Preview: KU looks to get healthy for Oklahoma

Kansas head coach Bill Self signals to players during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Tech, Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Lubbock, Texas.

Even with its frequent and often vexing losses on the road this season, the Kansas men’s basketball team is still in contention for a Big 12 Conference title.

But it doesn’t look nearly as attainable as it once did.

After falling flat in a 79-50 loss to Texas Tech, one of the worst losses of the Bill Self era, the Jayhawks sit in fifth in the league at 7-5, a game and a half out of first place. They do not have any games remaining against either Tech or Iowa State, both of whom lead them in the standings.

Those are two of the five conference foes they have lost to on the road thus far this season, and Self said on his “Hawk Talk” radio show that his team is “running out of opportunities” for a road win.

“I think that would be pretty hard for us to kind of look at the race and be like ‘We got to win out,'” center Hunter Dickinson said. “I think a better approach would be to just take it one game at a time, try to think of it as just trying to win this game.”

KU has challenging matchups at Baylor and Houston once the calendar flips to March, but most immediately it must shake off the poor result in Lubbock and travel to Norman, Oklahoma, to face the Sooners at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Self took a circumspect approach to the upcoming slate.

“Getting a win any of those places would be fabulous, would be fantastic, but the big thing we need to do is figure out a way to get better and to be more prepared for what counts the most there in March,” he said. “And hopefully we’ll be whole by the time we get there. If that’s the case, then we can be a very difficult team to deal with and I predict that we will be.

“But we need to be whole. We need to get everybody back healthy.”

Kevin McCullar Jr. (bone bruise) has a good chance to return Saturday after practicing beginning Wednesday, as Self said on Thursday, “I would anticipate him being able to be out there some. I don’t know the exact role or how much he’ll play.” Dajuan Harris Jr. will be a week removed from hurting his ankle, an ailment he played through on Monday, and Jamari McDowell will return after dealing with the flu.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, just had forward John Hugley IV miss a game with his own knee issue, before Rivaldo Soares suffered an ankle injury Tuesday night at Baylor.

The Sooners lost that game 79-62 to the Bears, and it’s been a rough go of it at times for OU, which was at one point ranked in the top 10 but dropped out of the AP Top 25 entirely early this month. It slipped back in at No. 25 on Monday before losing to Baylor.

Since the two teams met in Lawrence a month ago — which resulted in a 78-66 victory for the Jayhawks as they introduced Johnny Furphy to the starting lineup — OU has had an unpredictable stretch that included a 15-point home loss to Texas and a 16-point home win over BYU, a 20-point road win over Kansas State and an 11-point road loss to UCF. Even with all that, it is just one game behind KU in conference play at 6-6.

It’s that kind of year in the Big 12.

The Sooners are still getting solid production from their athletic guards, led by Siena transfer Javian McCollum (13.3 points per game in conference play), and Georgia Tech transfer forward Jalon Moore has taken a step forward to average 11 points and 6.8 rebounds.

Soares — “as good a player as they’ve (had) in recent games,” Self said — and Hugley have given OU significant sparks off the bench, and if either or both are missing it could press the likes of Le’Tre Darthard and Luke Northweather into extended time.

“(We act like) everybody’s playing and then if they don’t play it’ll be like they’ve subbed them out,” Self said.

One challenge for KU, as throughout the season, could be shooting from beyond the arc. OU allows opponents to shoot just 29.6% from 3-point range. Back in January, they held the Jayhawks to just 3-for-15 (20%); KU had a run of better shooting at the end of the month but in its last three games is 11-for-52 (21.1%).

No. 25 Oklahoma Sooners (18-7, 6-6 Big 12) vs. No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks (19-6, 7-5 Big 12)

• Lloyd Noble Center, Norman, Oklahoma, 3 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN

Radio: Jayhawk Radio Network (in Lawrence, KLWN AM 1320 / K269GB FM 101.7 / KKSW FM 105.9)

Keep an eye out

Signs of life: The ongoing refrain from Nick Timberlake’s teammates and coaches throughout the season has been that the transfer guard will eventually help the team in a significant way, and that his stellar shooting in practice will eventually transfer to a game. He’s now made multiple 3-pointers in consecutive games for the first time all season, and on Monday night matched a season high with 13 points to co-lead the Jayhawks in their blowout loss at Tech. He said afterward, “Just get ready when your number’s called, that’s kind of been the way I’ve been taking all these games.”

Self downplayed Timberlake’s showing on “Hawk Talk” when he said that “every team, regardless if you play well, if you play poorly, if you are great or if you’re awful,” inevitably has a leading scorer. But the guard did put in a fairly clean all-around performance in his second start of the year after a rocky showing two days earlier against Baylor. It’ll now be up to him to tighten up his defense while preserving his offensive production — and do so whether he’s starting again or coming off the bench for a returning McCullar.

Searching for answers: Dickinson played his worst statistical game of the season at Texas Tech, with five points and seven rebounds on 2-for-12 shooting. He said postgame that if he knew why he was struggling to finish inside, he would have adjusted his approach accordingly.

Self clearly wasn’t happy with how Dickinson was being officiated, as an offensive foul call against his center set off the series of events that led to Self’s first ejection in his time at KU. But he said a day later that Dickinson could get into deeper position to become even more dangerous on offense “like literally on the low post, because he’s been primarily a mid-post or an elbow-type player for us when he scores inside, but I think he can post up deeper.” Particularly if OU is missing Hugley and KU is missing McCullar, this could be a Dickinson-centric game.

Self said his team can also get better at getting Dickinson the ball in the post.

“But we have looked bad at times feeding the post, with bad angles and stuff,” He said. “But a lot of that is, so much of our stuff is designed where Kevin is the one making the entry pass or Juan. You take him out of the game, you’re putting someone else in to do that.”

At least one return: McDowell will be back from the flu. The freshman has played more than four minutes in just one conference game this season (a blowout win over Oklahoma State), but he could provide a defensive spark if KU needs reinforcements against OU’s athletic guards. He’s also shown composure in big moments, including the final few against Kentucky (when he sank a pair of clutch free throws) and the 27 minutes he played on the final day of the Maui Invitational against Tennessee, which other options like Jackson and Timberlake have not always matched.

Off-kilter observation

KU senior advisor Doc Sadler was a special assistant to OU head coach Porter Moser last season.


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