Kansas identified its toughest players just one game into the Big 12 schedule.
Actually, head coach Bill Self already knew them and consequently relied on a couple of guards who do not rate as sure-fire offensive threats, junior Marcus Garrett and freshman Christian Braun.
Together, they played vital roles on Saturday as the No. 3 Jayhawks (11-2, 1-0 Big 12) rallied from a 10-point deficit to beat then-No. 16 West Virginia. They will use experience gained from that 60-53 slugfest when they travel to one of the league’s most difficult arenas, Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa, for a matchup Wednesday against Iowa State (7-6, 0-1).
Garrett, just 6-foot-4, guarded West Virginia’s most experienced inside threat, Derek Culver, and held the 6-9 sophomore to five points on 1-for-6 shooting. Though inexperienced, Braun started the second half and rounded out a four-guard lineup that provided a bit more offensive punch.
“How about the job Marcus did on Culver? It’s unbelievable,” Self said. “The guy is 6-foot-4, he’s not a high riser and he’s not the biggest guy. We helped him by trapping but he eliminates (Culver) for the most part.”
And why Braun?
“Christian’s for sure one of our toughest guys and he did a nice job,” Self said. “I mean, a guy plays 30 minutes with pressure like that every possession, and we just kind of piece it together. Christian was a stabilizing force for us to do that.”
One certifiable force Kansas relies on differentiates the Jayhawks from the rest of the Big 12, a conference they ruled for 14 straight years before failing to repeat as champion last season.
Senior Udoka Azubuike is a 7-foot center who leads the nation in field goal percentage (.811) because all his attempts are from point-blank range, including six dunks (most off lobs) against West Virginia. Azubuike finished with a double-double (17 points, 11 rebounds) as Kansas won with 12 fewer points than any previous victory.
“This is a time for us to get better and, in a weird way, I do think we grew up,” Self said. “That was a big step in growing up and knowing how tough and how competitive you have to be to win games in this league.”
Fatigue, however, has cut into the effectiveness of Devon Dotson, a sophomore point guard who leads the Big 12 in scoring (18.5-point average) and leads Kansas in minutes (35.0). Dotson has gone 5-for-15 from the field in each of the last three games.
Sophomore guard Tyrese Haliburton returned Saturday from a wrist injury to record Iowa State’s first triple-double since 2016 with 22 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, but the Cyclones still fell 81-79 in overtime at TCU.
The defeat, against a team picked last in the Big 12 preseason poll, came after Iowa State suffered a home-court loss on Dec. 31 to Florida A&M, which had won just one game and had lost 72 straight against Power-5 opponents.
Haliburton missed that game, and his value was clearly evident.
“He’s got great character, he’s a great leader and he’s a tremendous player,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said.
–Field Level Media