The Kansas Jayhawks (2-1) have looked better in each game they’ve played so far this season. It was a slop fest against Duke, a shaky but overall decent performance against UNC Greensboro and then utter domination against Monmouth. They’ll look to keep that momentum going in their final home game before the Maui Invitational when they host the East Tennessee State Buccaneers (3-0).
KU is, understandably, a heavy favorite, but it’s facing the best team it’s seen other than Duke this year. It’s a talented group, with three preseason All-SoCon selections, that’s played well in a brief sample of games. The Jayhawks will have their hands full with the Buccaneers, but should also have plenty of mismatches they can take advantage of.
Being able to measure progression is one good thing you can take away from KU’s last win over Monmouth. It was also a positive to see them trounce an opponent, regardless of skill level. There’s only so much you can take away from a 55-point blowout, but seeing a handful of guys step up and play well while others struggled was a positive. Junior guard Marcus Garrett and sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji combined for just six points on 2-of-13 from the field last Friday, yet contributions from guys like sophomore forward David McCormack freshman guard Christian Braun, who combined for 28 points, helped offset that.
Of course, the most important pieces for the Jayhawks remain the preseason All-Big 12 picks, Sophomore guard Devon Dotson has looked progressively more comfortable, while senior center Udoka Azubuike was effective and efficient against Monmouth while starting next to junior forward Silvio de Sousa. Important to note: in just 61 combined minutes (their fewest as a group this season) Azubuike, de Sousa and McCormack shot 16-of-21 from the field for 40 points with 25 rebounds. Coach Bill Self is committed to starting two big men, which is far less significant than what the rotation and usage for those three are. They’ve been managed well in the last two contests.
As mentioned above, this is a talented group for ETSU. Senior forward Jeromy Rodriguez, junior guard Bo Hodges and sophomore guard Daivien Williamson are all preseason all-league selections in the SoCon. Not only that, but the Buccaneers were picked to win the league, and the Jayhawks already know how good the top of that conference is (UNC Greensboro was picked to finish second in the SoCon). They’re shooting 41% from three so far this season, but have shot the ball with remarkable efficiency in general. Williamson is the only rotation player for ETSU that’s shooting below 50% from the floor overall through three games.
The Buccaneers do leave something to be desired on the defensive end, though. Their opponents are shooting 38.3% from beyond the arc, and their two Division I opponents are shooting 40.5% from three. That doesn’t bode particularly well against the Jayhawks, who have multiple capable shooters, several of which are likely on the floor together at any one time. Additionally, in spite of a positive turnover margin so far (+8) they’ve still given the ball away 42 times, including 19 turnovers versus UT Martin.
Can they defend the perimeter? The Buccaneers shoot the ball well from deep, which is the best shot they have to keep this game close. Junior guard Marcus Garrett is as reliable as anyone when it comes to defense for the Jayhawks, but they’ll need help beyond just him. That means that Dotson will have to play well on that end, Agbaji will need to be more consistent and Moss will need to provide something at all. There’s no guarantee that ETSU will shoot 41% (or better) from three on Tuesday like their average reflects, but it’s going to be a weapon and KU needs to be ready for that (which is really the case in every Jayhawks game against a mid-major).
Who’s the best option to take over the game? Often times when KU struggles against a lesser team a big reason why is because there’s someone on the other side who puts up huge numbers to keep his team lingering around. ETSU has spread the ball around decently well so far, but given the breadth of talent on coach Steve Forbes’ roster it should have one or two guys who can step up and be trusted to keep firing when the Buccaneers need a stop.
Moss. ETSU doesn’t guard the perimeter well, which should mean Moss gets plenty of open looks on Tuesday night. If the Jayhawks shoot the three well they should run away in this game, regardless of how well the Buccaneers shoot. Moss is the best shooter on the team and is always willing to put one up.
Hodges. This is the easy pick but also, given the question above, it’s the sensible one. He’s playing the most minutes of anyone in a deep ETSU rotation (30 mpg) and leads the team in scoring. He’s not a prolific or frequent shooter, but he’s still been able to score on the inside. Shutting down his playmaking ability will be crucial.
We found out on Friday night that, yes, this Kansas team is able to blow an opponent out. That’s a good thing to know going forward. While UNCG gave KU trouble already this year, the Jayhawks should be able to handle the other top team in the SoCon now that they’ve started to figure things out more. It’ll be a fight, but we’re still taking Kansas to win big.