George Mason coach Kim English stood a few steps outside his team’s locker room, next to a temporary partition just minutes after his team’s 76-67 road loss to Kansas on Saturday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
The former Missouri guard wasn’t big on nostalgia in the moment. “It was just another game, really,” he said of his first time as a head coach against the Jayhawks after playing them four years from 2009-12.
But even if some rivalry hatred has waned, English certainly hasn’t lost familiarity with KU. He was an assistant coach the last two seasons at Tennessee, which meant this was the third straight year he’d gone against the Jayhawks.
His impressions of KU, then, aren’t just coming from fresh eyes — they’re also coming from a person who has seen the team’s growth lately.
So it was interesting to hear English — he’s purposely said in past interviews that he aims to avoid coach-speak — describe what stood out most when scouting this KU team.
“It’s less about the talent and more about how well-coached they are, how disciplined they are,” English said. “I think our talent level is a wash. I think we have the same level of players. But obviously, they have a Hall of Fame coach that has made a living here at getting a lot out of some pretty average players.”
English stops himself there, because he knows the history. KU and coach Bill Self have landed lots of great players in the past, and he starts rattling off a quick list from the top of his head: Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson.
This team, though, appears to be different. Self doesn’t have any one-and-dones, and if any KU players do become NBA first-round picks, it’s because they’ve made themselves into that over time.
That’s part of the beauty of what Self has built at KU, English says.
“I’m more impressed with what he does — winning championships and the success — with good players,” English said. “Kansas won’t beat themselves.”
Saturday’s game served as an example, even if the final score was closer than sportsbooks anticipated.
KU was without point guard Remy Martin because of a knee injury. The Jayhawks shot poorly from three, while English’s Patriots were accurate from distance in making 11 of 27 threes (41%).
English also had some tricks up his sleeve. He pulled out a Triangle-and-2 defense his team had never shown before to mix KU up, with Self saying afterward that his coaches had trouble distinguishing it from a Box-and-1 because of its interesting shape. KU had never prepared for that in practice, then turned it over on consecutive possessions while trying to navigate the unfamiliar setup.
All that, though, didn’t result in an upset because of some underlying factors.
KU turned it over only nine times in 68 possessions, with a pair of those coming against George Mason’s Triangle-and-2 curveball. The Jayhawks won on offense with shot volume, yet while they took care of it, they also zipped it quickly side to side to break down George Mason’s help-heavy defense.
“They share the ball. They don’t take bad shots. If it were easy, everyone would do it,” English said. “So it comes down to what you demand and what you coach, and guys doing it and getting it done.”
Part of this comes back to continuity and development. English talks about how KU returned four starters this year, then noted that neither Ochai Agbaji nor Christian Braun looked like this on tape when he’d scouted them before.
The bottom line, though: It’s impressive. English’s team played well. It shot well. It shuffled things up defensively and was mostly solid on the glass.
But it still had 14 turnovers. And a B+ effort isn’t going to take down KU, especially at Allen Fieldhouse.
“You have to beat them. You have to make those shots we missed. You have to get those rebounds we didn’t get,” English said. “You have to take care of the ball because they won’t turn it over.”
Only watch KU, and it can be easy to get hung up on what the team doesn’t do. Strengths fade into the background, while weaknesses sometimes seem magnified, even if they’re minor compared to what a bulk of other college basketball teams encounter.
English is here to say this: His guys gave KU a great shot. He believes in his team’s talent. He knows his Patriots competed on Saturday night, and he feels this contest made them better.
KU was just too good … even on an off night.
And that should be high praise, he’d tell you, for the man on the opposite sideline.
This story was originally published January 1, 2022 9:50 PM.