McDowell, bench helped Jayhawks secure redemption and third-place finish

photo by: AP Photo/Marco Garcia

As Kansas head coach Bill Self, left, looks on, Kansas guard Jamari McDowell (11) attempts a shot over Chaminade guard Jessiya Villa (4) during an NCAA college basketball game, Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in Honolulu.

Honolulu — The Kansas bench, prior to Wednesday, often had a negative or at best neutral effect on its team’s chances of winning.

The “bench” — which for the Jayhawks might as well comprise players five through nine, because though Elmarko Jackson has started every game this year, no player has definitively staked a claim for that role — totaled 15 points on 5-for-18 shooting in the loss to Marquette on Tuesday, and did even worse in a close win over Kentucky, with 11 points on 2-for-13 shooting. On defense, meanwhile, it wasn’t uncommon to see a Golden Eagle or Wildcat blow past one of the five players for a straight-line drive and a layup.

On Wednesday, though, the Jayhawks won against Tennessee not despite but because of the contributions of Jackson, Parker Braun, Johnny Furphy, Jamari McDowell, and even in a three-minute cameo before suffering an injury, Nick Timberlake.

“We all helped the other four be better than what they are,” McDowell said postgame.

The freshman McDowell, possibly the least heralded of any of KU’s six scholarship newcomers, shone the brightest Wednesday, to the point that center Hunter Dickinson (who had 17 points and 20 rebounds himself) called him “the difference-maker and the X-factor.”

“He guarded, he hit a big 3, hit some big free throws, but especially on the defensive end, I think he was the X-factor out there today,” Dickinson said.

The numbers don’t leap off the page — the freshman from Manvel, Texas, shot 2-for-7 and missed back-to-back open 3s with eight minutes left, when either one could have been the dagger against the Volunteers. But having played only 28 minutes against Division I foes this season, he played 27 versus Tennessee, with his parents, three siblings and grandmother in attendance, and acquitted himself well with 7 points, four rebounds, an assist and a block.

When the sixth-year senior transfer Timberlake hit his head midway through the first half, not long after scoring a layup on a well-designed play, McDowell said his first concern was for his teammate’s health. But as he saw Timberlake go back into the tunnel it occurred to him he might need to play more than expected. (KU coach Bill Self said postgame that Timberlake was OK and did not suffer a concussion.)

Within two minutes of entering the game for the first time, McDowell had already pulled down a rebound, drained a 3 and dished an assist to Dickinson.

“We were running off maybe like four, five hours of sleep,” he said, referencing the quick turnaround between the Jayhawks’ semifinal Tuesday night and third-place game Wednesday morning. “So I tried to set the tone early, myself, early in the morning. It was more of a mental thing. Just come in with energy and the rest will take care of itself.”

It wasn’t his first moment in the spotlight, as he came off the bench totally cold for the final 3:46 against Kentucky, defended Antonio Reeves well and then made two key free throws to ice the result. But this time he had to sustain that production for the better part of a game.

He said that coming out of high school, “every team we played so far, the guys are the quickest people I’ve faced.” Even so, he kept pace with them for the final 18:11 of the game without coming off the floor.

“He’s staying in the gym, getting in extra work all the time,” super-senior Kevin McCullar said. “He’s just trusting the process. He’s a young guy, he’s learning his way, and he’s out there. He’s guarding, he’s taking caring care of the ball and knocking down open shots, and that’s what we’re going to need him to do for us to win big games, and that’s what he came in and did today.”

Part of what allowed KU to race past Tennessee in a game that was tied with 12 minutes to go was that although McDowell made the best case for more minutes going forward, it wasn’t just him contributing.

Jackson, although he hasn’t lived up to his potential by any stretch in the early going, was aggressive early to help the Jayhawks start strong in a game where they could easily have experienced a hangover. He had an excellent assist to set up a 3-point play for Dickinson. He also made all four of his free throws on a day when the rest of his team shot 7-for-18 (39%).

Furphy had the team’s worst plus-minus at minus-12 but at least made the two shots he took, including a 3 that cut off an 8-0 run for Tennessee, and kept the Volunteers’ athletic guards in front of him.

And Braun prevented a dramatic drop-off at the center spot during periods when Dickinson was out, also playing one of his best defensive games with two steals and a block.

It all provides a measure of encouragement at this stage of the season.

“There’s no question the bench, players five through nine were much better today, led kind of by Johnny and Parker, and Jamari, obviously, but I thought they did great,” Self said. “Granted, now we’re going to have to continue to develop some guys and that kind of stuff, but for Jamari to play 27 minutes in a big game, playing the seventh-ranked team in the country, was pretty special.”

photo by: Brian Spurlock/KemperSports LIVE

Kansas Jayhawks guard Elmarko Jackson (13) takes a shot against the Chaminade Silverswords during the first round of the Allstate Maui Invitational on November 20, 2023, at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.

photo by: Brian Spurlock/KemperSports LIVE

Kansas guard Johnny Furphy tries to get around Marquette forward David Joplin during the Maui Invitational game on Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2023, in Honolulu.

photo by: Brian Spurlock/KemperSports LIVE

Kansas Jayhawks guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) slips to the floor against the Tennessee Volunteers during the final round of the Allstate Maui Invitational on November 22, 2023, at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.


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