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4th-ranked Jayhawks ride offense, bemoan defense in 96-83 win over Iona in Orlando

Kansas guard Christian Braun lays up the ball between Iona guard Walter Clayton Jr., front left, and forward Nelly Junior Joseph, front right, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Jacob M. Langston)

Kissimmee, Fla. — No one in the Kansas locker room was overly thrilled with the Jayhawks’ 96-83 win over Iona in Sunday’s third-place game at the ESPN Events Invitational, and there were many reasons for the ho-hum vibe.

For the third game in a row, the fourth-ranked Jayhawks lacked a killer instinct, showed deficiencies on defense and had momentary lapses from several players on one end of the floor or the other.

While all of those factors left a little to be desired, it was the bottom line that hurt the most.

“We didn’t accomplish the goal (we had) coming down here,” said junior guard Christian Braun after dropping 18 points in Sunday’s victory at HP Field House at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. “We came down here to win a tournament.”

That goal went out the window with Friday’s semifinal loss to Dayton. But, after a day off, the Jayhawks (5-1) bounced back on Sunday and rolled past Iona in a game that saw a number of ebbs and flows. From KU jumping out to leas of 19-7 and 41-19 in the first half and building a 23-point lead midway through the second half to the Gaels (6-2) cutting that down to a dozen with five minutes to play, KU’s Sunday victory went the way of their week in Orlando. Some good. Some bad. Plenty to work on.

“We obviously are disappointed we lost (to Dayton),” KU coach Bill Self said of Friday’s semifinal setback. “But the biggest thing is I don’t think we played the way you’re supposed to play in any of the games to give yourself a chance to win. We had a chance to crack all three of them and didn’t and, obviously, one of them came back to bite us. I’m not displeased, but I’m certainly not leaving out of here giddy about how we played.”

The Jayhawks went with the same starting five in what was the first ever meeting between Hall of Fame coaches Self and Rick Pitino. But the biggest reason for the Jayhawks’ frustration — beyond the win column — was the way they competed on defense.

Related document

Box score: KU 96, Iona 83 ( .PDF )

After building that 22-point first-half lead on the strength of several lock-down defensive possessions that led to easy buckets, the Jayhawks surrendered a 12-3 run that allowed Iona to pull within 15 at halftime.

While that lead kept Kansas comfortable and was never truly threatened, Self and his veteran players said there was no excuse for giving up the lead in the first place.

Iona opened the second half on a 5-0 run to cut the KU lead to 46-36, prompting Self to call a timeout 50 seconds into the second half.

At one point, early in the second half, Self could be heard from the sideline yelling, “Where’s our energy, blue?” The mere fact that things like energy, effort and defensive toughness need reminders is something that is not sitting well with the Kansas coaches and veteran players right now.

“We’ve got to take pride in certain possessions,” senior forward Mitch Lightfoot, who tallied 10 points and six rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench on Sunday. “We’ve got to understand that when you do get a lead the defensive pressure has to be the same it was when it was 0-0. Those possessions matter just as much as when the game tips off.”

Added Braun, who scored 51 points in the three games in Florida, second only to Ochai Agbaji’s 56: “It felt good to get out of here with a win, but it wasn’t a win in normal Kansas fashion. I don’t think we played to our best ability this whole tournament. We really have to focus on defense and get back to what Kansas does.”

There were moments during Sunday’s win, when that was the case. The Jayhawks swiped 10 steals and out-rebounded the Gaels 36-22. They also forced 18 turnovers and scored 33 points off of those turnovers.

But there was never a time when the Kansas advantage felt like it came from the defense. The Jayhawks shot 55% from the floor and scored 58 points in the paint, getting several easy buckets in transition, in half-court sets and from lobs.

The highlight of the game came at the end of the first half, when Agbaji finished a lob from Braun at the rim despite the Iona defender sharing his same jersey space.

As the two ran back on defense, Braun could hardly contain his smile and the typically stoic Agbaji clearly had impressed even himself.

“I don’t know if you guys have watched it, but he’s pretty athletic,” Braun joked of the play. “So if you throw the ball pretty anywhere close to the rim, it doesn’t have to be a good pass. It wasn’t a good pass. He’s just really athletic.”

While those moments came, and others like, them came in bunches on a day that KU’s offense nearly cracked the century mark, it was the opponent’s point total in the mid-80s that kept Kansas from celebrating much of anything.

