Kansas narrowly escaped against Utah on Saturday afternoon, winning 63-60, after blowing a 21 point lead in the second half. The Jayhawks closed the first half on a 23-4 run, taking a 39-21 lead into the break. They would widen the margin to 21 early in the second half, but a furious Utah comeback led by guard Delon Wright put Kansas in another close game with under four minutes remaining. The Jayhawk defense would hold during those final four minutes, allowing the Utes to shoot only 2-for-9 from the field in order to sneak away from the Sprint Center with the win.
The “tale of two halves” story line is likely becoming all too familiar for fans of the Jayhawks as they’ve struggled to play a complete 40 minutes in recent weeks. Kansas has won all four of its most recent games by six points or less. However, the good news is that each of those wins came against top 25 opponents according to KenPom’s rankings.
Kansas finished the game with an advantage in two of the Four Factors – effective field goal percentage and free throw rate. As with Kentucky and Georgetown, the Jayhawks again had trouble offensively against the length of their opponent. As I noted in my preview piece, Utah is the 12th tallest team in the country based on effective height, which has contributed to their stellar 2-point field goal defense. Kansas finished 12-for-32 on 2-point attempts. The Jayhawks have yet to find a truly effective back to the basket post player and are relying on drives from Jamari Traylor or Perry Ellis to get most of their looks at the rim. On occasion, Kansas will find a clean look due to quality passing from one of their perimeter players. Wayne Selden has provided a number of highlight passes this season and offered another on Saturday after some great ball movement by the Jayhawks.
Kansas made up for the poor 2-point shooting with quality shooting from behind the arc. The Jayhawks shot 6-for-11 on 3-point field goals and they’re now shooting 37.3 percent on the season. That is the highest mark for a Kansas team since the 2010-11 season.
While Utah entered the game with impressive shooting numbers, the Kansas defense limited their offensive output on Saturday. In particular, the Jayhawks held Utah, who came into the contest shooting 41.2 percent from behind the arc, to 4-for-19 shooting on 3-pointers at the Sprint Center. I reviewed all 19 of the attempts in an effort to discern if Kansas was playing quality defense or if Utah simply had an off day. The conclusion is obviously a bit mixed and imprecise, but the Jayhawks showed a good ability to contest against the majority of the Utes 3-point attempts. For example, here is Frank Mason recognizing where the next pass is headed and closing out on the Utah’s most active 3-point shooter, Brandon Taylor.
Kansas did continue to have problems with their 2-point field goal defense, allowing the Utes to connect on 48.6 percent of their 2-point field goals. Delon Wright led the way finishing with 23 points on 13 shots including 9-for-11 shooting inside the 3-point line. The Jayhawks are still blocking 12.1 percent of their opponent’s field goal attempts, but it’s becoming clear that the lack of a rim protector with the ability to defend the post one-on-one is becoming a problem for Kansas defensively.
The Jayhawks also continued to find success getting to the foul line, finishing with a 53.5 free throw rate. They outscored Utah 21-14 from the foul line. While Kansas has struggled to create easy 2-point baskets, they are now sixth best in the country at getting to the free throw line where they’re shooting 74.7 percent. That ability to knock down free throws is becoming valuable in the close games Kansas has played. Bill Self has found his go to shooter in Brannen Greene who is yet to miss an attempt this season. Greene closed out Saturday’s contest by going 4-for-4 from the foul line in the final 20 seconds.
Kansas continues to show the ability to win close contests, which can be helpful come March. However, the Jayhawks will hopefully be able to use the remainder of their nonconference slate to adjust to life without Devonte’ Graham and to develop a strategy for playing consistently for 40 minutes.