If Kansas and Duke meet again this postseason, one would expect both blue-bloods to be much different teams than the squads that played Tuesday’s high-profile season opener.
For the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks, that can only be a good thing.
KU was its own worst enemy against the No. 4 Blue Devils, committing 28 turnovers in a 68-66 defeat at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Jayhawks came just two giveaways away from their program record of 30, set versus Xavier in the 1988 NCAA Tournament.
"It's a learning experience," KU coach Bill Self said. "I don't know that a game, win or lose, on Nov. 5 is going to count much in March. But still yet, there's a lot of things we can learn from this game and hopefully improve on."
Remarkably, Self’s squad was still in the contest at the finish despite the gaffes.
Trailing 64-63 with less than a minute to play, sophomore forward David McCormack committed the Jayhawks’ 28th and final turnover, throwing a poor bounce pass under the basket to fellow big Udoka Azubuike that was intercepted by Duke’s Jack White.
“I think we played uncharacteristic. I think we got out of character," Self said. "I think we made easy plays difficult many times, and certainly I think a lot of that’s the nerves and the environment and guys wanting to do well so bad. We’ll take better care of the ball moving forward, but certainly that’s inexcusable, to turn the ball over like that.”
While Self thought McCormack should've gone with "the percentage play" and taken that shot himself, the 17th-year Jayhawk coach added of the late-game struggles: "That's on me more than the kids."
"We've got to figure out how we can stretch the floor with two bigs in the game because certainly that wasn't effective tonight very much at all," said Self, whose group made four 3s on just nine attempts.
Tre Jones hit a pair of free throws to establish a three-point Blue Devil lead with 26.2 seconds remaining, and on its ensuing possession, KU missed three point-blank attempts — two by Marcus Garrett and the last by McCormack. Jones got the rebound and was fouled with 4.6 seconds left, and the star point guard iced the game with two more from the stripe. Jones’ counterpart Devon Dotson gave the game its final score with a meaningless 3 as time expired.
Dotson led KU with 17 points, while Ochai Agbaji (15) and Garrett (12) rounded out the double-figure scorers for the Jayhawks. Duke, which had 29 points off turnovers, placed four players in double figures, led by Jones' 15 points.
KU (0-1) trailed by just one possession at the intermission despite committing a staggering 18 turnovers.
The Blues Devils’ pressure played a role in that number, but most came off Jayhawk carelessness — just five came off Duke (1-0) steals, while the senior center Azubuike and the sophomore Dotson, arguably KU’s most important duo, had four turnovers apiece in the period. Duke, which itself committed nine opening-half giveaways and shot just 36.1 percent from the floor, still held a 33-30 lead.
It didn’t take the Jayhawks long to take control of the game out of the break.
Garrett kick-started a 14-0 run that delivered a 43-37 lead to the Jayhawks, a rally that featured a little bit of everything — Agbaji dunked on a backdoor cut off an Azubuike backward bounce pass; McCormack converted a tough layup; Azubuike threw down an uncontested dunk on a Garrett lob; and Agbaji drained a deep, falling trey to force a Duke timeout and give KU a six-point lead with 15:51 remaining.
An Agbaji transition layup and Dotson free throw capped the run, which Duke's Vernon Carey finally ended by converting a wide-open 3.
KU didn’t commit a second-half turnover until seven minutes had elapsed, but that giveaway was the first of three on three straight possessions. Duke took advantage, reeling off a 10-1 run after Carey’s trey to lock the game at 47-all with 11:34 left. Cassius Stanley, a former Jayhawk recruiting target, finished that particular stretch with back-to-back fastbreak dunks.
The teams traded blows, and KU continued to commit turnovers. The Jayhawks committed back-to-back shot-clock violations, the latter representing their 26th turnover of the evening, with 5:16 remaining. Matthew Hurt, another Duke freshman and former KU recruiting target, drained a corner 3 to give Duke the advantage, 59-58, but Garrett hit a free throw to lock the game at 59-all with 3:23 left and set the table for the down-to-the-wire finish.
Led by McCormack's 13 boards, KU did out-rebound Duke, 40-30. But the gaudy turnover numbers — no Jayhawk starter had fewer than two, with Dotson committing a team-high six — proved insurmountable.
KU continues its season at 8 p.m. Friday with a home date against UNC Greensboro.
"We're feeling down," Agbaji said. "But you know, right now we've got to learn from this like Coach said, keep our heads up, because it's a long season. A lot of things happen."
Dotson also echoed his head coach, then parroted himself.
"It's a learning experience," Dotson said. "Credit to them: They came out and stuck to the game plan. It's a learning experience and we're just going to try to get better."