University of Kansas

KU’s Self knows ‘there’s a lot of room for improvement’ ahead of Friday’s home opener

Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self kept things light and remained positive with his players after Tuesday’s mistake-filled 68-66 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

“Well, the first thing I said (was), ‘I hate to tell you, we weren’t going to go undefeated,’’’ Self cracked Thursday, explaining his matter-of-fact message after the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks squandered a nine-point second-half lead to the No. 4 Blue Devils in both teams’ season opener — a circumstance caused in part by 28 KU turnovers.

“It was a 50 percent chance we weren’t going to be successful, even though we thought we could be,” Self added. “The other four losses we’ve had (at the Champions Classic, in which KU fell to 4-5), we ended up being a 1 or 2 seed (in the NCAA Tournament) every year. I don’t believe that’s a disaster ... I’m excited about it. I know there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

To have a season as special as those other squads that lost in the Champions Classic, Self’s Jayhawks will certainly need to take care of business against the mid-majors on their 2019-20 nonconference schedule.

On Friday, KU will tangle with UNC Greensboro, a Southern Conference squad that returns three senior starters from the winningest team (29 victories) in school history.

Tipoff is 8 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse.

“Unfortunately we do,” Self said when asked if KU seeks to schedule the best teams from mid-major conferences. “That’s what we’ve always done. It’s a tough game on a one-day prep.”

KU’s chances of bouncing back quickly from the Duke disappointment might be helped if graduate transfer Isaiah Moss is available Friday.

“I know having Isaiah, when he gets out there, will add a different dimension to it,” Self said of the former Iowa shooting guard, who is questionable Friday with a lingering hamstring injury.

Moss is known for his three-point shooting. KU hit just four of nine three-point shots versus Duke.

“We’ve got a week off before our next game (vs. Monmouth on Nov. 15). I hate to put him out there hurt (early); it (re-injury) could set him back a month. If he can play and (KU’s doctor and trainer) say it’s OK, he’ll definitely play.

“In my mind, (playing vs. Duke) wasn’t a consideration. In the training staff’s mind, and his mind … they thought that day he was going to be good enough to play, but he hadn’t practiced full speed. I wasn’t going to put him in that situation.”

Maybe the 6-foot-5 Moss’ presence would have helped prevent some of KU’s turnovers against Duke.

“There’s no defense in America that can force 28 turnovers. You’ve got to help them do that,” Self said. “They did force their fair share. We got sped up. We contributed to it as well. Duke’s best offense was our offense. Usually, when we don’t play well, that’s a big reason why.”

Sophomore point guard Devon Dotson had six turnovers and one assist to go with his 17 points against Duke.

“Run a team,” Self said, asked the biggest thing he wants to see out of Dotson Friday night. “This is not a knock on Devon, because I think he’s terrific. That’s a game before that Frank (Mason) and Devonté (Graham) loved. It’s a one-possession game the last two minutes, you need to get a stop, that type of situation.

“We’ll grow into that. It’s still a little new to him, maybe, having that responsibility. For us to be a really good team, he has to be that. He’s one guy who can do it. I believe he will.”

Self stressed that several bench players also need to show natural improvement.

“We can’t play our starters 38, 38, 35 (minutes),” Self said of the Duke game. Guards Dotson and Ochai Agbaji (15 points) each played 38 minutes and guard Marcus Garrett (12 points) played 36. “That’s on me to get confidence in our young guys. It’s also on them to play a way that gives our team the best chance.”

Freshman wing Tristan Enaruna had the most productive opener of KU’s three freshmen. He scored five points with two rebounds and two blocks in 16 minutes. Freshmen Christian Braun, a wing from Blue Valley Northwest High, and Jalen Wilson did not score in four and two minutes, respectively.

“It was a big atmosphere for them,” Self said of the freshmen. “This is new to them. Christian has been fabulous. Even he’d be the first to tell you that’s a little different pressure than playing Blue Valley West. That’s not a knock to Blue Valley West, it’s just a different pressure.

“They’re not McDonald’s All-Americans hanging out at things (in high school) with NBA people. Here, (New York Knicks forward Kevin) Durant was sitting in the front row. Other things were going on. They’ll get used to that and learn from it.”

Of his own debut, Netherlands native Enaruna said Thursday: “It was crazy. Obviously there were some nerves playing in front of that many people. It was fun. Throughout the game I saw John Wall and Kevin Durant were sitting there, too. That’s something you don’t see that often. Overall I really enjoyed it.”

KU big men Udoka Azubuike, David McCormack and Silvio De Sousa combined for 10 turnovers against the Blue Devils’ collapsing defense. Azubuike played in just nine games a year ago, while De Sousa missed the entire season.

“The floor seemed awfully congested,” Self said, indicating sophomore McCormack was the best of KU’s bigs that night. Of De Sousa, Self said: “He is thinking and he needs to get his motor turned up.”

Sophomore guard Agbaji believes the Jayhawks will be energized for their home opener Friday. KU will have to take care of the ball against the Spartans, a team that’s known for pressing the whole game.

“We have to play with poise, a lot more poise than we had (against Duke), not letting them speed us up,” Agbaji said.

The emerging Jayhawks star out of Kansas City’s Oak Park High said he and his teammates have since talked among themselves. The message:

“It’s a long season,” Agbaji said. “We let one get away from us. We know we should have had this game. We’ll take this as a learning experience and move on, not keep our heads down. We have a game coming up — change our focus and go back to the drawing board.”

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Gary Bedore covers all aspects of Kansas basketball for The Star — the current team as well as former players and coaches and recruiting. He attended KU and was born and raised in Chicago, as well as Lisle, Ill.