A year ago, in the finals of the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, Tennessee rocked a tired Kansas team to take the title in convincing fashion.
On Wednesday, those two programs met again on the final day of an early-season tourney, this time in the third-place game of the Maui Invitational.
Based on the way things went on Tuesday in top-ranked KU’s 73-59 loss to No. 4 Marquette, it would not have been a stretch for anyone to predict a repeat of what happened in the Bahamas last season.
Instead, Bill Self’s squad responded with a much better all-around effort and picked up a huge 69-60 victory that figures to send the Jayhawks (5-1) into the Thanksgiving holiday with a much better feeling than they had a year ago and Tuesday night.
Hunter Dickinson led KU with another monster double-double (17 points and 20 rebounds in 30 minutes) and the Jayhawks got better offensive balance and a little more from the bench en route to their second win in three days in Honolulu.
KJ Adams also had his best game of the week, with 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal in 33 high-emotion minutes.
Wednesday’s win was massive for the psyche of this team (not to mention its fan base), as the win helped the Jayhawks avoid tying for the earliest date with two losses in the Bill Self era.
That came back in 2005, when the Jayhawks lost their first two games in Maui to Arizona and Arkansas on Nov. 21 and 22 during Self’s third season in charge of the program.
Beyond that, Wednesday’s win came against another elite opponent, which no doubt helped erase a lot of the negativity and frustration associated with Tuesday’s loss to Marquette.
Here’s a look back at some of the highlights and questions from the win over Tennessee.
• Opening Tip Magic: There was an early indicator that KU showed up ready to compete and it came before the clock even started moving. With the teams lined up for the opening tip, Dickinson noticed that there was no one in Tennessee orange between KJ Adams and the Jayhawks’ basket. He pointed that out by gesturing to Adams with his eyes that he was going to tap the tip that direction and that Adams should go and get it. That’s exactly what happened, with Dickinson treating the tip like a volleyball and smacking it forward to Adams, who gathered it and dunked it to give KU a 2-0 lead en route to the huge bounce-back victory.
• McDowell opportunity from Timberlake injury: Because of the lack of depth on this KU roster, Nick Timberlake is going to play, despite struggling with his shot and defense during the early going. That was evident in Wednesday’s first half, but an injury — after a Tennessee player dove on him trying to get to a loose ball — sent Timberlake back to the locker room and kept him out of the game the rest of the way. That opened the door for freshman guard Jamari McDowell to play major minutes, and the Houston native took full advantage. He scored 7 points in 27 minutes, knocking down 2 outside shots and avoiding the careless mistakes that plagued most of his teammates during the trip to Hawaii. We touched on this after the loss to Marquette, but McDowell appears to be earning Self’s trust more and more by the minute. This type of effort, at a time when it was not quite expected, could go a long way toward moving him into a more prominent spot in KU’s rotation. He’s intense, athletic, loves to compete and appears to have enough poise to favor the right play above all else. KU can’t have enough of those types of players.
• Dickinson on D: The KU big man was a step slow and sluggish in several ways during Tuesday’s loss to Marquette, but it appeared early that he wanted to make sure to correct that against Tennessee. Not only did he drop in a double-double in the first half, but he also turned things up on the defensive end. He had an early block, which had a little attitude behind it, and also picked up a steal well above the 3-point line by using active hands and challenging the ball handler. He also limited his turnovers to just one in the first half and none in the second half.
• Self gets T’d up: Self doesn’t get technical fouls very often, so you know it’s serious when he does. This was a great example of that. After watching his team get punked on Tuesday night, Self clearly looked at himself and his own role in finding a way to be a little tougher on Wednesday. The “T” came mid-first half when Self got on the officials for disputing a couple of calls that helped Tennessee build an early 5-6 point lead. It was clear the technical was coming and Self may even have been warned that it was. He didn’t care. He kept fighting, standing up for his squad and inviting the whistle. No one — least of all Self — is going to look back at that moment and say it won the game, but I think those types of things are massive in the subconscious of players, especially the younger guys.
• Turnover trouble continues: The Jayhawks limited their turnover total to 15 in this one, with 9 coming in the first half and 6 in the second. That second 20 minutes, which featured a stretch of more than 9 minutes without a turnover, was a positive sign in the right direction, but there were still far too many careless moments. Senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. followed up his 6-turnover night against Marquette’s nasty D with 7 turnovers against Tennessee. That ain’t good. And you can’t have that from your top players who are going to have the ball in their hands a lot. Part it was probably McCullar pressing, but that’s not any kind of excuse that Self’s going to care to hear. He and the rest of his teammates simply have to slow down, take pride in taking care of the ball and execute. It wasn’t just the total that was the problem. Tennessee also scored 17 points off of KU turnovers. That’s nearly a third of the Vols’ total coming on gifts from the Jayhawks.
• Free throw shooting: Another theme of the Jayhawks’ struggles in Hawaii showed up in this one, as well, as KU shot just 50% at the free throw line, making 11 of 22 charity shots against Tennessee. Kansas made just 9 of 16 against Marquette and 7 of 11 against Chaminade in Round 1, making the Jayhawks 27 for 49 (55.1%) at the free throw line during this week’s trip to the Maui Invitational. You’ve heard how Self feels about free throw shooting in the past, so don’t expect anything to change there. It’s not about practicing them more or emphasizing it with big, grand gestures. Instead, it’s about telling his players to lock in and knock them down. Simple as that.
• What to make of Elmarko: So far, the KU freshman has been in the starting lineup in all six of KU’s game, but I’m not sure I can recall ever seeing a more by-default starter. That’s not a knock on the kid. He’s obviously earned the right to be out there. But he just isn’t doing much with the minutes he’s getting. Self has long talked about Jackson being in his own head and thinking way too much about what he’s doing. That’s a common issue for all freshmen. And it certainly would explain some of what’s happening here. But Jackson’s too athletic and has too much game to completely disappear. He played just 13 minutes on Wednesday and finished with 4 points, all of them coming at the free throw line. He missed both shots he attempted, including a 3-pointer, and also finished with 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 turnover and 1 steal. No one has ever said that he has to go off and be a go-to type of option. But it has been surprising to see the former McDonald’s All-American play such a low-energy, easy-to-overlook role so far. Perhaps he’s the best example of where this team is at right now. There’s plenty to like but also a lot of areas in which the Jayhawks can improve.
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