Mass Infiltration

Two days after completing fall classes, KU will be back on the hardwood to face Massachusetts on Saturday in the M&I Bank Kansas City Shootout at Sprint Center.

Tipoff is 1 p.m. on ESPN.

After two sluggish defensive performances against New Mexico State and Jackson State, the No. 25 Jayhawks (7-1) want to turn up the intensity and gain some momentum for the following week of practices and final exams.

Above all, KU coach Bill Self wants to see more toughness. KU only outrebounded Jackson State 39-38, and had just two more defensive boards against a team which shot only 19 of 54 from the field (35.2 percent).

In the previous game against New Mexico State on Dec. 3, KU gave up 79 points, which tied for the third-most points KU’s allowed at Allen Fieldhouse during the Self era.

“We’ve been really soft defensively,” sophomore Tyrel Reed said after the Jackson State victory on Dec. 6. “Not going after the ball with two hands. Just being really weak. I think these next two weeks (with only two games), our toughness level will increase.”

UMass and Temple (Dec. 20 at Allen Fieldhouse) are the only two games on KU’s schedule before the Jayhawks play at Arizona on Dec. 23 and then break for the holidays. This will give the team some much needed practice time.

Self’s Jayhawks have been busy on the hardwood this week in preparation for UMass. Despite its 2-6 record, Self is very concerned about the Minutemen. UMass is led by first-year head coach Derek Kellogg, who previously served eight seasons under John Calipari at Memphis.

“They play a lot like Memphis,” Self said. “There’s definitely some similarities how they play based on dribble drive motion. They set more ball screens. They do a few things differently than Memphis, but there are some similarities.”

The Minutemen have a talented starting lineup with plenty of offensive threats.

“They got four guys that can really score,” Self said. “They got a guy (Ricky Harris) who’s averaging 21 who can make shots. They have probably as active a big man (Tony Gafney) as we’ve played against that is good on the glass and can step out away. They’re fast. Their record is pretty remarkable to me, because they’re a lot better than their record. There’s no doubt about that. They’ve played a tough schedule.”

After opening the season with a 90-71 victory over Arkansas-Monticello, UMass dropped six straight (four of its six losses were by seven points or less) before beating Holy Cross, 73-59, on Wednesday. The Minutemen have fallen to Southern Illinois, Memphis, Jacksonville State (75-74), Green Bay, Toledo (57-56), and Boston College (85-81 in OT).

 UMass is led in scoring by junior guard Harris at 21.3 points per game. He’s also made a team-high 29 three-pointers. Harris is the go-to guy, but the Minutemen’s  two big keys may be senior point guard Chris Lowe and senior forward Gafney. Lowe averages 12.6 points and leads the team with 49 assists. Gafney, meanwhile, is a dominating force inside, averaging 13.3 points and a whopping 12.9 boards, while blocking 43 shots.

Sophomore guard Anthony Gurley is another scorer at 12.4 points per game (15 three-pointers), while freshman forward-center Tyrell Lynch (3.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg) is the fifth starter. Freshman guard David Gibbs (2.4 ppg) and sophomore guard Matt Glass (2.1 ppg) contribute off the bench for Kellogg’s squad.

UMass is averaging 71.5 points and allowing 73.9, while slightly outrebounding opponents 36.9 to 36.5. Led by Gafney, the Minutemen have 21 more blocked shots than their foes.

KU’s Cole Aldrich and the freshmen Morris twins (Marcus and Markieff) will have their hands full with Gafney. Markieff and Marcus hope to continue their solid play against Jackson State. With senior walk-on Matt Kleinmann getting the starting nod versus the Tigers, Self sent a message to the Morris’s and freshman forward Quintrell Thomas to elevate their games.

Marcus Morris responded with 13 points and three rebounds in 17 minutes, while Markieff had eight points, five boards, and two steals in 19 minutes.

“I think the last four or five days have been some of their best days,” Self said at his Wednesday press conference. “I thought they were good in the game (Jackson State), and the last two practices have been two of the best they’ve had all year. I think they are starting to get it.”

“I don’t think Marcus is quite there yet, but he’s kind of a Julian (Wright) type guy,” Self added. “He doesn’t have the same quickness or explosiveness as Julian, but he’s a skilled guy like Julian. He shoots a lot better than Julian. He’s really kind of more of a perimeter player, a face-up guy. Markieff is really a three-point shooter or back-to-the-basket guy.

“I see a lot of similarities in them. They both have good touch and they both can really pass the basketball. They think the game right offensively. There are a lot of similarities, but they are different. And they need to be a little bit different, so that way they can complement each other.”

Self said he’s been pleased with KU’s field goal percentage (.482), three-point percentage (.370) and free throw shooting (Big 12-leading 73.8 percent), but stressed the Jayhawks must get better on defense, rebounding, and turnovers.

The KU coach said KU’s field goal percentage defense (36.0 percent) and rebound margin (+9.9) are misleading. And Self added that Kansas is “wasting too many possessions” with 14.6 turnovers per game.

“This team needs to average 12 turnovers per game,” Self said. “If we do that, we’’ll score two to four more points a game and look better also.”

KU will look to cut down its turnovers and increase its toughness against UMass.

After a rough start, the Minutemen are looking to go on a winning streak following their win over Holy Cross. UMass showed toughness by rallying from a second-half deficit.

“I think the team as whole is starting to realize exactly what is expected of them and how hard you have to play for 40 minutes,” Kellogg said after the victory. “It is not easy to compete for 40 minutes, but that is how you want to do it.” Top Stories