The fourth-ranked Jayhawks topped off the always entertaining Maui Jim Maui Invitational by beating Dayton, 90-84, in overtime, in one of the best games of the young season. It wasn’t the highly-anticipated game against Michigan State that many predicted (due to MSU getting upset by VA Tech in the first round), but this game had everything you want as a basketball fan: back-and-forth, teams going on runs to close gaps, players make huge plays, refs that (while occasionally getting some calls wrong) were pretty good overall, and a boisterous crowd. I wanted to spend a little bit of time recapping each game and examine why I think this tournament was a huge boost to the Hawks.
KU got the lucky draw for this tournament, meaning their side of the bracket was significantly easier than the top half. They started off against Division II and host team Chaminade. This game was never really a question of whether or not KU would win, but rather by how much they would win. Also, Bill Walton announced this game, so I hope your ears have stopped bleeding by now. I’m not sure if mine have.
KU looked pretty normal in this game, but that was to be expected. They jumped to a 20-point lead at half, holding the Silverswords to just 27 first-half points. Dotson led the way with 19 points, but five Jayhawks scored in double figures for a 93-63 win. Udoka was too much for the smaller Chaminade bigs to deal with, going 7-8 from the floor and finishing with 15 points. Next up was BYU.
This game drew some attention because BYU is a solid team that shoots threes really well, but the story of this game was KU’s outstanding defense. After only being up two at half, KU blew the doors open in the second half and cruised to a 16-point win, holding BYU to 27 and 29 points in each half, respectively. KU limited BYU to just 9 of 33 on threes, completely shutting down BYU standout Jake Toolson in the process. This was the best defense KU has played in really long time, perhaps even going back to last season. Every single shot seemed tough for BYU, and by the end of the game you could tell BYU had essentially waved the white flag as they absolutely could not get a bucket until garbage time. This was elite level defense for KU.
Offensively, KU was again pretty normal. David McCormack lead the way with 16 points, and Dotson and Azubuike both scored in double figures. KU’s three point shooting struggles continued, shooting only 22% from three. Overall though, this is a quality win for the Jayhawks. BYU is a really good team, and I would bet they will be in the hunt to get into the tournament come March.
The championship game of the Maui tournament delivered in all regards. Now-ranked Dayton and rising star Obi Toppin cruised to the championship defeating Georgia by 19 and a talented Virginia Tech team by 27 who had just upset Michigan State. Obi Toppin in particular had been outstanding in these two games. His size and versatile on the floor make him an attractive pick in the next NBA draft.
The game started off in about the worst possible way for KU fans—Dayton drained their first five three pointers, and their hot shooting never really stopped. Thankfully, Udoka was pretty much a walking bucket when he got the ball in the paint. KU took an early lead but Dayton fought back to take the lead by 1 at half. The second half was much of the same—a back and forth affair with multiple Jayhawks tasked with guarding Toppin. While KU did allow Dayton to hit threes, Toppin was largely shut down. He still scored, but the defense on him was particularly good. Dayton was in control late after a botched zone defense lead to two straight threes putting the Flyers up 8 with around 6 minutes left, but KU made some huge plays late to take the lead by three going into the final 15 seconds of the game, but Dayton then managed to bang in a ridiculous 3 to send the game into OT. In the end, it was the Jayhawks who made just a few more plays late to pull away and capture the championship in OT.
The real story of this game was the play of Udoka and Devon. These two were phenomenal. Dotson and Udoka poured in a combined 60 (!!) points. Dotson drove into the lane at will and Udoka was unstoppable in the paint late. This game was arguably their best game either of them have ever played. Marcus Garrett also contributed 18 points, despite being limited on minutes because of foul troubles. Udoka and Dotson went on to win tournament co-MVP honors.
The Big Picture
Bill Self said before the tournament started that these tournaments provide the opportunity for teams to become close and really become a team. I would be interested in hearing Self’s thoughts on this now, because, man, KU sure looked dominate this tournament. I think the thing that stood out the most to me was the sheer determination by KU (and Doke in particular) to not lose to Dayton. Think about it. How many games has KU lost where the other teams knocks down three after three leading to a lead late into the second half? The answer? Many. This game had a KU loss written all over it—Dayton was coming with tons of momentum from their previous wins, is a three point machine, and has a star in Obi Toppin. They even went into overtime having all the momentum after the clutch three to tie. Yet KU didn’t fold. The determination from KU to win was almost palpable. Udoka was an automatic bucket in OT, and he was affecting shot after shot on defense showing plenty of emotion in the process (the finger wag after a block was a nice touch). He also finished 5-8 from the free throw line (!!!!!) including making three in a row in overtime. Dotson likewise continued to make big play after big play, and Marcus Garrett made a ridiculous reverse lay up that just about iced the game. It really was one of the most enjoyable KU games to watch as a fan in long time.
Jay Bilas said during the game that no team has improved as much as Kansas has since their season opening loss to Duke, and I think he is spot on. With that being said, KU certainly has room to improve. KU needs to improve their three point shooting in particular—they only shot a combined 28% from three against BYU and Dayton—which is crucial if KU keeps running their 4 guard lineup. I still think KU has a higher ceiling as a team if they become effective with two bigs, but so far that has not happened. We just haven’t seen McCormack and De Sousa develop into anything other than true centers. I also hope KU can get more offensive production from Enaruna and Braun.
But the bottom line is this: if KU can keep up the elite defensive effort and have the drive to win that they exhibited against Dayton, KU can really separates itself from the rest of the field. I know I’m biased, but I think there is a case to be made that KU might be the best team in the country. With a tough test coming up against the #20 Colorado Buffaloes, we will find out just how ready they are to embrace that role.