Small ball, Christian Braun help KU basketball race past Saint Joseph’s 94-72
Bill Self’s faith in the Kansas basketball frontcourt remains unshaken, the Jayhawk head coach confident his bigs can get out of the funk they’ve found themselves in through the season’s first two contests.
In fact, Self is sticking with at least one of his bold preseason predictions.
“I’ve said this all along and I still believe this to be the case,” Self said, “David (McCormack) will be our leading scorer this year.”
After Friday, McCormack has some catching up to do in that category.
Christian Braun erupted for a career-high 30 points to lift the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks to a 94-72 victory over Saint Joseph’s at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers, Fla. The sophomore finished 10-for-13 from the floor and 5-for-8 from 3-point range in helping his team earn a two-game split at the Fort Myers Tip-Off — KU fell 102-90 to top-ranked Gonzaga on Thursday.
Braun also had nine rebounds, three assists and four steals in 36 minutes against the Hawks, the centerpiece of a five-guard lineup that his team deployed for virtually the entirety of a second half that saw the Jayhawks (1-1) turn a one-possession game with 13 minutes remaining into a laugher. Fellow guards Ochai Agbaji (18 points) and Jalen Wilson (14) rounded out the double-figure scorers for KU.
McCormack, meanwhile, faced tough sledding for a second straight contest. The junior forward had eight points on 2-for-6 shooting, three rebounds and three turnovers in 11 minutes, removed from the contest for good just two minutes into the second half. Redshirt senior Mitch Lightfoot finished with one point and two rebounds in five minutes, all in the first half, and the team’s only other frontcourt player, freshman Gethro Muscadin, didn’t appear until the game’s final two minutes.
McCormack tweaked his knee late in the first half, and while that may have led to his reduced role, it’s undeniable that his team actually improved in his absence. KU went with its five-guard lineup with 18:17 remaining and across the next 16-plus minutes that group outscored Saint Joseph’s 48-24.
As encouraging as the Jayhawks’ five-guard lineup has looked across the team’s first two games, Self stressed that his squad cannot simply adopt that style of play as its identity moving forward.
“Once again we went small and we were better. We were better small,” acknowledged Self, speaking on his postgame radio interview. “But we can’t play small against teams in our league, or Kentucky. We’ve got to be able to battle in the paint and rebound the ball better.”
Braun echoed Self’s remarks regarding McCormack’s importance in helping KU reach its ceiling. That doesn’t, however, mean he believes the team’s five-out approach can’t hold its own when called upon moving forward.
“Coach told us in the locker room, you know, we play in a conference where you need a big man, so Dave is going to be more important during those times,” Braun said. “But (in the five-guard lineup) our versatility is great, just being able to guard every different lineup. Teams like (Saint Joseph’s) are hard to guard when they have five guards on the perimeter that can all shoot, so we struggled a bit in the first half just getting to shooters, but I like that we’ve got guys like Jalen who is tough, Tristan (Enaruna) who is tough and guys that are long that can guard on the perimeter.”
Jack Forrest scored a team-high 18 points for Saint Joseph's (0-2), which went 13-for-37 from 3-point range in the defeat. KU got a spark from redshirt freshman guard Dejuan Harris, whose three points, five assists, three rebounds and two steals in 15 minutes off the bench made him the “igniter” of the Jayhawks’ second-half rally, Self said.
KU didn’t make the season-opening trip to Fort Myers “with any idea that we would play five guards and basically have our best chance to win,” Self said, but that’s exactly what unfolded. While the head coach reiterated his belief in McCormack, a player he previously labeled the team’s best performer in the preseason, Self acknowledged the five-guard approach will have a meaningful role moving forward.
KU’s season continues at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday against No. 10 Kentucky in Indianapolis.
“I thought we definitely did pretty well (in the five-out lineup). Considering how much we’ve practiced it, I thought the ball moved,” Self said. “What we’ve got to do is we’ve got to come up with some sets that we can run playing small which right now we really don’t have because Jalen’s got to know all the five spot or Christian’s got to know the plays from the four spot and we really haven’t practiced that much. So hopefully we can do some things in the next couple of days to allow us to maybe have some crutches to go to when we play small again.”