On Opening Night, how many college coaches, if given the opportunity, would take being 11-1 by Christmas break, with the one loss being an overtime, coin-flip game? The answer: all of them.
That’s exactly what Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks have accomplished, as after a narrow loss to Indiana to open the year, the team closed out nonconference play with its 11th straight victory. On Thursday night, the No. 3 Jayhawks took down UNLV, 71-53.
The key in determining how far Kansas will go in March is the frontcourt, and things got a lot cloudier this week when freshman center Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury in practice. Senior Landen Lucas was thrust back into the lineup after an underwhelming start to his year, and he continued his strong recent play with a terrific effort against the Runnin’ Rebels. Lucas hauled in a team-high 12 rebounds to go along with four points and two assists in 27 minutes. When the Jayhawks have a man in the middle rebounding the ball and attracting attention in the paint, it stretches the offenses out and allows the team to play to its strengths. This is why Lucas has been so valuable since his surge last January, when he anchored a KU team that won 17 straight games.
The Jayhawks never trailed against UNLV, and they quickly jumped out to a 15-5 lead behind strong shooting from Josh Jackson. KU led by 21 at halftime, and despite being outscored by four in the second half, the lead never got back to single digits.
Jackson scored 21 points to lead the Jayhawks, though he was held scoreless over the last nine minutes of the game. Once again, he proved to be the ultimate utility player by blending three-pointers, putback buckets, and ferocious blocks together for a splendid all-around line. Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, his guard counterpart, used a strong second half to finish with 20 points, including 4-for-6 on three-pointers.
Frank Mason, who had scored at least 18 points in all but one of KU’s games thus far, was held to 13 points on 4-for-11 shooting. However, he made up for that with eight assists and five rebounds. He’s officially in Perry Ellis territory: even his “bad” games are terrific ones.
Kansas’ offense struggled in the second half, which sucked the team’s field goal percentage down to 44%. However, its defense was stellar against a UNLV team that has struggled to find offense this year. The Runnin’ Rebels shot just 35% from the floor. The 53 points scored by UNLV are its second-lowest total this year.
As for the rest of the frontcourt, KU’s depth was tested without the presence of Azubuike. Carlton Bragg logged 15 minutes, scoring two points and collecting six rebounds. But Mitch Lightfoot and Dwight Coleby combined for four fouls in seven minutes. KU’s four-guard lineups, which it runs a huge percentage of the time, will allow a lot of leeway with this, but the Jayhawks need at least one of its other non-Lucas forwards to stay out of foul trouble. Bragg has committed just two fouls in his last 33 minutes of action, so hopefully that’s starting to stick.
The backcourt depth was on display on Thursday night. Devonte’ Graham had a miserable shooting night. Lagerald Vick made just two baskets in 24 minutes. It just doesn’t matter; this team has so many quality guards that it’s just not likely KU will ever experience a night where none of the backcourt plays well. Lucas will be very solid, and Bragg may emerge, but the guards are going to carry Kansas as far as it goes.
Up next for KU: conference play opens next Friday night when the Jayhawks play another road tilt, this one at TCU. Kansas will be heavily favored, but the Horned Frogs have just one loss this year.
- Josh Jackson: 21 points (9/16 FG) and nine rebounds in 31 minutes. He missed his last five shots from the floor, squandering an opportunity to set his career high. But that’s the only blemish on a stellar night.
- Svi Mykhailiuk: 20 points (8/14 FG, 4/6 from three) in 31 minutes. Two weeks ago, he was Bill Self’s fifth guard. Now, he’s got a starting spot, and it’s not going anywhere.
- Landen Lucas: four points and 12 rebounds in 27 minutes. He’s my vote for the team’s most important player, both in this game and for the season.
- Frank Mason: 13 points (4/11 FG), eight assists, and five rebounds. His second-worst game of the year still produced this line.
- Devonte’ Graham: four points (2/9 FG, 0/5 from three) and three assists in 30 minutes. That’s the fewest points scored by Graham so far this year, but with the rest of this backcourt, it doesn’t even matter.
- Carlton Bragg: two points and six rebounds in 15 minutes. Kansas needs a second big guy to emerge with Azubuike out, and Bragg appears to be rounding into form.
- Lagerald Vick: five points (2/5 FG) in 24 minutes. He gave 24 quality minutes of strong defense and sharp passing as the fifth-best guard on the roster. That will play.
- Dwight Coleby and Mitch Lightfoot: two points, one rebound, and four fouls in seven minutes together. This needs to improve.
- Kansas shot 44% from the floor, 35% from three, and 47% at the line.
- UNLV: 35%, 21%, 42%.
- About those free throws: Of the nine free throws Kansas missed, six of them were by Mason (4/10), who entered the game as a 76% free throw shooter. So I wouldn’t panic too much about that.
- KU out-rebounded UNLV by four, had seven more assists, and two fewer turnovers.