In a season that is going to be defined by uncertainty, Kansas is still trying to find its identity. It’s understandable as we’re only two games into the season and its two All-American-level players are no longer on the team.
This is what happens, especially at a blue blood program that has to retool every year—the team you watch in November (and in this season’s case, early December) is not the team you will see in March. Teams can grow and develop a ton over the course of 20+ games and four months. Remember, last year KU started the season with a loss to Duke that featured 26 turnovers and Udoka Azubuike only scoring eight points on four shot attempts.
This team especially, with plenty of new faces and most players having an increased role on the team, is going to take time to sync and hit its peak. But two games in, we know the style of play is going to look very different compared to last season. Considering the type of efficiency we saw in the second half of the St. Joseph’s game, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So, now that we have stipulated that this is a small sample size that is likely to change, here are five takeaways from the Jayhawks trip to the Fort Myers Tip-Off.
The Good: 3-Point Shooting
This was one of the big question marks coming into the season, and so far, it has been a strength. The Jayhawks hit 44.7% of their threes in the first two games, which is not likely to continue at that clip, but it does feel somewhat sustainable.
It’s not like the Jayhawks were chucking them up from all over the gym—KU took just 20 3s against St. Joseph’s and 18 against Gonzaga. Instead, the Jayhawks were almost surgical with their shot selection, with strong perimeter passing from the small-ball lineup opening up good looks. Not to mention 11 of those 3s were taken by Christian Braun, who is the best shooter on the team. That is a repeatable recipe.
The Bad: Post Play
David McCormack had a rough two days where he looked rushed and out of sync. The Jayhawks looked much better playing small, potentially best with Jalen Wilson at the five. Gonzaga absolutely dominated the paint, a talking point that has been hit on over and over, but it’s worth pointing out that the Bulldogs are one of the biggest teams in the country and are going to do that to most teams they face.
Still, even with McCormack in the lineup, defensive rebounding was an issue, and the offense was not as dynamic. Both opponents were bad matchups for McCormack, but it’s clear that small ball is going to be this team’s best shot at success. But that doesn’t mean McCormack is not an important piece to this team and his improvement, especially on defense, is not critical to raising the team’s ceiling.
The Good: Small Ball
The counter to the struggling post play was that Kansas’ small ball and five-guard lineups showed a lot of potential. I talked about this in the preseason, how Kansas has an abundance of long, athletic wings, and that depth proved to be KU’s recipe for success.
Braun and Agbaji were the best of the wings, but what was great to see was how the guys who will fit the small four or five fared. Jalen Wilson had a strong week, scoring 14 points and grabbing nine boards against St. Joe’s and putting up 11 and 4 against Gonzaga, and Tristan Enaruna also had nice moments getting to the basket and showing off a smooth jumper.
The Bad: Turnovers
This was the case at the beginning of the season last year, too. And it is not the most surprising given the newcomers KU is working into the lineup. The Jayhawks did not have a performance as bad as 26 turnovers against Duke last year, but they did give it away 16 times against St. Joe’s and 15 times against Gonzaga.
The carelessness is something you expect to fix itself over time as KU’s pieces get more comfortable playing with each other, but it’s still worth focusing on and cleaning up ahead of Kentucky.
The Good: The Debuts of Bryce Thompson and Dajuan Harris
Each of the first two games gave us a good introduction to a couple of skilled freshmen.
Bryce Thompson, the Jayhawks’ highest-rated recruit, was thrown into the fire against the best team in the country and not only showed he’s a competitor, but also why he’s regarded as such a smooth scorer. Thompson’s 12 points on 4-6 shooting against the Zags obviously bodes well for KU’s offensive success, but what stood out even more was his effort and all-around play. He also recorded three rebounds, an assist, a block, and two steals against the Bulldogs, and didn’t look rattled in his first collegiate game.
Against St. Joe’s, it was redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris that grabbed fans’ attention. Bill Self mentioned he had been banged up, which is why he didn’t play much against Gonzaga, but he made the most of his first game in a Kansas uniform. In Marcus Garrett fashion, Harris showed off his incredible passing and ability to get in the passing lane. Harris had five assists, three rebounds, and two steals in 16 minutes, while hitting a three on his only field-goal attempt.
Thompson’s start is optimistic for the Jayhawks scoring ability, while Harris would give Kansas another Garrett-type point guard on the floor so Garrett won’t have to play 38 minutes a game as the primary ball handler and distributor.