Though the state of the Kansas basketball roster remains in a bit of flux roughly six months before the 2019-20 season officially begins, one definite Jayhawk who seems capable of cracking the rotation is freshman Tristan Enaruna.
Originally from the Netherlands and more recently a four-star prospect at Wasatch Academy, in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, Enaruna won’t arrive in Lawrence ready to dominate, or even start. But the Dutch forward sure looks and speaks like the type of player Bill Self will love to coach.
When KU announced that Enaruna signed his letter of intent, Self invoked the names of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins while trying to give KU fans an idea of what to expect from the freshman, at least from a “size, athletic ability and skill set” standpoint.
It’s important to note at this point that Self wasn’t labeling Enaruna as a one-and-done 2020 first round NBA draft pick to be by mentioning the new signee in the same breath as Oubre and Wiggins. Enaruna has been on the international basketball radar for a few years now, but the intrigue surrounding him remains rooted in what he may one day become.
Sure, if you squint your eyes just right while watching Enaruna highlights he may sort of resemble Oubre or Wiggins while rising up for a fastbreak jam. However, it seems far more likely that during his freshman season at Kansas Enaruna will favor those two most as a long, athletic wing defender.
Earlier this year, months before Enaruna committed to Kansas, he was in Charlotte, N.C., for the Basketball Without Borders international showcase. It was there that he spoke in detail with ESPN NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz about his game.
After exhibiting his abilities in a gymnasium occupied by numerous NBA scouts, Enaruna said his plan was to play aggressively on both ends of the floor.
“A few years ago I was relying too much on offense. If my offense didn’t go well then my defense was probably pretty bad, too. So I worked on that,” Enaruna explained.
According to what the young prospect told Schmitz, he had trouble finding a rhythm during the first half of his senior season at Wasatch Academy, but his game improved during the second half of the schedule by playing “tougher.”
So Enaruna is an incoming freshman who apparently values defense and toughness? It’s hard to imagine a better route to playing time on a Self coached team.
While Enaruna also professed to be a more consistent shooter now than he was a few years ago, his defense will probably be ahead of his offense as a first-year player at the collegiate level. And if he’s consistent on that end of the floor, with his 6-foot-8-ish frame and reported 7-foot wingspan, Enaruna should get to play through more offensive missteps than your typical KU freshman.
Enaruna, like most college basketball players with a pulse, has NBA dreams. In fact, it may be his confidence and willingness to combat on the defensive end of the court that eventually gets him that far.
When Schmitz asked him at Basketball Without Borders about how he thought he would fit into today’s NBA, Enaruna’s response pointed to the “positionless" nature of the game, with bigs capable of driving and shooting.
“You have to be able to guard multiple positions. And I think that I’ll fit in that situation pretty good,” Enaruna said.
While YouTube highlights of Enaruna show him doing plenty offensively — pulling up for 3-pointers, finishing above the rim with his long arms, driving past lazy defenders, attacking off the bounce and dishing to teammates inside and more — it’s hard to watch many of those clips without hearing Self’s voice say “that’s not ball” regarding the level of effort being exerted by some of Enaruna’s victims.
For as smooth as he looks with the ball in his hands at his edited for YouTube best, it will be the not as clickable dirty work on defense — in which Enaruna seems to take great pride — that will make him valuable for KU next season as a reserve.
From the time that it became clear to those who obsess over Kansas basketball that Bill Self was indeed the longterm answer for the program and a more than suitable replacement for Roy Williams, who left KU for North Carolina, those among the fan base prone to worrying about these types of things began fretting about which basketball team would one day lure Self away from Lawrence.
The popular potential offender quickly became the San Antonio Spurs.
KU conspiracy theorists pointed to Self’s longstanding friendship with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, dating back to their college days at Oklahoma State.
At some point, they figured, head coach Gregg Popovich would leave the Spurs. And when that happened, the premise went, why wouldn’t Buford call up his old pal, Bill Self?
Through the years, fodder for such speculation grew. Self and Buford are close enough that R.C.’s son, Chase, joined the KU basketball team as a walk-on. After Bill’s son, Tyler, graduated from Kansas, he took an entry level job in the Spurs’ basketball operations office.
Yet, here we are, 16 years after Self took over the KU basketball program, and he’s still in Lawrence and Popovich remains in San Antonio.