“I think we need to get better,” Lightfoot said. “There’s stuff to improve upon. The majority of it is defensively. We scored, but we also have to limit teams’ ability to score. That comes from either scouting report, keeping our man in front of us, affecting shots at the rim, blocking them, tipping them. There’s certain things we can do to grow, but we’ve got to get better.”

Kansas returned home on Sunday night and will take Monday off before practicing Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in preparation for Friday’s game at UBS Arena in Elmont, N.Y., against St. John’s. The game is part of this season’s Big East-Big 12 Challenge and is set for a 6 p.m. tipoff on Fox Sports 1.

Comments

Steve Zimmerman

That was entertaining. I expected this kind of high scoring with cutting, inside passing, pick and roll actions on offense, and of course, thanks to the stifling D, too. No hi-lo, no problemo!
It's also good to see Mitch finally contributes more than just ball boy at the top of key. Coach should trust him as a starter from this point on. He has shown he's hungry and he is *capable* to deliver at both ends of the court! Martin is our glue guy. He is incredible. Offense must flow through him. Then it'll be contagious from there.

I just don't get an athletic guy like Wilson doesn't dunk. He would rather use glass than stuff the rim.
He also needs to develop court vision: while defended, chooses to go to the basket instead of passing the ball to the open teammate under the basket. He rebounds, but he needs to develop his offense skills to get to the next level.

10 months ago

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Robert Brock

Iona made well over 50% of their shots (and exactly half their threes). KU’s defense is weak. The staff has plenty of work to do.

10 months ago

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Lee Short

The game was really entertaining. Long way to go, but we played, overall, much, much better than against Dayton.

* Mr Braun, wow. Way to step up. Got to the love the aggressiveness about the rim. Good decision making. Great rebounding.

* Loved McCormick getting to the line for 5 shots and making all 5 of his shots. But for his FT performance, the team would have been 7 for 14 (50%). (70% vs. 50% FT shooting can make a big difference in winning some close games to come after this. Hopefully, the team can step this up.)

* The coaching preparation and in-game coaching seemed better for this game. The team was more aggressive, overall. Much less lethargic than against Dayton.

* Loved Lightfoot's, overall, court presence. And, the bench play, overall, was very fun to watch. Great energy.

Congratulations on the bounceback, Jayhawks. I think we can/did really learn from this tournament.

RCJH

10 months ago

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Kenneth Johnson

What a most disappointing tournament showing. It was ugly! Not only did they lose to Dayton (how embarrassing is that?), but they actually lost the second half to Iowa. Yes, let me repeat that in case you missed it: KU LOST THE SECOND HALF TO IONA!!!! They got outscored by two points by a rinky-dink team.

Remy Martin has not shown to date the promise given by the league which voted him preseason Big 12 player of the Year. And McCormick has not shown evidence of being dominant (which we all expected for his senior season). And their foul-shooting is just plain terrible (their 11 misses cos them the game with Dayton). Overall, it looks like the 4th ranked team in the country has proven so far to be the 204th ranked team.

Thank God that Ochai decided to come back this season. Without him, we'd likely be 0-6.

Kenn Johnson (KU '70)

10 months ago

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Bj Cassady

Remy is a defensive liability so far. The team is a donut team with a hole in the middle. We lack a killer instinct in the middle a strong scorer and rebounder. Out 6'10" guy should be a double double machine. At this time we might be the 3rd best team in the big 12.

10 months ago

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Michael Leiker

I’m with Robert. Long for the days of holding most teams under 40% if not 35 or 30. Game has changed some but Self has gotten soft too. No way around it. Can’t be under talented and not play D. Under talented and no D has become KUs MO. Attention to detail is lacking.

10 months ago

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Bryce Landon

Despite the win, there wasn't much progress from the loss to Dayton. The Jayhawks lack the all-important killer instinct. They let North Texas score the final eight points of the game. They allowed Dayton to come back from down 15 to win on a buzzer beater. Twice they allowed Iona to cut a lead of 20+ down to as little as 10. It's like I said before, the Jayhawks lack toughness. They may be more talented and athletic than last year's team, but they aren't any tougher. I'm not at all encouraged by the way they played over the holiday weekend.

10 months ago

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Rodney Crain

Congrats on Winning the Big Ten West in Football. Anything can happen, it would be sweet to win the B10 title!

I agree on KU basketball, this team is not playing like they can beat Baylor, or even Texas for the B12 crown. Lots of work still to do. Those 3 games confirmed we are not on the same level right now as Duke, Baylor, Zags, or even Purdue.

10 months ago

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