NEW YORK -- Four Kansas players scored more than ten points. KU controlled 45 percent of the available offensive rebounds. The Jayhawks shot 58 percent as the team earned a drama-free 81-68 victory at the Jimmy V Classic. In other words, KU looked like the reload-not-rebuild program college basketball fans have grown accustomed to. The scary thing is, KU hasn't reloaded its roster yet after losing three players to the NBA this past offseason. The biggest boost will come December 18 when freshman Josh Selby makes his debut after a nine-game NCAA suspension.
"Our pieces fit, which to me makes it fun," said Kansas coach Bill Self. "It'll be a unique deal all season long to get them to play the way we should play to give us the best chance to win. If we do that, I think we could be pretty good." Not that the Jayhawks' neutral-site victory was a piece of cake. They led for long stretches of the first half but found themselves tied with the Tigers as late as the 17:55 mark of the second half.
KU's problem Tuesday night was its tendency to turn the ball over -- an issue that didn't emerge in sloppy victories against Arizona and UCLA the past two weeks. The Jayhawks entered Madison Square Garden having committed turnovers on fewer than 17 percent of their offensive possessions, 17th best in the nation. Memphis' length on the perimeter and its full-court press led to some hiccups in the Jayhawks' offense, especially during a five-possession, four-turnover stretch late in the first half that allowed the Tigers to carve the deficit from eight to two. KU ended up giving the ball away on 29 percent of its possessions yet still managed to score nearly 1.10 points per trip.
"When you shoot 58 percent, all you've got to do is get more shots and you're probably going to perform better," Self said. "Of course, we turned it over too much."
Once Kansas started clicking in the second half, the affair was as good as over. Memphis went just more than two minutes without scoring while KU added nine to its tally. Like it's usually been under Self at KU, the second-half run was a group effort. The brothers Morris (Marcus and Markieff) were the steadiest performers on the floor, posting eFG numbers of 59 and 72, respectively, and dominating the much slimmer Tigers on the glass. Sophomore post Thomas Robinson chipped in with his best game as a Jayhawk, a 10-point, 10-rebound effort. Tyshawn Taylor excelled in transition situations, and Elijah Johnson, the guard most likely to see his minutes slashed by Selby's arrival, played 21 mistake-free minutes.
"(Taylor)'s our most valuable player to date because he's our primary handler," Self said. "Without him breaking pressure down or being the athlete on the perimeter, this team would be very deficient."
By many accounts Selby will be ready to contribute immediately. Although Self and Taylor warned against pinning lofty expectations on the Baltimore native, neither said he was incapable helping shoulder the Jayhawks' offensive load.
"Josh is going to be good," Taylor said. "It might take him a little while, it might not. He might come in and be an impact player from the beginning. That might be hard but he's one of those players that's capable of doing that."
Kansas, already running at an adjusted tempo of nearly 70 possessions per game (78th in the nation), could morph into an even quicker version of itself once Selby arrives. With a backcourt that includes uber-athletes such as Taylor, Johnson and Selby and a frontcourt with Robinson and either of the Morris twins, the Jayhawks will be an athletic power to be reckoned with, high skill level aside.
"We've got guys that like to get up and down and run," Taylor said. "He's definitely going to add to the pace we're trying to play."
As for Memphis? Well, we should credit kenpom.com, which placed the Tigers at 29th coming into the Classic, as opposed to the AP's No. 13 rank. Memphis isn't bad -- young guards Chris Crawford (15 points) and Will Barton (16 points) will be extremely hard to handle for Conference USA opponents. That being said the Tigers are clearly deficient down low, where Tarik Black lacks polish and Wesley Witherspoon lacks girth and good decisions.
While we're lobbing good vibes toward kenpom, we should note the site predicted a 78-67 victory for Kansas -- not too far from Tuesday's 81-68 final.
Syracuse 72, Michigan State 58
Syracuse delivered a bold statement to all the detractors who claim the Orange lack outside shooters and production from freshman post Fab Melo. Yep, Syracuse does lack three-point threats (2-for-11 on Tuesday, sub-30 percent on the season) and production from Melo (0-for-3 with four fouls in 13 minutes). It also might not matter too much.
Because it turns out the Syracuse zone is still the Syracuse zone. Just ask Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas, who committed six turnovers and made a grand total of three field goals in 34 frustrating minutes. The Spartans mustered just 58 points on 68 possessions while shooting 39 percent from the field. To make matters worse for Michigan State, they committed turnovers on an even one-fourth of their possessions. With its offense swallowed by the Syracuse zone, MSU ended up on the bad end of a sound beating Tuesday night in a virtual home game for Syracuse at the Garden.
"We got beat because Jim's [Boeheim] team played a lot harder, played a lot more physical, played a lot better," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
The Orange used their disruptive zone to throw a wrench into the usually efficient Michigan State offense (113.5 Offensive Rating coming in) in the first half, building a 23-13 lead at the midway mark of the first half that they never relinquished. Even when the offense stopped coming for Syracuse early in the second half, the defense allowed the team to keep a bit of cushion. The Orange ended up running away with the game in the final five minutes, expanding their lead to 16 before settling on a 14-point margin at the final buzzer.
Moving forward Syracuse will either need to turn up its outside shooting or maintain its stifling defense (less than 0.90 points per possession allowed this season). Aside from guard Scoop Jardine, who earned many of his 19 points in transition and on turnover-created fast breaks, Jackson and his offensive rebounding were the principal reasons Syracuse tallied 1.05 points per possession on a night when the 'Cuse recorded a mediocre effective FG percentage of 46.
"(Jackson) has been tremendous and steady for every game for us so far," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. "We've been erratic at all the other positions but he has been very good from day one. He's as good as any inside guy you could ask for."
Jackson has indeed been fantastic this season, making up for the departure of Arinze Onuaku by pushing his rebounding and scoring numbers past the levels he reached as a junior. Although it would be reassuring for Syracuse fans to see a more well-rounded offensive effort, the Orange proved defense and opportunistic scoring were all they needed to defeat one of the nation's top programs. If toppling the preseason No. 2 is a possibility on a night that wasn't the prettiest, Syracuse could be in line to make some serious noise in the Big East.
Asher Fusco is a writer in New York City.