Confidence keying KU basketball's Christian Braun ahead of Texas matchup
LAWRENCE — Christian Braun doesn’t need to be told anything twice.
And when it comes to getting the sharpshooting sophomore guard more involved, neither do his Kansas basketball teammates.
Braun authored another breakout performance in the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks’ most recent contest, scoring 22 points and pitching in seven assists, four rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal in a 79-65 victory last Tuesday over then-No. 7 West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse. The 6-foot-6, 210-pounder hit six of his team’s 16 made 3s in the win, already KU’s fourth against a ranked opponent.
In helping the Jayhawks turn a halftime deficit into a lopsided victory, Braun on Monday was recognized as Big 12 player of the week, the team’s first honoree in the 2020-21 campaign. As mentioned earlier, though, perhaps a nod is due to a message relayed to the team at intermission.
“C.B., at halftime I told our guys, I said, ‘He’s got to shoot the ball.’ And he didn’t have any problem pulling the trigger in the second half,” said KU coach Bill Self, speaking in a postgame radio interview. “It was good.”
Four of Braun’s treys came after halftime, all in the period’s first 12 minutes. His back-to-back conversions gave the Jayhawks (8-1, 2-0 Big 12) a 15-point lead with 8:46 remaining, the Mountaineers unable to cut the deficit to single digits the rest of the way.
“I was telling the guys, you know, if you shoot enough eventually hopefully a couple will fall. So I was letting ’em go. They were leaving me open,” Braun said. “In the first half I didn’t shoot it too well and I knew I was going to get some similar opportunities just based on how they were guarding me in the first half. All the guys on the team just kept telling me, ‘Keep shooting.’ ”
Braun finished 7 for 14 from the floor and 6 for 12 from beyond the arc. It was the ideal bounce-back performance for the Burlington native, who scored just two points on 0-for-5 shooting in 30 minutes of KU's 58-57 victory at then-No. 14 Texas Tech on Dec. 17 in Lubbock, Texas.
Self said the best athletes are motivated, not hindered, by those kinds of poor shooting performances, a trait that appeared evident in Braun against WVU.
“That’s one thing about Christian that I don’t think you’re going to have to worry about: He may lose some confidence shooting the ball a little bit or whatever, but his mindset, he’s a pretty confident kid,” Self said. “If there was going to be somebody I would probably worry the least about because maybe he’s missed shots or something like that, it would probably be him because I don’t think his memory is very long. I don’t think he’ll remember tomorrow what happened today when it comes to shooting the basketball.”
Beyond his roles as a scorer and a facilitator, Braun’s evening was also notable for his defense. He switched onto Derek Culver, the Mountaineers' standout forward, after halftime and limited the 6-10, 255-pounder to two points on 1-for-2 shooting and four rebounds in 17 minutes in the period.
Self said Braun did an “unbelievable job” defensively on Culver.
“Going in Jalen (Wilson) started on Culver. That wears you out, just trying to keep him off the boards and stuff,” Braun said. “So then I went on him in the second half just to give (Wilson) a break and I think I gave us a good look. Like I said, all that is is just playing hard and being tough, and I think that was the biggest thing.”
KU will next play host to a third straight ranked opponent, this time No. 8 Texas (7-1, 1-0) in an 11 a.m. Saturday tilt in Lawrence. Braun, who earlier in the season scored a career-high 30 points with five made 3s in a 94-72 victory over Saint Joseph's, enters the matchup with the Longhorns averaging 11.9 points on 42.5% shooting — and a 43.1% clip from 3-point range — with 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
Braun, Wilson, Ochai Agbaji and Marcus Garrett “did so much” against the Mountaineers, observed assistant coach Kurtis Townsend, who added the team will “lean on” that core moving forward.
“We knew that our wings were going to be the strength of our team. That’s why we kind of played small and sometimes played really small with Jalen at the five," Townsend said. "They’re really, really good for us.”
One more note, on the topic of Braun’s aforementioned swagger.
Despite surrendering the go-ahead 3 to WVU’s Sean McNeil in the final seconds of the first half — “He hit a lucky shot at the end, and I fouled him, to be real honest with you,” acknowledged Braun — the second-year player’s confidence remained unshaken, evident both by his play across the game's final 20 minutes and in his words after the final buzzer.
“We didn’t play bad in the first half. We should’ve went in up two. So we were confident going in (to the locker room),” Braun said. “And then we knew we were a better team coming out in the second half. Everybody just had a lot of energy."
KU won the battle on the boards versus Culver, Oscar Tshiebwe and WVU, 40-37, the eighth straight contest in which the Jayhawks have outperformed their opponent in that category. Nineteen of the team’s rebounds against the Mountaineers came on the offensive glass.
“Shooting 3s helped us win, but missing 3s helped us also because it gave us a chance to offensive rebound," Self said, "because if it’s a long shot, long rebound there’s no advantage with size. It’s just whoever is in the right place or quicker to the ball. … I thought our guys battled really hard on the glass.”
Agbaji grabbed 10 boards to become the fourth different Jayhawk guard with a double-figure rebounding performance this season, though Wilson is technically listed as a forward.
“(Agbaji) is a guy that loves to get his nose dirty and do the dirty stuff like rebounding. And Jalen’s always been a kid that’s got a nose for the ball and rebounds,” Townsend said. “Yeah, our guards, they’ve got to help David (McCormack). When we play with four smaller guys that’s where people try to take advantage, and I think those guys have done a great job making an effort to rebound the ball.”
NO. 8 TEXAS AT NO. 3 KANSAS
Tipoff: 11 a.m. Saturday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence
Records: Texas 7-1, 1-0 Big 12; Kansas 8-1, 2-0 Big 12
TV/radio (Topeka): ESPN2/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7)
Up next for KU: at TCU, 9 p.m. Tuesday, Schollmaier Arena, Fort Worth, Texas