Bill Self told KJ Adams: ‘Play your heart out.’ Here’s how the KU forward responded

James Crisp/AP

Kansas forward KJ Adams had one goal in his mind as he jostled for positioning early in Saturday’s game.

Tire out the 2022 Naismith National Player of the Year, Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe.

The same Tshiebwe who has 35 pounds and two inches of height on the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward from Austin, Texas.

Adams recalled thinking, “I have to play as big as possible. I need to get low, keep him off the boards and attack him as much as I can to make him exhausted. If I attack him, his offense will be slower because he’s tired.”

The forward accomplished his goal. Adams’ plan worked perfectly in Kansas’ 77-68 win over fellow blue blood Kentucky on Saturday at Rupp Arena. The win stopped the Jayhawks’ three-game losing streak.

Adams scored 17 points on 8-for-10 shooting from the floor. He also had three assists and grabbed two rebounds in 24 minutes.

Adams helped limit Tshiebwe to nine rebounds — with only two offensive rebounds. Coming into the game, Tsheibwe led the nation in rebounds per game (13.9) and offensive rebounds per game (5.7).

“I thought (Adams) played great,” Kansas coach Bill Self said postgame. “He’s just not very big, guys. He’s 6-foot-6. He was active.”

Coming into the season, Adams didn’t have major expectations for what he could contribute offensively. However, Adams put together 11 straight games with double-digit points, primarily scoring in the short pick-and-roll.

During KU’s three-game losing streak, teams had adjusted to Adams’ play on offense. In the last two games, Adams scored eight points total on 2-for-11 shooting.

In this game, Adams made it a point of emphasis to put the ball on the floor and drive. It’s an ability that the forward doesn’t show off very often but can create a mismatch against traditional bigs — such as Tshiebwe. Adams used his speed and dribbling ability to his advantage.

Early in the second half, Adams did what he’s done all season. He set a screen for KU guard Gradey Dick; Dick passed the ball between two Wildcats’ defenders as Adams rolled to the rim. The KU forward converted the dunk.

On the glass, Adams fought hard to gain positioning against the Kentucky bigs. The Wildcats finished with just four offensive rebounds despite entering the game ranked first in offensive rebound percentage (per KenPom).

“We were just praying on the rebounding stuff,” Self said. “We haven’t rebounded the ball like that in a while. You know, he’s (Tshiebwe) so good and big and active that if you double or force help, it creates rotation rebounding.”

Adams left it all on the floor in his 24 minutes. The energy he exerted was visible on his face postgame.

“Coach told me, ‘Play your heart out,’ and then when we need a sub to come get it,’” Adams said. “So, it’s good playing hard and then knowing you (can) get a sub, so you can get right back in.”

To many outsiders, Adams keeping pace with the 2022 Naismith Award winner is a surprise.

Not for his teammates.

“He’s been working his tail off every day,” said KU guard Kevin McCullar. “Some people say he’s undersized at the five and stuff, but he makes up (for) that with how hard he plays and competes. He uses his speed and strength to his advantage.

“In matching up with Oscar tonight, you know that’s a big challenge for anybody. He went in there and handled his own. We came out with a good W.”