Preview: KU will need to raise level of play significantly against UConn
UConn has won 24 nonconference games in a row — including every game in an NCAA Tournament — by double digits, the longest such streak since 1950. Kansas just barely fended off Eastern Illinois on Tuesday by an eight-point margin.
“We know that that wasn’t our best basketball,” KU center Hunter Dickinson said Thursday, “and I think, what better opportunity to showcase how good of a team you are than to go against the No. 4 team in the country that’s on a pretty impressive winning streak and just won the national championship?”
The two blue-blood programs enter Friday night’s Big East-Big 12 Battle matchup in Lawrence with different circumstances, if not particularly different rankings; the unbeaten Huskies are one spot ahead of the fifth-ranked Jayhawks. This battle of the last two national champions will be UConn’s first-ever visit to Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think both teams would probably agree: This is about as big as it can be on December 1,” KU coach Bill Self said.
The Jayhawks have acquitted themselves well against high-powered teams for such a young squad this year, beating Kentucky and Tennessee — the latter on just 13 hours of rest — but losing to Marquette. They will come into this UConn matchup off their scare against one of the nation’s lowest-rated KenPom teams in EIU, a game after which both Self and guard Kevin McCullar Jr. said they were not looking ahead to the Huskies.
“I don’t think it’s Friday as much as it was looking back (to the Maui Invitational),” Self said. “We’ve been a tired team since we’ve been back … It wasn’t the ideal game to play in the moment that we played. We needed to play a game this week, but I knew going into the game that (it) was going to be a harder game than what people thought, at least I felt it would be.”
KU will now have to hope two days without a game is enough to battle UConn. The Huskies, who last beat New Hampshire on Monday, will get their own biggest test in KU, though they have already picked up quality wins over Indiana and Texas in the Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Self and his players have repeatedly stressed that playing sound defense will ameliorate any lack of perimeter shooting and in fact help generate offense at the other end. The defense will be in for a substantial test against one of the top offenses in the country, which features five starters averaging at least 14.5 points per game in Stephon Castle, Donovan Clingan, Alex Karaban, Tristen Newton and Cam Spencer. (The five-star freshman Castle has played two games and had been hoping to come back from injury for Friday, but his coach Dan Hurley said this week he won’t play, per the Hartford Courant.)
Newton, who is averaging 15.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game, and Karaban, a stretch forward, return from last year’s title-winning squad. Spencer, a Rutgers transfer, is the leading scorer so far and a 3-point threat. And the 7-foot-2 Clingan, taking over from Adama Sanogo, will go head-to-head with Dickinson.
“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Dickinson said. “I love going against great competition, especially when they’re near the same size as me. That’ll be a really fun experience. I know that usually my teams tend to win when I win my matchup, and so I know that’ll be a big thing for me … I know it won’t just be me guarding (Clingan) at times. Parker (Braun) will get his chance too.”
Between Clingan and the dynamic guards, UConn has been, thus far this year, one of the top scoring and rebounding teams in the country.
No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks (6-1) vs. No. 4 UConn Huskies (7-0)
• Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, 8 p.m.
• Broadcast: ESPN2
• Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)
Keep an eye out
Defense at the forefront: It looked like struggling transfer guard Nick Timberlake was picking up a bit of confidence on offense against Eastern Illinois when he bounced back from an early airball and drained a 3 and a pull-up jumper in rapid succession. But after an unsuccessful dunk attempt, he left the game almost immediately, and only played three minutes in the second half. Self explained postgame that he was primarily frustrated with Timberlake’s defense on an inbound by EIU, which overshadowed any positives he could have taken away from the early success. Self said that with many of his players right now, it’s “one step forward and two steps back.” While Timberlake was brought to KU as a shooter, it’s clear that his path to playing time, similar to his younger teammates’, will rely on defense.
In-game enhancement: KU rolled out some minor upgrades to its pregame presentation for the Eastern Illinois game, including flashing crimson and blue lights. That sort of thing combined with the level of fan avidity on Friday — students have been camping out all week, and UConn is by far the most prominent opponent the Jayhawks have hosted so far, and will be one of the most prominent all year — should make for an electric Allen Fieldhouse.
Leader of the offense: After going the entirety of the season opener without a shot, point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. said he would shoot when he needed to, and sure enough he went 7-for-12 with five 3-pointers and a career-high 23 points to lift KU to victory over Kentucky in the Champions Classic. But so far this season, there hasn’t been much of a middle ground for Harris. Outside of that outlier, he has averaged 3.2 points on 4.3 shot attempts per game. The Jayhawks may need him to increase that output somewhat if they can’t get consistent offensive production from their bench.
“He’s used to playing with (Jalen Wilson) on one wing and Ochai (Agbaji) on the other wing and Christian (Braun) on one wing and Kevin on the other wing, and now those guys aren’t here except for Kevin,” Self said on “Hawk Talk” Wednesday. “So the guys that are out there aren’t scorers. So his role where he didn’t need to score, I think, needs to be altered and changed because he’s got to look to score because he’s our second-best perimeter scorer.”
Added Dickinson: “Juan’s so unselfish that we’re trying to tell him to be more selfish.”
Newton played three seasons for now-KU assistant Joe Dooley when Dooley was the head coach at East Carolina.