In what could be one of the ugliest games in the Big 12 this season the Kansas Jayhawks defeated the West Virginia Mountaineers in Lawrence 60-53.
KU has now won 29 consecutive conference openers.
Saturday’s game was a matchup of two teams that play multiple big men more than anyone else in the country. The Mountaineers had the advantage with their post players early, with the pairing of sophomore Derek Culver and freshamn Oscar Tshiebwe dominating on the glass and in scoring.
Tshiebwe in particular made his presence known early and often going into halftime with a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double.
In the second half, however, the Jayhawks came out with a renewed energy. After shooting just 36.4% from the floor in the first half Kansas shot it at a more efficient clip in the second 20 minutes, knocking down 44% of its shots.
The defense played a major role in swinging the game after halftime, specifically down low. Senior center Udoka Azubuike led the charge in slowing down Tshiebwe, who was held to just two points without a field goal in the second half.
Azubuike, meanwhile, looked like a completely different player after halftime. He made all five of his shots in the second half after taking (and making) just one in the first. He finished with his fifth double-double of the season, recording team highs in points with 17 and rebounds with 11.
Kansas coach Bill Self said that Azubuike was the best player in the second half.
“We just came out with a different mindset and different intensity in the second half,” Azubuike said.
Alongside Azubuike, arguably the most important player in the win for the Jayhawks was freshman guard Christian Braun, who played a career-high 30 minutes against the Mountaineers and made a major impression on Self.
“I just thought it was a game where you have to play your toughest guys,” Self said in regard to getting Braun on the floor.
Braun actually started the second half in place of sophomore forward David McCormack, a reflection of both Braun’s play and the need to play with a smaller lineup. The native of Burlington played well on both ends, finishing with six points, five rebounds and no turnovers.
Self praised Braun for his effort against a physical team in a big moment, saying that he thinks he’ll play more in tough games going forward.
“Blue Valley Northwest did a good job of prepping him for college, but they didn’t prep him for that today,” Self said.
No one for KU was prepared to face Tshiebwe, something Self commented on after the game. Despite his less productive second half, he created issues for Kansas that the Jayhawks hadn’t seen before.
“He’s a grown man,” Azubuike said. “I’ve never played against someone like that.”
Facing a presence like that could pay dividends down the road for the Jayhawks, who still have another game against the Mountaineers in Morgantown, West Virginia later this season.
Self said that it was important for his group to get this first matchup at home.
“If that game was on the road today we probably don’t win,” Self said.
Next up for Kansas is a trip to Ames, Iowa on Wednesday to face the Iowa State Cyclones. Iowa State lost its Big 12 opener to TCU on Saturday 81-79.