When the Kansas Jayhawks dressed for their first official practice in early October, it’s fair to say that Bill Self had never heard the name Jakob Poeltl, which perhaps says something about college basketball’s ability to consistently surprise us.
Poeltl, a 7-foot freshman center at Utah, hails from Vienna, Austria — a place more known for its lederhosen than shot-blocking — and yet the young European center is one of the biggest reasons the Utes are ranked 13th in the country as they arrive in Kansas City to face No. 10 Kansas at 2:15 p.m. today in the Jayhawks’ annual game at the Sprint Center.
“I haven’t heard of a lot of great players coming from Vienna, Austria,” Self said on Friday. “I’ve actually visited there. It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, but I didn’t know there were a lot of great players coming from there. This cat is really good.”
Poeltl, who is averaging 11.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks, is one of the college game’s breakout performers, which also might be a suitable tag for the Utah program as a whole.
Under the guidance of fourth-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, the Utes are 7-1 with an overtime victory over then-No. 8 Wichita State and a road victory at rival BYU. When Kansas scheduled Utah to be their Sprint Center opponent, KU officials understood that the Utes might be a top-25 team led by NBA prospect Delon Wright. But it’s perhaps fair to say that nobody expected this.
“I watched Utah play, and they reminded me so much of our Tulsa team,” said Self, who led the Golden Hurricane to the Elite Eight in 2000. “You got guys that can play at all spots; they can all pass, catch, shoot, think, slide — all those things and you have a guy (Poeltl) that can anchor it.”
For Kansas, the trip to Kansas City concludes a grueling nonconference stretch that began with a trip to the Orlando Classic and featured games against Michigan State, Florida, Georgetown and Utah — all teams currently ranked in the top 25 of KenPom.com’s computer rankings.
As final exams loom, the Jayhawks will receive a six-day break after today. So Self is using the Utah game as an artificial end point for the first part of the nonconference slate. The Jayhawks will have four nonconference game remaining, beginning against Lafayette on Dec. 20, but the schedule should soften considerably after this weekend.
“We can catch our breath before finals week,” Self said.
That makes today’s contest crucial. If the Jayhawks, 7-1, can survive Utah and win their seventh straight, they should have a respectable chance to finish the nonconference season with just one loss — an idea that seemed unlikely following a 72-40 loss to No. 1 Kentucky in their second game.
“We’ve become more of a team,” Self said, “but we’ve learned how to win when we’re not playing great offensively.”
Even now, Kansas’ players will point to the Kentucky loss as an pivotal wake-up call. In the days after the humbling loss, the team met and talked about what it would take to come together as a team.
“It was some heart-to-heart stuff,” sophomore guard Wayne Selden said. “And we really buckled down.”
Last year, with three freshmen in the starting lineup, the Jayhawks suffered four losses during the nonconference season, losing three of those games in the final minutes. The Jayhawks had last-second losses to Villanova and Colorado, setting the tone for the rest of the season. This year, the Jayhawks have found ways to win those games, and Selden is still trying to single out a reason for this.
“I don’t know what it is, but it’s a totally different team than last year,” Selden said. “Those games last year, we didn’t pull through. We won a lot of games last year on just our skill — our skill level and just being better than people individually.”
For now, Kansas is again winning with defense and an offense-by-committee approach. For the last month, it hasn’t always been pretty. But it’s been effective, and to Selden, that part is no surprise.
“This year, we’re really having to buckle down, because we don’t have nowhere near the skill we had last year. So I think we’re taking it more serious, and we’re a tougher team this year.”