University of Kansas

KU defense may face three-point barrage against Northeastern: ‘That’s who we are’

Kansas freshmen Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack preview Jayhawks’ first-round NCAA Tournament matchup

Kansas Jayhawks freshmen Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack preview their opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.
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Kansas Jayhawks freshmen Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack preview their opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies on Wednesday, March 20, 2019.

Senior Serbian sensation Vasa Pusica and his mid-major Northeastern teammates spent almost an entire 40-minute shootaround firing up three-point shots Wednesday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.

Threes off the dribble and bounce; threes off pass-outs from the paint to the perimeter; threes all over the arena that is home to the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

“That’s who we are,” said Pusica, a 6-foot-5 former Bel Aire (Kan.) Sunrise Christian Academy standout. He is one of four Huskies shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range entering Thursday’s 3 p.m. Central time, first-round NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional contest between No. 13 seed Northeastern (23-10) and No 4 seed Kansas (25-9). The game will be televised on TNT.

“It’s what we do. It is how we’re built and how we like to play,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said.

The Huskies’ desire to catch and shoot threes — and KU’s inability to sometimes stop the shot beyond the arc proved to be a major story line Wednesday.

KU sophomore defensive stopper Marcus Garrett was asked how many threes he thinks Northeastern will attempt on Thursday.

“A lot,” Garrett said. “Whatever their average is, I think they might shoot five to seven more.”

Garrett might be interested to learn the Huskies, who have hit a single-season school-record 322 threes (9.8 per game) have averaged 25.1 threes per contest. Northeastern is 322 of 830 for 38.8 percent.

“If we make them take tough, contested threes,” Garrett said, “I don’t think that will scare us.”

Garrett spent a Wednesday morning practice at the Utah Jazz practice facility, before a 40-minute shootaround at Vivint Smart Home Arena, guarding KU walk-on Garrett Luinstra, who was playing the role of Pusica for KU’s scout team.

It’s possible, maybe even likely, Garrett will get the start over Ochai Agbaji, who has started the past 14 games at one of the guard spots. Self indicated his lineup would be a game-time decision. He did say KU would “go big,” meaning freshman power forward David McCormack would get the nod next to junior Dedric Lawson in the frontcourt.

It’s imperative KU put some defensive pressure on point guard Pusica, who averages 17.8 points a game on 49.7 percent shooting. He’s made 57 of 142 threes for 40.1 percent.

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self met with the media on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, ahead of his teams opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies.

“Vasa is a very crafty point guard. He can shoot. He has a high IQ,” said Garrett, who has come off the bench in eight straight games since returning from an ankle injury. “I just want to win. Whatever Coach comes up with, that’s what we’ll do,” Garrett added.

Agbaji, a freshman out of Oak Park High School, has paid attention to scouting report, thus knows when he’s in the game he must help stop the three.

“Get to shooters, really pressure them,” Agbaji said of the key to containing Northeastern’s shooters. “They play 4-out, 1-in and we do, too. We can match that with our guard, play too.”

Agbaji added: “We may do some different things. I think Marcus may start. I don’t know yet. It may be a new look we have going. I’m fine with that, coming off the bench trying to bring a spark.”

Northeastern, which enters on a seven-game winning streak, attempted a season-high 33 threes, and made a season-high 15, in an 88-79 overtime loss to College of Charleston on Feb. 16.

The Huskies attempted a season-low 17 threes twice, cashing nine in a 68-52 win over Alabama on Nov. 15 and seven in a 76-60 win over James Madison on Feb. 21.

Northeastern has attempted 30 or more threes in seven of 33 games.

“I’ll say 30,” KU sophomore guard/forward K.J. Lawson said, offering his prediction on number of threes to be taken by the Huskies. “They average 26, they’ll probably take 30.”

Lawson said the Huskies of the Colonial Athletic Association “kind of remind me of Villanova when they shot a lot of threes last year.”

Villanova, which beat KU 95-79 in a Final Four semifinal, fired up the most threes (40) against KU in a regulation game. The Wildcats made 18, tying for the most threes converted against KU.

Northeastern needs to launch 42 threes Thursday to set a KU single-game record. Iowa State attempted 41 (hitting 17) in an 108-96 overtime loss to KU on Feb. 25, 2013.

Louisiana attempted a season-high 36 threes (making 12) against KU in a 89-76 loss to the Jayhawks on Nov. 16. The most three-point makes against KU this season is 13 by Texas Tech in a 79-63 loss to the Jayhawks on Feb. 2.

KU, meanwhile, has made 246 of 702 threes for 35 percent. That’s an average of 7.2 makes and 20.6 attempts per contest. Most attempts by KU this season is 31 in a loss at Oklahoma. Most makes is 13 in a home win over Texas Tech.

“They like to take them from the corner, from the roll-up out of the pick and roll,” KU freshman point guard Devon Dotson said of Northeastern. “They set a lot of side ball screens. They are going to get shots up. We have to be mindful of that.”

Self, who has to develop the game plan to stop Northeastern, said: “It is a challenge. They can shoot. I don’t know if anybody has mentioned, their releases are quick. That’s the thing that’s unbelievable. Not very often you see in college basketball where you see kids don’t have to dip to shoot, and they’ve got guys that don’t dip to shoot. So it makes it harder to close out because when you think you’re there, you may not be there in time.”

KU assistant coach Kurtis Townsend, in charge of the scouting report for Northeastern, said his concern “is long shots mean long rebounds. Our guards really have got to help rebound the ball.”

His prediction for number of attempts is … “30. They take 26 a game. I bet they’ll take more against us.”

The winner of Thursday’s KU-Northeastern game will meet either No. 5 seed Auburn or No. 12 seed New Mexico State on Saturday at a time to be announced.

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