Here are some immediate takeaways from No. 10 Kansas’ 88-84 road win against No. 16 TCU on Saturday in Ft. Worth:
1. That’s a huge, huge win for 14 straight
The Jayhawks hadn’t been under .500 in conference play in 12 years, and this was a very real chance for that to occur tonight. A loss would have put them two games behind West Virginia and Texas Tech just eight days into the league race. The Jayhawks absolutely had to have this one, and as they always seem to do when their backs are against the wall, they found a way to get it done.
It is still likely that Kansas will earn at least a share of a 14th straight Big 12 title. A loss tonight would have made it significantly less likely to pick up another conference championship. Instead of being two games behind their biggest threats, the Jayhawks essentially erased the Texas Tech loss by defeating a top-2o team on the road. Anybody looking at KU’s first three league opponents would have said 2-1 is the most likely outcome, and that’s exactly where Kansas is through three.
2. Finally, we saw the Jayhawks get to the free throw line
Bill Self had to have been going insane watching a Kansas team play so little inside offense that they entered Saturday having attempted fewer free throws than any other Big 12 team had made. On Saturday, it was clear that Self wanted his team to attack the basket, as the Jayhawks made 16 baskets inside the three-point arc and forced 25 fouls on the Horned Frogs.
23 makes and 33 attempts from the free throw line are both season-highs. And while the numbers got inflated a bit by TCU constantly fouling Devonte’ Graham in the final seconds, every Jayhawk that played shot at least two free throws. Attacking the rim was on Bill Self’s mind, and when you sprinkle in a productive outside shooting day, you had the most balanced day from the Jayhawk offense all year.
3. Mitch Lightfoot came through when his team needed him most
Udoka Azubuike fouled out in just 13 minutes, and he was a big factor on offense when he was in, scoring 14 points in limited time. Every time he went to the bench, Mitch Lightfoot was summoned onto the court, and he had a monstrous second half.
Lightfoot finished with 9 points, 7 rebounds and 6 blocks in 26 minutes. Azubuike fouled out with about five minutes left during a stretch where TCU scored on 12 straight possessions. Vlad Brodziansky was picking the Jayhawks apart down low. Lightfoot entered and plugged the gap quite nicely. His final block was his most notable, as he swatted a would-be game-tying three-point attempt by Jaylen Fisher with 36 seconds left.
Lightfoot, in simple terms, was brilliant. The pressure on Azubuike this year has been insane. Basically, KU has had two gears: be able to defend inside in the slightest, or rest Azubuike. There hasn’t been a compromise. Tonight, Lightfoot was a legitimately good college center for the first time in his career, and until Billy Preston gets freed, he’s going to need to do this for the Jayhawks to bring home a 14th-straight Big 12 title.
4. Devonte’ Graham has changed his game
Graham drove the ball more than he ever has against Texas Tech, and it resulted in 13 free throw attempts. On Saturday, his trend continued, as only nine of his 28 points came on three-pointers. Graham made three two-point shots and went 13-for-15 from the line, continuing his new trend of becoming a multi-dimensional offensive threat.
It’s no secret that Devonte’ Graham is a fantastic three-point shooter. But this week, his offensive game has changed. He’s looking to drive the ball more and more often, which makes Kansas so much better. It also opens up the area for three-point shooters already on the perimeter. He added six assists, three steals, and despite playing through injuries, he knocked down every late-game free throw he took. He’s an animal, and KU would be so, so screwed without him.
5. As bad as the rebounding was…
KU’s defense was actually pretty good. It was the same thing that we saw against Texas Tech. The Horned Frogs had a +14 rebounding advantage and snagged 19 offensive boards, which took away from the fact that the Jayhawks first-shot defense was great. They guarded the ball very well and held TCU to just 31% on three-pointers.
When this team improves from a rebounding perspective, the ceiling will lift on the Jayhawks significantly. It might not be possible until Billy Preston or Silvio De Sousa join the squad, but it certainly will get better than it’s been in the last couple of weeks. Rebounding is certainly this team’s biggest weakness. Fortunately, the Jayhawks have the pieces (hopefully) coming to change that up.
Up next: Kansas welcomes in Iowa State, the Big 12’s only winless team, to Allen Fieldhouse for a Tuesday night tilt.