KU’s starters continue to log heavy minutes in nonconference play
There are familiar signs to indicate Christmas Day is around the corner once the calendar flips to December. Christmas songs begin to play on the radio, and lights start shining bright on houses in the neighborhood.
Most importantly, the Kansas bench (or lack thereof) becomes a major talking point as the end of nonconference play draws near.
The second-ranked Jayhawks are 8-1 to start the season, with signature wins over Kentucky, Tennessee and UConn. But the bench has been unable to provide much of anything to begin the year, and it’s led to some closer-than-expected victories against inferior opponents whenever there is a break in the schedule.
Tuesday’s 88-69 victory over Kansas City was the latest example of that, as Kansas needed a closing 13-2 run to put away its opponent. It was similar to last week’s 71-63 victory over Eastern Illinois.
“Just calling it like it is, that’s a tired team right there,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “There are four guys out there playing 37 minutes a game or 35 minutes a game. We haven’t developed five through eight or five through nine to (this) point.”
Perhaps that is what makes KU’s bench issues seem a bit different this year compared to previous seasons. Self has had to rely on his top four players more than expected in certain moments, leading to a lot of minutes for Hunter Dickinson, Dajuan Harris Jr., Kevin McCullar Jr. and KJ Adams Jr.
The Jayhawks were considered 26-point favorites against the Roos, but never could pull away enough to give their reserves more playing time. As a result, Harris (35), McCullar (34), Adams (33), and Dickinson (29) all logged plenty of minutes.
“The starters got us off to a great start, I mean we had 22 points in the first eight minutes into the game today,” Self said. “But you have to sub. We just lose momentum when we go to the bench right now.”
Self has always preferred to shorten his rotation, but the minutes logged by the top four players are starting to add up, between all the marquee matchups and the inability to roll against inferior foes.
Harris leads the team with an average of 33.9 minutes per game, which ranks seventh in the Big 12 Conference. McCullar’s 33.3 minutes per contest is 11th in the league, while Dickinson ranks 17th with 31 minutes per game.
Adams is averaging just under 30 minutes per outing, but he’s perhaps more exhausted than the rest of his teammates right now. Following a win over UConn on Friday night, Adams flew to Austin, Texas, to attend his mother’s funeral. He made his way back Monday in time for Tuesday’s game, and proceeded to finish with an incredible stat line of 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“I’ve been going through a lot,” Adams said. “But just seeing all the happy faces around (me) when I come here. Coach Self giving me love, the teammates, the support from Jayhawk nation. I feel like I never get tired. Maybe when I go home and go to sleep, I might pass out.”
The entire Kansas team has been overtaxed of late, with six games in a 16-day stretch between Nov. 20 and Dec. 5. But the main four players have shouldered the bulk of the workload to this point.
Ken Pomeroy tracks the percentage of minutes played for each player. Harris is fourth in the Big 12 with a minutes percentage of 84.7%, but McCullar (82.8%, ninth), Dickinson (76.9%, 15th), and Adams (75%, 20th) all rank inside the top 20 in that metric as well.
For comparison, no other Big 12 team has more than three players listed in the top-20 in minutes percentage. Kansas hasn’t had more than three players rank in the top 20 in the league in this metric since 2012-13, when Travis Releford, Ben McLemore, Elijah Johnson and Jeff Withey all ranked in the top 13.
To put it another way, the Jayhawks rank 333rd in the country in terms of bench minutes percentage (22.8%), per Kenpom. KU has been 295th or worse in bench minutes in each of the last four years, so that’s not necessarily abnormal, but it speaks to how much the Jayhawks have leaned on the top four starters to this point.
“When you sub, the ball doesn’t move as well or a guy doesn’t remember a play,” Self said. “There’s a lot of things going on that we can be a lot better at with time. I still think by the time we start league play, these guys will look totally different than they do now.”
It remains to be seen how much KU’s bench will develop by the time conference play begins in January. There is a very good chance that the Jayhawks continue to lean on their main guys the rest of the way, which can be more manageable when the schedule becomes less condensed.
But it’s clearly having an effect on KU’s play at the moment, particularly in letdown spots against teams like Kansas City. Fortunately for Kansas, it will have a full week off between games next week after facing Missouri in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday. The Jayhawks will actually only have three matchups between Dec. 10 and Dec. 31, which will be an opportunity to rest before Big 12 play.