Bill Self’s Backup – Udoka Rising

By: Chris O’Brien

Granted, I tend to overreact, but it felt like the season was over. We were down 72-70 at Nebraska. 30 seconds to go.

It was unfamiliar territory as a Kansas fan. A loss here and it’s a 3-game losing streak; two of those games coming against unranked opponents.

And I’m sitting there thinking, yeah, maybe we pull out this game, but these last three matchups are a sign of what’s to come.

We’ve been spoiled seeing No. 1 and No. 2 seed teams year after year. Maybe what we are seeing now is just the kind of team that goes 8-1 or 7-2 at home in conference and then loses road games at Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Baylor, TCU. This is where the Big 12 winning streak ends. We go 10-8 in conference play. Settle into a No. 6 or No. 7 seed. Maybe lower.

Then Svi catches the ball on the baseline. Shot goes up. Swish! 73-72. Get the stop on defense and — whew — breathe a big sigh of relief. I can start daydreaming about San Antonio again. 8-2 feels a world away from 7-3.

Tough Road Ahead

It’s always hard to pick up road wins in college basketball. Ranked or unranked. Nebraska is a No. 90 ranked KenPom team, but Boston College is in that same neighborhood (No. 83) and we saw what happened with Duke.

What’s scary to me, heading into Big 12 play, is we’ve got 9 road games ahead that are harder challenges than @ Nebraska. Take a look at the current KenPom rankings:

8. West Virginia

11. Texas Tech

16. Oklahoma

26. Baylor

32. Texas

43. Kansas State

49. Oklahoma State

74. Iowa State

Not saying the Big 12 is the hardest conference; the ACC still holds that title with three teams in the Top 10, five in the Top 25, and then Notre Dame/Louisville/Syracuse/Clemson/Virginia Tech all lurking just outside the Top 25.

But I think the Big 12 has the least “guaranteed wins” of any conference. There are no cupcakes. Especially since the bottom three teams (Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State) have arguably the three hardest places to play outside of Allen Fieldhouse.

I look at Kansas’ Big 12 schedule and — again, maybe this is me being Bill Self’s Backup here, never sleeping on an opponent — I’m counting only four “guaranteed” wins (my picks being the home games against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Baylor).

Three Thoughts from Three Games

The main story has to be Doke. Kansas made a concerted effort to get him the ball against Nebraska and the big man had his best game of the year. Went for 26 and 10 on 13-of-17 shooting (I love how 76 percent shooting is kind of an off night for the big guy).

Another double-double against Omaha (11 pts, 12 rebs) and then his best performance of the year (definitely his best first four minutes) against Stanford. 24 points, 12-of-15, seven dunks. He scored Kansas’ first 10 points. It felt like watching young Shaq.

A dominant Udoka opens up the offense for Kansas. Instead of living and dying by the three, now when our guards aren’t hitting the offense can just run through Doke until Graham/Vick/Svi/Newman heat up from distance. I also liked the approach making the first five possessions of the game be Udoka touches near the basket. Gets his confidence going early and an engaged big man means better defense too.

If we run into Duke, Michigan State, Wichita State, Arizona in the tournament, this strategy is going to be crucial to try and get their bigs into foul trouble.

Nebraska brought Svi’s confidence back 

Svi looked three steps behind in that Arizona State game. Then against Nebraska, not nearly as noticeable as the Sun Devils defeat, but he still looked out of it. Before that three game-winning three went in, he was 5-of-15 from the field, 1-of-6 behind the arc.

It’s amazing what a game-winner can do. It seemed like that shot (maybe like the uncalled five-step travel the year before) instantly brought back his mojo. Against Omaha he dropped 26, hitting 6-of-7 threes.

Stanford, though, he missed all five of his 3-pt attempts. So, honestly, who knows what Svi’s trajectory is the rest of the season. Seems to be pretty up and down.

I think he may be settling in as Kansas’ fourth best option on offense. Graham obviously at No. 1, Vick — who right now leads the team in scoring — is the No. 2, and Udoka rising up to No. 3. I think this is a good sign for the offense if Svi, who I thought was going to be our second best player, is now Plan D.

This should open things up for him too. If teams are game planning to stop Graham, take away Vick’s drive to the basket, account for Doke down low, Svi should see more and more open shots. Kansas can’t afford for Graham, Vick, Udoka to have bad nights. But your No. 4 guy becomes a bonus. If they’re hitting, great, if they’re not it doesn’t devastate the offense.

Underrated depth problem in the backcourt

We know the issues with the frontcourt. How after Udoka it’s Lightfoot followed by a football player followed by a walk-on. What isn’t talked about enough is just how thin the scoring is out on the perimeter.

Let’s imagine the doomsday scenario. Graham can’t hit. Svi can’t hit. Vick’s in foul trouble. Where would the scoring come from?

Here’s a look at total points over three games for the other three guards:

Malik Newman – 21 points (0 against Nebraska, 7 against Stanford)

Marcus Garrett – 5 points (0 against Nebraska, 1 against Stanford)

Sam Cunliffe – 11 points (0 aginast Nebraska, 2 against Stanford)

Now, one thing to point out. Cunliffe only played two minutes against Nebraska. We also have to give him some time to get into a groove.

But Garrett and Newman are getting good minutes. Things aren’t clicking for Newman. And Garrett brings so much to the table on defense, I just wonder if in that doomsday scenario if he’s capable of stepping up and getting 15 – 20.

With the news of Silvio De Sousa (not going to get into it here, I want to save an entire post for it. Christmas came early!) and IF Preston is cleared, I’ll say it again, I think Self needs to make a pretty dramatic shift in strategy back to a more traditional three-guard / two big lineup.

How I would do substitutions, De Sousa checks in for Preston or Udoka. If two of the bigs are in foul trouble, roll with De Sousa as the big and check in Newman (or Garrett, depending on if we need offense or defense) for a four-guard lineup.

I’ll be doing a post every two games during Big 12 play. Excited (and scared) for this game @ Texas. Can’t wait to see Lottery Guy Mo Bamba vs. Udoka. Also may need De Sousa to play right away to battle Osetkowski. 

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