Jayhawks can’t overcome frontcourt foul trouble in Round of 32 loss to Razorbacks

Kansas center Ernest Udeh Jr. (23) makes his way off the court as the Arkansas players celebrate following their 72-71 win over the Jayhawks on Saturday, March 18, 2023 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo by Nick Krug

If Kansas fans got flashbacks to when Devonte’ Graham fouled out during the Elite Eight loss to Villanova while watching Saturday’s finale, that honestly might have been a reasonable comparison.

It wasn’t just one player this time around, but rather the entire frontcourt dealing with foul trouble that ultimately sealed KU’s fate. On a day where officiating dominated the game on both sides, the Jayhawks simply didn’t have enough interior depth in their 72-71 loss to the Arkansas Razorbacks during a Round of 32 matchup at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

“We got into foul trouble and that hurt us a little bit,” said Norm Roberts, who served as acting head coach for Bill Self for the fifth consecutive game.

But this was always the biggest concern for the Jayhawks, who became the latest defending champ to not make it to the second weekend of the following NCAA Tournament. In fact, it has been since 2016 when Duke reached the Sweet 16 the year after cutting down the nets.

With K.J. Adams Jr. playing the small-ball center, he was averaging 2.9 personal fouls per game this year while trying to battle with opposing bigs inside. Freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. has played with a lot of energy as a backup center, but can commit unnecessary fouls at times.

That all came into fruition on Saturday in a game where both teams had key players in foul trouble. Adams and Udeh, in particular, spent much of the game battling foul concerns for the Jayhawks.

“It probably affected us both offensively and defensively, because those two guys have been playing the bulk of the minutes,” Roberts said. “Our offense runs through K.J., and he wasn’t out there for a while, and Ernest picked up a couple of silly fouls early, which got him out of the rotation early.”

Udeh’s first two fouls came on the offensive end, trying to set screens along the perimeter for a guard. He picked up his third foul with 3:45 left in the first half, which forced Roberts to insert Adams back into the game.

Adams proceeded to commit two fouls in the final three-plus minutes, so Zach Clemence was called into action to close out the first half. Clemence had played just seven total minutes since Feb. 1 prior to Saturday.

Box score: Arkansas 72, Kansas 71

Photo Gallery: Kansas basketball vs. Arkansas

Things turned from bad to worse within two minutes to start the second half, as Adams was called for two different fouls to force him to the bench. Moments later, Udeh was charged with his fourth foul while defending a shot with 16:01 left to play.

Roberts then opted to turn to freshman Zuby Ejiofor, who had played just seven combined minutes since Feb. 15. Ejiofor performed valiantly in his seven minutes of action, recording a block and collecting two rebounds. It won’t show up on the stat sheet, but Ejiofor’s screen assist led to a layup for McCullar at the 13:14 mark.

But it was also a stretch that coincided with a decisive 11-0 run by the Razorbacks, who grabbed a 52-51 lead with 8:54 left to play.

“I thought those guys did a good job,” Roberts said of his reserve bigs. “They tried hard, but in this atmosphere, it makes it tough.”

Roberts then subbed in Udeh, who got hurt right away, and Adams eventually manned the five spot for the final 8:22 of the game. Adams never actually committed that fifth and final foul, but the damage had been done in a game that came down to the very end.

“It was definitely hard sitting on the bench when all the exciting stuff was going on,” Adams said. “But I got in on the clutch moments and we just couldn’t roll. But everybody did good and everybody did good when I wasn’t out there.”

Arkansas finished with a 36-29 rebounding advantage against KU’s assortment of bigs, in which nobody played more than 26 minutes. The Razorbacks finished with 15 second-chance points on as many offensive rebounds, while the Jayhawks collected seven offensive boards and recorded just two second-chance points.

“We had some rebounds we needed to get, we didn’t get them,” Roberts said. “But give them credit. They played very well in the second half.”

Arkansas will head to Las Vegas for the Sweet 16. Kansas ends its season at 28-8.


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