Facing a 7-foot-6 center with an 8-foot, 1-inch wingspan will force any college basketball coach to get a little creative in practice. So as No. 2 Kansas prepared for a matchup with UC Irvine and junior center Mamadou Ndiaye, the biggest man in college basketball, Bill Self pulled out a collection of pads and long sticks, hoping to simulate Ndiaye’s cartoonish dimensions during drills.
The problem? It didn’t really work. As the Jayhawks ran through practice on a snowy Monday afternoon, one day before their final nonconference game before Big 12 play, Self more or less shrugged. There is no way, he said, to simulate a 7-foot-6 post defender.
“I don’t think you can,” Self said. “I guess if you put somebody on somebody’s shoulders, maybe you could.”
The Jayhawks play host to UC Irvine at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse (ESPNU).
For now, it appears Kansas, 10-1, did not resort to such extreme measures. But UC Irvine, 10-4, does offer an intriguing challenge as the calendar pushes toward 2016. The Anteaters, who made the NCAA Tournament last season, feature the 7-foot-6, 290-pound Ndiaye in the middle and bring a 7-foot-2 big man — junior Ioannis Dimakopoulos — off the bench. On Monday, Self hazarded a guess that UC Irvine could be the tallest opponent in Allen Fieldhouse history.
“They’re ridiculously huge,” Self said.
For Kansas, the matchup comes at a pivotal moment in the schedule, a final tuneup before the grueling Big 12 schedule begins Saturday. The Jayhawks will open the Big 12 with two home games, playing host to No. 23 Baylor on Saturday before facing No. 3 Oklahoma on Monday night. For Self, that meant the Christmas break offered one final chance for a breather before the stress of another Big 12 title chase began.
Self retreated to his native Oklahoma, spending the holiday with his extended family. While there, he was able to catch three Oklahoma basketball games on the local television while pondering his own team’s strengths and weaknesses. In the five weeks since losing to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, Self’s team had reeled off nine straight victories and ascended to No. 2 in the rankings. The Jayhawks had secured a championship at the Maui Invitational, defeating UCLA and Vanderbilt in the process, and added another piece in freshman big man Cheick Diallo. They went to San Diego State and passed their first road test, and their offense and defense rank among the nation’s top 10, according to advanced efficiency numbers. In simple terms, the Jayhawks looked like a team capable of pushing a Big 12 title streak to 12.
Self, though, saw one flaw that needed some touching up: Offensive rebounding. Entering Christmas, the Jayhawks were rebounding just 31 percent of their misses on the offensive end, a number that would rank as a new low in the Self era. For context: Kansas has had an offensive rebounding percentage above 36 percent in seven of Self’s 12 seasons.
“We’re not getting near enough of our misses back,” Self said. “And so we’ve got to get better. That’s one area that I can definitely say that we can definitely improve on.”
Self pointed to junior guard Wayne Selden, who has just six offensive rebounds on the season and zero in KU’s last five games. He also pointed to the makeup of his roster. The Jayhawks lack elite individual rebounders. But as a team, Self said, they have the personnel to do more on the glass.
“It’s always been a focus,” said sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham. “Teams have been outrebounding us, and that’s the way we lost to Michigan State. [It] was the second chance points. We just got to focus in on that and take it more serious.”
From that perspective, UC Irvine could be an optimal opponent — and confidence booster — heading into a two-game swing against Baylor and Oklahoma. The Anteaters boast one of the tallest front lines in the nation, but from a statistical standpoint, they are about average when it comes to rebounding.
There is no way, of course, to prepare for the experience of facing — or rebounding against — a 7-foot-6 center. Self said the game could be “different”. Senior forward Perry Ellis said KU would have to play faster. Senior forward Hunter Mickelson said the Jayhawks would need to stretch the floor.
In some ways, though, it could be a positive. Self views the nonconference schedule as a series of test runs, an opportunity to face every style before the beginning of conference play. On Tuesday, the Jayhawks will face the tallest player in college basketball. In a literal sense, Kansas won’t see a bigger challenge moving forward.
“It’s going to be fun tomorrow,” Graham said. “For real, I just want to stand next to him and really see how tall he is. But it will be a good experience.”