Jayhawks’ leading scorer out with bone bruise in knee

Kansas star Kevin McCullar Jr. will miss the 2024 NCAA Tournament due to a nagging knee injury, coach Bill Self announced Tuesday. The No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region will face No. 13 Samford on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament without their star, hurting their chances at winning a second title in three seasons.

McCullar missed a handful of games in the regular season and the entire Big 12 Tournament due to the injury, described as a “bone bruise.” Kansas was also without star big man Hunter Dickinson during the Big 12 Tournament. The Jayhawks lost their opening game to Cincinnati and will look to rebound against a dangerous Samford team this week.

“Kevin is not going to play,” Self said. “He said his knee pain has not subsided any and it’s too bad for him to be able to contribute. Kevin will not play. … we are shutting him down for the tournament.”

McCullar averaged 18.3 points, 6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 45.4% shooting this season. The fifth-year senior was enjoying the best season of his career after averaging 10.7 points per game a season ago.

“Like I’ve said all along … it’s a bone bruise,” Self told reporters in January about McCullar’s injury. “So, I’m anticipating him being able to go. But I don’t know to the extent or how much it’ll bother him or anything like that.”

With McCullar out, Kansas freshman Elmarko Jackson could be in line to start in his place. The former highly touted recruit is averaging 4.2 points and 1.7 assists on 39.7% shooting this season.

Why Samford’s style is problematic for Kansas
Kansas faced a tough matchup against Samford even if McCullar was healthy. The Bulldogs won the SoCon regular season and tournament titles by playing an up-tempo brand of basketball that presses full-court on every possession, which is going to test Kansas’ endurance and depth.Samford ranks No. 3 nationally in bench usage, getting 44.8% of its minutes from players outside the starting five, according to KenPom.com.

The Bulldogs frequently deploy 11 players as part of their regular rotation and try to wear down opponents over the course of the game. Kansas ranks No. 318 in bench minutes, getting just 23.7% of its minutes from the bench. That percentage is likely to be even lower without McCullar in a high-stakes game.

The pressure will be on veteran point guard Dajuan Harris to break the press on nearly every possession, and he may have to play all 40 minutes. With the game being played in the altitude of Salt Lake City, Utah, that could be a problem for the Jayhawks.

Dickinson must play big
While McCullar is out for the season, rest of Kansas — which played its one and only Big 12 Tournament game without both McCullar and Dickinson in the lineup — is expected to get Dickinson back in the lineup in the first round. That puts the pressure on the Michigan transfer to produce in a big way in the absence of KU’s other star. Dickinson is averaging 18.0 points and 10.8 rebounds per game on the season for the Jayhawks but hasn’t been as efficient in games without his fellow co-star. With no McCullar and a matchup against a small Samford frontline, a KU win may lie in how well he plays.

It’s felt like Hunter Dickinson hasn’t been as efficient without Kevin McCullar, so ran the numbers. Small sample size, but Dickinson shoots 57.4% from the field in games McCullar plays and 43.1% in games he misses.

KU needs an efficient and productive Dickinson this week.

— CJ Moore (@CJMooreHoops) March 19, 2024
Self has short bench going forward
Four Kansas players averaged north of 30 minutes per game this season but only one player outside that core four — Johnny Furphy — played more than 20 minutes per game on average this season. The Jayhawks’ top of the roster when healthy could match up well with any team but its notable shortfall was in its depth, or lack thereof, and Self’s options aren’t particularly appealing.

In the Big 12 Tournament, Self played Elmarko Jackson 34 minutes and Nick Timberlake 27 minutes in an effort to backfill the lost production of McCullar, while freshman Jamari McDowell played his second-most minutes (24) in the loss. Per Pivot Analysis data, KU has a negative net rating when McDowell has been in the lineup and Timberlake and Jackson rate second and third worst among regulars in the rotation. All three have at times flashed at various points this season but Self has mostly veered away from them save for having to do so due to injuries. He has no other levers to pull but the ones at his disposal suggest KU might struggle to get quality production from its backcourt for as long as it is still in the NCAAs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *