Undermanned Jayhawks knocked out of Big 12 tournament by Cincinnati — key takeaways from the loss

Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. (24) gets between Cincinnati guard Dan Skillings Jr. (0) and Cincinnati forward Aziz Bandaogo (55) for a bucket during the first half on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas City, Mo. — Playing with a depleted roster, the Kansas men’s basketball team fell 72-52 to Cincinnati Wednesday night at the T-Mobile Center and was eliminated from the Big 12 Conference tournament.

Back playing as an undersized center, KJ Adams led KU with 22 points on the night, but the Jayhawks made just three 3-pointers to Cincinnati’s nine.

“I thought the kids tried,” Self said. “Obviously we were bad offensively, and didn’t make shots, didn’t make any shots, and tonight would have been a night where things would have had to go a lot better for us shooting the basketball to have a chance.

Dan Skillings Jr. caused problems for KU’s defense just as he had back in January, leading the Bearcats with 25 points.

KU got as close as two points away in the second half but could not quite come back and got outscored dramatically down the stretch.

“It’s really simple,” freshman guard Jamari McDowell said. “They hit shots, we didn’t. That’s the outcome.”

Jayhawks play short-handed

In one key respect Kansas’ first postseason game of 2024 had the vibe of a preseason exhibition.

Not because of the stakes at hand — with Cincinnati battling for its life on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Wednesday night’s Big 12 Conference tournament matchup was always going to feature a certain intensity. No, rather because of the personnel on the floor, as the Jayhawks were using a lineup they would virtually never have voluntarily picked during the prior 31 games.

With first-team all-conference picks Hunter Dickinson (shoulder) and Kevin McCullar Jr. (knee) sitting due to injuries, KU opened its Big 12 campaign as follows: Dajuan Harris Jr., Elmarko Jackson (making his first start since Jan. 30), Nick Timberlake, Johnny Furphy and Adams.

McDowell came in with 11:03 remaining in the first half. Self said on pregame radio that center Parker Braun was not at 100% so it was really more like KU had six and a half players; Braun entered at the 7:20 mark to give the Jayhawks some size in their lineup. He had recently been dealing with an ankle injury suffered at Baylor on March 2 but had still been able to play of late.

“If Coach thinks it’s better that I’m not out there then that’s what’s going to happen,” Braun told the Journal-World postgame. “I don’t want to hurt the team, but I was available tonight and if we needed me then I was good.”

The Jayhawks even played a small part of the second half with five guards when Adams briefly left the lineup after a hard fall.

In Lubbock, Texas, last month, when McCullar and McDowell were the two players out, Self used walk-on Wilder Evers for a key defensive possession. That maneuver did not make an appearance in the first half Wednesday, although some walk-ons played with the game out of reach late.

The goal for KU is at least ostensibly to limit its use of this new-look lineup to the Big 12 tournament. Self said on Monday that his team “should be the most healthy we’ve been in a long time when the NCAA Tournament starts.”

He reiterated pregame Wednesday that as the injured players go through rehab, “Hunter’s responding great” and McCullar is “much better than what he was this past Saturday.” Both players were in street clothes during the game, and then afterward, Self was asked if either would have played if it had been an NCAA Tournament game Wednesday instead of the Big 12 tournament.

“Hunter for sure couldn’t,” Self said. “Kevin probably could have, but Hunter, when it popped out of place and the MRI and what the doctor said, he’s got to pass some tests before we put him out there. But, you know, you could make a case that if this game was played on Saturday, could he have played? The answer may be yes. But he should be good to go by next week.”

Jayhawks don’t capitalize on energizing play in first half, atone in second

KU entered the game 50th in the nation in fast-break points at 12.74 per game and was clearly attempting to use its smaller lineup to beat the Bearcats out on the break. The Jayhawks did just that after Adams blocked a contested layup attempt by Skillings — who was otherwise getting basically whatever he wanted — early in the first half and Jackson took the ball coast-to-coast for a dunk that cut KU’s deficit to one point.

However, when Timberlake attempted a similar feat a minute later, it resulted in a turnover that precipitated a scoreless stretch of more than three minutes.

That seemed long at the time, although it paled in comparison to a period of nearly seven minutes without a field goal in which Cincinnati went up 36-19.

The Jayhawks did better perpetuating a run in the second half, when following a 3-pointer by McDowell that cut the lead to six points, Adams was able to score several contested shots inside and make one jumper to help KU get as close as two points away.

Cincinnati rebounds as well as expected

The Bearcats have been the Big 12’s best rebounding team in conference play, and as expected that presented some problems for KU’s undersized lineup, particularly with Adams’ tendency to underwhelm on the defensive glass. Even with Dickinson in the lineup back in January, Cincinnati beat the Jayhawks 40-29 on the glass.

This time around, by halftime, UC had already racked up nine offensive rebounds and was on top of KU 24-18 overall. Jackson was a rather unexpected leader on the glass with five rebounds for KU in the first half after collecting five combined rebounds in his previous 10 games, and continued to pace the Jayhawks in that category for much of the second half, finishing with nine.

“That was really just my main focus, trying to get rebounds as much as possible to limit their second-chance points,” Jackson said.

In all, UC finished with the same 11-rebound advantage it had mustered in January, this time at 49-38.

“We missed Kevin and Hunter in there helping us with rebounds,” Adams said. “I needed to get a little bit more.”

KU’s guards slash early, UC’s shoot

The expectation was that the Jayhawks’ shallow bench would cause their starters to shoot more aggressively from deep, and to some extent they did. But more frequently they replaced McCullar’s production by driving frequently to the hoop. In the first four minutes, four separate Jayhawks — Furphy, Harris, Timberlake and Jackson — went hard to the basket against strong defense inside, with varying results.

KU did not in fact make a 3-pointer in the first half and missed eight times along the way.

In the meantime, Cincinnati was able to build its lead to 17 points thanks to five early 3s. Point guard Day Day Thomas, who entered the Big 12 Conference tournament making less than a quarter of his 3-point attempts, hit seven on Tuesday to help UC beat West Virginia and made his first two against KU. Simas Lukošius, who had made just one shot at Allen Fieldhouse in January, exceeded his point total from that game with a 3 of his own early on and had seven points by the break.

McDowell ended the drought when he hit from the left wing early in the second half as part of the Jayhawks’ first meaningful run of the night early in the second half.

Bracket check-in

It looks like at least one of KU’s first two weekends of the NCAA Tournament — assuming they can make it out of the first two rounds — will have to be played outside of the Midwest.

Both ESPN and CBS’ bracketology analysts have the Jayhawks in the East Region, meaning they would play second-weekend games in Boston. However, while CBS still had KU as a No. 3 seed at the Omaha, Nebraska, site for the first weekend in its Wednesday morning updates, opening its tournament run against Oakland, ESPN has now assigned it to the Delta Center in Salt Lake City as a No. 4 seed taking on Samford.

Over the course of the last week, ESPN — which for a while projected KU to Omaha, which looked a foregone conclusion for much of the season — has cycled through placing the Jayhawks in Pittsburgh, Memphis, Pittsburgh again and now Salt Lake City.

KU played in first- and second-round competition in Salt Lake City in 2018-19, when it lost to Auburn in its second game.

Box score


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