For the second time this season, Kansas overcame a double-digit deficit to knock off Big 12 rival West Virginia.
This time, the No. 13 Jayhawks might have saved their chances of winning another Big 12 regular-season title with a critical, 77-69 home win over the No. 20 Mountaineers on Saturday evening.
After trailing by as many as 12 points during the second half, the Jayhawks finished the game on a 19-3 run to close things out as West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins was ejected towards the end of the contest.
Struggling to a slow start once again against West Virginia, the Jayhawks grinded out offense at the free-throw line before finally figuring things out down the stretch. Playing with a thin rotation that looked exhausted by the end of the game, Kansas is lucky to come out of this one with a win. The free-throw disparity certainly played a huge part as Kansas had a 35-2 advantage in that department. The discrepancy helped lead to Huggins’ ejection as he had to be frustrated by those numbers. Even though West Virginia is a pressing team that commits a lot of fouls, and shoots a ton of threes, 35-to-2 is a pretty staggering difference.
Big man Udoka Azubuike had a strong second half for the Jayhawks, as he took advantage of additional touches on the interior to finish with a team-high 21 points and five rebounds. Dominant whenever he was able to get a post touch within five feet, Azubuike was 7-for-8 from the floor on Saturday as he’s now 20-for-22 from the floor over his last three games. Also coming up with a few key blocks down the stretch, Azubuike made momentum-shifting plays on both ends of the floor.
While Kansas had a monster performance from its monster in the middle, this was another win in which the Jayhawks needed to claw back from a big deficit to win at home. Not quite the same threat at The Phog this season as they’ve been in years past, the Jayhawks have looked beatable at home during many nights this season.
But even though Kansas hasn’t looked immortal, they’ll certainly take an important win like this over a tough opponent like West Virginia. To put this in context, the Jayhawks entered the day a game out of first place in the Big 12. They ended the game tied for the Big 12 lead after No. 7 Texas Tech fell at Baylor. The Jayhawks still have to make a trip to Lubbock to play the Red Raiders, but they’re now tied for first in the league. The idea of winning the league — hell, of winning an outright regular season title — is still very much in play.
Before they get to that all-important game, however, the Jayhawks have to overcome being worn down. Having to exert a lot of energy by playing starters heavy minutes during emotional comeback wins isn’t going to help in that equation.
Jay Bilas noted that Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham has only missed 30 seconds of action total over his last 10 games. The All-American floor general is literally playing 40 minutes per night. And although Graham was still a warrior in finishing with 15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, he never took over in a tight, must-win game like an All-American would usually do.
Graham made a key three-pointer and still put up a good stat line, but he only finished with six field goal attempts. His teammates were usually the ones going on strong scoring runs. This could ultimately be the byproduct of Graham riding the hot hands of his teammates and being a good floor leader. It should also be noted that Graham went to the charity stripe 10 times as he was getting fouled quite a bit.
But Graham could also be wearing down after all of the recent minutes. Graham is averaging 37.2 minutes per game this season. For perspective, Jimmy Butler is leading the NBA in minutes at 37.3 minutes a night. Basketball fans constantly make jokes about Tom Thibodeau running him into the ground. In other words, Graham’s recent workload has been ridiculous.
And Graham’s fatigue is starting to show in his shooting numbers. Over his last four games, Graham is shooting 36 percent from the floor (20-for-55) as his scoring production has started to dip. Graham is also only 8-for-24 on two-point field goals during that span, as most of his offensive production is coming from threes and free throws. Things aren’t going to get any easier for Graham when he has to face opponents like Trae Young and Oklahoma and Texas Tech next week.
Does Graham have enough in the tank to get Kansas past that stretch for two more wins? When will his teammates run out of gas if they have to keep playing at full speed during every game?
Azubuike also had to play 31 minutes in Saturday’s win over West Virginia — the first time he’s had to play over 25 minutes since Jan. 20. Looking gassed at the end, Azubuike still managed to muster enough energy for those big plays late in the game. Other Kansas starters are also playing well north of 30 minutes every game as it leads to some inconsistent nights.
Even if Kansas somehow manages to win another Big 12 regular season title, it might come at the expense of everything else this season. The Jayhawks might not have anything left to give after another few weeks of games like this.