The college basketball season didn’t start off exactly how the Kansas Jayhawks (0-1) had hoped, as they lost to Duke in the Champions Classic on Tuesday 68-66. Despite the loss, though, there’s no need to completely abandon optimism yet.
For one, the first game of the year, especially when it comes against another team with national title aspirations, probably isn’t a great indication of what you’re going to be when the games matter most. Additionally, the Jayhawks committed 28 turnovers in that losing effort. Not only is that likely never going to happen again this year, but to give the ball up than many times and still lose by just two points (or five if you discount a buzzer-beating three that was only significant to some) is quite remarkable.
Allen Fieldhouse will be rocking on Friday night as the Jayhawks make their first home appearance of the regular season against the UNC Greensboro Spartans (1-0). After a frustrating loss to Duke and what was surely a hard week of practice, expect Kansas to come out looking to prove a point this weekend.
The headlining story from Tuesday’s loss for Kansas was the turnovers, but even aside from that concern it was not a banner night for KU’s offense. The Jayhawks shot 46% from the floor for the game, but took just nine three pointers and senior center Udoka Azubuike took just four shots from the floor. For Kansas to find success this year, both of those numbers will need to go up. Azubuike attracted a lot of focus from Duke on the inside, but should be able to maneuver better against smaller, less talented competition. Game 2 of the year will also be a second test run to see which pairings of big men work best down low, whether it’s more of Azubuike with sophomore David McCormack, junior Silvio de Sousa or a single big with four guards.
Speaking of four guards, that whole group will look for a bounce back performance. Along with all the turnovers against Duke, there was some other questionable play and some questionable decisions on Tuesday. Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson in particular will be someone to watch. He led the Jayhawks in scoring the other day, but also appeared to shy away in some crucial situations. This game is a prime chance for KU to show off the reason for all of its preseason hype in a more favorable environment.
Further reading: Michael Swain of Phog.net broke down sophomore guard Ochai Agbaji’s performance in the Champions Classic.
This is a classic kind of team that the Bill Self-led Jayhawks love to schedule. The Spartans are expected to finish near the top of the SoCon this year and could be a fringe tournament team. Despite losing a four-year starter and four-year leading scorer this offseason, the UNCG has plenty of talent returning, starting with junior guard Isaiah Miller. Miller was a first-team All-SoCon pick last year and was also the league’s defensive player of the year. There’s a lot of returning talent for this group in general, specifically including senior forward Kyrin Galloway and James Dickey. UNCG doesn’t have a ton of size, so having those 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-10 bodies, respectively, will be its best bet against the far bigger KU roster.
UNCG got out to a good start to the season with a blowout win over North Carolina A&T on Tuesday. This should be a fun Spartans team to watch throughout the year; Mid-Major Madness has four different UNCG games on their list of the biggest dates in the SoCon this year, the most of any team in that conference. Not only that, but the computers are expecting a big year from the Spartans, too, with KenPom’s preseason rankings placing them solidly in the top third of the country at 108, and after the Game 1 win the Spartans are now at No. 100.
Will they let it fly more often? Senior guard Isaiah Moss is getting close to returning but still may not see his first action in crimson and blue on Friday night. Once he’s back, KU’s spacing and shooting should both improve instantly. Even outside of Moss, though, there are capable shooters on the roster who should take more chances from long range. Dotson has that ability and Agbaji spent plenty of time reworking his shot during the offseason (and showed off the new stroke during the exhibition slate). The Jayhawks can and should get well into double digits in three-point attempts on Friday.
Can they keep up without shooting? Last season UNCG shot just 34.2 percent from three, which is the great equalizer in college basketball. Generally speaking, when lesser teams have shot the ball well they’ve been able to hang around with the Jayhawks. The Spartans lost their second-best shooter from last season and their best returner in that category, Galloway, shot 37.9% last year and was just 1-of-7 in the season opener. Kansas will struggle to defend the perimeter when two bigs are in the game, but that threat is minimized when the shooting prowess isn’t present. Whether it’s Galloway or a different Spartan, someone needs to have a strong game from distance to keep it close at all.
Azubuike. To reiterate, UNCG is not a big team. Azubuike should be able to fight off the Spartans’ big men, and in reality he should have a big night. If he’s going to be a focal point of the offense, which he’s widely expected to be, he needs to score more than eight points on four shots (although going 2-of-3 from the free throw line was a positive in the opener). There will be space issues throughout the early part of the season as Self figures out his rotation down low, but Azubuike has enough size and skill to be able to take advantage of most opponents, especially the ones UNCG will throw at him. Given the circumstances, Azubuike should be in for a big night.
Miller. This is an easy pick, given all of his accolades from last season and that the junior guard is the SoCon preseason player of the year. Miller averaged 15.3 points per game a year ago as a secondary option behind the since-departed Francis Alonso and still was that impressive. It’s his team now, so expect the Jayhawks to focus a great deal of attention on Miller. He’s not an efficient long-range shooter, as he shot just 28.2% on threes a year ago. He’s much more efficient inside the arc, though, where he shot 56.2% on twos in 2018-19. Kansas has a chance to stunt UNCG’s offensive production if the big men are able to keep Miller out of the lane and force him into more difficult looks.
Further reading: For more on Miller, check out this column on the new UNCG star by Jeff Mills of the Greensboro News & Record.
We’re not breaking out #FadeDzwierzynski this early in the season. The Jayhawks should come out amped up after a tough loss, and the Spartans’ shooting concerns should allow Kansas and its size to bully its way to win.