Preview: KU men’s basketball opens lengthy home stretch with Eastern Illinois

photo by: Brian Spurlock/KemperSports LIVE

Kansas Jayhawks center Hunter Dickinson (1) is introduced before the game against the Tennessee Volunteers during the final round of the Allstate Maui Invitational on November 22, 2023, at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.

After a whirlwind Thanksgiving week that saw the Jayhawks battle two of the nation’s top teams across the ocean at the Maui Invitational, they finally get a chance to come home again.

Kansas last played at Allen Fieldhouse more than two weeks ago when it beat Manhattan on Nov. 10 and will welcome another mid-major foe Tuesday night in Eastern Illinois. KU does not play away from home again before traveling to Indiana on Dec. 16.

The fifth-ranked Jayhawks will be playing for the first time this season without a “No. 1” in front of their name following their loss to Marquette, but will nevertheless be buoyed by a redemptive win over Tennessee last Wednesday, one that KU coach Bill Self called “one of the best wins we’ve had in a long time.”

“Thirteen hours (after the Marquette game), one starter (KJ Adams Jr.) hadn’t slept in four or five days, you got Kevin (McCullar Jr.) playing sick the whole time, you got a lot of things going on and somehow rallied to beat a team that could easily win the SEC,” Self said Monday. “That was a big win for us, and a gutsy win to be honest with you.”

The Jayhawks will now hope to build additional momentum against EIU as Friday’s showdown with reigning national champion No. 4 UConn looms on the horizon.

It’s hard to imagine center Hunter Dickinson, who was named to the Maui all-tournament team, picking up any more speed than he already has. Dickinson said he felt let his team down defensively against Marquette and its center Oso Ighodaro; KU coach Bill Self disagreed, suggesting that Ighodaro simply had an “unbelievable” game. Regardless, Dickinson rallied Wednesday to the tune of a first-half double-double and a final statline of 17 points and 20 rebounds, becoming the first KU player since Cole Aldrich in 2008-09 with multiple 20-rebound games in a season.

“I don’t buy into his thinking at all (about letting his team down),” Self said Wednesday. “But I thought he did well today … That’s two games that we played against two really good teams where a guy’s got 20 and 21 rebounds in games.

“If you were going to evaluate Hunter from Michigan, I would say that’s one of the biggest areas he could improve in, was not only rebounding the ball in his area, but outside his area. So he’s definitely getting better at that.”

He should have another chance to thrive against Eastern Illinois, which has a fairly large arsenal of 6-foot-8 players but only one taller than that in the 6-foot-10 Jermaine Hamlin. The Panthers were picked to finish last in the Ohio Valley Conference this season and have just one Division I win, 48-46 over Coppin State when Corey Sawyer Jr. drove for the game-winner in the final seconds. Their other two victories are against Division III Monmouth and Eureka. (After facing KU, they will take on the NAIA University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy.)

JUCO transfer guard Nakyel Shelton has scored more than 20 points twice already this season, and he, Toledo transfer forward Kooper Jacobi and injured starting point guard Tiger Booker are all averaging double-digit points.

“I think they can all shoot,” Self said. “Now statistically it doesn’t all show that, but you look at them, everybody’s got good form, everybody can get their own shot, everybody can shoot.”

Jacobi, who leads the team with 11.1 points per game, had a double-double in the Panthers’ 28-point loss to Illinois, a team that beat KU in a charity exhibition last month. Hamlin and Jacobi have started all seven games for EIU, but six other players have started at least one each.

The Panthers are 0-23 in their history against ranked opponents, though they did beat a power-conference team last season in Iowa. They have never played against KU.

No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks (5-1) vs. Eastern Illinois Panthers (3-4)

• Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, 7 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN+

Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)

Keep an eye out

Freshman on the rise: Jamari McDowell was the talk of the town after playing 27 strong minutes off the bench against Tennessee in Honolulu, not long after he had shone in just the final four minutes against Kentucky in the Champions Classic. He’s shooting with greater confidence than any of KU’s other “perimeter newcomers” — a phrase that has become a convenient shorthand for him, Johnny Furphy, Elmarko Jackson and Nick Timberlake — and has been much more of a factor on defense and the glass. Self said McDowell “didn’t try to do more than what he’s ready to do right now, which is just move the ball, guard, rebound and if you’re wide open, shoot it.” Over the course of the season, Furphy and Jackson may have higher ceilings than McDowell, but in the immediate future, Self could choose to give him higher priority off the bench or even a start.

Hero’s welcome: Adams played in all three games at the Maui Invitational within five days of losing his mother to cancer. Bill Self frequently expressed his sympathies for his junior forward and his ability to play under such adverse circumstances but lamented that he was “exhausted” and “playing on fumes.” The bench did step up to make things easier for Adams, but he acquitted himself quite well versus Tennessee with 13 points and four rebounds. After he received a standing ovation when he first entered the game against Chaminade in Honolulu, he’ll certainly be the recipient of Jayhawk fans’ adulation back in Lawrence.

Slumping: Midway through the first half Wednesday, Timberlake was the beneficiary of a designed play that saw him cut to the hoop, field a slick bounce pass from Parker Braun and sink a reverse layup. It could have been a confidence-boosting moment from the struggling Towson transfer, but he hit his head 43 seconds later and did not return to the game. Self said afterward and again Monday that he was fine. Tuesday presents another opportunity for the sixth-year senior to make a more positive impression after struggling offensively to start the year.

Off-kilter observation

EIU head coach Marty Simmons, who picked up his 300th win as a head coach Saturday against Eureka, was once an assistant coach on an Evansville team that lost 95-74 to KU in the 1999 NCAA Tournament. Simmons later became the head coach of the Purple Aces for 11 seasons. Self called him a “terrific coach.”


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