The Jayhawks are 7-0 for the first time since 2010-11 after beating the Syracuse Orange, 76-60, on Saturday afternoon in Miami. Here are some takeaways from KU’s first win against the Orange in 16 years:
1. Lagerald Vick is for real.
He posted some nice numbers against soft opponents earlier in the year, but we hadn’t seen him put together a great game against a solid team just yet. He shattered that narrative on Saturday afternoon, posting the best game of his career against one of the best defenses he’ll face. Vick posted 20 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists in 37 minutes. He mimicked Josh Jackson at the top of Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, picking it apart for short floaters, pull-up jumpers, and an amazing one-handed alley-oop.
I think what I was most impressed by was the seven assists. Vick’s vision at the top of the zone was brilliant; he spotted teammates slashing in from every direction and made flawless passes to get them the ball under the basket when he wasn’t the one driving to it. This is what Josh Jackson did that separated him from lesser small forwards. Vick is a legitimate Big 12 Player of the Year contender that’s going to garner some serious NBA hype if he continues to play at this level.
2. The 2-3 zone was wrecked by Devonte’ Graham
Kansas was a disaster offensively over the first 12 minutes, scoring just 13 points and looking completely lost by the trademark 2-3 Syracuse zone. In an instant, the light went on, and the Jayhawks scored 58 points over the last 27 minutes. The Orange aren’t good enough on offense to come back from a 15-point deficit, so the game was really over at halftime.
Devonte’ Graham was fabulous, putting in 35 points for the second straight game. This was the best performance of his career, but not just because of the point total. He had five assists, but it feels like he should have had 10+. When he wasn’t scoring the ball, he was quarterbacking an offense that was downright lethal over the last 27 minutes of the game. Graham was great in that Oklahoma game where he out-played Buddy Hield, and he was fantastic on Tuesday against Toledo, but he’s never impacted a game quite like he did this one before. It’s time to start giving Kansas some serious talk about having potentially having back-to-back Wooden winners.
3. An unlikely first-half MVP
After just 11 minutes, both Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot had two fouls, prompting Bill Self to turn to walk-on Clay Young to play center against Division I basketball’s biggest team. The result? Kansas out-scoring Syracuse 23-10 for the rest of the half. Young’s defense was super impressive. His ability to serve as a metaphorical band-aid, patching the bleeding and buying Bill Self some time while not being a liability, is exactly what KU needs from him going forward.
And I don’t want to make Young sound like he had a minimal impact. He was fantastic on the defensive end, and while the rest of the Jayhawk offense couldn’t stop turning the thing over, he didn’t commit a single turnover in his 12 minutes. The game completely swung KU’s direction when Young entered, and that’s a pretty good testament to how well he played.
4. Svi Mykhailiuk got better on defense
I think, at least. The Orange are a pretty terrible offensive team. But this was the first time all year Svi wasn’t taking over a game with his shot, and he still found a way to contribute. Mykhailiuk took just nine shots against Syracuse, a season-low, but he played all but two minutes and added four assists.
Last year, Mykhailiuk was a massive defensive liability, and he entered the summer surely knowing that he needed to improve to play at the next level. Against Kentucky and Syracuse, he made substantial defensive impacts. He lost 25 lbs. in the offseason, and he looks quicker and more focused when staying in front of his man. He really does look like an all-around player.
5. Kansas’ defense is really, really good
Through seven games, the Jayhawks have yet to give up more than 71 points in a contest this year. Syracuse shot just 32% from the floor, and while they were horrendous shooting threes (6/27 for 32%), this was a team that entered shooting a very high percentage on twos. On Saturday, they went just 12/29 inside the ark for 41%, easily a season-low.
This KU team was always going to be really good on offense, but with the exception of Devonte’ Graham, I doubted how well they’d be able to defend. They’ve been brilliant. Mykhailiuk may be the nation’s most improved defender. Vick can guard anyone. They’re just so quick; they close out so fast on long shots and swarm around anyone trying to score inside.
6. Udoka Azubuike proved he could rebound
Azubuike lucked into a couple of bigger rebounding performances earlier in the year simply because he’s a tall man. He needed to put together a nice rebounding performance against the enormous Syracuse frontcourt, and that’s what he did on Saturday, grabbing nine of them in just 23 minutes played. This will definitely improve his defensive rebounding statistics, which were underwhelming for a player of his size.
Rebounds were a concern for KU entering the year, but Lagerald Vick’s emergence as a force in the paint and Marcus Garrett’s strong play have eased some of that concern. If Azubuike continues to improve from a rebounding perspective, KU should be more than fine in that regard.
Up next: Washington comes into the Sprint Center on Wednesday night for the Jayhawk Shootout. Kansas should be favored by double-digits.