No. 13 Kansas got 21 points and nine boards from Perry Ellis to lead four players in double figures as the Jayhawks upended a good New Mexico team in Kansas City, 80-63.
There were a number of good signs for Bill Self’s team on Saturday. Naadir Tharpe played really well, especially down the stretch of the second half as Kansas pulled away. He finished with eight points and nine assists, facilitating the Kansas offense and getting the ball to the hot hand in a position that he could score. I liked the analogy that ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla made: the point guard spot is the key for Kansas, and while Frank Mason is talented, he’s their third-down back right now. Tharpe needs to be the guy that’s running the show.
He was tonight, and we saw what the Jayhawks can be.
My bigger concern is with New Mexico.
We all know that this group has a Big Three: Kendall Williams at the point and big boys Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk in the paint. Bairstow and Williams showed up today, notching 24 points each. Kirk was in foul trouble the whole game, which was one of the deciding factors. When he was out, it gave Ellis and Joel Embiid — who finished with 18 points — a chance to dominate the paint. When he was in, he couldn’t play defense the way he wanted to play defense for fear of picking up another foul.
That may have decided the game, but it also exposed an issue that could creep up on New Mexico this season: role players. Hugh Greenwood is not shooting the ball well. Cullen Neal has been inefficient and, at times, downright ineffective. Pancake Thomas hasn’t been more than “just a guy” while JuCo transfer Deshawn Delaney has been a disappointment.
When UNM’s Big Three are all playing well, this group is going to be tough to beat. But the fact of the matter is that there are going to be nights like this. Kirk is going to get into some foul trouble or Williams is going to shoot the ball poorly? Who are the guys that step up and make playing? Who fills that void? Tonight, the rest of the New Mexico roster combined to score 10 points on 2-for-18 shooting.
Noodles needs role players to, well, play their role.