Game day breakdown: No. 6 Kansas basketball vs. Iowa State
No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks (10-3 overall, 4-2 Big 12) vs. Iowa State Cyclones (2-7 overall, 0-5 Big 12)
Time: 1 p.m., Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021
Location: Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, Kan.
TV: Big 12 Now / ESPN+ | Radio: IMG Jayhawk Radio Network
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Keys for Kansas
1. Take defense to next level
A lot of the Jayhawks’ emphasis in the days since their loss at Oklahoma State on Tuesday night has been on playing better defense and taking pride in doing it.
“We don’t have the margin for error not to be good on that end,” Self said this week.
Whether it’s transition D, which plagued them at OSU, man-to-man defense, which has been a staple at Kansas under Self, or the team concepts that have always made Self’s teams so stout on the defensive end, the Jayhawks believe that improvement in one area can elevate the defense across the board.
“It wasn’t that they were just better than us as a team,” KU sophomore Christian Braun said of Oklahoma State. “They just played harder than us. You have to take more pride in getting on the floor first and defensive stuff and then you can worry about the offensive stuff later.”
KU could not have hand-picked a better opponent to face to turn the page to a new, more intense chapter of defense, which they hope will carry them through the rest of the season.
According to KenPom.com, Iowa State ranks last in the Big 12 in offensive efficiency, offensive turnover percentage and offensive rebounding percentage, while also ranking as the conference’s worst team at getting to the free throw line.
Those numbers alone should provide Kansas an opportunity to control the game with its defense, provided the Jayhawks play turned up like Self has been asking since Big 12 play started.
One of the biggest reasons the Jayhawks will want to play well and bring increased intensity to the defensive end is the fact that Iowa State has outshot four of its five Big 12 opponents from both the field and 3-point range so far this season.
Shooting and scoring are not the issue for ISU. But the teams that have made that hard for the Cyclones have found the most success against ISU, while making life much easier for themselves.
2. A get right game
While everyone in crimson and blue was pleased about the Jayhawks’ comeback at Oklahoma State that put the Jayhawks in position to win, the general feeling leaving Stillwater, Okla., on Tuesday night was one of disappointment.
Disappointment that the Jayhawks played poor enough in the first 30 minutes to need such a monster comeback.
Disappointment that, after coming all the way back and taking a three-point lead into the final 80 seconds, KU let it get away and walked out with a 75-70 loss and on the wrong side of an 8-0 run to end the game.
Disappointment over the fact that freshman guard Bryce Thompson, who had just returned after missing three games with a back injury, broke his finger in the later stages of that comeback run, meaning that KU’s talented and ultra-competitive sixth man will miss at least a few more weeks.
Despite the tough loss and late arrival back home, Self said the team responded well, with good attitudes and attentive film study aimed at finding out not only what went wrong but also what they can do to avoid it.
While the KU coach was pleased with that initial response on Thursday, after an off day Wednesday, he was more interested in seeing how well that carried over into Thursday and Friday and, of course, the start of KU’s game against the Cyclones.
“How hard is it to go hard after you get embarrassed,” Self noted on this week’s episode of “Hawk Talk.”
The reasons Self believes KU needs to play well in this one are many and go well beyond the Jayhawks wanting to put the recent Oklahoma State loss behind them.
Kansas also is coming off of back-to-back home games in which they started slow — down 10-2 to Texas and down 9-2 to Oklahoma — and made the game harder from the jump. And the Jayhawks are just a couple of days away from heading south to Waco, Texas, to take on the nation’s No. 2-ranked team in Baylor.
Taking any kind uncertainty into that one is a recipe for disaster, so the Jayhawks will want to make sure they get right in this one so they can head to Waco with confidence.
The fact that Self said ISU will play a lot like OSU — small, fast and quick on the perimeter — only helps set Kansas up to exorcise its recent demons heading into the showdown with Baylor.
3. Balanced offense
For a while this season, it was the Kansas perimeter players carrying the load and leading the Jayhawks to victory with big performances and lights-out shooting from the outside.
Lately, that has shifted to interior, where David McCormack has become the team’s top scorer while things have gone a bit dry from the outside.
After shooting below 30% from 3-point range just twice during the nonconference portion of their schedule, the Jayhawks have been under 30% from behind the arc in their last two outings.
While junior guard Ochai Agbaji has remained fairly consistent, fellow starters Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson have been a little off of late, with Braun topping two made triples just once in six conference games and Wilson making a total of five 3-pointers in his past four games combined.
Self said Friday he was not overly worried about either player’s outside shot, but he also acknowledged the importance of getting them going again.
Fans who have followed Kansas for years know that Self often will emphasize finding other ways to help the team when a shooter hits a stretch when his shots aren’t falling.
“I do think that Jalen and CB can both do more in that regard,” said Self of rebounding, defense, energy and the like. “But I’m not worried about their shot. Not at all.”
