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Big 12 Basketball Round Up January 10th: Jayhawks Roll, Wildcats Rally

NCAA Basketball: Texas Christian at Kansas

For Kansas, the week started with bad news. Center Udoka Azubuike is out for the rest of the season with an injured wrist. I wrote on Monday in my Good, Bad and Ugly piece that I had finally bought into Azubuike’s value to Kansas’ overall game. His size demands attention inside and opens up passing and shooting lanes on the outside. Dedric Lawson does the same thing, but in a much different way. Not a true post like Azubuike, Lawson slides inside and outside with ease. But Azubuike’s injury left the Jayhawks with no true center. That means you can defend the Jayhawks much differently.

Then you build on the fact that the Jayhawks are not the outside shooting team they were a year ago, one that shot about 40 percent from the arc. Lagerald Vick is their only legitimate and consistent outside threat, and when Vick isn’t shooting the ball from 3 the Jayhawks are firing about 28 percent combined. So head coach Bill Self has some issues to deal with. A month ago Kansas looked practically impervious.

Now, at Allen Fieldhouse the Jayhawks are practically impervious no matter what. But with TCU coming to town on Wednesday night one had to wonder how the Jayhawks would respond, especially after losing to Iowa State by 17 on the road. Seventeen points.

The response? A 77-68 Jayhawks (13-2, 2-1 in Big 12) over the Horned Frogs (12-2, 1-1) with Lawson having the game of his life this season — 31 points, 14 rebounds. It was strap-the-Jayhawks-to-Lawson’s-back night at Allen Fieldhouse. Where’s my T-shirt?

It’s not that Kansas didn’t get other contributions on the night. Vick had 12 points. But I was most interested to see how the Jayhawks would toggle playing time without Azubuike. Well, Mitch Lightfoot played a little more. So did freshman David McCormack. K.J. Lawson had one of his more productive games of the season, scoring 7 points in 11 minutes. I could see him grabbing some of Azubuike’s minutes.

But the intriguing emergence of the night? Ochai Agbaji. Before the game Self decided to burn the freshman’s redshirt and play him this season. Below was his first — FIRST — offensive possession in the regular season.

Agbaji finished with 7 points, 4 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist. That’s a solid line for a freshman playing his first regular-season game. And the Jayhawks need it right now. There is playing time to be had and Agbaji laid claim to some of it as Kansas bounced back at home.

TCU had its own issues coming into the game, as they were without guard Jaylen Fisher and forward Yuat Alok. Fisher being injured is nothing new. It’s unfortunate, but TCU knows how to deal with it. The Horned Frogs dealt with the injuries by playing two freshmen — RJ Nembhard and Kevin Samuel — in the starting lineup. Both excelled.

Nembhard hit a trio of 3-pointers and ended up with 14 points, along with 4 rebounds. Wednesday was his second straight game with at least 30 minutes on the floor and his second straight game with at least 10 points. In fact, this season Nembhard has played in 30 or more minutes in three games and has scored at least 10 points in all three games. So playing time clearly agrees with him.

Samuel, meanwhile, is looking more and more like a polished big man. While forward JD Miller plays more athletically and faced up to the basket, Samuel has some solid moves with his back to the basket. He finished with 12 points and 8 rebounds. Even in limited duty this season he’s been a rebounding machine. But, like Nembhard, he’s gotten more playing time of late and has responded with higher quality play.

The Horned Frogs had five players in double figures — Desmond Bane had 13 points, Alex Robinson had 12 points and Kouat Noi had 10 points. There was great offensive balance on the floor for TCU, but there were issues, too. They had limited depth and head coach Jamie Dixon played just two off his bench. Robinson had an off-game passing the ball, finishing with 4 assists (that’s half his average) and the Horned Frogs had 20 turnovers. Plus, down the stretch it was Kansas that made the hustle plays that won the game. Myles Garrett’s offensive rebound put-back with 1:10 left gave the Jayhawks a 5-point lead. Then Devon Dotson stole the ball on the next possession, effectively putting the game away.

