With transfer haul, KU ensures it will leave spacing issues in the past

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson (1) is pressured by Missouri forwards Jordan Butler, back left, Jesus Carralero Martin (13) and guard Anthony Robinson II (14) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023, in Lawrence. Kansas won 73-64.

In the grand scheme of the 2023-24 Kansas men’s basketball season, the Border Showdown on Dec. 9 didn’t really leave much of an impression.

It was a win over a rival, yes but a little too close for comfort for KU at 73-64 after 27- and 28-point victories the previous two years, and didn’t age particularly well given that Missouri only won one game the entire rest of the season. KJ Adams made a vicious block and Thomas Robinson got his jersey retired, but the game as a whole got lost in the shuffle, because a week earlier KU had beaten the once and future title winner UConn and a week later it rallied for a memorable win against Indiana at Assembly Hall.

There was one more thing that characterized the Missouri game, though: traffic in the paint.

The Tigers didn’t figure out much on defense last year, as they gave up 76.2 points per game, which was 290th in the nation. But they did figure out at Allen Fieldhouse that they could play so far off Adams and freshman guard Elmarko Jackson — neither exactly a knockdown shooter, and Adams particularly lacking from distance — that they could more easily deny the ball to center Hunter Dickinson and then swarm him if he somehow got it.

Adams did what he could do to neutralize the approach by hitting floaters, and that helped KU pull out the win in the end. But head coach Bill Self offered a bit of an ominous quote postgame.

“As long as teams play that way, Hunter is going to be neutralized,” he said. “There is nothing that we can do that will help him out unless you can spread it.”

The Jayhawks must have known teams were going to throw extra bodies at Dickinson on defense. He’s 7-foot-2 and a double-double machine. I’m sure they didn’t expect, though, that the rest of their offense would draw so little attention on the perimeter as to actually make it easier for opponents to do so.

Even after inserting Johnny Furphy, who gave their 3-point shooting a bit of a boost in January and early February, and even when Nick Timberlake got into a bit more of a groove late in the year, KU was so unreliable from long range as to damage Dickinson’s prospects. Consider the two-game stretch against Baylor and Texas Tech (a win and a loss), when the depleted Jayhawks went a combined 8-for-37 from long range and Dickinson was only 8-for-26 on 2-point shots.

By the end of the Big 12 Conference tournament, KU had somehow made exactly three 3-pointers in each of six of its last 10 games.

The coaching staff knew it needed to surround Dickinson, and point guard Dajuan Harris Jr., with more reliable, willing and immediate long-range shooters, which would not only help with the spacing issues but also take better advantage of Dickinson and Harris’ passing acumen.

And so far, the staff has delivered.

photo by: AP Photo/Alan Youngblood

Florida guard Riley Kugel (2) dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024, in Gainesville, Fla.

photo by: AP Photo/Michael Woods

South Dakota State guard Zeke Mayo (2) against Arkansas during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark.

photo by: AP Photo/Noah K. Murray

Wisconsin guard AJ Storr (2) drives to the basket against Rutgers forward Aundre Hyatt and center Emmanuel Ogbole (22) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024 in Piscataway, N.J.

At the very least, Riley Kugel, Zeke Mayo and AJ Storr are known quantities on the offensive end that require a defender to, if nothing else, stand in somewhat close proximity. At the most, Kugel can make a play out of thin air, Mayo can knock down 3s even when defenders know that’s what he’s going to do and Storr is willing — and hopefully able — to shoot from anywhere on the floor.

While both Kugel and Storr shot better from long range as freshmen than as sophomores, simply being willing to take 3s at a high volume is a massive bonus for KU. The three transfers combined to make 174 3s on 494 attempts. The entire Jayhawk roster last year went 195-for-587. Mayo and Storr in particular won’t be focal points of the offense the same way they were at South Dakota State and Wisconsin, so the ball won’t be in their hands quite as much, but their past records still provide plenty of reason for optimism.

With that in mind, how exactly will they all fit?

First, a disclaimer: as of Monday, Dickinson has not announced officially that he plans to return for his super-senior season. But given that he is not highly regarded as a professional prospect, that KU hasn’t recruited anyone to replace him and that he posted a meme on social media encouraging a former youth teammate to come to KU (Duke transfer Jeremy Roach ended up committing to Baylor), it seems a virtual certainty he will be back.

Secondly, I think that anyone who expects Adams to see a significant reduction in minutes just because he doesn’t take outside shots is misguided. It’s his senior year, he was Mr. Jayhawk at the banquet, his teammates love him, he is one of the few players who really do provide unseen value in ways that don’t show up on the box score. His offensive skill set may not necessarily complement Dickinson’s well, — plenty of games in the 2023-24 season provided evidence of that — but he also shores up Dickinson’s weaknesses on defense by reliably taking on taller players, many of whom are more athletic than Dickinson. None of KU’s wings are doing that nearly as effectively. Meanwhile, he also can handle the ball far better than a power forward has any right to.

In short, I find it difficult to conceive of a world in which Adams comes off the bench, even pending further possible acquisitions (more on that later). Could he play fewer minutes in a given game if KU wants to play matchups and space the floor even more? Certainly. But his substantial improvement each year (which the Big 12 recognized with an award in 2023), his leadership and his energy make it impossible to keep him off the floor for an extended period of time.

So the starting lineup with the personnel KU has at this precise moment is simple: Harris, Mayo, Storr (with the length to play the 3), Adams and Dickinson. It’s easy then to envision Kugel as the first man off the bench (even if he didn’t take well to coming off the bench at Florida), either with Mayo sliding over to run the point or Adams subbing out to make for a four-out kind of lineup. Elmarko Jackson also remains in the picture and will probably be one of KU’s best defenders at guard, and freshman center Flory Bidunga, if he adapts quickly enough, can spell Dickinson for some energy and athleticism off the bench.

However, KU almost certainly does not have the personnel now that it will come Late Night in the Phog or the season opener in early November. For one thing, it’s still not totally set in stone that freshman wing Johnny Furphy is leaving, even if it seems to be trending that way; bring him back by the May 29 withdrawal deadline and you’re suddenly talking about putting a proven Mayo or a rising-star Furphy on the bench.

Then there’s Alabama transfer Rylan Griffen, whose prospective addition to the Jayhawks’ roster has seemed an inevitability to many pundits since he entered the portal (he has a slew of On3 expert predictions, for example, including from national analyst Jamie Shaw), and who reportedly visited Lawrence over the weekend. He would provide yet another shooting threat and more length on defense. (Kugel, Mayo and Storr are not necessarily known quantities on defense at this point but it’s easy to imagine Self, given his track record, molding them into highly functional players on that side of the ball.) As a starter on a Final Four team last season, he seems an easy candidate to slot into the lineup, but then that means putting two of three other transfers on the bench or – again, somewhat implausibly – consigning Adams to a sixth-man role. Or changing lineups on a game-by-game basis.

In addition, it’s reasonable to imagine that the addition of Griffen on top of the Jayhawks’ existing talent could push one of KU’s younger guards into the portal or even discourage a 2024 signee from showing up. Certainly the Jayhawks didn’t get all their freshmen to campus last year.

But even if that happens and there are some holes to fill at the bottom of the roster, KU will be light-years ahead of where it was at any point last season. If the Jayhawks were to somehow lose three players after getting Griffen (or someone else comparable) they would still have 10 already set to play next year, which is more than they had available at any point during the 2023-24 last season.

They haven’t just added depth. They are operating in a totally different realm than they did last year from a player personnel standpoint.


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