Between now and the beginning of conference action in Big 12 men’s basketball, HeartlandCollegeSports.com contributor Matthew Postins will watch at least one game for each Big 12 team and assess where each team stands in the final weeks before league action. Today it’s the Kansas Jayhawks.
I’m not breaking news when I tell you that the Kansas Jayhawks are one of the nation’s best basketball teams. The history, the 7-0 record to start the season, the No. 2 national ranking and the 12 straight Big 12 regular-season titles speak for themselves. But as I watched Kansas defeat Syracuse Saturday in Miami, I was struck by how cohesive this Jayhawks team looked seven games into the season. And this performance came against an undefeated Orange team that was looking for its own measuring stick.
I ended up with these five takeaways from Kansas’ 76-60 win over the Orange.
Devonte’ Graham looks like a player in full
Graham is a great example of what can happen when you play the full four years of college. He’s worked his way up the ladder and, from what I could see against Syracuse, he’s the leader of this team. Granted, Graham went off for 35 points, including a scintillating 7-of-13 from the 3-point line, but it was his second straight 30-plus point game and pushed his season average to 18.6 points per game. So, he’s well ahead of his points-per-game average from last year, but what impressed me more were his distribution skills. Yes, there are the alley-oops (and we’ll talk more about that in a bit). But there’s a reason why five Jayhawks are averaging double-figures after seven games. It’s, in part, because Graham is getting them the ball in the right places. That’s the value of an experienced, three-year starter running your point. He knows how everything should work. Graham looks primed for a push for Player of the Year honors in the Big 12.
The Jayhawks’ man defense was stifling
After seven games the Jayhawks are holding opponents to 35.4 percent shooting and on Saturday they held Syracuse to 32.1 percent shooting. Their defense was, perhaps, the most impressive part of the game. The Jayhawks only managed four steals in the game, but that doesn’t tell you much about how they played. They communicated well, whether handing off picks-and-rolls or helping others through traffic. Their one-on-one defense on the ball was superb. And the Jayhawks — especially forward Mitch Lightfoot — executed taking the charge perfectly. Lightfoot took two in the first half. Syracuse was long and athletic and thanks to Kansas’ man-to-man defense, the Orange had difficulty penetrating the paint and finishing efficiently. All of those things taken together means Kansas’ defense is going to be tough for any Big 12 team to deal with.
Now about those alley-oops…
I lost count of how many Kansas executed successfully in the game, and the one that Graham tossed to Lagerald Vick, which Vick put down for a one-handed jam, was all over your SportsCenter highlight packages. I think some of that can be attributed to Syracuse’s patented zone defense. When the ball is rotated around the zone it can make back-side alley-oops like the ones Kansas fired off Saturday more possible. But it also shows off the athleticism of this team. The fact that Vick, a guard, has that sort of above-the-rim ability makes Kansas that much harder to defend.
Which Kansas do you want to play?
The Jayhawks will prove a dilemma to any team they face. Syracuse played its patented 2-3 zone the entire game, as it usually does, and part of the charm of that zone is that it forces teams to slow down offensively. Kansas struggled a bit for the first 10 minutes of the game. But along with the efficient use of passing around the zone, the Jayhawks started unclogging it by using a Jayhawk as a passer at the free throw line. Graham would slide a pass into his teammate (usually Vick) and he would distribute from there. That created a nice inside-outside game for the Jayhawks that Syracuse found increasingly hard to defend, especially when Graham started heating up from behind the arc. But, with the athleticism on this team, if you choose to defend them man-to-man that can open up Kansas’ transition game. Which poison do you choose? That’s what Big 12 teams will have to ask themselves.
The development of center Udoka Azubuike could be key this season
He is the only 7-footer on the roster and at 280 pounds, good luck pushing him around. But he dealt with foul trouble throughout this game (he finished with four, one of which I would consider ticky-tack) and that left him playing just 23 minutes. So, he only blocked one shot against the Orange. But before his wrist injury last year Azubuike had 18 blocked shots in 11 games. He already has 10 blocks in seven games this season and is averaging 14.6 points per game. Still, he looked a little off on the offensive side of the court in this one. But if he can stay healthy and continue to refine that offensive skill set, he could become one of the most indomitable presences in the paint in the Big 12. His size alone makes his hard to deal with. But refinement of his low-post game and his free-throw shooting would make him — and this Jayhawk offense — even more dangerous. But, for now he’s rebounding well (he had nine against Syracuse) and is tied for the team lead, averaging 7.0 per game. That keeps him in this lineup as he preps to be more of a presence on offense when it comes to facing comparable talent in the Big 12.
Overall, Kansas is exactly where you would expect it to be in early December. In fact, the Jayhawks might be a bit ahead of schedule. They’re Big 12 favorites and national title contenders for a reason, after all.
Next up: I’ll tackle Iowa State’s game with Northern Illinois.