It was a showcase night for dunks in Lawrence, Kan., as No. 3 KU (13-0; 0-0) threw down slam after slam against an outmatched Miami of Ohio (5-9; 0-0) team. Bill Self is still searching for the spark on the defensive end from his players, switching up the starting rotation. The Jayhawks appeared to have increased intensity on the defensive end, jumping out to a big first half lead. Marcus Morris and brother Markieff Morris combined for 38 points and 15 rebounds off the bench in the 83-56 victory.
If only the Kansas Jayhawks realized how much their defensive intensity propels the offensive production.
Bill Self has been riding his players all season about the lack of effort on the defensive end, and while KU has a ways to go before it becomes a truly elite defensive unit, the results in the first half of Sunday's blowout win over Miami (OH) should reinforce exactly what Self and his staff preach on a daily basis.
The fast break was fast again, and the easy buckets came as easily as they have all season long with the Jayhawks putting on a mix of full court press and stiff man-to-man pressure in the half court. It become a dunk fest, including impressive slams from the Morris twins, Josh Selby, and Elijah Johnson off a pass from Travis Releford who lobbed the ball off the backboard.
"We were having a lot of fun out there, and we were getting a lot of dunks," said Markieff Morris after a 20-point, 10-rebound performance to lead KU.
Markieff threw down plenty of dunks on his own, some coming from lob passes, and one especially monstrous dunk coming on a drive and drop step over his defender late in the second half. Although not starting, Morris did what he could from the bench to provide his teammates with the energy they have been searching for. A week of extremely grueling practices have helped to get the focus back for Kansas, a title contender with the likes of Duke and Ohio State.
"I didn't start last year, so it was his (Coach Self's) decision not to start me. I just encouraged the guys that started, and (tried to) bring energy off of the bench," he said. "Toughest practice I have ever had since I have been here. I think we deserved it, we didn't play (well vs. UT-Arlington). I think if we don't play like we did tonight every game, then we deserve to practice like that. We were getting after everything, a lot of defensive drills one after another; we were just getting after it for a long time."
As for the dunk-a-thon, freshman guard Josh Selby, who scored 18 points and looked to get his offensive swagger back after a 1-for-9 shooting performance against Texas-Arlington, added some flair of his own, showing off the athleticism KU fans have been waiting for.
"There were a lot of amazing dunks today but I was just happy I got my legs back. I just wanted to break the rim down," Selby said.
His highlight dunk wasn't the only impressive aspect of his game Sunday evening. Selby also canned 4-of-5 three-point attempts, and looked much better on the defensive end. It's clear he is coming along as a finished product at a very fast pace, which is a good sign for Kansas with conference play approaching.
Late in the game, when KU became somewhat sloppy, Selby knocked down a big three to send the Jayhawks on yet another offensive burst. The 6-foot-3 guard gave a salute to teammate Tyshawn Taylor, who recorded the assist on the play, and showed how tight this group of Jayhawks has become.
"I was cold last game so after I hit my three I was happy and I just saluted Tyshawn (Taylor). That's what we do; when he dunks he salutes me and when I hit a three he salutes me because he gave me the pass."
Kansas has flashes of greatness, but they also show flashes of the same lackluster team that was taken down by Northern Iowa in the NCAA tournament last season. While the highlight dunks are great, KU appears to be overly concerned about their next chance at a breakaway play, and not focused on getting the defensive stop first.
Once this unit commits to playing Bill Self-defensive, they could be considered the title favorite above Duke, who is still unsure of when freshman guard and leading scorer Kyrie Irving can return to action.
The Jayhawks might be the most athletic team in the country, and the one good thing about their inconsistency on offense is the fact that an opposing team will never know who will be the hot hand on any given night. Markieff Morris has come along of late, but sophomore forward Thomas Robinson has played extremely well, and there will always be the usual suspects in Marcus Morris and Selby.
Self, who switched up the starting rotation by throwing in Robinson and center Jeff Withey, was pleased with the overall improvement in Sunday's win, but still has concerns over the inexplicable periods of sloppy play from his team.
"I did - of course; I hope that we can keep our consistency," he stated when asked whether he thought the team had improved since its last outing. "We got up by 33, and then we did some brain dead things. Elijah (Johnson) trying to throw the ball off of the backboard, it was just really silly. We've spent a lot of time together the last few days, and when I say 'a lot,' that is an understatement. I think the guys were excited to play against somebody other than themselves."
The first half was the best half of the year according to Self, and his positive outlook fit in perfectly with his New Year's resolution of trying to be more positive. He also spoke highly of Withey, who started his first game of the year, and considered the overall effort of his team a good sign considering how they had played previously.
"They played well, but I thought Jeff (Withey) played well, too," Self said. "Our whole team played pretty well the first half; we were pretty in-tune defensively in the second half. We traded baskets, which was ridiculous. We did a lot of good things but I would say the biggest negative, obviously, was taking care of the basketball - we had so many unforced errors. If we can just get a shot, or at least five more possessions, that's at least five more points you're going to score. All-in-all, that first half was the best first half we have played all year. We ran well, and even when we didn't score, we did the right thing - I was pretty excited."
Selby and the Morris twins combined for 56 points and 22 rebounds and had possibly the three most impressive dunks outside of Elijah Johnson's slam in the first half.
Kansas hit 57-percent from the field and held the Red Hawks to just 39-percent shooting. The biggest and probably most impressive stat of the game was the discrepancy in rebounds, with the Jayhawks completely dominating the glass, 44-16.
The one glaring stat in terms of negatives was the 18 turnovers, most of which coming in transition where it appeared KU felt as though they could try just about anything.
Next up is UMKC on Jan. 5, KU's last non-conference home game before hosting Nebraska on Jan. 15. After UMKC, the Jayhawks will travel to Michigan to finish up the non-con, and then head to Colorado to kick off Big 12 play.