No. 11 Kansas has experienced quite the opening month of the 2014-15 season. The Jayhawks went from being ranked fifth in the preseason polls to enduring “the sky is falling” chatter after they were throttled by No. 1 Kentucky at the Champions Classic, and Bill Self’s team remains a work in progress. That was obvious in their 82-67 win over Tennessee in an Orlando Classic semifinal, a game that was tighter than the final margin would indicate.
Against a Tennessee team that doesn’t have as much talent or depth in the front court, the Jayhawks controlled the boards, rebounding just over 62 percent of their missed shots with both Perry Ellis and Cliff Alexander putting forth their best efforts of the season to date. Ellis amassed 24 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, and while he made just six of his 16 field goal attempts the junior did manage to earn 12 free throws (making 11).
As for Alexander, the freshman from Chicago scored a career-high 16 points in 20 minutes off the bench. The play of Ellis and Alexander didn’t result in a significant edge in the points in the paint category, as Kansas scored just 18 of their 82 points in the key, but it did factor into a 13-point advantage at the foul line (26-13).
But even with those numbers and Kansas shooting 49.2% from the field and 8-for-17 from three, there’s still plenty for this group to improve upon.
Kansas committed 16 turnovers, which the Volunteers were able to convert into 24 points, a number the Jayhawks have reached in just one other game this season (UC Santa Barbara). And the turnovers aren’t an issue that can be blamed on the point guards, as Frank Mason III (seven assists) was responsible for three and Devontae Graham played just seven minutes.
This is a group still figuring things out on that end of the floor with regards to spacing, ball movement and where they’re most effective both individually and (more importantly) collectively. Part of that can be attributed to Tennessee’s defense, as Donnie Tyndall’s defensive looks (Tennessee used some full-court pressure and a 1-1-3 zone) were able to cause some issues for Kansas. And there’s also the matter of working in young players who are going from being ball-dominant options in high school to pieces to what can be a potent attack when everyone’s working well together.
Kansas’ offensive execution is still something that needs polishing as the season inches closer to the start of Big 12 play. In recent years under Self, the point guard position is the one many have focused on and rightfully so, as uneven play at that spot has managed to torpedo the national title hopes of some talented rosters. But with Mason playing as he has since that loss to Kentucky (10.0 ppg, 16 assists and three turnovers), discussion of this Kansas team on the offensive end of the floor shouldn’t be limited to one position.
The Jayhawks advance to Sunday’s championship game where they will face the winner of Michigan State and Marquette.