Preview: Jayhawks hope to withstand BYU’s bombardment

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

Kansas head coach Bill Self talks with guard Elmarko Jackson during a stoppage in play Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, against Texas.

The Kansas men’s basketball team is now facing a future without potentially its best all-around player.

On Saturday night, that future looked brighter than expected.

Playing without do-everything super-senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. for the fourth time in seven games — but this time on a night when KU coach Bill Self expressed concern about getting McCullar back from his bone bruise at any point this season — the remaining Jayhawks all chipped in during an 86-67 blowout of Texas.

With McCullar already ruled out for Tuesday night against BYU, and the Big 12 Conference regular-season title now a distant long shot for KU after Houston outlasted Baylor in overtime Saturday, the remaining four conference games present a valuable opportunity for KU’s much-maligned reserves to build experience ahead of the postseason.

That includes transfer guard Nick Timberlake, who in his latest start in McCullar’s absence made himself the star of the show with a high-flying dunk as he matched his season high with 13 points.

“I feel like in those games everyone’s stepped up greater than what they are normally playing like when Kev’s here,” said Timberlake, who added he’s had to “be in attack mode from the jump rather than having to sit on the bench for a little bit, then get warmed up and go back out.”

Off the bench, Parker Braun soared for a hard-won bucket through a foul by Texas’ Kadin Shedrick, Jamari McDowell hit a 3 and defended well in extended action and Elmarko Jackson, despite a mostly empty stat sheet, seemed much more in command of the offense when spelling Dajuan Harris Jr., even dishing a flashy assist to center Hunter Dickinson.

The Jayhawks will hope to remain just as comfortable when they welcome an unfamiliar foe. After moving on from an opponent they had played dozens of times in Texas, they now face BYU for the first time since they beat the Cougars at the 2019 Maui Invitational and just the fifth time overall. The Cougars haven’t played in Allen Fieldhouse since 1971.

In some sense BYU has been one of the surprise teams of the season in the Big 12, as it was picked 13th and has established itself as a comfortably middle-of-the-pack team with a 7-7 conference record. In a season of ups and downs, the Cougars beat Baylor last week, only to lose at Kansas State on Saturday. Perhaps their most impressive win of the year was an 87-72 takedown of Iowa State in Provo on Jan. 16.

What has made the Cougars even more interesting than their unexpected emergence is the way in which they’ve done it. They attempt (32 per game) and make (11.3) more 3s than almost anyone else in the country.

“The other day we made three 3s and played really well,” KU coach Bill Self said. “If they make 13 3s they’ve already outscored you (by) 30 points from the field.”

It’s a team effort as four players have attempted at least 114 on the year. Even center Aly Khalifa, a 6-foot-11 junior from Egypt with uncommon passing acumen (he averages more than four assists per game and has the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the league), can hit from beyond the arc, as can 6-foot-11 forward Noah Waterman.

“I still believe in my heart, even though I say I don’t coach it this way, I still believe in the players’ mind we still defend from the inside out,” Self said. “And this is a game we need to defend from the outside in.”

The Cougars are just behind Cincinnati as the league’s top rebounding team despite the fact that no one averages more than 5.8 rebounds per game (that’s Waterman’s mark) because seven players get at least 3.6, highlighted by guard Spencer Johnson (10.6 points, 5.6 rebounds).

They also have an uncommonly threatening bench that features their top overall scorer in Jaxson Robinson (13.9 points per game), a physical, less perimeter-focused post option in Fousseyni Traore (10.2 points, 4.7 rebounds) and Richie Saunders (9.4 points, 4.0 boards).

Johnson, Khalifa and Waterman are joined in the starting lineup by guards Trevin Knell (11.6 points, a 40.2% 3-point shooter) and Dallin Hall (fifth in the Big 12 with 5.1 assists per game).

The defense hasn’t quite stacked up, allowing 76.5 points in conference play, letting opponents hit 35.4% of their 3s and forcing just 10.2 turnovers per game. In other words, the Cougars do not quite create the same sort of disruption that is required to slow down their own offense.

No. 7 Kansas Jayhawks (21-6, 9-5 Big 12) vs. BYU Cougars (19-8, 7-7 Big 12)

• Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence, 7 pm.

Broadcast: ESPN+

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

Keep an eye out

Musical chairs: Self took advantage of KU’s extra time off last week to implement a new sort of substitution system in which Adams and Furphy formed one substitution group and Dickinson, Harris and Timberlake another. That allowed the Jayhawks to play in just a few discrete lineups and ensure they had both a perimeter shooter and a post player on the floor at any given moment.

“I had my little play sheet out because I’ve never done that,” Self said, “so I had down, OK, with this lineup these are the five or seven plays we could run with this lineup … and when the starters are in these are the 12 or whatever we’ll do.”

However unfamiliar that approach may have been, it worked to perfection as KU’s starters played several fewer minutes and the bench players played as well as they have in conference play.

“Just having Hunt and Juan play so many minutes this year and the season coming to an end, if they can play less minutes and save their legs, they’d look even better than they already are,” Timberlake said. “The wave of subs that we had was perfect, I thought.”

Getting to the line: Dickinson has been averaging almost two fewer free-throw attempts per game than he did during his final season at Michigan. Since the start of conference play he’s gone to the line three times per game. Compare that to wing Johnny Furphy, who in that same time frame is getting an average of 3.6 attempts. Self has been vocal in recent weeks about wanting to find ways for Dickinson to play closer to the basket, which he did a bit during the Texas game; still, as Self noted prior to that game, “a lot of it’s on us, a lot of it’s on maybe Hunter a little bit, but the physicality in the post play has been something that probably hasn’t benefited Hunter with free-throw attempts.”

Back in control: After he and Self both frequently observed that he could play better, Harris has stepped up in recent weeks. In the 15 games prior to Jan. 13, he had tallied 106 assists but marred by 41 turnovers (a ratio of 2.6). Since then, he has dished out 69 assists compared to just 17 turnovers in 12 games (4.1). In a season that featured Harris reacting to news of his addition to the Bob Cousy Award watchlist (for the nation’s best point guard) by asserting that he could play a lot better, he is starting to round into form with the most important games approaching.

Off-kilter observation

For the second game in a row a former KU pledge will be on the opposite bench. After Chris Johnson did not play for Texas Saturday, Marcus Adams Jr. is unlikely to do so for BYU Tuesday; he has taken part in just one game this season after a summer that saw him arrive at KU, leave for Gonzaga and then leave Gonzaga for BYU.


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