Tom Keegan: Kansas women's basketball program gets off the schneid

Kansas women's basketball coach Brandon Schneider talks with media members during Media Day on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas women's basketball coach Brandon Schneider talks with media members during Media Day on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

It took third-year Kansas women’s basketball coach Brandon Schneider 27 tries to win his first regular-season Big 12 game.

It took him three tries to win two of them this season.

That’s what progress looks like.

Here’s what else it looks like: In Schneider’s first two trips to Hilton Coliseum to play Iowa State, the Jayhawks lost 65-49 and 87-58. Kansas nearly escaped Hilton with a victory before losing, 71-69, in this season’s Big 12 opener. The Jayhawks followed that up by defeating TCU in Allen Fieldhouse, 86-77, and Texas Tech in Lubbock, 60-47.

When KU lost its best player, Jessica Washington, for the season to an ACL injury in October, I figured it would be more of the same and told myself I might as well tune out the team until next year.

Wrong again.

Schneider made a recruiting splash when he arrived at KU by adding transfers Washington and McKenzie Calvert to the roster, but neither one has played a part in these recent signs of recovery. Washington’s reduced to a cheerleader and Calvert transferred after last season.

Then again, I guess it’s not completely accurate to say Calvert hasn’t played a part in KU’s surprisingly competitive start to the season. She did have a secondhand role in it.

A highly rated high school guard who started her career at USC, where she averaged 10.2 points as a freshman, Calvert plays for Texas Tech now. She averaged 10.2 points for KU last season, but her minutes dwindled to nothing after she went into a deep shooting slump.

Calvert become eligible to play for Texas Tech as a graduate transfer at the semester.

She played 27 scoreless minutes vs. KU, took eight shots, turned it over six times and contributed two assists and three steals. A big part of KU junior newcomer Brianna Osorio’s role has been to shut down opposing point guards and she certainly did that to Calvert.

Christalah Lyons, a fellow junior college transfer, joins Osorio in the backcourt, and at 5-foot-5, is three inches shorter.

“I like how they’ve meshed with our returners,” Schneider said.

Lyons and Osorio have helped soften the blow of losing Washington, the Big 12’s leading scorer and newcomer of the year last season.

“It’s amazing how much one player can affect your depth, especially because of her ability to play two positions,” Schneider said of Washington. “It’s a punch in the gut, for sure. If you’re looking for a little bit of a silver lining, it happened our fourth practice in, so we had time to reevaluate.”

The self-study resulted in Schneider easing off on defensive pressure and another aspect involved urging Lyons to become more than a facilitator. Lyons answered the call, and with a 14.8 scoring average, ranks behind only Kylee Kopatich (15.4).

“She’s really stepped up in the absence of Washington,” Schneider said of Lyons. “We recruited her to be a little bit more of a point guard, a distributor, so that we could play Washington off the ball more. With Jess’ injury, we really had to challenge Christalah to be more aggressive and provide us with some offense. She’s shown a lot more than even what we saw when we were recruiting her.”

Kansas has not finished with a winning record in Big 12 play since going 11-5 in 1999-2000 under coach Marian Washington. With No. 6 Baylor, No. 12 West Virginia and No. 8 Texas up next for the Jayhawks, Saturday might be the only opportunity to see KU start a game with a winning Big 12 record.

Baylor’s 6-7 junior Kalani Brown ranks third in the conference in scoring (21.5) and rebounding (9.1) and leads the Big 12 in a .731 field-goal percentage.

KU isn’t ready to make a game of it against that sort of team or player, but reaching the WNIT is a realistic goal and would be quite an accomplishment for a school that went 0-18 two seasons ago and 2-16 last season.

Most of the roster returns next season and Washington likely will gain another year of eligibility via the medical-redshirt rule. Plus, point guard Brooklyn Mitchell from New Orleans signed with Kansas and is the No. 45-ranked prospect in the nation, per Dan Olson of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report.

That’s what progress looks like.