No. 1 Kansas somehow keeps winning close games thanks to its two viable Player of the Year candidates doing it all
Kansas is the No. 1 team in the country -- but it has yet to play like it for most of this season
Kansas won 74-71 at home on Saturday afternoon in a taffy-pull of a game against mercurial Villanova, which is now 8-4 and enduring its worst start to a season since 2012-13. In getting the win, KU avenges its Final Four blowout defeat from last season at the hands of the eventual champs. (These teams will play in Philadelphia next season, by the way.)
The Jayhawks will, almost certainly, remain No. 1 when Monday's polls update.
And yet, if parallel/alternate universes do in fact exist, there's bound to be a few where Kansas is toiling outside the rankings, other realms in which columns are being written about how things have gone so wrong. (Hey, if we can live in a world in which Furman can claim one of the better resumes through mid-December, then anything's possible.)
These Kansas Jayhawks are good, but I don't think anyone really knows how good. Almost seven weeks into the season, this is a wonky, incomplete team. Bill Self told me as much a couple of weeks ago, and things haven't gotten much more definitive since then. Four of Kansas' last five games have been decided by 4.5 points, two of them requiring overtime.
If not for the clutch, ambitious and at times daredevil-esque play of two KU players (Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick), Kansas could easily be 6-3 or 5-4 -- instead of 9-0. The margin between this Jayhawks squad being the top-ranked team in the sport vs. falling entirely out of the polls isn't so wide.
We look at Kansas, ranked highly yet again in the preseason, still undefeated, still with Self as coach, still with NBA players on the roster, and think it's all going to plan. Fast-forward a few months and another Big 12 regular-season title will be there, another No. 1 or No. 2 seed all but guaranteed again.
Those things might wind up being true. But this is a weird Kansas team at the moment. Before we get into how conceivable it is that Kansas could be among the biggest letdowns in college hoops, let's acknowledge that big man Udoka Azubuike remains out due to. That's hampering Kansas, and the team should collectively be given credit for winning in spite of Azubuike's absence.
Furthermore, Silvio De Sousa, initially expected to play this season, has yet to log a minute due to information brought to light in October at the first of three federal corruption trials of former shoe company executives accused of paying college players.
And still, Kansas is entertainingly enigmatic. Lawson and Vick saved this team (again) on Saturday afternoon while going up against a slumping Villanova club that probably took the best conceivable morale victory possible. Kansas held on because Lawson and Vick made every field goal for their team in second half until Devon Dotson made a really tough layup with 2:25 remaining. Dotson, Lawson and Vick wound up being the only Jayhawks who scored after halftime.
That's not a winning formula in the long-term. But by and large, Vick and Lawson have pulled Kansas along to a flawless record, so it's a marvel regardless. On Saturday, the duo made so many big, tough, angular shots. Vick finished with 29 points, Lawson 28. When you factor in assists, those two were responsible for 82.4 percent of the Jayhawks' points.
Kansas' other six players who played on Saturday combined on 4-of-16 shooting.
Lawson has been carrying the load almost the entire season. Per ESPN's stat research, Lawson's six straight games with at least 20 points marks only the second time in 20 years a Kansas player has pulled that off. The other one? Frank Mason III, who did it during his National Player of the Year campaign in 2016-17.
With Kansas still unbeaten and Lawson averaging a double-double (20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds), he'll be in the mix to mimic Mason's feat. Vick's been unreal at times too, of course. He hit a couple of absurd shots to keep Kansas ahead of Villanova. On the season he's averaging 17.7 points, which includes some erraticism; Vick had two points in the season-opener against Michigan State, didn't score vs. Wofford and had only five on Dec. 8, when Kansas barely beat New Mexico State in Kansas City.
Which loops me back to my original point. This looks to be a good team, but it's also managed to squeak out a lot of wins. Is a regression inevitable? Let's roll back what's transpired in the past few weeks:
- Kansas trailed 42-30 on Nov. 22 against a Marquette team that hasn't lost since. KU came back to win 77-68 thanks to Lawson and Vick combining for 42 points, 14 rebounds and 4-of-6 3-point shooting.
- Kansas beat Tennessee 87-81 in Brooklyn on Nov. 23. . It involved overtime. Tennessee was kicking itself for not winning in regulation, when it should have. Lawson had 24 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. Vick added 15, including a game-high three 3-pointers.
- On Dec. 1, Kansas needed overtime to get past a Stanford team that is winless against top-150 competition this season. In fact, Stanford should have won this game. Its win probability was above 80 percent when it held a three-point lead with less than 15 seconds to go. Guess who hit the 3-pointer to send it to OT? Vick. He finished with 27 points. Lawson had 24, including 10-of-11 from the foul line.
- New Mexico State is no slouch, but it's far from a top-tier team. On Dec. 8, Kansas played almost even to the Aggies for 40 minutes. In the end, a 63-60 outcome in favor of Self's club. Lawson had 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting and helped heave the Jayhawks to another close-shave victory.
I'll take interesting over boringly dominant almost every time, but to see Kansas win like this is peculiar.
Amazingly, Self has managed to make a heart-stopping habit of taking care of the close ones, by the way. This is an impressive stat.
Some of this is luck, a lot is coaching, and regarding this season, almost all of the rest is the fortitude and instinct of Vick and Lawson. They're the most valuable 1-2 combination in college hoops right now. Kansas will get better as soon as Azubuike is back, and fully healthy, because so few teams can handle his size in the paint. If De Sousa winds up being eligible (no one knows), then the roster really changes.
Until then, KU is seemingly going to keep its fans a bit edgy. This is the No. 1 team in the country, but it has yet to play like it for the most part. When will the real Kansas show up -- or is this cardiac crew here to stay?
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