Omaha, Neb. — When it comes to assessing the reason why the top-seeded Kansas basketball team is still alive this postseason and set to take on Clemson on Friday night at CenturyLink Center, plenty of things come to mind.
The emergence of Malik Newman and quick recovery of Udoka Azubuike's injured left knee sit at the top of the list.
The veteran play and presence provided by point guard Devonte' Graham and sharp-shooter Svi Mykhailiuk also has received some attention. And, of course, there's the old standard of Bill Self and his coaching staff putting their stamp on things to help the Jayhawks advance.
Overlooked in all of those automatic responses is the play of junior guard Lagerald Vick. And, truth be told, Vick's resurgence might actually be as important as any of it.
“He's just having fun again, and you can see it on his face,” Newman said of Vick on Thursday. “He's enjoying it, and he's back to early-season Lagerald and it's been terrific for us.”
Throughout his time as a Jayhawk, Vick has made a career out of playing, and talking, with little or no reaction on his face.
Win or lose, in good moments or bad, Vick's expressions generally have been the same throughout the years. That has made the introspective guard from Memphis tough to read for both teammates and opponents alike.
However, in the past couple of weeks, Vick's entire approach has changed dramatically and the 6-foot-5, 175-pound versatile guard has begun to let his emotions carry him.
Flashback to a couple of plays in last week's Seton Hall victory, neither of which worked out in Vick's favor, for proof.
The first came on a foul called against him that later, on replay, proved to be a clean and clear block. Instead of getting down on himself or reacting negatively to the call, Vick simply grabbed the ball off the floor, bounced in place and smiled in the direction of the official.
Later, after one of his teammates misfired on a driving layup, Vick flew high above the rim and nearly stuck the put-back, just missing and watching the near-miss with big eyes and an energetic reaction before landing and sprinting back on defense.
“I think he's just playing with a lot more aggression and he knows that he's a big key to this team,” Graham said. “He knows that, and he knows that he's got to bring that mentality to each game or it might be our last.”
Vick has known this for quite some time, of course. But that knowledge, which he occasionally found tough to grasp, did not insulate him from a mid-season slump that produced the polar opposite of the production he enjoyed to begin the season.
After averaging more than 17 points a game during non-conference play, Vick struggled mightily throughout most of the Big 12 season. Not only did his scoring average dip significantly, but so did his confidence, with one having a major impact on the other.
Vick failed to score more than five points six times during conference play and often merely floated around the floor instead of inserting himself into games.
“I think the mistakes were what was getting to him,” said freshman guard Marcus Garrett. “But everybody makes mistakes. You can't play a perfect game. And I always told him, 'Coach is not going to sub you out anyway.' Once he understood that, that he could play through mistakes, I think he got his confidence back.”
His teammates have noticed this and also have taken a decent dose of confidence from it.
“Celebrating on the 3s and all that stuff. Coach always talks about bringing that personality out and he's been doing a good job of that,” Graham said. “I think it's March. You know any game could be your last so you just want to go out and have fun and you don't want it to end.”
Added senior walk-on Clay Young: “When he's turned up and extremely active, the ball kind of bounces his way. His shots fall, he's a better defender, he's causing disruptions. He's a huge key to our team.”
Graham was glad to share his perspective on why a happy Vick creates a healthy team.
“He can defend, rebound, he's athletic, go make plays above the rim, knock down open shots and he can guard 1 through 4,” KU's leader said. “He's just got a lot of little things that (the rest of us) don't have.”
Vick's recent numbers certainly prove that he's in a much better place. But it's more than just the numbers. Yes, Vick has scored in double digits in five consecutive games. But he also has impacted KU's bottom line in ways that go way beyond putting points on the board.
He has yet to turn it over in the NCAA tournament, has tallied 20 rebounds and six steals in the past five games and also has avoided foul trouble, while playing a smarter and more focused brand of basketball from the opening tip to the final horn.
“We all just have that killer mindset that we have to go out there and be focused and play hard every day and I think that shows in Lagerald,” Young said. “He's a very competitive guy and now there's maybe a different sense of urgency.”
Vick, who also has shown himself to be more comfortable and playful during open locker room sessions than ever before — his favorite move seems to be to cover his mouth and secretively shout "three minutes" left to the horde of media members crammed into the Kansas locker room — agreed with Young's assessment and said his improved play was the result of a concentrated effort to change his mindset.
“In January, you're just trying to win your conference or just trying to make it to the NCAA Tournament,” Vick explained. “But now you're trying to win a national championship, something you can be remembered for forever. And you're definitely going to play harder and you want everything to be correct.”
The origins of Vick's perfectly timed turnaround actually date back to halftime the Jayhawks' Big 12 tournament victory against Oklahoma State.
His goal during that second half was simple: “I just tried to do small things people don't notice, playing multiple positions, carrying out assignments, just staying aggressive and being more aggressive,” Vick said. “It was just a mind thing. I noticed I wasn't making a lot of shots so I just thought going to the offensive glass, being more aggressive on defense would help.”
It did. Not only did Vick's game take a turn for the better — KU coach Bill Self likes to call this “an uptick” — but his confidence soared, as well.
“It's pretty high, Vick said. “Just having more fun. Just happy to still be playing with the guys.”