Kansas’ only hope for the rest of 2019 is to guard like jackals. I hate to sound like my old high school basketball coach (R.I.P. Larry Schmucker), but now that center Udoka Azubuike is out and the preseason No. 1 Jayhawks are stuck with a small team that doesn’t shoot well, I see no other path to success.
It just so happens Kansas is well equipped to do that.
Bill Self is a master when it comes to “adding a pretty good player halfway through the year” and it looks like he did so again, yanking the redshirt off Ochai Agbaji, a 6-foot-5 four-star guard Self says is the best athlete on the team, which video seems to confirm.
In replacing the 7-foot, 270-pound Azubuike with a 6-5 swingman, the Jayhawks are, of course, going to play mainly a four-guard lineup with Dedric Lawson in the post.
This would be a beautiful arrangement in most cases, because Lawson is a smooth scoring threat from anywhere inside the 3-point line, and he’s the one of the best passers Bill Self has ever had. Were Lawson surrounded by Devonte Graham, Malik Newman, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick, the Jayhawks would be unguardable.
As it is, Graham, Newman and Mykhailiuk are gone, and Lawson’s got Vick out there shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line, Devon Dotson hitting 43 percent, and only one other guy making more than a third of his 3s — K.J. Lawson, who plays eight minutes a game.
As a team, the Jayhawks are shooting 34 percent from the 3-point line.
That number figures to come up a little. For one thing, Dedric Lawson is 4-for-24 from the 3-point line. He’s never been a great outside shooter, but he’s better than 17 percent. The same seems to be the case with freshman Quentin Grimes, who is shooting 32 percent from the arc, but appears to be a better shooter than that. And maybe Agbaji can shoot it a little.
That’s not going to do it.
Not without this becoming one of those teams that guards and rebounds desperately, like it’s the last two minutes of the state championship, and they’re trying to win the approval of their uncompromising father.
The Jayhawks haven’t found an identity yet, but there’s one which is sitting right there for the taking, and which they can definitely pull off.
They have all the speed and perimeter size necessary to be extraordinarily annoying to play against. Vick and Marcus Garrett are both long, athletic defensive players who are great in transition and not so great anywhere else. Dotson is quick enough to guard any point guard in the country. Grimes is a beefy-ish 6-5, and then there’s Agbaji, who is 6-5 and the best athlete on the team.
Further, with Azubuike out, we’re going to see more of “Martini Room” Mitch Lightfoot, a sharp-boned 6-8 shot-blocker and energy man who played 14 minutes per game last year. Lightfoot is not a go-to scorer, but he is not without a post move or two, has a little bit of touch on his jumper, is good on the offensive glass, and is always hunting his next dunk.
He’s a delight.
If Kansas could get the go-ahead from the NCAA to play Silvio De Sousa, order would be completely restored. As it is, having to go to Lightfoot is not the worst thing that could have happened if you’re about to build your season around energy and defense, with Dedric Lawson casually dumping in 20 like he’s delivering the mail.
We’ll learn a lot about Kansas tonight. After getting smoked by Iowa State, the Jayhawks are 1-1 in Big 12 play, and shoving Agbaji off the diving board against No. 25 TCU.
Azubuike was a great piece to have. He anchored the defense, and he was an automatic two points when he caught it in the paint. But … he did kind of clog things up for Lawson, his free-throw shooting was a liability at the end of games, and he was averaging 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, playing just 20 minutes per game. It’s a loss, but this is not Joel Embiid.
It doesn’t devastate Kansas, but it causes a domino effect that forces KU into a lot of four-guard lineups, and barring a dramatic improvement in their 3-point shooting, those lineups are going to have to be ferocious for the Jayhawks to live up to their preseason billing.