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Kansas forward KJ Adams felt helpless.
The forward had just picked up his fourth foul in KU’s eventual second-round NCAA Tournament loss against No. 8 Arkansas, 72-71.
Adams headed to the Jayhawks’ bench with KU up six points (37-31) with 18:11 left in the game. There, he sat for a little over nine minutes. Internally, he struggled — he wanted to be out there with his teammates.
By the time he rejoined the game, Kansas had blown a 10-point lead it had built with an 11-0 Arkansas run and the Razorbacks led 52-51.
“It was kind of a little nerve-racking because of all the excitement going on and you are on the bench,” Adams said.
On top of that, Adams’ backup, Ernest Udeh Jr., picked up his fourth foul with 16:01 left. Udeh is the only traditional big man who plays rotation minutes for Kansas.
It forced KU to play freshman Zuby Ejiofor and sophomore stretch-big Zach Clemence. Ejiofor averaged 5.1 minutes per game coming into Saturday and Clemence had played seven minutes since January.
The duo being thrown into the season’s most important game wasn’t exactly the ideal outcome for Kansas, which was navigating the aforementioned foul situation.
Ejiofor finished with seven minutes played. The Jayhawks were outscored by seven in his minutes, tied-worst on the team.
Clemence picked up a quick foul in that stretch and played for about a minute before KU went back to Ejiofor. Clemence finished minus-3 in his three total minutes.
The absence of Adams and Udeh was felt on both ends of the court.
“Our offense runs through KJ and he wasn’t out there for a while,” said acting coach Norm Roberts. “Ernest picked up a couple of silly fouls early, which got him out of the rotation early. … The bench, which I thought those guys did a good job, they tried hard, but in this atmosphere, it makes it rough.”
Adams finished with 14 points and three rebounds in 26 minutes; Udeh had a rebound and a block to go along with four fouls.
The foul trouble forced KU to play cautiously, allowing Arkansas to get good looks at the rim without much resistance. When the Razorbacks trailed by 10 points, it attacked the inexperience of Ejiofor and went at him at the rim.
On one play, Arkansas big Mahki Mitchell backed Ejiofor down in the paint and then converted the bucket. In the process, Mitchell got fouled but missed the free throw.
On the next Arkansas possession, the Razorbacks attacked off a KU miss. Arkansas guard Davonte Davis raced down the court and converted a tough bucket over Kansas forward Jalen Wilson. Ejiofor was lumbering behind, too slow to get back in time.
Not to mention, KU’s biggest yearlong issue reared its head again — rebounding. Adams isn’t necessarily the best rebounder, but he does an excellent job of boxing out and allowing his teammates to get rebounds.
The Razorbacks had a seven-rebound margin over (36-29) KU primarily due to their work on the offensive glass (15-7). Arkansas also had a 13-point advantage in second-chance points (15-2).
Instead of putting the game away when leading, the Jayhawks played on their heels. Roberts said he wanted to hold Adams to the 10-minute mark of the second half.
“He picked up that other foul so quick,“ Roberts said. “We just didn’t want to do that. We knew it was going to be a battle until the end, so that’s why we kept him (out).”
By the time Adams came in, Kansas had started playing tight and struggled to gain any separation. Rebounds and missed foul shots plagued KU.
The most significant rebound of the game came when the score was tied at 67-all. Arkansas guard Ricky Council IV made the first free throw but missed the second one. He then got his own offensive rebound, getting fouled in the process.
He then made both free throws to put Arkansas up 70-67 with 20 seconds left in the game. Those free throws helped Arkansas clinch the win.
Adams blamed himself for it. Rather, that rebound was the embodiment of KU’s overall second half — the opportunity to close was there, but Kansas didn’t deliver.
“We just needed to execute a couple of things better,” Roberts said. “We didn’t do that and kind of just (missed) opportunities that we had. It’s going to be like that in the NCAA Tournament. We knew that. We knew Arkansas was a very good basketball team. We knew it was going to be a war.”