After winning four consecutive games to open the 2021-22 season, No. 4-ranked Kansas experienced an unexpected punch to the gut in Friday’s semifinals of the ESPN Events Invitational in HP Field House at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Unranked Dayton, an Atlantic 10 Conference team with 12 freshmen on the roster and a resume that included a 2-3 record with home losses to UMass-Lowell, Lipscomb and Austin Peay, erased a 15-point first-half deficit (as well as a three-point deficit with a minute left) to shock the Jayhawks on a 12-foot bucket at the buzzer, 74-73.
As distasteful as the defeat must have been to coach Bill Self the day after the Jayhawks enjoyed both a 12-point first-round victory over North Texas and ensuing Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings, it was just one setback amid a plethora of games still to be played.
“I mean it’s a marathon,” Self said of the season, which continues with Sunday’s third-place game against Iona (6-1) at noon Central time Sunday on ESPN.
The Gaels of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, coached by Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, defeated No. 10 Alabama 72-68 in the first round and lost to Belmont 72-65 in the semifinals.
“The team we have today won’t be the team we have in February. It may not be the team we have the first of January,” Self said adding, “We haven’t become a team yet. I do think we are gaining on it. I think some things that happened through some experiences like this could probably accelerate the learning curve and get us maybe to all buy in a little bit differently.
“The way we see the game right now in some people’s eyes … when we are behind and when we are struggling an individual needs to go try to get it back right away as opposed to the team trying to get it back right away. We can learn from that. Those are mistakes that are correctable.”
He finished that particular thought with a view on KU’s inside play.
“Until we have a post presence that can defend the rim and defend the paint and score inside some, that puts a lot of pressure on Ochai (Agbaji) and C.B. (Christian Braun) to be our inside presence. That’s what they were today. That’s what they were the last game,” Self said.
KU senior power forward David McCormack scored five points on 2-of-6 shooting with five rebounds, five steals, two blocks and two turnovers against Dayton after scoring three points on 1-of-6 shooting with three rebounds in the opening win over North Texas.
“He’s kind of laboring now. He’s better than what he’s playing. He’ll get it back,” Self said of the 6-10, 250-pound McCormack. “We need him to get it back. He was an all-league player last year. When you don’t make shots, don’t make free throws the basketball game becomes harder. You are laboring. When that happened (vs. Dayton) we didn’t guard.”
Of the state of the team after five games, Self said: “We are not by any stretch a well-oiled machine. We are a work in progress. Most teams out there are probably the same. Our ball and body movement is not great offensively.
“I think what we do is do everything pretty well. Our halfcourt defense is not exceptional. Our rebounding is a little above average. There are areas we can get lot better in. To me when you see progress you see it over an extended period of time. We have not played enough games to see how much we have improved since Michigan State (13-point win in opener). The competitiveness of our schedule is just starting,” Self added.
Some of KU’s veteran players think they know where improvement must start.
“I think we can be a lot better defensively,” said junior guard Christian Braun. He had 17 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals versus Dayton.
“Defensively the team as a whole can play better than what we did. We’re far from where we need to be,” Braun added.
Noted sixth year senior forward Mitch Lightfoot, who had two points and three boards Friday: “I think it all starts on defense. If we can lock in defensively the offense will come. Defense will allow you to build confidence.”
Of defense, Self said: “The thing about it is when you start making shots and trading baskets we don’t guard near as hard. That’s probably most disappointing to me.”
At this stage, the Jayhawks obviously would love to defeat Iona in the third-place game and head home from Florida with a 2-1 record in the tourney and 5-1 mark on the season. The Jayhawks after this tourney will meet St. John’s at 6 p.m. Central time Friday in New York.
“The main thing,” Agbaji said, “is staying together. It’s a long season. We have a lot more games, a lot more chances to get on the court and get better. It’s one loss but down the road we are going to look back and see we gained a lot from this.”