With the non-conference season mostly behind us and the new year fast approaching, Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns shift their focus to the Big 12 season. That season gets off to a rolling start tonight, as the 10-2 Kansas Jayhawks come to town.
Like all other seasons in the Big 12, the Jayhawks figure as a strong favorite to be at the top of the conference once again when the dust settles in March. But at least through the non-conference season, and likely continuing tonight, this iteration of the Jayhawks looks a lot different from years past.
Starting off the year, coach Bill Self has had to deal with an angstrom-thin front court. His starting center Udoka Azubuike is a force who is backed up decently by Mitch Lightfoot, but beyond that Self finds himself with a roster full of guards.
The early seeds of the style of play Kansas is going with were evident last season when 6’8 Josh Jackson played as a hybrid front court/perimeter player. This year the Jayhawks have taken things a step beyond, switching to full-time small-ball and playing with four guards. Gone is the famous high-low offense, where two big men look to jostle for inside position. Instead, the floor is spread with four guards who look to space, attack, shoot, and occasionally put the ball inside.
Aside from a hiccup against Washington in a game where Kansas shot an uncharacteristic 5-20 from three-point range, the offense is humming pretty well with this more open style. It helps if the six guys currently rotating through those four perimeter spots can all play.
The man who makes things go is senior point guard Devonte' Graham, a player with whom Big 12 fans are by now well-acquainted. Graham was reasonably selected as the Big 12 preseason Player of the Year — a title Oklahoma’s Trae Young seems likely to challenge him for — and takes over well at the point after the departure of Frank Mason. Graham isn’t quite the player Mason is — that’s a high bar — but does almost everything for the Jayhawks that last season’s national player of the year did. Graham can shoot, makes plays for others, and is one of the top perimeter defenders in the Big 12. He only lacks Mason’s power and panache when going to the rack.
Several of the remaining names are also familiar. Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick are once again doing their thing as tall and athletic wings who shoot the hell out of the ball. Graham, Myhailiuk, and Vick all are shooting over 40 percent from three point range this year, and Mykhailiuk is the only of the three who is under 40 percent from distance over his career; this is a minor gap that the 39 percent career three-point shooter seems likely to close this season.
Joining these familiar names in the back court is Malik Newman, a sophomore transfer from Mississippi State who is in his first season at Kansas. Newman has shot the ball well, but perhaps hasn’t had the impact yet that some observers — okay, I am talking about myself here — expected. He has still been good, and is a dangerous player who sees major minutes for the Jayhawks.
Off the bench, Self has two more perimeter players. 6’5 freshman Marcus Garrett is a tough and versatile guard — just the sort of player that a small-ball team requires — who will eventually be a major contributor for Kansas but for now seems well-suited to come off the bench and do some of the needed dirty work of rebounding and defending. Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe just became eligible at the semester break, and is still working himself into the rotation.
We now must return to the inside. While the Jayhawks are guard-oriented this season, they do have one big man who must be reckoned with. Udoka Azubuike is a 7’0, 280-pound sophomore who missed most of his freshman season with an injury. He has converted 77.9 percent of his shots from the floor this year, anchors the Jayhawk defense inside, and physically overpowers everyone he plays. Texas’ gifted center Mo Bamba will face just the sort of player who gives him trouble; Bamba has through the non-conference season been overpowered by stronger and more mature centers. While Azubuike is actually a few months younger than Bamba, he certainly is strong.
Coach Self does have some potential reinforcements coming to his front court, but neither are likely to make an appearance tonight. Freshman Silvio De Sousa, initially expected to graduate from high school in the coming spring, has sped things up by completing his high school requirements in the first semester and has joined the Jayhawks. He is still waiting on a final clearance from the NCAA, which is unlikely to come with NCAA offices shut down for the holidays, but Self anticipates he will be eligible to play at some point shortly after the new year.
Meanwhile, the status of Kansas’ top recruit (and Matt Coleman’s high school teammate) Billy Preston is still in up the air. After being involved in a traffic accident, there were questions raised as to how Preston had paid for or otherwise acquired the automobile he was driving at the time. Self has been hoping for a resolution to this in recent weeks, but again with the Christmas and New Year holiday break slowing everything down I would be surprised if we see Preston in tonight’s game. I expect Preston will be available at some point this year, as this is likely to end up as a straightforward impermissible benefits case. Once the value of the benefit provided is established and the designated suspension served (something Preston would already be 12 games into) he would be able to play.
Given all of this, the Longhorns need to take advantage of the opportunity to play Kansas at home and at less than full strength; things will be less easy in late February in Lawrence when the Jayhawks have all of their guys.
So will Texas have all of its guys? As of this writing, I do not know if leading scorer Andrew Jones will play for the Texas Longhorns, but Shaka Smart indicated yesterday that Jones had practiced some and that he might be ready to play by today.
The game tips in Austin at 8 p.m. CT, and airs on ESPN2/