By Nate Bukaty
1. Bigs hold the key to greatness: By Bill Self’s terms, a Kansas season cannot be called a “great” season without a trip to the Final Four. By that criteria, the Jayhawks’ chances at a great season could well hinge on the rate of improvement they get out of their young big men. The guards and wing players are already playing at a championship level. But the low post play has left something to be desired. Landon Lucas has been hobbled and ineffective. But even when Lucas is playing at his best, we know what his ceiling is. The true upside for KU’s inside game lies in the potential of sophomore Carlton Bragg and, even more importantly, Freshman Udoka Azubuike. Bragg has already lost his starting job, at least for now, and he’s not a true low post player anyway. Azubuike, or “Doke” as they call him, has the potential to be a true force in the paint. He’s made two consecutive starts, and he led the team in rebounding with a modest 7 boards on Tuesday night. Still, Self referred to Azubuike’s presence in the game as a “non-factor” which indicates the level of expectations he has for his gargantuan freshman. How close Doke comes to reaching his potential this season could be the difference between a good season in Lawrence and a great one.
2. Vick proves Self prophetic: Before the season started, Bill Self said that Lagerald Vick was the most improved player on his roster. On Tuesday night, Vick gave Kansas fans a good look at exactly what his coach had been touting. Vick had a nearly perfect day (his only miss was a free throw) and a nearly record-tying day (his nine-for-nine from the field landed him one shy of the school record for shots without a miss in a game) against Long Beach State on Tuesday night. The 6’5” Sophomore was making his second consecutive start, and he set new career highs for points in each outing. Vick started the season shooting just one for 13 from three point range, but he has heated up considerably since then. Over these last two games, Vick has connected on seven for eight from long range. As Self seems to become more and more comfortable with the four-guard lineup, Vick is presenting himself as another lengthy, athletic wing player to add to the mix.
3. Be the Three: Vick’s recent outside shooting success is a bit of a microcosm for the whole team. After the first five games of the year, I asked Bill Self about the Jayhawks’ shooting struggles as they were shooting just 30% from beyond the arc. Self said that some of the issues were related to shot selection, but in general he believes this will be a good outside shooting team. Over the last two games, they have hit 27 of 47 three point tries, good for 57%. Granted, UNC Asheville and Long Beach State don’t present the kind of defensive resistance that Big 12 teams will bring. Still, it’s bound to build confidence and rhythm for the Jayhawk shooters to see the ball going through the hoop at such a high clip.
4. Josh Jackson’s most underrated quality: This year’s most highly touted Jayhawk Freshman has already proved to be just about everything the recruiting analysts predicted. He’s averaging 14 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He was the MVP of the CBE Hall of Fame Classic at Sprint Center. He’s showing himself to be every bit the “alpha dog” that Jayhawk fans were promised. But the hidden aspect of Jackson’s game that has impressed me the most is his ability as a passer. Jackson is third on the team with 3.3 assists per game, ranking behind only Devonte’ Graham and Frank Mason. But the stats don’t do justice to the court vision and passing accuracy that Jackson has already shown. I expect his assist numbers to only grow as the season goes on.
5. Stiffer challenge ahead; As I referenced earlier, at least some of KU’s recent offensive success can be chalked up to the competition. Well, the Jayhawks will face a better challenge on Saturday, when Jerod Haase brings the Stanford Cardinal to Allen Fieldhouse. The former Jayhawk has the Cardinal off to a 6-1 start, in his first year as their Head Coach. More specifically, Stanford should bring more intensity on the defensive end than what the Jayhawks have seen the last couple of games. According to Ken Pom’s adjusted rankings, the Cardinal boast the 19th best defense in the country so far this season.
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