Even so, this offseason was one that had to be circled on the calendars of the most paranoid KU basketball supporters, because Popovich's $11 million a year contract with San Antonio would expire at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.
Throw in recent rumors of Self being a candidate for the Chicago Bulls’ job — as if Self doesn’t know Fred Holberg well enough to know to avoid that franchise; and, by the way, the Bulls signed Hoiberg's replacement, Jim Boylen, to a contract extension in January — and theorists might have even more reasons to worry about Self leaving for San Antonio, because the 70-year-old Popovich, hypothetically, could decide to retire.
If Self shooting down NBA rumors earlier this month and declaring his intentions to not only coach the Jayhawks next season, but also “hopefully” begin negotiating an extension of his contract, which expires following the 2021-22 season, didn’t do the trick for the Self to San Antonio worry warts out there, maybe this will.
Popovich told reporters Monday, two days after the Spurs’ season ended with a first-round loss to Denver, he’s negotiating a new contract with San Antonio.
We don’t know yet how long Popovich's new deal will last with the Spurs, so perhaps these developments only kick the Self as Pop’s replacement suspicions down the road a few years.
But here’s another hunch. Self won’t be the next coach in San Antonio.
The Spurs, unlike many NBA organizations, emphasize system and culture, because that’s what Popovich, head coach and president of the team, has put in place.
Popovich is to the Spurs what Dean Smith was to UNC and what Mike Krzyzewski is to Duke.
So when Popovich eventually decides to leave behind the franchise that is as synonymous with his name and face as it is with Tim Duncan’s, you can bet that Buford will ask Popovich for advice in finding the first new Spurs head coach since the 1996-97 season.
And when that day comes, here’s my hypothesis of how it will play out: it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Popovich helps pave the way for some NBA history by recommending the Spurs become the first team to hire a female head coach, San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon.
Since the day he accepted the position 16 years ago, Bill Self’s job title at the University of Kansas has been head men’s basketball coach. But it might as well be general manager, CEO, president of basketball operations and czar of roster engineering, too.
Sure, his assistants help Self a great deal in both discovering and zeroing in on talented prospects on the recruiting front, but it’s ultimately up to the commander in chief of KU basketball to determine the composition of KU’s roster each and every season.
Through the years, Self has even often mastered the art of college basketball’s version of the waiver wire, with more than a dozen players transferring in and even more transferring out during his tenure. All the while, he’s adding high school prospects and often dealing with the possibility of any number of current players deciding to leave Lawrence early in pursuit of their NBA dreams.
As well as Self has handled that juggling act, tweaking KU’s roster has now become more difficult than ever. Rules currently in place allow college players to declare for the draft as underclassmen, do so with the help of an NBA-certified agent, receive feedback about where they may land in the first or second round and then decide whether it’s in their best interest to return to school or stay in the draft.
These rules exist to help each player make the best possible decision for his future. And that’s the way it should be.
This revamped pre-draft process just happens to make it extra challenging for high profile college basketball head coaches/general managers to plan in April for the following year’s roster.
Nine rotation players appeared in KU’s season-ending loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. Most likely, at least four of them — Dedric Lawson (draft), K.J. Lawson (transfer), Charlie Moore (transfer) and Quentin Grimes (draft) — will be gone.
Five others — Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Marcus Garrett, Mitch Lightfoot and possibly Devon Dotson (draft) — could be back.
Then, as of Tuesday night at least, there’s the who knows category, occupied by ineligible through next season Silvio De Sousa and injured Udoka Azubuike.
If both of those bigs decide to go pro, too, Self and his staff, in a doomsday scenario, could have as many as six or seven scholarships to fill for next season, with only two Class of 2019 recruits — Christian Braun and Isaac McBride — currently on board.
And with those dipping their toes into the NBA Draft waters, there’s always the new possibility, even if they have an agent, that they could decide to come back by withdrawing from the draft.
“I think the new rule, maybe it’s a good rule, maybe it’s not,” Self said Tuesday night, following the team’s end of season banquet. “I think time will tell. But I do think it makes it hard to manage rosters, because it’s much easier to say ‘I’m gonna try something.’”
If anybody can pull off this dance, it’s Self. He made it clear that KU’s staff won’t sit back idly, waiting to hear what each potential draftee will decide.
“But the thinking of it is that if you open yourself up to try, then certainly you’re telling us that it’s OK to go sign somebody. So that’s probably not the ideal situation to be in. But I’d much rather have too many than not enough,” Self said.
