Preview: KU men’s basketball makes first trip to UCF

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) smiles as the Jayhawks prepare to take the court prior to tipoff against TCU on Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas coach Bill Self said last Thursday of Big 12 Conference men’s basketball, “I think we have as many pleasant surprises as probably any league in the country.”

At the time of his statement, Oklahoma and newcomer BYU, picked to finish respectively 12th and 13th in the league, instead found themselves 11th and 12th in the entire nation via the AP Top 25 poll.

Then fellow new addition Cincinnati upset that BYU team, TCU gave KU a game at Allen Fieldhouse and Texas Tech upset Texas, further underlining the parity in this year’s 14-team conference.

One team that has not yet added itself to that conversation is UCF.

The Orlando, Florida-based Knights, who came to the Big 12 this year with Cincinnati and Houston from the American Athletic Conference, opened their Big 12 account on a sour note Saturday when they lost 77-52 at Kansas State. UCF shot 34% from the field and 24% from deep and committed 13 turnovers and 20 fouls in its inauspicious debut as it dropped to 9-4 on the year.

That came on the heels of a rather tame nonconference schedule marred by losses to surging Miami but also Ole Miss and Stetson. Johnny Dawkins’ team has yet to beat a school ranked in the top 100 by KenPom as it looks to incorporate 10 newcomers, including seven upperclassmen.

The Knights have an immediate hit in guard Jaylin Sellers, a Ball State transfer who trails only KU’s Kevin McCullar Jr. and Hunter Dickinson in points per game with 17.8. He scored over 20 in four of his first six games at UCF but struggled in Manhattan, shooting just 3-for-13 as he was held to single digits for the first time all year.

The second option in the Knights’ lineup and one of their few returnees is Darius Johnson, who averages 13.9 points and has shot 17-for-34 (50%) from deep since the start of December after converting just 27% of his 3s last season.

UCF also hasn’t been bad defensively as it’s forcing 16.7 turnovers per game with 9.54 steals, as well as blocking an average of 5.62 shots (No. 13 in the nation). Ibrahima Diallo, a 7-foot transfer who has played at Ohio State and San Jose State, leads the Big 12 with 2.2 blocks per game.

photo by: AP Photo/Travis Heying

Central Florida’s Ibrahima Diallo works against Kansas State defender Arthur Kaluma during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Manhattan.

photo by: AP Photo/Travis Heying

Kansas State guard Dai Dai Ames, right, tries to steal the ball from Central Florida guard Jaylin Sellers during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Manhattan.

photo by: AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Central Florida guard Darius Johnson (3) drives to the basket while defended by Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Orlando, Fla.

The Knights will hope to put it all together on a momentous occasion: their first-ever Big 12 home game, against No. 3 Kansas, Wednesday night at 6 p.m. Central Time. The two schools have never played each other before.

The Jayhawks slipped to that No. 3 spot in Monday’s poll after needing a last-minute flagrant foul to beat TCU 83-81 on Saturday. KU’s 18 turnovers fed directly into the Horned Frogs’ strength — their transition offense — and steady offensive showings by Emanuel Miller and Trevian Tennyson kept TCU in striking distance throughout as neither team led by more than six points and there were 26 lead changes.

Self called it a “great basketball game” afterward. KU will hope for slightly less drama Wednesday, which would be a departure in a season that has seen the Jayhawks — despite a 13-1 record — struggle to build separation from opponents since Thanksgiving.

The team dodged some of the worst of Monday and Tuesday’s winter storm by leaving early for Orlando on Monday night; it wasn’t all sunny in the Sunshine State, though, with rain expected Tuesday evening ahead of a clearer Wednesday.

UCF Knights (9-4, 0-1 Big 12) vs. No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (13-1, 1-0 Big 12)

• Addition Financial Arena, Orlando, Florida, 6 p.m. Central Time

Broadcast: ESPN+

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

Keep an eye out

Slowing down: KU has turned the ball over 18 times in each of two games this season: once in its lone loss against Marquette in the Maui Invitational, and once against TCU. In Hawaii, it was Self who said the Jayhawks played “sped up”; on Saturday, Dickinson and KJ Adams made similar comments about how the Horned Frogs’ athleticism forced KU to play at their pace. Wednesday’s game provides a chance for the Jayhawks to reassert their own preferred speed. UCF still plays faster than KU — the Knights average 71.6 possessions per 40 minutes to the Jayhawks’ 70.9, per WarrenNolan.com — but not as quickly as TCU (74.0, No. 23 in the nation).

Short leash: Self was clearly frustrated with his freshmen in the early stages of the second half Saturday as he substituted all three of them out one after another in the span of a minute and a half. Sixth-year senior transfer Nick Timberlake made some hustle plays defensively and a couple shots to stop the bleeding at the fifth spot in the lineup, but Self made clear postgame he expects the starter, Elmarko Jackson, to step up in particular. “We need Elmarko to come through and do some things offensively and be a stopper defensively,” he said.

Crashing the boards: Whatever Adams’ teammates and coaches are doing to encourage him to rebound better, it’s working. The junior forward, who had eight total rebounds against Missouri, Indiana and Yale combined, has now pulled down 11 and 10 against Wichita State and TCU, respectively, for the first double-digit rebounding showings of his career. His six offensive rebounds against the Horned Frogs were his most since Feb. 6 against Texas, and they were particularly crucial in a game that saw KU outrebound TCU 40-28 to offset the numerous turnovers.

photo by: AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) dives to save the ball from going out of bounds in front of TCU forward Xavier Cork (12) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

photo by: AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson, left, is guarded by TCU guard Jameer Nelson Jr. (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

photo by: AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann

Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. celebrates their two-point lead with only a few seconds left during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against TCU in Lawrence, Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

Off-kilter observation

While KU and UCF have never played, Dawkins beat Self in the NCAA Tournament when Dawkins was the coach at Stanford during the 2013-14 season. Joel Embiid missed the game due to injury and Josh Huestis helped shut down Andrew Wiggins, as the Jayhawks fell 60-57 despite a pair of last-minute 3s by Conner Frankamp. That was the lone NCAA Tournament appearance of Dawkins’ Stanford tenure; he led UCF into March Madness once, in 2019.

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