KU defense vexed Texas’ top scorers

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson steals the ball away from Texas' Tyrese Hunter Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.

The defensive matchup against Texas had looked like a massive test for Kansas.

The Longhorns were bringing to Lawrence guard Max Abmas, a newly minted 3,000-point scorer in his career, one of just 12 men to reach that milestone — but not even the Longhorns’ top scorer of late, because they also have forward Dylan Disu, who entered Saturday’s game leading the Big 12 Conference with 18.8 points per game since the start of league play.

KU coach Bill Self had mentioned at the start of the week that the first thing he looks at on an opposing roster is their post players’ 3-point shooting. For Disu, that meant Self was staring at a 56% conversion rate since the forward returned to action in December.

“That’s a little bit (of a) different thing when you’ve got Hunter (Dickinson) chasing around a guy on the perimeter like that,” Self said on his “Hawk Talk” radio show Monday.

The solution when it came time to deal with Disu on Saturday night was to prevent Dickinson from having to chase him around in the first place.

“We tried to play somebody else, always the 5-man,” Self said postgame. “That meant Hunter didn’t have to guard him. That was good for us.”

The Jayhawks came out with the hyperathletic KJ Adams — well accustomed to guarding centers after playing as an undersized 5-man all last season — matched up against the 6-foot-9 Disu at the opening tipoff, and put Dickinson up against a much more paint-focused player in Dillon Mitchell. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon all through Saturday’s game to see Dickinson giving his own man plenty of space, daring the Longhorns’ less shooting-inclined bigs to take jumpers.

But of course the onus was on Texas to ensure KU’s defenders couldn’t stay stuck to a single man all game, and often an undersized guard like Dajuan Harris Jr. would find himself given the unenviable responsibility of defending Disu in the post with his back to the basket.

However, Harris and his teammates could mitigate those sorts of situations with the assistance of Dickinson, who was able to repeatedly slide off his own man in short order, and race over to Disu — on whom he held a five-inch advantage — to provide much-needed post defense, leaving KU’s guards to return to their Texas counterparts on the perimeter.

“Their guards are smart enough, especially Harris,” Texas coach Rodney Terry said. “He (is) not going to stay down there continuing to fight a big guy. He’s going to get back out and they’ll make the switch back after the switch.

“They’re really good at that, they spend a lot of time working on that, you can tell, and they make it real difficult when they’re doing that.”

Adding to Disu’s issues, he got in some trouble when he committed his second foul against Johnny Furphy with 5:52 left in the first period and missed the rest of the half. He played briefly after his third in the second half but then went off the floor for what ended up being a run by the Jayhawks.

On the whole, he played 24 minutes on the night and scored eight points on 3-for-6 shooting with four fouls and three turnovers. KU became the first team to hold him to single digits since UCF on Jan. 17; the Longhorns also lost that game.

As for Abmas, he faced the unenviable offensive matchup of going up against Dajuan Harris Jr.

No one shot well for Texas in the first half besides Mitchell (4-for-7, eight points) — the rest of the Longhorns were a combined 5-for-27 (18.5%) — and that included Abmas, who went 1-for-5.

He forced a 3-point attempt in transition just over two minutes into the game, bounced an errant pass that turned into a pair of free throws for Furphy at the other end and then was long on a pull-up jumper. Abmas raced past Harris on a cut to the hoop for an easy layup, but didn’t shoot again for another seven and a half minutes.

In fact, he didn’t score again until he hit an NBA-length 3 in front of Harris with 3:08 left — in regulation — and not long after that was assessed a flagrant foul on a transition opportunity for Nick Timberlake.

Perhaps just as important was the Jayhawks’ ability to prevent the Longhorns’ secondary and tertiary players from vastly exceeding their season averages. Mitchell and Tyrese Hunter were in the low double digits as usual. Onetime prospective KU recruit Ithiel Horton, a UCF transfer, did make it to 10, which was above his season average of 6.2 but not particularly egregious.

On the whole, the Jayhawks held Texas to 9-for-26 shooting from beyond the arc (including 1-for-5 for Abmas) on the night, a particularly encouraging sign for their defense ahead of a Tuesday date with BYU, which attempts the second-most 3s of anyone in the country and makes the third-most.


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