It appears Dotson is using the early entry rules the way every talented player should, as an information-gathering tour that will set him up someday down the line for a successful NBA career. So at least some semblance of stability (probably) exists on that front.
But how will KU fill the rest of the roster with rotation-level players when the coaches don’t yet know how many spots they have to fill?
The man in charge, as you might have guessed, hardly seemed worried.
“So we’ve got some things that we’re working on to do,” Self said. “But I think in the next 10 days a lot of this is gonna clear up.”
The Kansas football fans who showed up Saturday for the Jayhawks’ spring game at David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium got a bit of a surprise during one of the breaks in the action.
And for that matter, so did the man responsible for drawing so many of them there.
Les Miles admitted Monday he was caught a bit off guard when a skit he and KU basketball coach Bill Self teamed up for began playing on the giant video board at the south end of the stadium.
“I was walking off. I had no idea. I was oblivious to where they were going to play that,” Miles said. “I mean, if somebody would have asked me before. … No, obviously they’re not gonna play it at the spring game.”
The KU-produced video featured the athletic department’s two biggest names reenacting a scene from the Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly comedy, “Step Brothers.”
“So I’m walking off the sideline, I go, ‘I’m hearing my voice. What am I doing?’ And I look over there,” Miles described of his reaction when it began playing, “and I go, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ I bet I waited three to five minutes before I said, ‘What a terrible waste of a jumbotron.’ And off I went.”
The two don’t build a bunk bed together, but the video opens with Self asking Miles a simple question, once the football coach enters the room: “Who are you? And why are you in my office?”
Before long, Self and Miles are in staredown mode, both claiming to be “the Kansas ball coach.”
After some namedropping boasts about players each has coached in the past — Self shows off a photo of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid before Miles lets him know he coached Odell Beckham Jr. — the two compare national championship rings, as well as pictures from each of their team’s trips to the White House.
The scene culminates with Self asking, “What is your favorite rapper from Florida?”
In unison, the coaches answer: “Rick Ross!”
That, of course, prompts Miles to deliver one of Ferrell’s memorable lines from the movie, “Did we just become best friends?” before the two high five.
Between the “Step Brothers” parody and Miles’ recent video announcing the Rick Ross performance for KU’s spring game, the 65-year-old who led LSU to a national title has proven open to embracing his less serious side at KU — even if there is some slight hesitation.
“What goes through my mind,” Miles said of when such ideas have been pitched his way, “is ‘I hope that my wife and kids don’t see this.’ That’s the first thing that I think. I enjoy the challenge. I really enjoyed the Bill Self thing. That was great fun.”
The way Miles sees it, “you only get to go around one time. There’s no do-overs. You might want to have some fun.”
Salt Lake City — Thursday afternoon inside the Kansas locker room, shortly after the Jayhawks opened their path through the NCAA Tournament with a first-round victory over Northeastern, head coach Bill Self had a question for his players.
“Good job. Hey, guys. One down and how many to go?” Self asked.
A mixture of responses followed, with “five” being the overriding reply.
“One,” Self quickly corrected them, as seen in a video posted on KU’s social media accounts. “One down. One to go. Hey, hey. One down and one to go, OK? All right, good job.”
When it comes to March Madness, Self always prompts his teams to look at each stop along the way as its own, four-team, two-game tournament. If the Jayhawks win the first two-game tournament, they get to go somewhere else and try to win another.
Apparently at least a few players who grew up watching The Big Dance and came to KU with dreams of chasing a national championship got caught up in the moment, knowing six wins is what it takes to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
“That tells you the impact I’ve had on their lives, as far as them paying attention,” Self would joke after the fact.
So who was to blame? Who said five?
“I think I said five,” a smiling Dedric Lawson admitted Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, ahead of KU’s second-round matchup with Auburn. “I forgot it was a two-game tournament.”
And with that response, Lawson didn’t hesitate to use the conversation as an opportunity to mess with nearby teammate Charlie Moore, teasingly throwing him under the bus.
“It was really Charlie’s fault. Charlie, he play too much. He’s the one that made me say five,” a grinning Lawson continued. “But we all know it’s a two-game tournament, one game at a time and things like that, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Why was Moore at fault? What did he do?
“He play too much, man,” Lawson replied. “I ain’t even gonna say what he did.”
