Preview: KU looks to start final stretch strong against Texas

photo by: AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck

Kansas forward KJ Adams Jr. (24) reacts as center Hunter Dickinson (1) looks on during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.

Both Kansas and Texas are likely a couple games behind where they expected to be at this point in the season.

KU, the preseason No. 1 team in the country and early favorite to win the Big 12 Conference, is 8-5 in league play and will have to rely on help from Baylor against Houston and the likes of UCF and rival Kansas State against Iowa State if it wants to snag a share of the title. The Jayhawks are in this position largely because of shock upsets they suffered against teams like UCF and West Virginia over a month ago.

Head coach Bill Self is stressing that the team can only afford to focus on its next opponent — Texas — right now, rather than getting ahead of itself and contemplating a possible high-stakes Houston showdown more than two weeks away.

“The best way to win them all is to win the first one,” he said Thursday. “If you don’t win the first one, that certainly eliminates all those desires.”

As for those Longhorns, who were picked third in the Big 12 in their final season before departing the conference, they sit with a losing league record at 6-7. Rodney Terry’s inaugural campaign as full-time head coach has been a bumpy one since the calendar flipped to 2024, and the Longhorns are staring down a No. 8 seed in the latest ESPN tournament projections.

Even with forward Dylan Disu fully back in the fold after recovering from a foot injury and now paired with high-scoring Oral Roberts transfer Max Abmas, Texas hasn’t been able to string together any sort of consistent momentum in conference play. On two separate occasions, the Longhorns have lost three out of four games. That includes defeats versus Texas Tech, at West Virginia, at home against UCF and at BYU.

“They’re a dangerous team,” KU coach Bill Self said on “Hawk Talk” Monday. “Their record’s probably not what they thought it would be at this stage, but they’re really explosive. Probably as athletic a team as we’ll play this year.”

Added forward KJ Adams: “You just have a lot of threats that you really have to hound down on defense.”

Disu, who can score both inside and out, and Abmas, who just became the 12th player to reach 3,000 career points in men’s college basketball, both average about 17 points per game on the year. Abmas is joined in the backcourt by a familiar name in Iowa State transfer Tyrese Hunter (11.8 points per game), and forward Dillon Mitchell (10.5 points, 8.5 rebounds) provides a complement to Disu.

Self had plenty of praise for newly inserted starting guard Chendall Weaver, who “makes their team as much as anybody.”

“He is a high-energy dude that can make a lot of plays in a lot of different ways and impact games,” Self said.

Texas has been considerably weaker on the defensive end, particularly in terms of field goal percentage defense (42.5%, ninth in the Big 12) and especially beyond the arc (34.2%, worst in the league).

Self said he expects the Longhorns to put a lot of pressure on KU’s offense and “get after us quite a bit.” Texas is middle-of-the-pack in its numbers for steals and turnovers forced.

Both teams are coming off of wins, with KU winning at Oklahoma last Saturday and Texas taking down Kansas State 62-56 in Austin Monday night; that gives the Jayhawks a slight rest advantage. Each team will look to build additional momentum ahead of the postseason. KU still hasn’t lost at Allen Fieldhouse this season.

photo by: Aaron E. Martinez/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Texas forward Dylan Disu (1) shoots over West Virginia’s Raequan Battle (21) during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Austin, Texas.

photo by: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Texas’ Max Abmas (3) brings the ball up the court against Houston during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Houston.

photo by: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Texas guard Chendall Weaver (2) reacts to a dunk against Iowa State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Austin, Texas, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024.

No. 9 Kansas Jayhawks (20-6, 8-5 Big 12) vs. Texas Longhorns (17-9, 6-7 Big 12)

• Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, 5 pm.

Broadcast: ESPN

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

Keep an eye out

Another tweak: The most salient question for KU entering Saturday’s game is again the health of Kevin McCullar Jr., who continues to deal with a bone bruise to his knee and whose services will certainly be required to defend Abmas and Hunter. He practiced all last week and played against OU, but Self said on “Hawk Talk” that McCullar “tweaked it again in Norman” last weekend and that the injury is likely something he will have to contend with for the rest of the year; he then added Thursday, “He hasn’t done anything yet this week, so we’ll probably wait and see if he’s able to do anything today. Today will probably determine if he plays on Saturday as much as anything.”

McCullar, who previously missed games against Oklahoma State, Baylor and Texas Tech, has shown his usual defensive acumen even when playing hurt, but his offensive efficiency has declined dramatically in every game except Feb. 3 against Houston. If he’s once again unable to go, Nick Timberlake and Elmarko Jackson will be under immense pressure to step up their game; if McCullar is ready to play again, he’ll need to produce a performance more like he did against Houston, even if it means taking a backseat to teammates on the offensive end at times.

Stretching the floor: Self said this week that the first thing he looks at on an opponent’s roster is how well their 4- and 5-men shoot 3-pointers — which of course can have a substantial impact on how KU chooses to counter ball screens, and puts more pressure on center Hunter Dickinson. Well, since returning to action in December, Disu has excelled from beyond the arc, shooting 33-for-60.

“We got to come up with some way to stay connected and still yet do a good job on ball-screen defense,” Self said. “It’s not the first time we’ve had to deal with that, but certainly Disu … this year he’s shooting it probably about as well as any big that I can remember shooting it over the course of a season. He’s a handful.”

Disu can score inside too, though he makes about two 3s per game; on the flip side, he measures five inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter than Dickinson, which should make for a challenging matchup in the paint for the Longhorns, as they may need to place an emphasis on preventing post entry passes and deep touches.

Balanced game: Johnny Furphy got his shooting stroke back at OU, as he made three 3-pointers for the sixth time since he entered the starting lineup last month. But perhaps more notable were his three steals in a game that showed a great deal of improvement on the defensive end — especially when compared directly to his first start of conference play, which was also against Oklahoma. They came just two games after he racked up six against Baylor, and demonstrate continued rapid growth for a player who has quietly moved into the top half of the first round in some NBA Draft projections, should he choose to leave after this season.

“He’s not running through passes but he’s getting his hands on a lot of balls, which is leading to some turnovers, so he’s getting better,” Self said on “Hawk Talk.” “Johnny’s getting better on the defensive end without question.”

Self added in his press conference that Furphy’s rebounding and ability to snag loose balls have exceeded his expectations, and on the whole he’s been great; however, he’s still “a baby colt — he’s just finding his way.”

Off-kilter observation

This will be Adams’ last chance to play against his fellow Westlake High (Austin, Texas) alumnus and “best friend” Brock Cunningham, a sixth-year senior for the Longhorns. Adams did say he was “a little bummed” KU doesn’t get to go to Austin this year.

“I did want to go home and play them for one last time, but it’s all right, I still get to play them here at home,” he said.

photo by: AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck

Kansas forward KJ Adams Jr. (24) passes the ball away from Oklahoma forward Jalon Moore (14) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.

photo by: AP Photo/Garett Fisbeck

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) passes the ball to guard Kevin McCullar Jr., right, past Oklahoma guard Otega Oweh (3) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024, in Norman, Okla.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.