If McCormack can maintain his recent play and the Jayhawks can get it going from behind the arc again, they become a much tougher team to handle.
KU junior David McCormack vs. Iowa State senior Solomon Young
Young is one of those players who has been floating around Big 12 games for so long that coaches and opponents often do a double take when they see his name pop up on yet another scouting report.
“Maybe not Perry Ellis length,” Self joked of the former KU star who drew countless ribbings about his age while in college. “But he’s been there a long time, it seems like, and (he) can get the year back again, so we could see Solomon again next year.”
What they’ll see from him in this game is a player who plays dramatically different than anything they’ve seen before.
Known in the past primarily as an energy guy and a high-motor player in the paint, Young has made himself a valuable part of Iowa State’s attack in other areas, as well.
“Much improved offensively,” Self said of the forward averaging 12 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. “He scores over both shoulders, his jump hook’s good, jumper’s improved. He has been played to his size and been really effective especially of late.”
While Young and McCormack are the primary big men in their respective lineups, Self said he liked the fact that McCormack takes the advantage of being a few inches taller and a few pounds heavier into this head-to-head battle.
“I would consider (Young) to be a 4 man playing the 5,” Self said. “So the matchup is good if Dave can play to his size. And it probably plays to their benefit if Solomon can play to his quickness.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, it looked as if McCormack performed better against bigger players who he felt more comfortable matching up against. But then the KU junior turned in two of his best games of the season against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — teams who tried to guard McCormack with smaller players — leading Self to believe that the matchup isn’t as big a deal as it once appeared.
“I think the reality is that Dave is just playing better,” Self said.
With three double-doubles already this season, McCormack has matched his total from his first two seasons in the program. He also has matched the number of games (4) that he has attempted 10 or more shots, a fact that illustrates just how important he has become to KU’s offensive attack.
McCormack currently ranks third in the conference in percentage of shots taken at 30.1%, meaning, that when McCormack is on the floor almost one out of every three KU possessions ends with him attempting a shot.
Already in chase mode in the Big 12 title race, the Jayhawks enter this weekend tied with Texas Tech, which they beat, a game behind Texas, which beat KU, and two games behind unbeaten Baylor, which will host Kansas on Monday night.
Self said on Friday that the Jayhawks’ do firmly have their backs against the wall in terms of the Big 12 race. And earlier in the week he said KU had less than zero margin for error if it hoped to claim a Big 12 regular season title.
While those things always have been important in Lawrence, the line Self and company are walking now seems to focus more on overall improvement and how that might impact the bigger picture of success in March.
Sure, Kansas still wants to win the Big 12 title. And Self said Friday he believes they still can. But the only way the Jayhawks will do that this season is by improving defensively and becoming a more consistent team.
KU leads the all-time series with Iowa State, 184-66, including a 95-16 record at home. However, KU has won just eight of the last 15 meetings between these two programs, with eight of those 15 games being decided by seven points or fewer.
“They always seem to play well here,” Self said. “Of the times that we’ve played them in our building, it seems like the majority have been one- or two- or three-possession games. So, I expect them to play well.”
The Cyclones are a tough team to figure out, but, like most teams in the Big 12 most years, they have proven that they have enough to be competitive when everything clicks.
Look no further than a six-point loss at Texas and a five-point loss at West Virginia for proof of the fact that ISU can find ways to be competitive.
Even their recent home loss to Baylor was competitive throughout, until Baylor pulled away for an 11-point win late.
Iowa State is in the fifth game of a seven-game stretch against teams that are ranked in the top 20 nationally. Provided Texas and Texas Tech both stay in the top 25, the seven consecutive games against ranked opponents will be a new Big 12 record. And it could grow to eight straight if Oklahoma State joins the top 25 and can stay ranked through Jan. 25.
That’s not one of those records you brag about. And it certainly does not help in the win column. But it’s an indication that the back half of the Cyclones’ Big 12 schedule is a little easier than the front and Steve Prohm’s squad is looking to build up all of the good vibes and competitive capital it can to finish the season strong.
Whether that happens or not remains to be seen, but KenPom does not predict many good things to happen for the Cyclones in this one.
He lists Kansas as a 13-point favorite and gives the Jayhawks an 87% win probability.
Counting this one, three of KU’s next six games (vs. TCU and vs. Kansas State) currently have a KenPom win probablility of 87% or higher. That only slightly offsets the fact that two of the next five games (at No. 2 Baylor and at No. 10 Tennessee) currently have win probabilities of 37% or lower.
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 – Rasir Bolton, 6-3, 185, Jr.
G – Jalen Coleman-Lands, 6-4, 187, Sr.
G – Tre Jackson, 6-1, 186, Soph.
F – Javan Johnson, 6-6, 205, RS-Jr.
F – Solomon Young, 6-7, 255, RS-Sr.