Learning that Lawson had just placed the blame on him, Moore provided his version of the story.
“That was definitely Dedric. I wasn’t gonna say nothing. But Dedric said five. If you’re listening closely to the video you’ll hear Dedric say it,” the smiling Moore insisted.
With Moore and Lawson cracking themselves up with their accusations, Moore’s assertion continued.
“Everybody said one. Dedric yelled five,” Moore argued. “He over-yelled everybody, ’cause he thought he was right. But he really wasn’t.”
Why did Lawson say it was Moore then?
“I was next to him. I don’t know why he said that,” Moore retorted.
As the allegations flew back and forth, the reactions from David McCormack, sitting in the locker stall between Lawson and Moore, indicated he knew something.
Asked for some insight, McCormack provided his opinion.
“I mean, you can never tell with these two. Between them, Marcus (Garrett), all of them, they all like to joke around,” McCormack said. “Maybe Charlie might have tapped Dedric … I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. He probably told him the right answer was five and everybody else said one.”
What was McCormack’s response to Self’s question?
“I took the smart route and I didn’t say anything. I just whispered to myself,” the freshman big explained, “and said one after the fact. So right or wrong, I just didn’t get called out.”
Whomever was to blame, McCormack said Lawson was “by far” the loudest to give the incorrect answer. But he wasn’t sure if there were others on Team Five.
“I just know I was standing next to Dedric, so he definitely said five,” McCormack said.
Surely veteran Mitch Lightfoot didn’t fail Self’s postgame locker room test, right?
“I don’t know what I said, to be honest,” Lightfoot claimed. “I’m not gonna self-incriminate, either. The next time he asks, we’ll be locked in on one.”
Of course, in order to do that the Jayhawks will have to get past Auburn on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to lock in for our second game of this one,” Lightfoot said, “and hopefully get to the next one.”
You can’t knock any of KU’s players for having large scale goals this time of year. The vibe the Jayhawks gave off in their locker room was one of confidence. They believe in themselves and their ability to make a deep run.
The incorrect “five” response that popped to the front of some players’ minds allowed them to have some fun along the way, too. But they all understand the crux of Self’s one down, one to go message.
“You can’t win five games if you don’t win one game,” Lightfoot said. “Slight issue.”
On Saturday night in Kansas City, Mo., shortly after Kansas lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game, freshman point guard Devon Dotson sat in the Jayhawks’ Sprint Center locker room answering questions about what went wrong.
As he detailed both the positives and negatives of the defeat from KU’s perspective, Dotson emphasized that the disappointing result came with some important lessons, especially when it came to defending a team such as ISU, which plays four guards and one big man.
“They ran some stuff that I think got us tricked up a little bit, but for the most part, I feel like we can learn from this — how to defend four guards better,” Dotson said. “And how we can score on the other end easier when our shots aren’t falling. We can find other ways to get the ball in the basket.”
Thanks to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the Jayhawks don’t have to wait long for a do-over.
Five days after their four-guard counter failed to topple the Cyclones, they’ll take on Northeastern’s four-guard attack in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday afternoon.
Iowa State’s guards possess their specific strengths and weaknesses and it’s overgeneralizing to say the Huskies will challenge KU in exactly the same fashion. For one, Northeastern’s top four guards rely even more on 3-pointers. According to hoop-math.com, among NU’s four starting guards, three take more than half of their shots from downtown, while the other came up just shy of that cutoff.
Jordan Roland takes 66.7 percent of his shots from 3-point range, Donnell Gresham Jr. comes in at 60.6 percent, Bolden Brace is at 58.7 percent and even Vava Puscia attempts 47.3 percent of his field goals from behind the arc.
After the brackets revealed KU (25-9) would play as the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, head coach Bill Self was asked Sunday evening whether the previous day’s matchup with ISU would help the Jayhawks in any way against No. 13 seed Northeastern (23-10), the Colonial Athletic Association’s postseason champions.
"In theory, yes. But we prepared to play Iowa State with one walkthrough, so it wasn't like we practiced to play Iowa State,” Self noted. “We practiced last week for Texas, with actually a thought we would play Texas Tech (in the Big 12 semifinals, instead of West Virginia, which upset the Red Raiders). It will probably help more than it would hurt, but hopefully we'll be better prepared to be better at it with three days of practice."
