Game day breakdown: No. 6 Kansas basketball at TCU
No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks (8-2 overall, 2-1 Big 12) vs. TCU Horned Frogs (9-2 overall, 2-1 Big 12)
Time: 9 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021
Location: Schollmaier Arena, Fort Worth, Texas
TV: ESPN | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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Keys for Kansas
1. Just play
Two days after lamenting his team’s lack of energy in a 25-point home loss to Texas, Kansas coach Bill Self was still talking about his team needing to play “turned up” the rest of the season to reach its potential.
The Jayhawks were flat in just about all aspects against Texas, but Self said he expected to see much more energy and intensity from his team tonight.
The reason? He’s seen it before.
Self pointed to the season opener against Gonzaga as an example of how his team found a way to play hard no matter what. Even with the Zags opening up a double-digit first-half lead in that one, KU kept coming and eventually tied the game early in the second half.
Once Texas got up big on Saturday, the Longhorns merely kept adding to their lead.
“I’m not saying (it was) because we didn’t try,” Self said Monday during a Zoom call with reporters. “I’m saying we weren’t turned up enough to understand twelve’s plenty. We can’t give them any more. Against Gonzaga, we didn’t give them more and then it gave (us) some momentum. Against Texas, we did give them more and then it kind of deflates you.”
Self said that leadership, fire and pride are all factors that impact the concept of playing hard and not worrying about the scoreboard. And he tried to emphasize in the past couple of days that the Jayhawks should be battling and trying to execute at a high level at all times in every game, regardless of the score or situation.
“When we tasted our own blood (against Texas), we didn’t react very well,” Self said. “I thought our effort was very (tied to) the score of the game the other day. I didn’t feel that against Gonzaga. They wanted to grind and play regardless.”
2. Limit unforced errors
Maybe it was just rust or the early tipoff, but last Saturday’s loss to Texas was full of sloppy mistakes and turnovers early on.
The Jayhawks will want to avoid a repeat of that in this one, because if they do, they should be able to run their sets the way they want and get good shots throughout the game.
TCU ranks 225th nationally, per KenPom.com, in turnover rate, forcing turnovers on just 18.3% of opponents’ possessions. That number drops to 15% when looking only at conference games, and the Frogs rank last in the Big 12 in turnovers forced.
Kansas, meanwhile, is slightly better than the national average when it comes to taking care of the ball, turning it over on 17.8% of its offensive possessions, which ranks 98th nationally and is just ahead of the 19.6% Division I average.
The Jayhawks have recorded more turnovers than their opponent just twice this season — both times in a victory — and have finished with 12 or fewer turnovers during six of their 10 games.
That recipe bodes well any time a team goes on the road, and, provided Marcus Garrett can play, it should be a realistic goal in this one.
If Garrett’s out (more on that in a minute), taking care of the basketball and making smart, strong decisions will take on more importance and should draw even greater emphasis.
3. Bigs play big
Starting big man David McCormack struggled against Texas and was actually benched to start the second half.
Senior Mitch Lightfoot brought some more energy to the floor when he was out there, but did not grab a rebound or score a point, while McCormack finished with eight points, all from the free throw line.
It’s no secret that the Jayhawks need to find a way to get some consistently strong play from their two veterans in the front court. And Self said Monday that he believes there’s an obvious way to get the two going.
“This sounds very, very easy,” Self began. “(But) I’d like to see our bigs play to their size. Whether it’s offensively or defensively, I’d like for them to play to their size.”
At times this season, both players have done that. And when they have, Kansas has been at its best.
“They don’t have to score, they don’t have to do a lot of things that maybe people equate to (being) a good game or good performance,” he said. “But there’s ways that they can impact us and make our team so much better.”
Getting on the glass and protecting the paint are two of the more obvious examples. But Self noted that there are many subtle things, too, from hedging on a ball screen to protect the man guarding the ball to running to the rim to force the defense to react to playing above the rim and bringing some energy to the floor with a vicious dunk.
“I mean, when’s the last time we had a dunk,” Self asked.
Lightfoot said he and McCormack are constantly pushing each other and breaking down each other’s play in hopes of finding the consistency this team needs. He also believes productive play from the 5 spot is still very attainable.
