and Dotson needed to figure out other ways to contribute.

“Finding Dok the ball, finding Devon the ball where he likes to get in his spots or whatever,” Agbaji said. “We’re just helping them, really feeding them and then just playing hard defensively, too.”

There’s that defense that keeps coming up with this team, which moved up from No. 2 to No. 1 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com after stymieing the Frogs.

“I think our team kind of takes pride in that, making the other team play bad or whatever,” Agbaji said. “I think that’s something we hang our hat on.”

TCU mostly shut down six of the eight players in KU’s rotation. Strangely, that actually worked in KU’s favor. The Jayhawks are comfortable in these grimy, low-scoring affairs that have characterized the Big 12 this season.

You can watch them offensively for stretches of most games and scratch your head, wondering how they’ve won so consistently. But if you pay close enough attention to how the Jayhawks defend it starts to make sense.

Kansas is one of this season’s elite teams because it thrives on making defensive stops. It’s gotten to a point where their own nasty offensive stretches don’t even faze them.

They might even fuel them.

“When you labor offensively,” Self said, “it definitely gives you more of a defensive identity, because if you score easily, a lot of times you don’t have the same detail to defense.”