Against Iowa State, KU began the game as it usually does, playing with two bigs, Dedric Lawson and David McCormack. But the Cyclones gave KU too many issues and Self went with four guards during much of the title game.
Don’t expect to see Self start Marcus Garrett in the NCAA Tournament’s first round just because Northeastern plays four guards, though. The Jayhawks figure to stick with two bigs to have an advantage inside offensively. And then if and when necessary they can play four guards and do so comfortably after having days to go over actions and strategies designed to overcome Northeastern.
Before the Jayhawks had much time to get into scouting reports or watch video of Northeastern, Lawson indicated Sunday night KU could play with four guards or three against Northwestern in its tournament opener.
“Coach, he already talked about he’s been in the business a long time and he knows what it takes to win. So he basically talked about sometimes play two bigs, sometimes play one big,” Lawson related. “Whatever the case may be, we all just have to buy into that role and that scouting report.”
Should the game dictate that McCormack spend less time on the court and more minutes on the bench, the 6-foot-10 freshman won’t get his feelings hurt. He explained after KU’s loss to Iowa State why logging 8 minutes didn’t catch him off guard or greatly trouble him.
“We have a full understanding of knowing how the other team plays and that they might want to play small — well, not even might — they’re gonna play small. You’re a big man and when you want to play to the advantage of your team, you understand that. It’s not an individual sport. It’s about the team and what we can do to win,” McCormack said. “So the variation in minutes didn’t affect me.”
If McCormack is forced off the floor, it won’t be because of any shortcoming of his, but the result of Northeastern’s shooting and KU’s need to have Lawson on the court as much as possible.
Between 6-foot-1 redshirt junior Roland (.408 3-point shooter), 6-1 redshirt junior Gresham (.393), 6-5 redshirt senior Puscia (.401) and junior Brace (.415), the Huskies may prove to have the fire power to force an adjustment.
If KU spends any time using Garrett, Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and Lawson as its lineup, the Jayhawks are confident in that group, even though it couldn’t rally past the Cyclones this past weekend.
“I felt like we rebounded the ball good for having four guards out there,” Garrett said of one positive, after KU had a 41-36 advantage on the glass against ISU. “We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board, and just learn how to defend at the end of the shot clock.”
Immediately after KU lost to a four-guard lineup in K.C., Lawson predicted the Jayhawks would handle any opponent of that ilk better in the NCAA Tournament.
“Just keep the competitiveness,” he said. “I think guys definitely competed. We keep that competitive nature we’ll be good.”
The Jayhawks obviously have the personnel to handle the Huskies, and by the time the game tips off on Thursday afternoon they’ll be well versed in what each member of the potential Cinderella team from Boston brings to the floor.
KU’s players seem confident. And they’re saying all the right things. Now they just need to prove that they absorbed the wisdom ISU’s four guards made available to them.
If Selection Sunday is any indication, the Kansas Jayhawks should enter the NCAA Tournament feeling lucky.
While it’s true this team experienced way too many valleys during an at times rocky regular season to make any assumptions about what’s in store for the Jayhawks this week in Salt Lake City, Utah, their potential next stop was too massive to ignore.
A nine-loss KU team that is seeded fourth has no business playing in Kansas City, Mo., in the Sweet 16. But if — and this “if” should be deciphered in a font size 10 times larger than this — the Jayhawks handle their business against No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday and are then able to advance past either No. 5 Auburn or No. 13 New Mexico State, they’ll be right back at Sprint Center less than two weeks from now.
That hardly seems fair for the No. 1 seed in the region, North Carolina, and its leader, former KU coach Roy Williams, should the two blue bloods advance out of the opening weekend.
But this isn’t about fairness. It has much more to do with fortuity, at least on the Kansas side. On the NCAA Tournament’s master list of seeds, Nos. 1-68, KU landed at No. 13 — considered the best No. 4 seed in the field, ahead of No. 14 Florida State, No. 15 Kansas State and No. 16 Virginia Tech. And in that spot, the Jayhawks ended up in their preferred regional, the Midwest.
Good for Kansas. Bad for UNC.
Imagine if the sneakers were on the other feet — and we’re not talking Nike and Adidas. What if KU was a No. 1 seed and playing against a No. 4 seeded UNC team in Charlotte, N.C., in the Sweet 16? Those who wear crimson and blue might have been too livid to even fill out a bracket.
