Mac Stevenson
All three Division I basketball teams in the state of Kansas started their conference seasons with impressive road wins in their league openers.
Wichita State was ranked 8th nationally going into their first conference game since joining the American Athletic Conference—the Shockers won it (72-62) against Connecticut.
Coach Gregg Marshall’s team didn’t shoot well overall, but guards Landry Shamet, Conner Frankamp, and Austin Reaves combined for 11 of 17 three-point shots and that carried Wichita to a win. And forward Rashard Kelly also sparked the Shockers with 11 points and a team-leading 12 rebounds (including six offensive boards). Road games are a challenge and it was an encouraging start for the Shockers in their new league.
Kansas won their 27th consecutive Big 12 opener and defeated Texas 92-86 last Friday. Bill Self has proved over a long period of time that he’s an exceptional coach; he was recently inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.
After the Texas game, Self said, “I told ‘em before the game we were going to shoot 35 threes . . . I told ‘em 40 and then I said, ‘Nah, that’s too many. They’ll shoot 40 if I tell ‘em that.’” KU hit 17 of 35 three-point shots.
Despite all the deserved accolades, one significant factor has gone unnoticed: Self is showing he might be even better at coaching the four-guard offense than his usual three-guards and two-inside players. That strategy, however, might change soon.
If Billy Preston (6-10, 240) becomes eligible, KU’s offensive sets could be altered by Self. Center Doke Azubuike (7-0, 285) has come a long way in a short time and is continuing to improve; nevertheless, he could become even more effective with Preston playing beside him.
Preston’s main offensive capability is his short jump shot facing the basket. When Preston is in the lineup with Azubuike, he can pull away from the basket and shoot short jumpers; if Preston’s defensive man follows him, KU’s freshman forward can dump it back to Azubuike for easy baskets. And this scenario will be particularly effective against zone defenses.
Of course, all that is conjecture and it’s unknown how soon the NCAA employees will get back from their holiday vacations and make eligibility decisions on Preston and Silvio De Sousa. KU fans need President Trump to send out some Twitter messages in their behalf to the NCAA.
Kansas State opened their Big 12 slate with an impressive 91-75 win against Iowa State at Ames; that’s no small feat as the Cyclones are always tough in Hilton Coliseum.
Center Dean Wade had a sensational game, scoring 34 points on 13 of 16 FGs (six of eight three-point shots) and grabbing eight rebounds. Wade had stellar support from guards Kamau Stokes who had 23 points and Barry Brown who scored 21.
Coach Bruce Weber has the Wildcats playing steady and effective basketball; the only noteworthy shortcoming has been their inconsistency on 3-point shots. But a win at Iowa State is a solid start to the Big 12 season.
The Big 12 race is going to make the winter seem shorter; there are no patsies in the 10 teams now making up the conference. Two rookies made their presence felt in the season openers: point guard Trae Young of Oklahoma had 39 points and 14 assists in the 90-89 win over previously unbeaten TCU and Texas center Mohamed Bamba scored 22 points with 15 rebounds and 8 game-changing blocks in the Longhorns loss to KU.
Bamba has improved immeasurably in just one month of college play; his defense is going to dominate the pivot area for the Longhorns. Bamba has a 7-foot 9-inch wingspan to go with his 6-11 height. And he’s athletic.
Young, as a true freshman, is being compared to NBA star Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Young is far better as a freshman in college than Curry was. Young doesn’t have the needed experience to compare favorably with Curry right now, but he isn’t as far off as most would suppose.
Bamba and Young are almost assuredly one-and-done players; they will both be lottery picks in the next NBA draft. But they’re going to cause plenty of havoc in the Big 12 before they depart for the NBA money.
Kansas is going for their 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, which would be a national record if they succeed. If Preston becomes eligible in the coming week, the Jayhawks will have a chance to accomplish this improbable and incredible feat. If the NCAA says no, then KU’s chances will evaporate. Even with Preston, Kansas is far from a cinch to win the Big 12 again.