Jayhawks almost fell completely into the trap of complacency before escaping against UTEP | Smithology

Kansas goalkeeper Marcus Garrett (0) struggles on the ground for a ball with UTEP striker Tydus Verhoeven, left, and UTEP goalkeeper Souley Boom (0) during the first half on Thursday March 4, 2021 at Allen Fieldhouse.
by Nick Krug

When the Kansas basketball program announced last week that it was adding Thursday’s non-conference game against UTEP to the schedule to bridge the gap between a much-anticipated rematch with Baylor and next week’s Big 12 tournament , the news could just as easily have been attached with a Star Wars GIF. of Admiral Ackbar’s warning, “It’s a trap!”

However, the Jayhawks crashed their beak first, scoring their best win of the year and seemingly approaching the regular season finale at Allen Fieldhouse as an afterthought on a pit stop on their way to the playoffs.

The ultimate trap game almost did them too. The Jayhawks had been formidable five days earlier against the previously undefeated Baylor one of America’s best teams. But a contrasting performance for much of the night against unannounced UTEP meant KU made an unspectacular debut in March, escaping with a 67-62 victory after being trailed by no less than 15.

It was human nature for the Jayhawks to overlook a US Conference opponent who came to Lawrence just two games over .500 on the season and 8-8 in his league. However, their inconsistencies throughout this though odd year should have prepared the Jayhawks to play with an advantage. Finally, they did. It just took them too long to get there.

“It definitely started out as a trap game, just not having the right mindset,” KU junior forward David McCormack said afterwards, adding that the Jayhawks needed to be more aggressive early in the competition when UTEP was in charge. “But we were smart enough to do that and flip the switch and make sure we didn’t have the result of a trap game. We still got out of here with a win and that was the main point.

Ochai Agbaji (19 points, six rebounds, two steals) often made the types of plays that indicated he wanted to end the regular season with a win. Similar examples of energy from other Jayhawks were much harder to come by in the first 30 minutes of the game, before they collectively generated some momentum by making defensive saves and reducing the UTEP’s margin. single digit.

McCormack, who scored 16 of his 18 points after halftime, became the go-to scorer for the post he should have been in the first half, scoring the KU rally as all the Jayhawks finally started playing with purpose and fire.

“The first half,” KU coach Bill Self said in his post-game video press conference, “I didn’t think our energy was very good. I don’t think we respected them. as we probably should have, although after watching the tape you could see how athletic they were.

Self believes UTEP’s top two players, Souley Boum (16 points) and Bryson Williams (23 points, 13 rebounds), are good enough to play for any Big 12 team. There will be similar players. under the radar waiting for KU in the weeks. in front of.

If the Jayhawks are lucky enough to totally regroup out of fear of UTEP, impress at the Big 12 tournament and land a No.3 or No.4 seed in the NCAA tournament, approaching a March Madness game in a similar fashion, like winning is a given. and operating on autopilot will, they’ll make an immediate exit on the first lap.

There will also be a lot more tension in this first round game for KU in Indiana, regardless of the Jayhawks seed. Every player and coach on the pitch would love to say they were involved in the Kansas elimination, and any team the Jayhawks meet in the tournament will be much more capable than UTEP.

“It’s a good lesson to learn that we’re so average – at best – when we’re not playing a certain way,” Self said. “And when we play a certain way, we can get pretty good. But our level of defensive energy and the rebound of the ball were very weak in the first half and certainly very good there.

Perhaps the odd regular season finale, which at least kept the Jayhawks from rusting, will end up helping them in another way as well, serving as a wake-up call that saves them an embarrassing Indy exit when all the the country – not just the die-hards with an ESPN + subscription – will be watching.

KU isn’t good enough this year to rely on a switch with the season in play. Understanding that now could prevent the Jayhawks from falling into a more perilous trap when the real March Madness hits.

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