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Kansas’ men’s basketball team won two of three games against mid-majors at the 2021 ESPN Events Invitational, which obviously was not the goal of the No. 4-ranked Jayhawks.
“I’m not displeased. I’m certainly not leaving out of here giddy about the way we played,” KU coach Bill Self said Sunday after the Jayhawks’ 96-83 victory over Iona in the third-place game in HP Field House at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
“We obviously are disappointed we lost,” Self added, referring to Friday’s 74-73 semifinal setback to Dayton of the Atlantic 10 Conference, “but I think the biggest thing is I don’t think we played the way you are supposed to play in any of the games to give us the best chance to win over time.”
That includes in Thursday’s 71-59 first-round win over North Texas of Conference USA.
“I thought we had a chance to crack all three of them and didn’t. We let them all off the hook, which is disappointing. One time it came back to bite us,” Self said of KU squandering a 15-point first-half lead versus Dayton.
On Sunday, the Jayhawks led Iona of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference by 23 points (73-50) with 7:28 left, but the Gaels were able to cut the gap to 79-66 at 5:10 and 80-68 at 4:41.
“I think what is a little disappointing to me from a defensive standpoint is we play to the score. That obviously cost us one game. It doesn’t make me leave out of here with an unbelievable amount of confidence that if we play bad we can still win. Because that (defense) is one constant that should travel each and every game. Right now it’s not,” Self said.
Self cited the team’s defensive failures a lot in Sunday’s postgame interviews.
For instance, he praised junior guard Christian Braun for his 18-point, seven-rebound, four assist effort, saying, “he was pretty solid. All the games he got numbers (16 points, five boards vs. North Texas and 17 points, eight boards, five assists, four steals vs. Dayton).”
Yet Self quickly added, “I still think he’s a little careless. He made some bonehead plays today but for the most part I thought C.B. played well.”
To Self, one error by Braun stood out.
“Them making their little run to start the second half (KU led 46-31 at halftime), C.B. backed off their best shooter and let him walk right into a three. Those are things that are correctable. We’re just not doing it,” Self said.
Senior guard Ochai Agbaji had 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting with five boards and three assists vs. Iona, a team coached by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino.
“You could say C.B. was maybe our best performer down here and Ochai second,” Self said. “I thought he (Agbaji) played well, but also thought he didn’t play as well as he had been. He still gets 17 and five and three dimes on 14 shots which is pretty darn good considering he’s been on such a roll . He’s kind of become human for us since he’s been down here (after scoring 29, 25 and 25 in first three games) but he’s still been pretty darn good,” Self noted.
Senior guuard Remy Martin had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting with five assists and five rebounds. Yet on defense … “Remy got picked on a little bit today to be candid,” Self said. “Little things like faking a charge. When the other team has to come back you want a long possession, he fakes a charge early in the clock and gives them an uncontested three. Stuff like that … you just don’t do those things.”
Senior David McCormack scored 13 points with five rebounds. He hit 4 of 6 shots and was 5-of-5 from the line.
“Better than it has been,” Self said of the 6-foot-10 power forward’s performance. “I still don’t think he’s rebounding or playing to his presence at all. He is not plugging the lane yet. He saw the ball go in the hole a little bit which is positive.”
Agbaji has apparently taken away opening tip duties despite giving up five inches to McCormack, who had not won an opening tip in KU’s first two games in Florida.
“I’ll be honest with you. He (Agbaji) won the tip going against the biggest guy we had to jump against this year except Michigan State,” Self said of Agbaji outjumping 6-9 Nelly Junior Joseph of Iona for the opening possession.
“He (Agbaji) wouldn’t have won it against Bingham (Marcus, Michigan State’s 7-footer who won tip over McCormack in opener). I think right now Ochai is a much better and a much quicker jumper. I’d like to see David jump center but I think Ochai is better at it,” Self added.
Senior forward Mitch Lightfoot had 10 points and six boards Sunday while freshman forward KJ Adams had six points and two boards in nine minutes, all of Adams’ playing time in the second half.
“I was just trying to play our best big. Let’s call it like it is,” Self said. “There was no strategy in it. If you look at who was our best big in the second half, KJ Adams was our best big in the second half as as far as playing the way we need to play to give us the best chance I thought he did well.”
Sophomore guard Joseph Yesufu came off the bench to score nine points in 12 minutes. He was 4-of-6 shooting, 1 of 2 from three.
“The lid kind of came off the basket for him a little bit. He made some really nice plays,” Self said of Yesufu. “The bottom line is the way Joe helps our team moving forward he can also be defensive stopper, the best on-the-ball defender we have. I don’t think we are those things yet. Even as well as Joe played look at plus-minus, he’s minus-5 or 4 for the game. That’s not very positive when the starters are plus-15 each and reserves are all in minus each. We’ve got to do better than that.”
Yesufu on the final stat sheet was plus-2 for the game while Jalen Wilson, who came off the bench for the third straight game was minus-4. Wilson scored five points on 2-of-6 shooting and grabbed five rebounds in just 12 minutes.
Self said overall the defense, does not have “much of a killer instinct to be candid.”
He blames himself a bit. He used 12 players on Sunday.
“I’ve got to do a better job of finding a way to sub and still have three starters in the game. I think that’d probably help us quite a bit,” Self said, adding, “to play 11 guys you need to sub in more than one or two at a time to do that. When you do that you take away a lot of rhythm sometimes. That’s happened in basically all our games since we’ve been here.”
KU will next meet St. John’s at 6 p.m. Central time Friday at UBS Arena in Elmont, New York.