Kansas basketball coach Bill Self still waiting for one of KU’s young big men to emerge

Jayhawks to face Texas Southern at 7 p.m. Monday night

photo by: Photo courtesy of Bahamas Visual Services

Kansas freshman Ernest Udeh Jr. gets intense against Tennessee at the Bad Boy Mower’s Men’s Battle 4 Atlantis Friday November 25, 2022 at Atlantis, Paradise Island in The Bahamas. (Photo by Tim Aylen)

Kansas basketball coach Bill Self is not backing off of his stance that one of the Jayhawks’ young big men needs to develop into an impact player for this KU team to reach its ceiling.

Until that happens, Self appears to be prepared to roll with 6-foot-7, 225-pound sophomore KJ Adams as his primary big man. Even if he doesn’t love it.

“I don’t want to play small,” Self said after KU’s Battle 4 Atlantis title game loss to Tennessee. “I want one of those young freshmen to come through so we don’t have to play small. And hopefully they will.”

With super-senior forward Cam Martin expected to be sidelined for another month, Ernest Udeh (10 minutes per game in six appearances), Zach Clemence (6.6 in four) and Zuby Ejiofor (5.2 in six) are the other options at the 5 for Self’s team. But that group is finding it hard to get and stay on the floor.

In the Jayhawks’ three games in the Bahamas, Udeh and Clemence played a total of 16 minutes apiece while Ejiofor played seven. None of the three played in all three games, and their production was minimal even when they were out there.

Adams has started at the 5 for the Jayhawks in all seven games so far this season, and there’s no reason to believe that will change any time soon.

At 25.4 minutes per game, the high-motor sophomore ranks third on the team in rebounding (5.3 per game) and is shooting better from the floor than every Kansas regular not named Bobby Pettiford. Pettiford has made 66.7% of his shots compared to 62.5% for Adams, but Adams’ field goal percentage has surpassed 60% in more than twice as many shots.

It’s not just the Kansas offense that has been affected by KU’s inability to get much from their biggest bodies so far this season. KU also has relied a lot on wings Jalen Wilson and Kevin McCullar Jr. to control the glass and has struggled to guard bigger bodies and protect the rim.

“I think the biggest thing is you don’t have a lot of margin for error when you’re playing four guards and a 6-foot-6 5 man,” Self said of Adams. “So, you’ve got to hit, you’ve got to scrap and you’ve got to be tougher.”

While Clemence’s lack of playing time has been tied to an injury he suffered after taking a blow to the face in KU’s second game of the season, he also has looked out of sync during most of the minutes he has been on the floor.

Throughout the offseason, many people expected Clemence to get the first crack at taking control of the 5 spot, but that has not materialized, leaving the door open for KU’s two freshmen to claim a bigger role. Self said this summer that both Ejiofor and Udeh were ahead of where the coaching staff expected them to be, and both have shown good moments and moments of being lost during their time on the floor through the season’s first seven games.

Self has confidence that all three players can take the strides needed to be a factor for this team. All three options are athletic and like to play hard, and he’s willing to give them time to get where they need to be, even if he’s hoping at least one will emerge as a key contributor sooner rather than later.

In the meantime, Self will roll with Adams and hope that the rest of the lineup can figure out a way to help on the glass and execute elsewhere.

“Whenever you don’t match up well, it needs to become a technical game, offensively, and we never got to that point (against Tennessee),” Self said. “We don’t execute well enough for it to be a technical game yet. We will. It’s just going to take some time.”

Self and company’s next chance to see if one of the young bigs is ready to take the next step comes Monday night at 7 p.m., when Texas Southern comes to Allen Fieldhouse. The game will be televised by Big 12 Now via ESPN+.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s likely because Texas Southern was the team that KU started off its run to the 2022 national title against in last season’s NCAA Tournament. The top-seeded Jayhawks rolled past No. 16 seed Texas Southern in Fort Worth, Texas, 83-56, en route to winning five more games in the tournament to take home the title.

This year’s Texas Southern team, which is still coached by Johnny Jones, was picked to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference in a preseason poll of the league’s caoches.

The Tigers are led by three players who score in double figures – guards Davon Barnes (14.1 points per game) and PJ Henry (13.2) and forward John Walker (12.1).

Henry and Walker both played 20-plus minutes in last year’s NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas.


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