In one very notable way, this Kansas basketball team already has a leg up on last year’s squad, at least in the well-qualified opinion of Bill Self.
And it came Tuesday in an area the Jayhawk coach isn’t known to be an easy grader.
KU’s defense shined in the team’s 71-56 victory over BYU in a Maui Invitational semifinal at Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii, the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks forcing 20 turnovers while holding the potent Cougars to a 27.3-percent clip from 3-point range — BYU entered ranked 45th nationally in long-range accuracy at 38.1 percent.
Nursing a two-point halftime lead, KU (5-1) forced the Cougars (4-3) into 10 straight 3-point misses out of the break, building an 18-point lead by the time BYU hit its first trey of the period with 6:38 left.
The Cougars finished the game 22-for-54 shooting, or 40.7 percent, from the floor.
“We didn’t guard one time like that last year,” Self said on his postgame radio interview. “That’s the best we’ve guarded.”
The Jayhawks showcased defensive energy, athleticism and savvy in advancing to a 4 p.m. Wednesday championship game against Dayton, which routed Virginia Tech 89-62 in the earlier semifinal. KU’s defensive prowess against the Cougars helped offset a 4-for-18 performance from Self’s squad on its own 3-point tries.
“Which is just horrendous,” Self observed of that conversion rate, “but when you defend and rebound and don’t turn it over, you’re going to have a chance to win regardless of how you shoot the ball, and that was certainly apparent tonight.”
David McCormack scored 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting to pace four Jayhawks in double-figures, drawing another start alongside 7-footer Udoka Azubuike, who himself notched 11 points on 5-for-6 shooting with 10 rebounds. All told, KU outscored undersized BYU in points in the paint, 42-18.
TJ Haws had a team-high 16 points for the Cougars, who notably got just seven points on 3-for-9 shooting from standout guard Jake Toolson. The senior entered Tuesday's game averaging 16.7 points on 44.7-percent shooting, and while he hit a 3-pointer for BYU's first points of the afternoon and an early lead, he was largely held in check my Marcus Garrett and company.
“They were so much quicker than us to start the game, and our players even said that — ‘God, they play fast.' But it takes a lot of energy to play that fast," Self said. "From about the 10-minute mark ... of the first half ’til about the 8-minute mark of the second half, we locked ’em up. We guarded right, we didn’t make many mistakes. Usually when they scored it was off a mental mistake. It wasn’t off basically them whipping us — (we’d) forget a switch or something like that.”
Ochai Agbaji (14 points) and Devon Dotson (13) rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks, who notched 17 points off turnovers. Leading 29-27 at halftime, KU limited BYU to just four field goal makes across the second period’s first 13 minutes, building a 19-point lead along the way.
Garrett’s full-court pass to Dotson and Dotson's lob to dunking freshman guard Christian Braun served as an exclamation point and gave the Jayhawks a 68-48 advantage with three minutes remaining.
“Marcus Garrett, I’m telling you, I would put him on anybody,” Self said of the junior guard’s defensive contributions. “That dude can just flat out guard.”
One game after a one-assist performance that Self labeled "unacceptable," Dotson dished eight dimes versus just two turnovers in a game-high 37 minutes.
“Dot can kind of space a little bit every now and then, but I thought he was locked in tonight. I thought he played great,” Self said. “He competed hard against Haws. I hate that we played him that many minutes. ... But that is one well-conditioned dude. I mean he’s going the whole time, he’s bringing it up, and certainly to play that many minutes in this humidity is terrific.”
Up next for the Jayhawks are the undefeated Flyers (5-0) and potential NBA Draft lottery pick Obi Toppin, who through two games has been far and away the MVP of the Maui Invitational — the 6-9, 220-pound sophomore forward has scored 49 points with 12 rebounds at the tournament and is now averaging 24 points on 72.5-percent shooting with 8.3 rebounds per game this season.
“They’ve got the best college basketball player in this tournament,” Self said of Dayton and Toppin. “That doesn’t mean our guys can’t play better, but when you look at their guy, I mean, he’s 6-9 and can do everything. He’s an athlete, can shoot 3s and everything else. It’ll be a challenge for us, but it should be a fun game. It will be a very defensively oriented slugfest. ...
“Certainly (Tuesday) was a good team win. Now we get to play a big boy game.”