The Kansas Jayhawks (1-1) didn’t play a perfect game against UNC Greensboro for their first win of the season last week, but they did roll through the second half and gave fans plenty of reason to be optimistic, even after opening the season with a loss. The Jayhawks will now try to make it two wins in a row at Allen Filedhouse when they host the Monmouth Hawks (1-2) on Friday night.
Monmouth just played in Manhattan on Wednesday night, losing to Kansas State 73-54. The Hawks now head east on I-70, where they’ll be facing an even bigger, more athletic team in Kansas. It’s going to take much more than just a hot start (like they had against K-State) to hang close with KU.
KU’s most talented lineup at this point still probably consists of having two big men on the floor at once, but the most effective grouping likely has just forward or center. Senior center Udoka Azubuike is the best big in the bunch and showed off what he can do to smaller competition when he had 10 points and 10 rebounds against UNCG. Sophomore forward David McCormack and junior forward Silvio de Sousa both have a place on this team, but it’s probably not next to Azubuike. Kansas found its most success last Friday when there was just one from that trio on the floor at a time.
Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson is going to play nearly every minute this season because he’s the only capable, long-term ball handler on the roster. That’s a lot of pressure on him, which makes the play of his backcourt mates so important. That group got a boost in their last win when senior guard Isaiah Moss returned from injury and scored eight points off the bench. He’ll get plenty of opportunities moving forward alongside the usual suspects for KU, those being junior Marcus Garrett and sophomore Ochai Agbaji. Garrett in particular will be interesting to watch on the offensive end. He’s scored in double figures in back-to-back games this year, just the third time in his career he’s done that.
Monmouth got out to a 29-20 lead at the half against K-State, but things fell apart in the second half when better talent started to show itself. The Wildcats started the second half on a 23-4 run, which was overwhelming for the Hawks. They’re a decent shooting team, making nearly a third of their three pointers for the year so far while shooting 40.3% from the field overall. There aren’t any returning award winners from last year’s Monmouth team (Diago Quinn, who has since graduated, was third-team all-conference), however junior guards Ray Salnave and Deion Hammond are both preseason second-team All-MAAC this season.
You’ll a lot of faces for Monmouth, as coach King Rice uses a 12-player rotation to keep bodies fresh. His rotation also allows for players who open the game on the bench to play starter-like minutes, and those bench bodies may be some of the best players on the team. For example, Salnave hasn’t started any of Monmouth’s three games yet this year, but along with his preseason all-conference team selection and leads the Hawks in scoring at 15 points per game.
Will we continue to see more four-guard lineups? Arguably the best part of the early stretch of the season is that coach Bill Self gets a chance to experiment with different lineups and rotations, and can figure out what works best while still being challenged by tough, albeit far less talented, teams. Just from the opener to Game 2 we saw a sharp decline in the total amount of minutes for KU’s bigs (66 combined minutes in Game 1 down to 45 combined minutes in Game 2). It would make sense for the Jayhawks to play smaller against an opponent that’s smaller and will likely have to chuck from long distance more often. Self said KU will start two bigs again against Monmouth, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate playing time splits.
How will their defense hold up? The Hawks did a good job slowing down K-State on Wednesday in the first half, and they’ll need that kind of effort and more against Kansas. K-State isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut (and can’t shoot the ball whatsoever) but KU has had plenty of its own flaws come to light through two games. It’s hard to stop down the various offensive threats on the Jayhawks, whether or not it’s Dotson or Agbaji or Azubuike, who’s a massive challenge for other reasons as well. A great defensive effort may keep this game closer than a great offensive effort would for Monmouth.
Freshman guard Tristan Enaruna. Fellow freshman guard Jalen Wilson is done for (at least most of) the year with a broken ankle, which will give other players an increased opportunity to fill his spot. A top option for taking over those minutes is Enaruna, who has already been impressive in bench minutes through two games. His length and shooting ability make him a problematic matchup, which the Jayhawks should look to take advantage of. More small-ball action from Kansas should positively correlate to more minutes for Enaruna.
Salnave. He’s leading Monmouth in scoring this year and is by far its best shooter, making over 54% of his threes on a limited number of tries. Similarly to what UNCG’s Isaiah Miller did a week ago, he can create offense for himself and shoulder the load for Monmouth, which has given KU troubles in the past. The Hawks likely won’t be able to battle down low against a larger Jayhawks team, so shooting ability and perimeter play is going to be crucial. It will be interesting to see what the defensive matchups are against a scoring threat like Salnave.
There’s something that feels dirty about this prediction, especially after all the words about reasons why Kansas should run away with this one. But given the fact the Jayhawks are still trying to work out the kinks on offense, it feels like it may not be the perfect environment yet for a huge blowout win, even though KU should finish the game up double figures again.