We've spent plenty of time talking about the youth on this KU roster, and how this is a team learning how to win. It wasn't youth that took down the Jayhawks in the Jimmy V Classic against St. Joe's -- it was free throw shooting.
Maybe Russell Robinson should’ve taken that three in the waning seconds-- it certainly would’ve been a dramatic way for him to cap off a return to his hometown. Instead 6-8 Micah downs was forced to launch a three over 6-10 Dave Mallon’s out-stretched arms with five seconds left. Just like KU’s effort against quality opponents this season – it came up short.
Bill Self walked off the court after the final buzzer sounded with his shoulders slumped. The frustrated look on his face said it all -- his team had let another close one slip away primarily thanks to some shoddy free throw shooting. Maybe this one didn’t hurt as much as the 12-30 performance in the 2003 National Championship, but it was painful.
“Tonight we go 6-19 from the free throw line and probably 4 or 5 of those are front ends…we gave them the game,” said a disappointed Self.
It is the holiday season and Kansas delivered an early Christmas gift to Phil Martelli’s team. That’s not to say that the Hawks didn’t play well. They clogged the lane and made life miserable for KU’s post players and Chet Stachitas (27 points) was brilliant from long range again. But this was KU’s game to win or lose. Their 6-19 performance from the line was really a team effort. Sasha Kaun, who didn’t have one of his better games Tuesday, went 0-3. His frontcourt mate C.J. Giles went 1-6, Christian Moody was 0-2 and so was Brandon Rush.
“I don’t think youth is the reason you miss free throws. Players make plays. They step up and make free throws. We gotta start doing the things teams do they step up and make free throws with game on the line. Free throws have cost us two games now,” Self stated pointing to the Arkansas loss where Kansas went 0-3 in the second half. “Tonight if we just shoot them miserable we win the game…it’s a pretty frustrating loss.”
It started with promise as KU’s perimeter shooting finally came alive in this one. Jeff Hawkins had nine at the half and Kansas was 6-9 from three in the first half. Brandon Rush looked the like the aggressive player he needs to consistently be -- his ten points helped the Jayhawks soar to a 17-4 lead. But Kansas failed to build or maintain that lead and suffered a couple of defensive lapses at the end of the first half. St. Joe’s used an 11-2 run to pull within three at the half including a dagger three by Dwayne Lee at the buzzer which sent the Hawks to the locker room with the momentum. Other than the poor free throw shooting, I believe this is where Kansas lost this game.
While KU’s perimeter game was clicking, the interior was held in check.
Entering Tuesday’s game Sasha Kaun had been one of Self’s most reliable performers but he and C.J. Giles had a tough night. The duo combined for 4-10 shooting from the floor, and were 1-9 from the line. Maybe even more startling -- they combined for merely one defensive rebound.
“Our big guys, other than Julian, really struggled. Our perimeter played good and that’s something that really hasn’t happened for us is getting good consistent perimeter play. I can’t fault them. They shot the ball well and other than guarding one player, which we did a pitiful job of, those guys played pretty good,” said Self referring to the 27 points put up by Stachitas.
The KU defense lost sight of Stachitas a couple of times in the second half on the dribble-handoff play. After being told to switch on that type of play, several players failed to execute. That’s just the way things have gone for Kansas this season.
The Jayhawks improved their turnover total and only had 12 in the game. But none were more crucial than the ball fumbled out of bounds by Giles off the pick and roll and the inbounds thrown right to St. Joe’s by Rush down the stretch. Kansas simply needs to step up and make a play with the game on the line.
Lost in the talk over this game will be the awesome second half display by Julian Wright who rebounded with a purpose, made his free throws and really ran the floor. For about a three minute stretch, Kansas fans caught a glimpse of why everyone has raved about Wright’s abilities. There were a ton of NBA scouts in attendance at this one and Julian certainly got their attention.