Preview: KU will try small ball against tall Cincinnati lineup

Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. (24) gets pumped up during a run in the first half on Tuesday, March 5, 2024 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

The Kansas men’s basketball team will enter the postseason looking completely unrecognizable.

Under some circumstances that might be a boon to a team that lost an underwhelming three of its last four regular-season games and five of its last nine. But not quite as much when the reason for the new appearance is the loss of two first-team all-conference players to injury — a temporary loss, yes, even a strategic one looking ahead to the NCAA Tournament, but a loss nonetheless.

KU has repeatedly tried to bring Kevin McCullar Jr. back from a bone bruise to his knee that began to plague him in mid-January. On several occasions, such as at Oklahoma and then for a two-game stretch against Baylor and Kansas State, McCullar appeared to make his return from the injury, only to suffer a setback. Then there’s center Hunter Dickinson, who dislocated his shoulder in the season’s final regular-season game.

With head coach Bill Self’s announcement that both star players will sit out the Big 12 tournament and recover, the Jayhawks will see a return to the sort of small-ball lineup they ran last season with the 6-foot-7 KJ Adams at center, and likely an even smaller one because most of its guards aren’t particularly big.

During this season, for games that have tracked lineup stats (all but the Maui Invitational), Adams has played center in 12 games for a total of 15 minutes and 14 seconds with a point differential of minus-4. Most of that playing time was situational — trying to defend guards when Baylor needed a 3 to tie in Lawrence, trying to avoid a late foul getting assessed to Dickinson, etc.

But with Parker Braun as the lone remaining option at a true center position — and still coming back from an ankle injury himself — there could be plenty of pressure on Adams to hold down that spot in the lineup.

That pressure will be especially high because he’ll be paired with an unproven group — besides point guard Dajuan Harris Jr., it’ll be expected to feature Elmarko Jackson, Nick Timberlake and Johnny Furphy — and because of the opponent he’ll have to face, Cincinnati.

photo by: AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Kansas’s Elmarko Jackson (13) shoots against Baylor’s Jalen Bridges during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 82-74.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Kansas guard Johnny Furphy drives during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Lawrence.

The Bearcats, who beat West Virginia Tuesday afternoon (for the second game in a row) to advance as a No. 11 seed, led the Big 12 in rebounds (36.9 per game) and rebounding margin (4.4) in conference play, doing much of their damage on the offensive glass. Adams has not had much success as a defensive rebounder this season.

Part of UC’s own success can be attributed to the combination of 6-foot-11 Viktor Lakhin and 7-foot Aziz Bandaogo, and an elite rebounding guard in Dan Skillings Jr. As Self put it on his “Hawk Talk” radio show, they’re the biggest team in the league to go along with the best rebounding team. However, Lakhin has missed time of late due to an ankle injury. He was seen warming up Tuesday but did not play.

The Bearcats outrebounded KU 40-29 in Lawrence on Jan. 22 and that was with Dickinson and McCullar playing. However, the freshman guard Furphy set career highs in both points (23) and rebounds (11) to help the Jayhawks escape with a 74-69 victory.

Skillings did a lot of damage in that game, including against Furphy, and scored a team-high 16 off the bench. The issue for Cincinnati, though, has frequently been a lack of juice on the offensive end, as in league play they shot the 3 worse than anyone else in the Big 12, weren’t much better on 2-point attempts and scored under 70 points a game.

They certainly didn’t lack firepower Tuesday afternoon, when they rallied from 16 points down to beat West Virginia, as Simas Lukošius and Day Day Thomas each hit seven 3-pointers — yes, seven — in the 90-85 comeback win. Both were averaging 10.2 points per game.

UC suffered plenty of narrow losses this year. It played not only KU but just about everyone close in conference play and picked up road wins against the likes of BYU and Texas Tech. The Bearcats will now catch a potentially vulnerable Jayhawks squad at a neutral site Wednesday night.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Cincinnati guard Dan Skillings Jr. (0) gets past West Virginia guard Noah Farrakhan (1) to put up a shot during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, March 12, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Cincinnati won 90-85.

photo by: AP Photo/Michael Wyke

Cincinnati guard Day Day Thomas during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Houston Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024, in Houston.

photo by: AP Photo/Joshua A. Bickel

Cincinnati guard Simas Lukosius attempts a shot during the first half of an NCAA basketball game against Houston, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024, in Cincinnati.

No. 16 Kansas Jayhawks (22-9, 10-8 Big 12) vs. Cincinnati Bearcats (19-13, 7-11 Big 12)

• T-Mobile Center, Kansas City, Mo., 8:30 p.m.

Broadcast: ESPN2

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

Keep an eye out

Self opened the season by saying he wanted Braun to be more aggressive. At times he has been the aggressor on the defensive end and had strong shot-blocking and rebounding performances. But rarely has he been a factor on offense outside of the occasional alley-oop from his childhood friend Harris. Dickinson is expected to return for the NCAA Tournament, but in Kansas City, Braun will have to become a greater factor in terms of post offense, even if he’s still coming off the bench. After tallying 20 points in the first two games of the season he has scored 49 since in 29 games. To help win space for KU’s shooters (such as they are) he’ll have to draw some kind of attention as a threat in the paint.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Kansas forward Parker Braun (23) puts up a shot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Lawrence.

Off-kilter observation

Cincinnati assistant Andre Morgan previously worked under KU alum Jerod Haase when they were at UAB.

A look ahead

The winner will face a well-rested Baylor team Thursday and then, with another win, either Iowa State, Kansas State or Texas on Friday. The tournament finals are 5 p.m. Saturday, with NCAA Tournament selections set for a day later.


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