Kansas will win at least a share of the Big 12 championship for the 14th straight year after its 74-72 win over Texas Tech.
Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s game.
Devonte’ Graham could be a first team All-American
When Kansas was struggling (by its standards) earlier in the year, Graham was slightly underwhelming. Sure, he was still really good. But Graham was expected to take more of a leap with full control of the offense and Frank Mason gone.He’s dazzled in Big 12 play and was particularly awesome against Texas Tech — Graham finished 10-for-18 from the floor and scored 26 points. He made four 3s, but his attacking mentality stood out; Graham doesn’t have elite burst, but his first step is good enough. His penetration makes life much easier for the Jayhawks' offense. At its best, Kansas plays a beautiful, free-wheeling, drive-and-kick style – Graham is the engine. He consistently got into the paint against a host of talented Red Raider defenders on Saturday.
The Jayhawks have a good chance to snag a 1-seed, and Graham is clearly their best player. Graham is averaging 18 points and seven assists. Jalen Brunson has him beat in efficiency, but the overall gap isn’t as wide as you might think. The senior deserves first team All-American consideration.
Svi Mykhailiuk is really, really good
That sounds basic, but it’s true, and it’s worth pointing out because Mykhailiuk is a polarizing player. He appeared to have superstar potential when he first arrived in Lawrence, but he was inconsistent as a youngster.
Now, he’s just really darn good – Kansas’ second-best player after Graham. Mykhailiuk scored 21 points on Saturday on 14 shot attempts; his 3-point stroke is looking as smooth as ever, and he’s gained more confidence in his dribble-drive game. Once Graham breaks down the defense at the point of attack, a moving Mykhailiuk catching the ball in stride is not a sight opponents want to see. He’s also made huge progress on defense.
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Wings like Mykhailiuk are inherently valuable because of their defensive versatility. He brings that, but so much more. The Ukraine Maker is a primary reason why Kansas will win its 14th Big 12 crown in a row.
Zhaire Smith is a freak
What a stud. Smith kept Texas Tech in the game on Saturday, scoring 20 points and making a handful of ridiculous plays down the stretch. In the last four minutes alone, Smith had a ferocious tip dunk, a massive swat on Graham at the rim and a feathery elbow jumper to bust the zone. Smith is a freak athlete with a rapidly developing skillset, and he’s an absolute joy to watch.
Zhaire Smith is not human pic.twitter.com/779kS1dFgO— Eric Kelly (@EricKellyKLBK) February 24, 2018
Smith, a 6-5 guard, snared five offensive rebounds on Saturday — the Red Raiders collected 15 offensive boards, a big reason why they were competitive until the end.
With Justin Gray out and Keenan Evans hobbled (more on that soon), Smith picked up the slack. Texas Tech fell short, but it wasn’t because of its best freshman.
Evans still isn’t right
You have to applaud Evans for trying to fight through his nagging toe injury, but he doesn’t look like himself. Evans went 1-for-6 from the field and scored six points.
The ESPN broadcast mentioned how Evans has to wear two different sized shoes in order to help cope with the toe injury, hindering his balance. That was clear on Saturday; Evans struggled to get into the lane because his explosiveness is zapped, but on the few occasions he got there, Kansas defenders knocked him off of his spot easily.It's comforting to have Evans on the floor, but you have to wonder what he’s going to look like when the NCAA tournament rolls around. He’s clearly the best player on the team — Texas Tech is a defensive juggernaut, but the offense is a lot of ‘give Evans the ball and let him do stuff.’
He’s far less than 100 percent right now. For the sake of college hoops, hopefully Evans’ health improves quickly.
Both teams are comfortable switching defense on the fly
An interesting defensive wrinkle from both teams: Chris Beard and Bill Self regularly switched their defenses, toggling between man, zone and a matchup zone. It came in handy in the last minute for Kansas – the Jayhawks confused the Red Raiders coming out of a timeout by playing zone. They forced a key turnover.
It’s hard to play zone against Kansas because of all of the shooting, but Beard was aggressive — holding the Jayhawks to 74 points is a decent accomplishment, based on how they’ve played lately. If Evans was 100 percent, they probably would have won the game.
The Kansas defense – an often criticized group – deserves major props. When LaGerald Vick is your nominal power forward, it’s to help juice the offense – not for any defensive purposes. But KU is scrappy on that end and held the No. 6 team to 72 points on the road.
These are two of the best coaches in the business. Beard vs. Self battles are going to be a ton of fun in future years.