While the Jayhawks cannot truly enact revenge against the defending national champions, Kansas can silence some criticism by defeating a Villanova team that gashed them in the Final Four.
Despite almost falling into the Venus flytrap that the Sprint Center has become for the Jayhawks, a Gonzaga loss to Tennessee on Sunday has brought Kansas back to the top of the rankings. While December’s AP poll will likely look quite different by March, the sentiment among fans and analysts alike is that an undefeated KU team still has to find themselves.
With Udoka Azubuike indefinitely sidelined with an ankle injury, the absence of his instant offense leaves Kansas in search of the right lineups. Last season, Bill Self was forced to rely on his backcourt, but had the luxury of both seniority and shooting with Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman. This year he is not nearly as fortunate, as Lagerald Vick’s three-point shooting ran cold against Wofford and New Mexico State, and Quentin Grimes, who debuted with 21 points against Michigan State, has not lived up to his potential yet.
Even Dedric Lawson, one of the most unassuming star athletes in college basketball, got off to an incredibly slow start on Saturday with just one basket in the first half. While Lawson became the hero down the stretch, his poor defensive play and streaky offense will have to improve as the year goes on. Role player Mitch Lightfoot remains KU’s most reliable player when it comes to effort, hustle and defensive commitment, which is simply not acceptable when he is only averaging eight minutes per game.
With Azubuike’s injury and Silvio De Sousa’s NCAA eligibility issues sidelining the big men, a Kansas team that came into the year touting front court depth will now be playing small ball. This means Charlie Moore, Marcus Garrett, Quentin Grimes, Devon Dotson and Vick must become more accurate from the perimeter and more aggressive in attacking the basket. Self also needs to see what he has in sophomore K.J. Lawson, who despite making both of his shots against the Aggies, only played four minutes.
While the hope is that a healthy Jayhawks rosters can be more balanced by conference play, Self will have to expand his rotations and become more creative in how he is utilizing his personnel against Villanova. Though losses to Furman and Penn have let bizarre stains on Villanova’s early resume, they are still ranked in the top 20, and they will come into Allen Fieldhouse amped up for the intensity of this blockbuster. If Kansas can break away from their tight contest cadence as of late with a resounding victory, it should inspire confidence in and out of the Kansas locker room.
Banners are not hung in the winter, but the early stretch of the season is a prime opportunity for all of the new faces to find their rhythm and develop on court relationships with their teammates. Never lacking in talent, the Jayhawks have to build chemistry and put in the effort to bury inferior teams rather than claw back from deficits. A dominant win in a highly-anticipated match up with Jay Wright’s Wildcats could shift a narrative that has been surprisingly negative given the win-loss column.