Elite effort, intensity on defense early shows sky-high potential for KU’s defense overall

Duke forward Ryan Young, center, scrambles for a loose ball with Kansas forward KJ Adams Jr., left, and Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

I’ve said this to a few people, a few different times, already this season, but last night’s effort by the Kansas defense in a 69-64 win over No. 7 Duke inspired me to write about it.

I cannot remember seeing a Kansas team that played this hard and with this much intensity on the defensive end this early in the season in a long time.

It usually takes some time for the Jayhawks to get to this level. That’s not to say they’re where they want to be or that they can’t get better, but these Jayhawks have been pretty turned up on the defensive end from the jump in each of their three victories.

There are a few reasons for this, and I still think the sloppy and lethargic start against Pitt State in their exhibition win sort of shocked their system and reminded them that that type of effort won’t cut it.

They haven’t looked anywhere close to that sluggish since that night two weeks ago, and instead have looked rabid and hungry during most of their first-half defensive possessions.

When your team is led by two players like Dajuan Harris Jr. and Kevin McCullar Jr., that can tend to happen. Both are tenacious defenders who pride themselves on their play on that end of the floor. And they’re both mature enough to understand that working a little harder on D makes things easier on offense. Jalen Wilson’s right there with them in that line of thinking.

And that has rubbed off the rest of the roster that already seems to have fallen into a clearly defined set of roles on the defensive end.

Again, there’s no doubt that this group can and will get better. But the fact that they’ve been bringing it on defense to open games in the early going is a sign of how much defensive potential this team has.

No play better exemplified what this defense is all about right now than the wild sequence of back-to-back blocks by KU’s littlest player (Harris) and KU’s biggest player (Ernest Udeh Jr.) during Tuesday night’s win.

A few things stand out about this sequence.

• First, despite the fact that this has the look of an easy bucket for the Blue Devils, all five guys are hustling back to at least half court to insert themselves into the play. While Harris and Udeh get the highlights, McCullar’s hustle put him right there to dive on the loose ball, which ended up saving the possession. Some of this you can coach. But most of it is culture. And these guys clearly understand that, even the freshmen, two of which were involved in this play.

• Second, any time Harris blocks a shot, people who don’t follow Kansas closely like to throw their arms up and assume it’s a fluke. It’s not. Ever. Harris has longer arms than his body suggests and his timing and instincts when going after a block are darn near elite. Ask TCU’s Mike Miles Jr. about that.

• Third, watch the KU bench after the Harris and Udeh blocks. Everyone’s up and they’re all jacked. Again, that’s part of the culture thing we’re talking about. These guys all understand how big plays like this can be for the momentum of a game. Beyond that, seeing your teammates make these types of plays can make you (a) want to join them and (b) feel like you’re not doing your part if you don’t.

I’m sure the Kansas coaches would point out a half a dozen different reasons why this defense isn’t where it needs to be yet. Rotations, defensive rebounding, positioning and protecting the paint all need work to get up to the Kansas standard.

But when you play as hard as this team has shown it will play on that end of the floor, improvement seems more inevitable than ever.

KU’s next chance for a fast start on the defensive end comes Friday night at home, when Southern Utah comes to Allen Fieldhouse for a 7 p.m. tipoff.

The Thunderbirds enter the contest at 3-1 overall and ranked 161st in the latest KenPom.com rankings.

Their three wins came by an average margin of 55 points, including a 117-55 win over La Verne and a 126-67 win over Bethesda. The other win was a 91-48 win over Saint Katherine.

The only Division I team Southern Utah has faced is New Mexico, which they lost to 89-81 on the road in the season opener.

With Kansas coach Bill Self returning from his suspension next week, acting KU coach Norm Roberts will be in charge of the Jayhawks for the final time on Friday night. Roberts said Thursday that the Thunderbirds shoot a lot of 3s and play a bunch of players double-digit minutes.

“So, they try to wear you down,” he said. “They’re a versatile team, they’re a veteran team and they’ve got guys that can play multiple positions.”

Regardless of Southern Utah’s specific strengths, freshman center Ernest Udeh Jr., said the Jayhawks want to be as locked in for this one as they were in Indianapolis at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night.

“One thing I would say is for us not to get complacent, for us not to feel like, we just beat Duke so now let’s relax,” Udeh said. “… We can’t ever look over anybody, especially at this level of basketball.”

Probable Starters

No. 6 Kansas

G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 175, Jr.

G – Kevin McCullar Jr., 6-6, 210, Sr.

G – Gradey Dick, 6-8, 205, Fr.

F – Jalen Wilson, 6-8, 225, Soph.

F – KJ Adams, 6-7, 225, Soph.

Southern Utah

G – Drake Allen, 6-4, 190, Soph.

G – Tevian Jones, 6-7, 197, Sr.

G – Harrison Butler, 6-5, 222, Sr.

F – Maizen Fausett, 6-6, 230, Sr.

C – Jason Spurgin, 6-11, 250, Soph.


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