“We need someone who can protect the paint and we need someone that’s going to score from the inside and I think both David and I can do that,” Lightfoot said. “We’ve shown it in the past and we need to get back to it.”
Dajuan Harris’ role Tuesday vs. Reasonable Expectations
As of Monday afternoon, there was a chance that senior point guard Marcus Garrett (head injury) might not be able to play in this one. And if he doesn’t, that’s going to significantly impact Harris’ role and minutes.
With freshman guard Bryce Thompson definitely sidelined for this game because of a back injury, the loss of Garrett would leave the Jayhawks without two of their primary ball handlers and two of their better defenders, as well.
“If Marcus can’t go, Dajuan may play 40 minutes in that particular situation,” Self said Monday. “So, yeah; his role will definitely be impacted in a very favorable way for him if that’s the case.”
In his first 10 games with the Jayhawks, the 6-foot-1, 170-pound redshirt freshman is averaged 14.6 minutes per game while primarily serving as Garrett’s backup.
So far, Harris has played four games of 10 minutes or fewer and three games of 20 minutes or more, and his 21 assists rank tied for third on the team while his nine steals rank fourth.
There have been moments when the two point guards have been on the court together, and other moments when Kansas has looked and played its best with Harris on the floor. So if the pass-first second stringer has to step into a more substantial role, Self is not at all worried about his ability to handle it.
“I don’t know that, 10 games into his career, he’s equipped to say OK, go win on the road by yourself with no backup,” Self said. “I don’t know how many guys are like that. But he’s ready. I mean, he’s ready to have a huge impact and play.”
Although the Jayhawks getting blown out at home has been incredibly rare during Self’s time in town, the Jayhawks have usually done well in responding to that type of loss.
In the past three seasons alone, KU followed up a double-digit loss with a win of at least nine points six separate times.
That includes this season, when the Jayhawks responded to a 12-point loss to Gonzaga in the opener with a 22-point win over Saint Joseph’s the next day. Five of those six victories after tough losses were by double figures. And two of them were away from home.
Repeating that feat is the situation this team is currently facing, and the Jayhawks appear to be upbeat about bouncing back.
“You can’t let one one loss become two,” Lightfoot said. “That’s gonna be a big part of it.”
TCU enters this one ranked 62nd nationally in the KenPom.com rankings and with two Big 12 road wins (at Oklahoma State and at Kansas State) already under their belts.
Beyond that, the Horned Frogs have wins over top-100 programs Texas A&M and Tulsa, and single-digit losses to Oklahoma and Providence.
Although the TCU roster features several new faces who have not faced Kansas before, coach Jamie Dixon’s team still has a couple of veterans who know what it takes to compete on this stage.
Most notably, junior center Kevin Samuel and junior guard RJ Nembhard.
Nembhard leads the Big 12 in scoring at 18.7 points per game and is sixth in the conference in field goal percentage (48.8%) and assists (4.4 per game).
Samuel is the only Big 12 player currently averaging a double-double (10.2 points and 10.2 rebounds). He also averages 2.6 blocks per game and leads the team in steals, with 16. Self also called freshman guard Mike Miles, “one of the most elite young kids in our league.”
“They’re good,” Self said. “The last five games they’ve been very good. They’ve got a good team and they definitely pose some challenges.”
Kansas leads the all-time series with TCU, 20-2 and has won six in a row and 16 of the last 17 games, dating back to the 2012-13 season.
KenPom lists Kansas as a four-point favorite, with a 65% win probability.
No. 6 Kansas
G – Marcus Garrett, 6-5, 195, Sr.
G – Ochai Agbaji, 6-5, 210, Jr.
G – Christian Braun, 6-6, 205, Soph.
G – Jalen Wilson, 6-7, 190, RS-Fr.
F – David McCormack, 6-10, 265, Jr.
G – Mike Miles, 6-2, 195, Fr.
G – RJ Nembhard, 6-5, 195, Jr.
G – PJ Fuller, 6-4, 175, Soph.
F – Kevin Easley Jr., 6-7, 225, Soph.
F – Kevin Samuel, 6-11, 255, Jr.