Jalen Wilson’s defensive effort overshadowed by 38-point performance in OT loss to KSU
Manhattan — When Jalen Wilson reflects on No. 2 Kansas’ 83-82 overtime loss to Kansas State, he is likely going to remember his 38-point effort first and foremost. That’s if he even spends another minute thinking about the game at all after Tuesday night in Bramlage Coliseum.
But Wilson’s defensive effort in a 45-minute outing should not be overlooked, even by Wilson himself. Despite surrendering the game-winning lob, Wilson rose to the challenge of defending Kansas State’s Keyontae Johnson in the latest version of the Sunflower Showdown.
Johnson finished with 24 points on the night, though he needed 17 shots and a 8-for-9 effort from the free throw line to pace the Wildcats in scoring along with Desi Sills.
If Wilson had any regrets after Tuesday’s thriller, though, they were probably tied to his defensive lapse on game point. So we might as well start there.
K-State called a timeout with 30 seconds left in overtime, as head coach Jerome Tang tried to draw something up with his team trailing 82-81. The Wildcats isolated Wilson on the right side, which allowed Johnson to roll behind him for the lob. Johnson finished the sequence with the decisive slam.
“It’s what we were looking for,” Tang said. “I didn’t necessarily think he was going to catch it and dunk it, but we wanted to isolate (Johnson) on the side of the floor and we knew they would be on top of him.”
It wasn’t the first time K-State called a lob in closing time of a Big 12 battle. In a win over Oklahoma State on Jan. 10, Markquis Nowell and Johnson linked up for a game-clinching alley-oop then, as well.
“That’s game point,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You are down in a stance, you are ready. There was no screen and he spun.”
But Wilson honestly shouldn’t have been in that situation in the first place.
Kevin McCullar Jr., who is considered KU’s best defender, started the game defending Johnson. While KU tends to switch everything on ball screens, McCullar was tasked with being the primary defender on Johnson when several possessions first started.
McCullar dealt with foul trouble from the jump, however, and played just 23 minutes. He fouled out with 5:47 left in regulation, and was one of three KU starters to foul out on the night.
On the first possession without McCullar, Johnson beat Gradey Dick off the dribble for an and-one bucket. It marked one of two baskets made by Johnson after halftime, including the dunk in OT.
After that, Wilson took over sole responsibility of defending Johnson down the stretch. On the first such defensive trip, Wilson stood his ground and forced an air ball from Johnson on a mid-range jumper.
Johnson didn’t score for the remainder of regulation before adding three points at the free throw line in overtime.
“I thought he took away his left shoulder,” Self said of Wilson’s defensive effort on Johnson. “We fouled him a couple times early and down the stretch. I thought (Wilson) competed hard and did a good job on him.”
So much so that the coaching staff encouraged Wilson to fight through screens and stick with Johnson.
“I think (Self) just saw I was giving him trouble and he just told me to stay on him as much as I could,” Wilson said. “Kind of just use my length and strength against him, he’s a bigger guard (and) got good strength. It was kind of like a good match-up between us.”
None of this means KU is going to change its defensive philosophy moving forward. The Jayhawks are still going to switch on ball screens with their versatile lineup, while McCullar will likely be tasked with the biggest defensive assignment. And that should be the case.
Evan Miya’s analytical website is able to quantify a player’s defensive impact with his DBPR rating. Unsurprisingly, McCullar leads the Jayhawks with a DBPR of 2.42 and ranks No. 2 in the Big 12 in that metric, trailing only Oklahoma State’s Moussa Cisse. It marks the highest DBPR for a Kansas player since the 2019-20 campaign, when Udoka Azubuike (3.10) and Marcus Garrett (2.80) both ranked highly in that metric.
McCullar often has had the challenge of guarding an opponent’s top threat on game point, which was the case in a win over Iowa State last weekend when he made sure Gabe Kalscheur didn’t have an opportunity to take the final shot.
While Wilson gave up the game-winning bucket this time around, his defensive play down the stretch was admirable and worth keeping in mind if the Jayhawks find themselves in a similar situation down the road.