Whenever a team rips off 18 consecutive victories as the Kansas men’s basketball team has since dropping the season opener back in November, there are a number of elements responsible for the run.
From quality coaching and clutch play to finding their rhythm and lucky breaks, the Jayhawks have experienced a little bit of all of it since starting this winning streak with a thrilling win over Duke at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
But while many of those aspects have become the standard for Kansas basketball — faces change, expectations don’t — Texas coach Shaka Smart, whose team was knocked out by the Jayhawks, 79-67 on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, pointed to a somewhat overlooked facet of what has made these Jayhawks so good.
“I think one thing that they’ve done a terrific job at, and this is a testament to their coaching staff, is that they have very well-defined roles,” Smart said after the loss. “(Josh) Jackson is going to attack and do a lot of things. And, obviously, he’s got a mismatch when he’s playing at the four spot. (Devonte’) Graham and (Frank) Mason are going to do what they do. They’re going to control the ball, make plays and make plays at the end of the clock. (Landen) Lucas rebounds like crazy. And then they have guys that come in off the bench that have roles, as well.”
Consider, for a minute, what those “guys that come in off the bench” did against the Longhorns on Saturday. It was nothing flashy, nothing that would get noticed most places. But in a game in which Texas never quit and pretty much played even with the Jayhawks for the final 36 minutes, the contributions of Carlton Bragg Jr., Lagerald Vick and Mitch Lightfoot certainly made an impact.
Together, that trio combined for 15 points and seven rebounds on 5-of-10 shooting in 37 minutes, each while playing a very specific role.
Vick, as he has all season, played 18 minutes and served as the team’s fifth guard, a versatile option used to spell any of the four starters and a weapon from three-point range, in transition and on the glass.
Bragg, whose 6-foot-10 frame was of particular importance in this one given the size of Texas’ front line, took up space on both ends and hit three of five shots and a pair of free throws.
And Lightfoot, who had not played in KU’s last two games and stepped on the floor for just four minutes in the Jayhawks’ previous six games, provided good energy and key rest for an ailing Lucas during his four first-half minutes.
It’s not just the Jayhawks’ ability to understand and execute traditional roles of starter versus reserve or veteran versus rookie that has made this team click. The Jayhawks also have done an impressive job of spreading the wealth when it comes to the role of big-shot maker, especially when answering an opponent’s run.
“Svi didn’t have a big game, but he made a couple of timely plays,” Self explained. “Devonte’ didn’t (score) the second half until the end. We have had different players step up and make positive plays when the game is on the line.”
The unselfish nature of the individual players on this team has made the Kansas offense a bear to prepare for and tough play against. It also has played a huge part in so many talented players sliding so effortlessly into the roles where they’re currently flourishing.
“This is pretty much what I expected out of us,” said Jackson after Saturday’s win. “I knew we had a great team from the beginning. It was sad for us to lose the very first game of the season, but, all in all, it didn’t really mean that much. I think these are the games that mean the most.”