KU basketball defense ’discombobulated’ in 102-90 defeat to top-ranked Gonzaga

Staff Writer
Topeka Capital-Journal
Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert shoots around Kansas forward David McCormack, left, during the first half of Thursday's game at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla. The top-ranked Bulldogs finished with 62 points in the paint in their 102-90 victory over the No. 6 Jayhawks.

Kansas basketball’s season opener Thursday represented the Jayhawks’ first contest since the graduation and departure of 7-foot center and longtime frontcourt security blanket Udoka Azubuike.

And, to be frank, it showed.

Top-ranked Gonzaga dominated No. 6 KU in the paint and on the glass en route to a 102-90 victory at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla. The Bulldogs jumped out to an early double-digit lead, withstood a scrappy push by the Jayhawks early in the second half and pulled away late to close out the comfortable win.

Gonzaga, which shot 64.5% from the floor and 77.3% on 2-point tries in the victory, finished the game with sizable advantages in both points in the paint (62-34) and rebounding (33-24). The Bulldogs notched 50 points on layups and eight points off dunks, while the Jayhawks had just 26 points on layups and converted no dunks on the afternoon.

KU also surrendered 26 fastbreak points in the defeat.

“It was a great teaching tape,” KU coach Bill Self said in his postgame radio interview. “I mean our transition defense was nonexistent. Our ball screen defense was awful. I thought there were some guys individually who did some good things, but you know, you could tell we missed Doke (Azubuike) today. And we missed Dot (Devon Dotson). I mean, speed and an interior presence.”

Azubuike, who as a senior was named Big 12 player of the year and the National Association of Basketball Coaches' defensive player of the year, was selected 27th overall in last week's NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz. The 7-footer had 15 double-doubles a season ago and finished his collegiate career with an NCAA-record 74.6% field goal percentage, reliable boards and buckets the Jayhawks will have to find elsewhere.

That elsewhere was not David McCormack, at least not on Thursday. The junior forward, tasked with replacing Azubuike in the starting lineup, finished with eight points on 3-for-9 shooting, six rebounds, four turnovers and no blocked shots in 20 minutes.

“He struggled today. He struggled on both ends,” Self said of McCormack. “Off-balance, trying too hard, sped up. He’ll get that back. David has been terrific in the preseason workouts. I think he was a little bit too amped up today and then when things didn’t go well early it kind of set him back a little bit. And then certainly David is not Doke, so we’ve got to figure out some ways to help him whenever big guys have the ball. ...

“David’s got to be a better ball screen defender and certainly he’s got to be a better lane and rim protector, but I think he can, I think he can. He just didn’t have one of his better games tonight.”

KU (0-1) deployed a five-guard lineup often against Gonzaga (1-0), particularly in the second half, where McCormack and redshirt senior forward Mitch Lightfoot played a combined 11 minutes.

The Jayhawks, who trailed by as many as 14 in the first half, tied the game twice in the first five minutes of the second period and were within 10 points, 88-78, with 5:27 remaining. But that’s when McCormack missed a long foot-on-the-line 2, and on the other end, the 6-10, 265-pounder whiffed on a rebound that 6-5, 180-pound Bulldog guard Joel Ayayi corralled and converted for a put-back layup.

McCormack’s bad pass on the next KU possession was picked off by Ayayi, whose transition layup put Gonzaga ahead by 14. Layups by Jalen Suggs (24 points) and Ayayi (15) capped an 8-0 run for a 96-78 lead with just 3:19 left, all but putting the game out of the Jayhawks’ reach.

Self said he couldn’t remember the last time the program scored 90 points and lost in a regulation contest, an encouraging sign that the team “can score enough points to win games,” he said.

"From a discouraging standpoint, we’re not going to beat anybody unless we guard better,“ Self continued. ”If you’re going to find out how good you are defensively, you might as well probably play the best offensive team in the country. That’s what we did today and their offense was certainly a lot better than our defense.”

Marcus Garrett (22 points on 7-for-9 shooting), Ochai Agbaji (17 points), Bryce Thompson (12) and Jalen Wilson (11) led the way offensively for KU, which shot 53.2% and converted 8 of 18 tries from 3-point range. But those totals weren’t enough to offset a game-high 25 points on 11-for-15 shooting by Gonzaga big Drew Timme.

“Timme totally dominated the game by running in transition, putting pressure on people, challenging shots, going straight up, not fouling. He does a lot of good things,” Self said. “And of course he scored at will with no resistance for the most part.”

Corey Kispert (23 points) and Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard (11) rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Bulldogs.

Self observed that KU got “discombobulated” defensively and never got back on track.

“We can’t guard the ball very well, at least we couldn’t today,” Self said. “We missed the inside presence like we had with Doke. David was kind of off-balance and kind of sped up today a little bit. I think we can improve on that. We’re not going to play guards faster than that or (who are) better with the ball, but ... we certainly have a long way to go to become good defensively. I think we can get there, but we’ve certainly got as long a way to go as I think I’ve had (with) pretty much any team to start the season.”

A quick turnaround awaited KU, which was scheduled to play Saint Joseph's at 1 p.m. Friday in the team’s second and final game at the Fort Myers Tip-Off.

“This isn’t all negative. We’re used to this. We’ve dealt with this 50% of the years we’ve been here, losing a hard game,” Self said. “But one thing about the way we lost it? Some weaknesses were magnified, which should give us actually no reason why we can’t get our guys’ attention to try to get them to improve in those particular areas.”

KU nets commitment from juco prospect

Thursday wasn't a total loss for the Jayhawks, who before tipoff secured an oral commitment from 6-8, 265-pound forward Syndey Curry.

A junior college prospect out of John Logan College in Carterville, Ill., Curry tweeted a video with his pledge to KU. He is the program's third Class of 2021 commitment, joining fellow forwards K.J. Adams and Zach Clemence.

Curry averaged 13.5 points on 73.9% shooting and grabbed 8.3 rebounds as a freshman last season at John Logan and is expected to have three years of eligibility for KU, beginning with the 2021-22 season.

Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs converts a layup past Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot during the second half of Thursday's game at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla.