December 30, 2013

KU holds off Toledo

No. 16/16 Kansas (9-3) closed out 2013 by handing the Toledo Rockets (12-1) its first loss of the season 93-83, Monday night in Allen Fieldhouse. Three players scored at least 20 points for KU, led by Perry Ellis.

Defense has been the emphasis in practice since players returned from Christmas break.

Monday night against an undefeated Toledo team, defense appears to remain a point of emphasis for Kansas. The Jayhawks were solid on the offensive end, finishing at the rim and drawing fouls. Defensively, however, there is plenty to harp on.

The Rockets were able to get every shot they wanted against Kansas' defense, shooting the highest percentage (46.4) of any opponent this year. In fact, Bill Self was forced to call a timeout just 35 seconds into the game after two turnovers by his team and a three given up to Toledo. The immediate timeout due to atrocious start to the game was mostly due to junior guard Naadir Tharpe lack of intensity and focus.

"You know what; I screwed it up because I should have taken it five seconds into the game after our first turnover," Self said after his teams' win. "I don't think I've ever taken one that fast. That wasn't a great way to start the game…his man also scored the first six points of the game too, I think."

"I don't want to call any player out, but I would say considering he turned it over the first possession, turned it over the second possession, and got ripped the third possession for a dunk, I would say a little bit of it was directed towards him."

Indeed Tharpe was the main cause for the early timeout, but the junior point guard's response to the start of the game surprised even Self, scoring 20 points and hitting all 5 of his three-point attempts and finishing with 8 assists.

"I told him after the game I thought he showed some guts to respond that way because to me, how we start a game is more dependent on the point guards mindset and how he wants to start the game," said Self. "I thought he responded great. I thought he defended well, and obviously after he got the turnover bug out of his system he took care of the ball better, and certainly he shot the heck out of the ball. He's been shooting it great in practice so I was pleased with his play; he's just got to get us off to a better start."

Tharpe was asked if this was his best game in a Kansas uniform, to which he responded that although offensively it was good, he wasn't satisfied with his performance on the defensive end.

"I wouldn't say all around best game because I had a couple mishaps and they scored a lot of points, but I shot the ball pretty well," Tharpe said following the victory. "I'm guessing this is probably one of my best shooting games that I've had here. I still had five turnovers, so I've got to do better on that, but I thought I played good and I thought my teammates helped me out and told me to keep on shooting and to stay aggressive."

So what was Self's message to his point guard during the timeout? It was one which was made quite clear.

"Just for me to pick it up," said Tharpe. "Letting my man score too easy…he hit two shots right away on me so he [coach Self] was just letting me know that what I was doing wasn't good enough."

It was a game of runs for the Jayhawks and Rockets. After a back and forth first half which Kansas controlled just before the break, heading into the locker room with a 43-36 lead, the defense was certainly the reason why Toledo was able to stick around.

Offensively, Kansas was able to get every shot it wanted and was doing an excellent job of finishing strong at the rim and getting fouls.

A sign of improvement has been the entry passes into the post. KU's guards did a much better job of getting the ball into Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid.

Ellis finished with a game-high 21 points and 11 rebounds, his second career double-double, and was a monster on the offensive and defensive glass.

Against Georgetown, Ellis was limited to 12 minute after taking a hard hit to the head which left him with concussion-like symptoms, missing the ensuing free throw badly to the left while his body fell to the left upon the release.

After a break, Ellis was able to recover and lead the Jayhawks, Monday night.

"The break was a good recovery for me," Ellis said. "I was able to be home and just relax a little bit. Just glad I can be back and I got to play tonight."

While KU's offense was clicking, like Tharpe, Ellis recognizes the lack of defensive effort shown by he and his teammates.

"We still have a lot to learn defensively, as a group we still just really have to work on a lot of things defensively and we still have a lot to get better at. Aggressiveness, just aggressiveness and to not think and not want you man to score and have that really affect us. I think if we get that mentality we will be so much better."

Many KU fans think back to the days of Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson and the defensive numbers put up by the 2008 national title team. The Jayhawks were the top steals team in the country, something fans and the coaching staff would love for this team to excel at because of the length and athleticism, but coach Self doesn't yet see a player on the current roster that is capable of playing that type of defense.

"If you go back in the past, Mario [Chalmers] got credit for being a terrific defender, but he was not. He guarded the other teams' worst defender and he just went around and stole everybody else's ball and he got all the credit and Russ [Robinson] didn't get any, and Mario knows that because I've said it a thousand times, but we don't have anybody like that. We don't have anybody that can anticipate or see it or feel it like that yet. I do think we'll get better, but I told our teams afterwards, "are we better defensively today than we were against Duke?" We spent a lot of time on it and I would say the answer is probably no. I think Toledo scored easier today than Duke did back in Chicago."

Self was asked to breakdown what he thought Kansas lacks to become the type of team fans are accustomed to seeing, it comes down to what he considers correctable aspects to the defensive side of basketball.

"We are not good anticipators; we let our man catch it to get position to play with it. I think we need to play more with our hands, and I don't mean on the ball, but off the ball. Our hands need to be more active and we need to be better anticipators. To me, to be a good steals team, you need to show the offensive team a pass, and then they take it away. Just like defensive backs; the guy looks open, but he's really not open, and that's what good defensive teams do; they help the helper, they help the helpers helper, or you trap to steal…we look slow in that one area. We don't look slow running down the floor to me, but we look slow in that one area reacting to balls."

"There are so many things we can do a little bit better. The biggest thing to me is we let our man catch it too easy. Toledo is a good ball club and they are a good ball-handling team. They're point guard is like seventh in the country in assists so he is a good player, but at home in front of a juiced house you force eight turnovers and have four steals, that's not very good. On the road I can understand it, but playing at home, that's totally inexcusable. They can score, and they were nine of sixteen from three so obviously they made shots. I'm frustrated because we don't give up seventy in our building very often, let alone 83."

Tharpe knows his team lacks the tenacity and killer instinct needed to put teams away. Early in the second half, KU would go on a run offensively led by Tharpe's outside shooting and Joel Embiid's continued low post play which has become something of a marvel to watch.

After going up 65-50, the Jayhawks would falter on the defensive end, giving up baskets at will to the Rockets and allowing the lead to shrink to under 10.

"We still haven't shown that killer instinct," said Tharpe. "I don't feel like we have it at all, starting with myself. We are just letting them score too many easy baskets and second-chance shots. Until we get the mentality that our man cannot score, just like Perry said, it's going to make things a lot better and the game a lot easier for us."

The killer instinct was on display against Georgetown more than a week ago, but inconsistency and not being able to get stops allowed Toledo to hang in the game before time became their enemy and the Jayhawks were able to make plays offensively to keep a continuous 10-12 lead for the remainder of the half.

Along with Ellis, Embiid was again dominant in the low post, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds while recording another three blocks.

After the game, Toledo coach Todd Kowalczyk had just one word to describe KU's 7-footer: "Special."

Kowalczyk went on to say Embiid was better in person than he anticipated after watching film of the Jayhawks.

Freshman teammate Andrew Wiggins knows how important Embiid is to the team and how much he can change the game for the Jayhawks.

"Even when you think he's not playing good, he's playing good. He affects the game in so many ways it's unbelievable," Wiggins said.

With Tharpe, Ellis, and Embiid playing so well, it's hard to believe super-frosh Wiggins went somewhat unnoticed with his 20-point evening.

When asked about his comfort level, Wiggins said he is starting to know how he fits into the offense and sees the game slowing down considerably.

"Yeah, I'm getting used to how we are supposed to play and it's slowing down for me after being a little fast…it seems easier than it did at first," he said. "I'm just trying to take a lot of shots, take open shots, and take shots I know I can make to stretch the floor."

Self addressed the progress of his freshman star briefly, referencing his defense as something he is excelling at, aside from his scoring ability.

"He's getting better. He's getting better all the time. He's a guy that's a terrific on the ball defender, but he doesn't get steals, but he's a terrific on-ball defender."

The stats to take away from the game for Kansas is the 56-percent shooting from the floor, while also knocking down 7-of-14 shots from behind the arc. The 44-28 rebounding margin is also a victory for the Jayhawks against a team which is considered a solid rebounding club. However, as Self said, the second-chance points given up skew the rebounding numbers on paper.

Up next for Kansas is a 3:30 afternoon tilt with a ranked San Diego State team which has plenty of talent. The Jayhawks will have the week to prepare with another tape to look at and continue to progress on the defensive end of the floor, something of great important against the Aztecs, Sunday afternoon for the CBS national broadcast.

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