So is it really fair for a No. 1 seed to potentially have to travel to Kansas City, Mo., and play KU in an arena 43.3 miles away from Allen Fieldhouse?
“I’m not going to get into that,” Bill Self said Sunday evening, after the brackets were unveiled. “But I would say that, to me, if you win two games in the tournament, you know you’re going to play a really good team. And you know it’s probably going to be a neutral deal in a situation like that (the Sweet 16). But this won’t be a neutral deal if everyone advances.”
Self’s right. If the bracket were to go chalk, KU supporters could be rock-chalking it up in K.C. next week in a year when the Jayhawks didn’t win the Big 12 regular season or postseason titles.
Dedric Lawson admitted that possibility didn’t even hit him at first as the Jayhawks watched the selection show, until an on-air analyst brought it up.
“I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ We’ve just got to win these games and get back home,’” Lawson shared.
According to Self, even if KU, UNC and Kentucky were to move on and get to K.C., all of those blue-blood fan bases could be outnumbered if the region’s No. 6 seed, the Big 12’s postseason champs, can stay hot.
“If you throw Iowa State in, if they advance, I mean they’ll have more fans there than anybody,” Self predicted.
Of course, as Self said while discussing such scenarios, we’re all getting way ahead of ourselves. But ’tis the season.
“I still think what wins more than anything is talent and talented players playing together at the right time,” Self said.
Still, even KU’s head coach couldn’t think about the possibility of a KU-UNC Sweet 16 game without recalling the last time the two programs met up, in 2013.
“Certainly we had an opportunity to play Carolina the first weekend in Kansas City and that was a pretty significant advantage for us at that particular time,” Self remembered of a 70-58 victory for No. 1 KU over No. 8 UNC in KU’s home away from home.
The Jayhawks weren’t wearing green when Selection Sunday happened to fall on St. Patrick’s Day, but they’ve got to be feeling a little charmed.
Good thing, too, because sometimes when March Madness comes around, it’s better to be fortunate than proven.
Kansas City, Mo. — For much of the regular season, those who follow Kansas basketball wondered when freshman Quentin Grimes might turn a corner and become the steady shooter and scorer the Jayhawks needed in the backcourt.
Perhaps turning the page to the postseason will do the trick.
Grimes shot 2-for-10 in his Big 12 tournament debut against Texas, when he scored 12 points in a quarterfinal victory, but he quickly moved on from that performance to set the nets ablaze in the semifinals. Grimes’ 5-for-8 3-point shooting led to an 18-point night for the freshman and the sense that he may finally be trending upward.
Even so, Bill Self wasn’t ready after that showing to place Grimes in the same stratosphere as a recent KU guard who caught fire just in time for March Madness.
One reporter asked Self whether the coach could compare Grimes’ uptick to what Malik Newman pulled off a year ago, during the 2018 postseason.
“No, not yet,” Self said.
“If the guy goes off and gets 30 (in Saturday night’s final versus Iowa State),” the KU coach added, “and is the most valuable player of the tournament, then, yeah, you could say that.”
You may recall that Newman, like Grimes this year, had an up-and-down regular season before turning into “Postseason Leek.” Newman went off for 30 points in his Big 12 tournament debut versus Oklahoma State, then followed it up by pouring in 22 against Kansas State and finishing his three-day run with 20 more in a title game victory over West Virginia.
So Grimes would need to put on an extra-spectacular shooting display in the championship game to give the Newman comparison more weight.
“But what did he get today, 18? What did he have, 12, yesterday? So probably not quite that level, but it is a nice addition,” Self said Friday night at Sprint Center. “And to win three games in a row, especially the situation that we’re in, you’re going to have to have some guys step up that maybe haven’t been asked to do it in the past because they’re so young, and maybe play beyond their years. And Quentin did that today.”
Despite some rough patches as a scorer over the past few months, Grimes has now produced double-digit points in four of KU’s past six games. During that span he’s 17-for-35 on 3-pointers.
Self didn’t think there wasn’t a specific moment when he noticed Grimes shooting the ball with more confidence.
“I think everybody goes through phases like that. If you look at numbers, he’s shot it better in league play than he has for the season. But it’s been a gradual thing,” Self said.
What had stopped Grimes from getting going, Self pointed out, was that he would maybe have a decent night from 3-point range, 2-for-4 or something along those lines, and then go 1-for-6 the next game.
