LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)—The palms were sweaty, the throats dry, a full-team jitter causing botched layups and clanked jumpers.
The weight of defending a national championship with an overhauled roster isn’t easy to overcome. At least Kansas came away with a win in this one.
Sherron Collins scored 16 points, freshman Markieff Morris had 15 rebounds and the 24th-ranked Jayhawks pulled away after a shaky first half to open their national title defense with a 71-56 victory over Missouri-Kansas City on Sunday night.
“First game of the season, a lot of people had jitters, especially freshmen, with sweaty hands, scared a little bit,” Collins said. “Things didn’t fall our way, but I think we did a good job of running through it and getting a win.”
Kansas coach Bill Self rotated 11 players into the game, hoping to find a combination that meshed. He finally got it in the second half as the Jayhawks tightened up defensively and picked up the tempo offensively after struggling most of the first half.
Kansas shot 15-of-23 in the second half to overcome a 1-for-13 night from 3-point range and outscored UMKC 16-0 on the break to win its 36th straight home opener. Cole Aldrich had 13 points and Tyrel Reed added 12 for Kansas, which won its 24th consecutive game overall at Allen Fieldhouse.
“The key is guarding, rebounding and those things when the shots aren’t falling, and we did some good things in that regard,” Self said. “It’s good to have a grind-it-out game. We’re going to have several more of those this year and we need to learn to play those, too.”
UMKC (1-1) is known for its 3-point shooting and came out firing, launching 31 from beyond the arc. The Kangaroos made enough in the first half to lead by as much as seven, but couldn’t keep up with the bigger, faster Jayhawks in the second.
Dane Brumagin hit four 3-pointers to finish with 14 points and Reggie Hamilton added 13 for UMKC, which was 9-for-31 from 3-point range and shot 29 percent overall.
“I thought our kids never got too excited. I told them that we had a right to be here. I told them we’re going to try to win this game,” UMKC coach Matt Brown said. “In the second half, we missed a couple easy shots which made us hang our heads a little bit. Then they got some easy lay-ups, which was probably the difference in the game.”
Kansas won last season’s title with a deep and experienced team, setting a school record with 37 wins, beating Memphis in overtime in the title game after a 3-pointer from Mario Chalmers at the end of regulation.
This season’s bunch looks more like that team did three years ago: talented but unproven.
Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun—the key components to the championship team—are all gone. In their place are seven newcomers and a group of players who mostly saw mop-up time last season.
That puts more pressure on Collins and Aldrich, the only two returning players who saw significant minutes last season.
Collins was 6-for-11 from the field, though got frustrated a few times after missing open shots. Aldrich played just three minutes in the first half due to foul trouble, scoring all of his points in the second.
Clearly, it’s still a work in progress.
“We still, as a group, sense how the game affects us as opposed to how can we affect the game,” Self said. “When we get a little bit more mature, we’ll get it.”
Kansas had to work hard just to get shots in its half-court offense in the first half and pressed at times, getting four offensive fouls. The Jayhawks had trouble making the shots they got, too. The post players were unable to finish inside and the guards missed open looks from the outside.
Kansas shot 8-for-25 from the floor—1-for-11 from 3-point range—finally pulling even at 32-all at the buzzer on a layup by Brady Morningstar.
The Jayhawks were much more cohesive offensively in the second half with Aldrich back, using a 14-2 run to go up 46-37. The defense was better, too, with Aldrich altering shots, the guards forcing turnovers that led to transition baskets, pushing the lead to 69-52 with about 2 minutes left.
“They got a momentum shift at the end of the first half and it kinda carried over into the second half,” Hamilton said. “They just did a great job. That’s a great team over there.”