KU basketball turning page on Tennessee blowout, lousy January

Jayhawks enter Sunflower Showdown losers of four of last five contests

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas guard Dajuan Harris attempts to make a pass while Tennessee guard Keon Johnson defends during Saturday's game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn. The Jayhawks lost 80-61 and have now dropped four of their last five contests.

David McCormack paced Kansas basketball in scoring Saturday night at Tennessee, the junior forward notching 17 points on an efficient 8-for-12 shooting.

But speaking shortly after his team found itself on the wrong end of an 80-61 beatdown, Bill Self indicated that no Jayhawk should be leaving Knoxville, Tenn., satisfied with how things unfolded — and that includes KU’s leading scorer, who also secured just two rebounds in his 33-minute appearance.

“It’s hard to get excited about guys when they score,” said Self, “and we don’t rebound or do anything other than that.”

Truth be told, it’s hard to get excited about anything offered up by the visitors in the SEC/Big Challenge matchup. And while McCormack was just one of the Jayhawks whose performance was in Self’s crosshairs following the lopsided outcome, the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder is as good a player as any to kick off the post-mortem.

KU was out-rebounded 38-23 by Tennessee. Both of McCormack’s boards came on the defensive end, a key reason why the Jayhawks finished the game with two fewer offensive rebounds than the Volunteers, 7-5, despite missing eight more shot attempts. Of those five collections on the offensive glass, KU converted none into buckets, ending the game with a goose egg in second-chance points.

Tennessee had no such issues cashing in.

“It’s an embarrassing stat line, 38 to 23, (and) getting no points from the offensive glass,” continued Self, speaking on a postgame radio interview. “They get seven offensive rebounds, and their seven offensive rebounds led to 14 points. So they scored every single time basically they got an offensive rebound.”

Jalen Wilson snagged a team-high nine rebounds with three coming on the offensive end, but again, one shouldn't think the second-year forward had the kind of performance he should look to replicate moving forward.

Wilson, who lost his spot in the starting lineup to fellow redshirt freshman Dajuan Harris, flirted with a triple-double in the defeat, adding 10 points and six assists to his effort on the glass in just a 21-minute stint. But the vast majority of that production — eight of the points, six of the rebounds and five of the assists, to be more specific — came in the second half and long after the game was out of reach. The Jayhawks (11-6) trailed by 14 at halftime and by 24 with 12:50 left to play.

KU was outscored by 12 points with Wilson on the court, the worst plus-minus of any player off the bench.

“I think that everybody needs to play just a little bit better,” Self said, “but (Wilson), obviously playing with the swagger that he played with early would be very beneficial.”

In addition to rediscovering his pre-Christmas confidence, Wilson should also focus on rebounding, playing with energy, driving downhill and delivering good passes, said Self, who added the team needs the former four-star recruit to knock down around 35% of his 3-point attempts moving forward.

Wilson’s biggest struggles of late have come on the other end of the court, and that was certainly true against Tennessee, which went a collective 8 for 13 from 3-point range.

“I thought (Wilson) did some things tonight that were pretty positive offensively. Now defensively, not very good. Nobody was. Guys caught it and shot it on us,” Self said. “... Right now that’s pretty hard on some of our guys, to actually take away the 3 if they catch the ball on the line. We just need to force them to catch it a step farther out so that you can play them as a driver.”

The list of Jayhawk underachievers Saturday went on and on.

Ochai Agbaji played the biggest role in the team’s shooting woes, going 3 for 12 from the floor and 1 for 9 from beyond the arc. Christian Braun missed all four of his 3-point tries and finished with two points. Harris was a virtual nonfactor in what was his second career start, recording no points, no rebounds, one assist and one steal in 21 minutes.

Even Tyon Grant-Foster, who has seen an uptick in his usage of late, was largely ineffective. The 6-7, 205-pound former junior college standout had just three points on 1-for-5 shooting, two rebounds, one assist, one steal and one turnover in 14 minutes, uncorking a doomed 3-point try that became his 17th consecutive long-range miss.

Grant-Foster hasn't connected on a 3 since the Jayhawks' season opener on Nov. 26.

“The bottom line is when the game was still in play I’m not sure we did the things that a team does in order to put guys in a position to have success,” Self said, “and I would put Tyon in there too.”

Grant-Foster “does some good things,” Self said, but the 18th-year Jayhawk head coach stressed activity level and offensive rebounding as two areas the junior guard must focus on moving forward. Self also indicated Grant-Foster’s decision making on offense has to see strides.

“He got fouled on a couple of drives that were really bad plays that turned out OK because they bailed us out by fouling us,” Self said. “I think that’s what happens: When we get kind of locked up people try to go make plays to help us, and I think he’s trying real hard at that. But sometimes helping us is not consistent with doing it as a group (which) would make it easier. Sometimes we’re just out there alone on an island, and I felt like that’s what we were tonight. I’d say that about everybody.”

Marcus Garrett was the lone KU player to pull his weight in the top-25 matchup, but the senior guard’s 15-point, four-assist evening couldn't put a dent in the grisly final score. 

Losers of four out of their last five contests, the No. 23 Jayhawks (11-6, 5-6 Big 12) will look to stop the bleeding when they play host to spiraling Kansas State (5-13, 1-8) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. Regardless of records, the Sunflower Showdown “is always a hard, hard game,” said Self, who added he expects the same to be true this go-round.

And, given how things unfolded in January, perhaps it’d be wise for KU fans to take nothing for granted as the calendar finally flips over to a new month.

“We’re not the same team that we’ve been in the past — I think that’s pretty evident — but that doesn’t mean this team isn’t capable of playing at a high level. We did it early in the year,” Self said. “Of course we were a better team in December than we are in January, but January is now officially over from a basketball standpoint, so let’s have a great February.”

KANSAS STATE AT NO. 23 KANSAS

Tipoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence

Records: Kansas State 5-13, 1-8 Big 12; Kansas 11-6, 5-4 Big 12

Line: KU by 18

TV/Radio: ESPN+ (online streaming)/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3), WIBW-AM (580); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7), KSAL-AM (1150)

Up next for KU: at No. 11 West Virginia, 1 p.m. Saturday, WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.

Up next for K-State: versus No. 10 Texas Tech, 3 p.m. Saturday, Bramlage Coliseum, Manhattan

Kansas basketball forward Jalen Wilson has his shot blocked by Tennessee guard/forward Yves Pons during Saturday's game at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.