The recent news that Kaden Archie will transfer from TCU — the second such transfer for TCU since the season started (Angus McWilliam) doesn’t necessarily mean something is fishy in Fort Worth. But it does mean that head coach Jamie Dixon’s recruiting efforts this past spring won’t bear as much fruit in the long term. Archie and McWilliam both figured to be key parts of the Frogs’ future — but the future isn’t necessarily now because the Frogs have an entrenched starting lineup for the next couple of years. I loved Archie’s game — for the scant number of minutes that he played. But that’s the life of a freshman at a Top 50 basketball program. In many cases you have to wait your turn. It’s Archie’s right to transfer. It just strikes me as a bit impatient on the part of the former four-star recruit, who was likely quite excited to play for his local university (he’s from nearby Midlothian, Texas). But Archie hasn’t addressed the transfer publicly yet, so it’s impossible to know what’s on his mind or if other factors played a role.

But before you cry for Dixon and the Horned Frogs, understand this. He’s already signed a pair of four-star guards ranked in the nation’s Top 100, per 247Sports.com. So the Frogs are likely to be just fine.
Kansas is still the team to beat in the Big 12, in my opinion. But the last week has shown there are vulnerabilities that Self must correct to keep the team’s streak of Big 12 regular-season titles alive.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Kan., two teams met trying to get off the winless tip in Big 12 action. Kansas State (11-4, 1-2) ended up being the team that got its first Big 12, win, beating West Virginia (8-7, 0-3), 71-69.

I wrote in my Good, Bad and Ugly piece after last week’s games that senior guard Barry Brown Jr. can’t do it all. But he can sure try. He had one of his best games of the season, scoring 29 points and 6 steals. His layup with 29 seconds left gave the Wildcats the lead for good. From there they had to survive a missed jumper by Derek Culver with five seconds left to hang on for the win.

While Brown had a huge game, there were other developments that may bode well for K-State. It looks like Kamau Stokes is rounding back into shape after missing one of last week’s game with an injury. Back in the starting lineup on Wednesday night he had 12 points and 6 assists. Xavier Sneed added 10 points and 6 rebounds. I wrote last week that it will be hard for the Wildcats to weather the storm in the Big 12 without forward Dean Wade and Stokes. But with Stokes back they stand a much better chance.

And those chances improve greatly if guard Mike McGuirl can have more games like Wednesday. I’ve written about the fact that K-State wasn’t getting much from its bench so far in Big 12 action. Well, McGuirl changed that in a big way. He dumped in 17 points, including four 3-pointers. That was a huge boost for a team that desperately needed it. Just as critical to this win was K-State giving up the ball just six times on offense. The scant number of turnovers was critical when you consider the Mountaineers outrebounded the Wildcats by 14.

As for Wade, there is no concrete timetable for his return. But head coach Bruce Weber did say on Wednesday that Wade is making progress.

West Virginia made progress tonight, too, though it didn’t lead to a win. James Bolden returned to the starting lineup but didn’t score a single point. Instead, perhaps it’s time to believe in Jermaine Haley a bit more. The junior guard had his first double-digit scoring game of the season, pouring in 13 points. More importantly, he had 3 assists and just one turnover. I’m not sure he’s the point guard they’ve been looking for. After all he’s 6-foot-7. But the Mountaineers need as many quality ball handlers as they can get their hands on, and if Haley continues to protect the ball like he did on Wednesday he’ll not only maintain a place in the starting lineup but earn more of head coach Bob Huggins’ trust.

Derek Culver still isn’t in the starting lineup, but he’s impacting the game. He had 17 points and 12 rebounds against K-State. Culver’s progress as a player is accelerating faster than I think most expected. Lamont West added in 21 points that included five 3-pointers. I just don’t understand why neither of these players are starting right now, especially now that Konate is out for the season. Huggins announced it — sort of — after the loss to Texas. He told reporters after the game that Konate was not coming back this season and that it was a “family situation.” While you don’t want to read into those kind of statements, it tells me that Konate and his family don’t want to hurt his NBA chances any more than they might have already.

So if Konate is gone and the Mountaineers are adrift, what’s the harm of Culver — who appears to be his heir apparent — taking his place in the starting lineup? None at this point, if you ask me.

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