KU suffered from leadership vacuum Tuesday

Kansas guard Johnny Furphy (10) and Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) scramble for a loose ball against BYU during the second half on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

After the Kansas men’s basketball team knocked off Oklahoma on the road and Texas at home without the injured Kevin McCullar Jr., it started to seem like its blowout loss at Texas Tech on Feb. 12 in his absence was an outlier.

But Tuesday night’s home loss to BYU saw the Jayhawks struggle to defend or score on the perimeter and — perhaps most crucially when it came to the final result — hit free throws. Those are all areas in which they have been significantly better with a healthy McCullar.

As KU coach Bill Self pointed out postgame, the team has had to reckon with McCullar’s injury, a bone bruise to his knee, for five weeks at this point. Self had first mentioned the ailment to the media after the Cincinnati game on Jan. 22.

Since then, the Jayhawks have played nine games — four with McCullar, five without him — and gone 5-4, as the team’s roles have shifted slightly, most notably for newly minted starter Nick Timberlake.

“I don’t think it’s new to us at this point,” center Hunter Dickinson said after the loss to BYU. “I think we kind of just got to play in those roles now that they’ve been established.”

But Self didn’t see his starters step up in the absence of their fellow veteran Tuesday night.

“I would say it’s got to be Juan (Harris), KJ (Adams) and Hunt, without question,” Self said when asked who would take on a leadership role without McCullar. “But tonight I don’t know that we had anybody. Juan probably more so than anybody just because the ball was in his hands.”

Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon Tuesday night, particularly in the second half, to see KU desperately attempt to work the ball to its point guard Harris in the waning seconds of the shot clock, hoping for him to generate some much-needed offense.

That’s a role in which they would often look to McCullar, who despite his hiatus continues to lead the Big 12 Conference in scoring with 19 points per game.

“He’s one of those guys who is kind of like a pressure release, almost,” Dickinson said earlier in February, “to where you know when the shot clock’s going down and he has the ball, you can kind of feel pretty confident that he’s going to come up with a decent shot.”

Granted, except for in one game — against Houston, when he went 7-for-8 — McCullar hasn’t been nearly as efficient from the field since he first got banged up. He has shot 36%, and 31% from deep, in his last five games beginning with Cincinnati.

But KU’s healthy players were no better than that Tuesday. They shot 39% overall, 20% from long range and a rather glaring 19-for-31 from the free-throw line, which, even as Dickinson and Timberlake nearly played the hero with back-to-back 3s late that almost rescued the Jayhawks, ultimately sank them down the stretch.

McCullar, of course, at one point this season went 50-for-54 from the stripe in a six-game run to close out nonconference play.

Playing without him might just be the Jayhawks’ new reality for however many weeks remain this season. Self has repeatedly cast doubt on McCullar’s availability for the rest of the year, saying Monday that if he were to sit out through the end of the Big 12 Conference tournament, McCullar “wouldn’t be worth a crap in the NCAA Tournament,” and on Tuesday that KU has to continue to prepare like he won’t return.

“We’re not counting on it,” Self said. “We’re hoping it could happen but we’re certainly not banking on it.”

That will clearly require, then, a step forward to account for the various weaknesses in the Jayhawks’ game that McCullar helped cover up when healthy.

“It definitely adds a level of difficulty, because as you guys know, he brings a lot to this team, just offensively and defensively,” freshman guard Johnny Furphy said. “… We got to be able to perform without him as well.”

They’ll also have to work on their mental fortitude as they lack one of their more steady-handed players, particularly in late-game situations.

“I actually saw some things with guys’ frustration that really wasn’t as mature as what we should have, considering the age of some of our guys,” Self said. “There wasn’t as much of thinking ‘next play’ as there was thinking ‘last play,’ and that’s not a good sign.”

The Jayhawks blew out Oklahoma State without McCullar on Jan. 30, but their greatest triumph in his absence came when they took down a high-ranked Baylor team in a marquee “College GameDay” matchup on Feb. 10 at Allen Fieldhouse. As it happens, they have a chance to right the ship once again by facing those Bears — but they’ll need to do so on the road in Waco, Texas, at noon on Saturday.


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