Game Day Breakdown – No. 3 Kansas vs. Kansas State
No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks (14-3 overall, 4-1 Big 12) vs. Kansas State Wildcats (8-9 overall, 1-4 Big 12)
Time: 6 p.m. | Location: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kansas
TV: ESPN2 | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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Keys for Kansas
1. Take some chances on offense
Kansas coach Bill Self has a simple philosophy when it comes to being aggressive on the basketball court.
“Sometimes guys just want to play safe,” Self said Monday during his weekly press conference. “And playing safe will get you beat.”
That mindset is one the KU coach is hoping his team will adopt more often in the weeks ahead, as the Jayhawks search for ways to score more against a bevy of defensive-minded Big 12 Conference foes.
“You have to go take it,” Self added. “And you’ve got to go push the envelope. There’s times you want to be semiconservative, but not to the point that I feel like our guys are playing just to kind of be safe. If teams are good defensively and they’re able to pressure you and you kind of have that mindset, you don’t get much done. And certainly I think that we’ve got plenty good enough players to be more aggressive.”
Asked Monday if the idea of playing safe will get you beat is one he and his teammates have heard a lot lately, sophomore forward David McCormack nodded his head aggressively.
“Definitely,” he said.
Asked to describe what that meant and how the Jayhawks could move away from it, McCormack pointed to the approach as the biggest part.
“In a game like this, you can’t be reserved, you can’t be in a comfort zone, you can’t be satisfied with the way you’re playing,” McCormack said. “Teams are going to push you out of that comfort zone so why not push yourself or practice that way and find new ways to do things. That way you’ll always have an option when the time comes.”
Self made sure to point out that there was a fine line between taking chances and being more aggressive and being careless or out of character. And, with the scouting reports they’re given and the work they put in during practices, he thinks his players should know the difference and be empowered to look to make plays on game nights instead of passing up opportunities.
“They’ve got to get some help,” Self said of leading scorers Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike. “As far as other guys stepping up and being aggressive and taking the pressure off of them. I really believe that’s going to be a telltale sign of whether we become a really, really, really good team is whether or not (we have) five guys out there you have to guard as opposed to just a couple.”
2. Improve in transition
One area that even Self’s most offensively challenged teams have been able to excel over the years has been in transition, where easy buckets have lessened the burden of having to score in the half court.
But the transition offense by this team — at least thus far — has not been anything to brag about.
“I don’t think much of it,” Self said on Monday. “I think it’s the worst that we’ve had in a long time.”
While Self acknowledged that his top rotation players have not shown superior comfort in running the break and putting pressure on opposing defenses in transition, he also said some of that has been because of the way teams have passed up offensive rebounding opportunities to set up their defense.
“I don’t think it’s very good and I don’t think we run as well, but it’s a lot easier to run if teams crash,” Self said. “If you send three or four back, defenses are set, so the only way you run is off of deflections, off of steals and things like that. … I think the way that teams are guarding us and attacking us is also eliminating the missed-shot transition. Because I think defenses are pretty well set by the time we get the ball across half court.”
Playing turned up, creating havoc and forcing opponents into mistakes is the easiest way to create transition opportunities. But, as Self pointed out Monday, that, too, has been an issue for this team.
“We had back-to-back games where we forced just five turnovers,” he said.
Those games were in a home loss to Baylor and a road win over Oklahoma. And Kansas averaged 60.5 points per outing in those two games.
“Hanging 70 (points) in a league game this year, I think, is going to mean that you played very well offensively,” Self said. “I just don’t think there’s going to be any games like that.”
3. Find Azubuike early and often
This one seems to be a bit obvious. After all, when asked whether the game plan in the second half of Saturday’s win at Texas was to get Azubuike the ball more, Self responded with a blunt, “No. The plan was to get him the ball in the first half, too.”
So it’s clear that the Jayhawks recognize that playing through Azubuike is their best chance for offensive success pretty much any time out.
But with scoring down since the start of Big 12 play — from 81.1 points per game in the nonconference to 65.2 during their first five conference games — the Jayhawks currently are in search of new ways to bring a boost to the offensive end.
