On Saturday at 7 p.m., the Huskers will welcome an old foe into Pinnacle Bank Arena. But this is not the same Kansas team that has bested the Huskers in 171 of the 242 all-time meetings, this Kansas team is beatable.
“There’s no doubt we have a chance to beat them,” head coach Tim Miles said Friday. “They’re beatable. They’ve proven that.”
The 13th-ranked Jayhawks will enter Saturday’s game on a two-game losing streak, the first time they’ve lost consecutive games since December of 2013. They lost by nine to Washington on Dec. 6 and then by 10 at home to an Arizona State team they led 15-2 to open the game.
“When you’ve got as much discord as they’ve had in terms of consistency of lineups and knowing who’s going to be there when, it’s difficult,” Miles said.
Kansas has just seven players this season seeing 10 minutes or more each night and relies heavily on its starters for the bulk of the production. Those starters have responded — all five average double-figure scoring and three average more than 15 a game — but depth is an issue. The Jayhawks are replacing a national player of the year in Frank Mason, but Devonte’ Graham, the senior guard that has taken over the point guard spot, has been just as phenomenal. Graham is averaging 16.9 points on a 59.2 percent true shooting clip and supplying 7.7 assists a night.
Between Graham and junior Lagerald Vick, the Jayhawks are getting almost 36 points a night from their leading guards.
“They have a really good backcourt, guys that can put it in the basket, guys that have the freedom to play to the best of their abilities,” senior Anton Gill said. “We have to realize they’re good so we’re not going to be able to completely take them out of the games, we just have to make stuff difficult for them, try to wear them down and if we do that we’ll have a shot.”
Head coach Bill Self will also finally have Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe at his disposal, finally eligible to play after transferring at semester break last season. The Jayhawks also haven’t lost three straight since February of 2013.
So, are they vulnerable, or that much more dangerous?
“Yes,” Miles said with a laugh.
“They’re going to come in eating a bowl of nails for breakfast and snorting smoke out of their ears and nose because they’re mad and they’re Kansas and they’re not going to lose three in a row,” he said. “I think you have to look at it both ways. One, not getting caught up in ‘oh gee, they’re going to come out Kansas,’ and say ‘okay, here’s how we beat them and here’s how they beat us, let’s concentrate on those facets of the game and let’s figure out what we can do to be good on offense and great on defense.’”
Miles joked he would like to say great on offense but he knows that would be a lot to expect, that just hasn’t been the case for his squad this season. The Huskers are averaging only 73.2 points per game — a cool 14.9 points less than Kansas — and converting from the floor at a 41.9 percent rate. Conversely, the Jayhawk defense is holding opponents to 66 points a night on 39 percent shooting.
“We’re challenged enough offensively, like we need that kind of athleticism and pressure coming against us,” Miles said. “This is a team that’s going to extend their pressure a little more in the half court, deny more, make it difficult. What they do is just make you put your head down and drive into a shot blocker, or take a tough two.”
Miles wants ball movement on the offensive end, player movement and smart shots on Saturday. If they’re going to come out with a win, they’ll need to make shots, but the gameplan appears to be locking down on the defensive side of the ball.
“We’ve got to make sure we guard the three, they’re a good 3-point shooting team, play four guards so we just got to make sure we guard and help each other out because any of them are capable of scoring 20 points a game,” point guard Glynn Watson Jr. said. “We just got to help each other out, make it tough on them, they’re going to make tough shots but we’ve just got to make it tough for them.”
One of the things Miles has considered in the run-up to this game is replacing a struggling Jordy Tshimanga — 30 percent shooting, 3.1 fouls and 1.4 turnovers a night — with sophomore forward Isaiah Roby in the starting lineup.
“There have been thoughts,” Miles said, “but with Isaiah’s foul trouble, I just want him on the floor more. We met this week and I’m like ‘we have to have to you on the floor.’ We certainly could start small, we just have to find a way to get Isaiah on the floor more.”
Whether that’s swapping the sophomore center with Roby and playing small ball with a Roby-Isaac Copeland frontcourt pairing, or playing big with Roby on the wing, Miles hasn’t decided. He also doesn’t want to hurt an already weaker rebounding unit by taking a big body off the floor.
Still, the Huskers expect a competitive game. They lost in Lawrence, Kansas, last season 89-72, but Gill said that wasn’t because they weren’t prepared. “Last year they were a top team in the country, going to their spot, a place where they don’t really lose, we just had a bad draw,” he said. But this time around, they will be in friendly confines in front of a sellout crowd.
They’ll also have the experience of having played two top-15 teams in their last three games to draw on. Sort of.
“To an extent,” Gill said. “We’ve played two really good teams but there’s something special about Kansas. It’s hard to explain but it’s a team that everybody wants to beat.
“We’ve had this game circled for a while.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.