LAWRENCE — Bill Self understands how many big games his Kansas basketball team has played this season, but Thursday he preached a message centered around not neglecting the next two.
Self, the head coach of the Jayhawks, seemed focused on not letting anyone think he and his team could achieve wins at home against West Virginia on Saturday and at home against Texas Tech on Tuesday. While No. 4 Kansas (23-5, 11-4 in Big 12 play) is sure to be a favorite against two teams that are in the bottom half of the Big 12 Conference standings, as a conference leader should be, the idea was that the Mountaineers and Red Raiders will both be capable opponents. And considering the strength of the Big 12 this season, his words certainly carried weight.
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The first will be a West Virginia team (16-12, 5-10 in Big 12 play) that just home run a quality Oklahoma State team. The Jayhawks outscored the Mountaineers on the road earlier this season, but that was over a month ago and a lot has changed in the weeks since. And here are five things to think about before your scheduled 3:00 PM (CT) tip:
Here is what distinguishes Bill Self, Kevin McCullar Jr. from the first meeting
Self said he recently watched Kansas’s 76-62 win in Morgantown against West Virginia, and what came to mind as he reflected was that the Jayhawks shot early and built a comfortable lead. Even though the Mountaineers smoothed things early in the first half, he stressed how his team has always been able to keep their opponents at arm’s length. Additionally, fifth year guard Kedrian Johnson did not play for West Virginia.
Johnson, who started all 27 games he played in, is averaging 10.6 points, 3.2 assists and two rebounds per game. He’s someone Self described as capable of making a difference athletically and defensively. So if Johnson plays as expected this time around, things could be different.
“They have a great group of guys,” said Kansas redshirt senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr.. “They have some sharpshooters, some guys who can really guard the ball, and then, of course, they have some big downs that will bounce the basketball. So, really take them out of the game and warm those guys up.
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There will be an emphasis on getting to the free throw line again
When Kansas first played West Virginia, the Jayhawks made 19 attempts from the free throw line and made 17. On average this season, Kansas takes just under 18 attempts from the free throw line each game and makes about 13. And when the Jayhawks tip in the rematch, they will look to continue hitting the free throw line with regularity.
Self said that whenever you play the Mountaineers, you have to be aggressive on offense because they will be aggressive on defense. There will be an emphasis on getting into paint to create possibilities. It’s just a matter of how successful Kansas will be.
“Any time you play West Virginia, it’s going to be a physical game,” McCullar said. “We knew going out there in Morgantown was going to be a physical play both ways. And that evening the referees were calling fouls in both directions. So, yeah, it’s probably going to be physical here as well.
Here’s a health update on some Jayhawks
Self said both sophomore forward Zach Clemence and freshman forward Zuby Ejiofor can play. However, Self noted that neither is 100%. And Ejiofor is closer to 100% than Clemence.
Self said young guard Joseph Yesufu would not practice Thursday and hasn’t been feeling well for the past few days. The hope then was that they would get it back on Friday.
“This time of year, I don’t know if anyone is 100 percent healthy,” Self said. “So, we’re fine.”
He also explained that redshirt freshman guard Kyle Cuffe Jr. is medically redshirting, and there’s a chance super-senior forward Cam Martin does as well. That would put Kansas at 11 scholarship players available for Saturday and the remainder of the season, with Cuffe and Martin out, if everyone else could go.
Dajuan Harris Jr.’s play recently has been impressive
In his last three games, all wins, redshirt junior guard Dajuan Harris Jr. collected 26 assists for Kansas while turning the ball over just twice. He solidified the assist-to-turnover ratio he’s built up over the season, which is now 3.2:1. And that’s led to some well-deserved praise from Self and McCullar.
“It’s crazy,” McCullar said. “You really don’t see that too often, the way he can create passes and take risks to get passes there and not turn the ball over. It’s something special, something I’ve never played with before.”
Bill Self doesn’t see a team feeling pressured to repeat as national champion
Thinking about the start of the season, he probably would have thought about how Kansas is working to repeat as national champion, but in reality he said it was irrelevant. It’s not something she thought about often, she explained. And she praised her players for transitioning from that run the way they did.
Self understands that the Jayhawks repeat offer conversation will pick up again in the days and weeks to come. They are the only team that can do it, he noted. And, at the end of the day, she described it as just talk.
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas athletics at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He is the National Sports Media Association Sportswriter of the Year for the state of Kansas for 2022. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.