Asked Monday to divulge what aspect they think could help the team’s offense the most, two KU players pointed to the Azubuike factor.
“I think we need to find Dok more often,” said senior guard Isaiah Moss. “We need to look in more. I think that helps a lot.”
Added McCormack: “I think right now, we’re still finding what works best for us and that’s all part of just being team and constantly improving. I think possibly spreading the floor and moving the ball faster, those little things can get us easier shots and more wide open looks.”
KU sophomore Devon Dotson vs. K-State junior Cartier Diarra
Lightning-fast point guards who are not afraid to play physical, can get to the free-throw line and have shown the ability to get hot from the outside from time to time will be squaring off against each other in this one.
And whoever wins the showdown between Dotson and Diarra could go a long way toward determining the winner.
Both players led their teams in scoring last weekend, with Dotson (18.2 points per game) returning from a hip injury to score 21 in leading the Jayhawks to a road win at Texas and Diarra (13.3) scoring 25 in K-State’s upset of West Virginia.
But it’s much more than the scoring punch these two provide that determines how successful their teams can be.
At 5.4 per game, Diarra leads the Wildcats in assists and Dotson (4.3 per game) ranks second to Marcus Garrett in assists for the Jayhawks.
Diarra, who gave it away seven times in the win over West Virginia, also leads the Wildcats in turnovers, at nearly four per game, meaning that Dotson could cause problems for the K-State leader if he’s able to pressure him all over the floor.
We know Dotson’s conditioning and competitiveness are good enough to tackle such a task. And Self said on Monday that he wasn’t worried about Dotson’s hip injury after watching him play 39 minutes and lead KU in scoring at Texas in his first game back.
“I didn’t even ask him (how he was),” Self said. “I mean, he played 39 minutes and looked 100% to me. I didn’t even see him wince once. So I think he’s fine. And I haven’t been told anything that there was any type of setback whatsoever. I thought he looked really explosive on Saturday.”
The 292nd edition of the Sunflower Showdown pits a top-five Kansas team against a barely .500 Kansas State team.
But that’s nothing new in this rivalry. Throughout time, when the Jayhawks have fielded nationally elite teams, the Wildcats, ranked or otherwise, still have found ways to fire up the rivalry and bring a competitive game to the floor more times than not.
Given the fact that K-State is coming off a 16-point win over a team ranked in the top 10 in the KenPom.com rankings (and No. 16 in the AP poll), the Jayhawks know that this one will not be decided by their 17-game records.
“I’m excited,” Self said Monday. “I love rivalry games, and I think our players (do) too. They’re coming off of, arguably, their best performance of the season. And they dominated a team that we struggled to eek out a win (against), so that got our attention for sure.”
Kansas leads the all-time series with K-State, 197-94, which includes a 90-35 record in games played in Lawrence and a 49-18 mark inside Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have won the last 13 games played in their home venue, dating back to 2007.
KenPom, which ranks Kansas No. 1 in the nation, lists the Jayhawks as an 18-point favorite in this one, with a 95% chance at victory.
Kansas State is ranked No. 88 in the most recent KenPom rankings, 51st in defensive efficiency and 174th on the offensive end.
The Wildcats’ biggest strength is on defense, where they force 8.8 steals per game (best in the Big 12 and ninth best in the nation in terms of turnover percentage at 24.9%), and the team is led by a trio of veterans in Diarra, Xavier Sneed and Makol Mawien, who have played in these rivalry games before and are not likely to be overwhelmed by the stage or the opponent.
No. 3 Kansas
G – Devon Dotson, 6-2, 185, Soph.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Soph.
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 195, Jr.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Soph.
C – Udoka Azubuike, 7-0, 265, Sr.
G – Cartier Diarra, 6-4, 188, Jr.
G – DaJuan Gordon, 6-4, 184, Fr.
F – Xavier Sneed, 6-5, 215, Sr.
F – Montavious Murphy, 6-9, 215, Fr.
F – Makol Mawien, 6-9, 228, Sr.