“He hasn’t really been in a real rhythm,” Self said. “We’re saying he’s shooting it better, which he is. He looks better shooting it. He looked better shooting it (Thursday) night, but he was 1 for 6 (Thursday) night, from 3 — is that right?”
“I agree. He’s playing with more confidence, and good shooters shouldn’t remember their misses, they should only remember the makes,” Self concluded. “And I think he’s going through a phase right now where he actually feels that way.”
Grimes enters the Big 12 title game averaging 8.3 points for the season and hitting 35.9% from 3-point range.
Kansas City, Mo. — During his close to 16 seasons at the University of Kansas, Bill Self has coached teams bound for Final Four glory and others that crashed and burned as victims of the Madness known as March.
Sometimes, even the man who has a better feel for the state of a given group of Jayahwks, their trajectory and potential, has no idea how they will respond once they hit the postseason.
Even the most keen observers have found it difficult to gauge how this KU team will play from day to day, let alone week to week. The Jayhawks have only been consistent in their inconsistency away from Allen Fieldhouse.
Though Self jokingly boasted about his team’s 3-0 neutral court record Wednesday afternoon, while speaking with media members outside of KU’s Sprint Center locker room, the truth of the matter is, those victories over Michigan State in Indianapolis, and Marquette and Tennessee in Brooklyn may as well have occurred in another season, not just a different calendar year.
Now-injured center Udoka Azubuike and now-permanently absent shooting guard Lagerald Vick helped — in varying degrees — KU win those games. Even more relevant right now, both Azubuike and Vick also have postseason experience under Self as starters.
When Self looks into the eyes of his Jayhawks before Thursday night’s Big 12 quarterfinal matchup with Texas, he’ll only see two players who know what it’s like to put on a KU uniform and take on the stage that is March and the postseason. And as Self would point out, it’s not as if junior Mitch Lightfoot and sophomore Marcus Garrett were in prominent roles during KU’s most recent tournament runs.
The Jayhawks (23-8), theoretically, could come out against Texas and play on a higher level than seemed possible during the past couple of months. Maybe freshmen Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack, and junior forward Dedric Lawson — who watched from the sidelines during his redshirt year as KU reached the 2018 Final Four — will find themselves injected with new life. Perhaps they’re ready to author their own redemption stories by leading Kansas to its third Big 12 tournament title in the past four years.
If they are, Self wasn’t about to project as much. And why would he? The hall of fame coach has witnessed — in agonizing fashion — how this month can chew up and spit out even a team on the rise.
After agreeing that having a rotation featuring seven Jayhawks who have yet to play a postseason game for the program makes it challenging to assess how they’ll respond to what awaits them, Self recalled a set of March circumstances from much earlier in his tenure that proved how unpredictable college basketball can be this time of year.
“I thought we were as prepared as we ever could be when Mario (Chalmers) and those guys were freshmen, and we win the Big 12 tournament, beat LaMarcus (Aldridge, a standout big at Texas) and those dudes. And then we go to the NCAA Tournament, I promise you we looked good in practice and everything was great,” Self recollected.
The year he was referencing was 2006. And if you’ve followed KU long enough you know what happened next.
As a No. 4 seed, the Jayhawks played in the late Friday game of the first round, having spent at least parts of the two days leading up to a matchup with Bradley seeing or hearing about double-digit seeds such as George Mason, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Montana and Northwestern State pulling off upsets.
“You could see the body language and everything change in the locker room,” Self shared nearly 13 years later. “In fact you could almost cut it with a knife, because they got tight waiting. So who knows if that’ll happen agin. I certainly hope not.”
KU will play a late game against Texas (16-15) to open this postseason, and it won’t be until then that Self learns a little bit about how this group will handle all that comes with being a blue blood program every opponent would love to knock off.
“I do think when you’ve never been through it,” Self said, “there’s a lot of firsts, and, certainly, I think getting through a first game I think is important, whether it be this week or next week, to allow you to have a good tournament.”
Unknowns abound for this KU team, predominantly unschooled in the mayhem lurking around the corner.
And as Self learned back in 2006, even three wins in three days at the Big 12 tournament don't guarantee Kansas a successful Big Dance. Good or bad or somewhere in between, no one knows what will become of KU this week and next. Not yet. Not even Bill Self.
A path through March that could either redeem a Kansas basketball team dissatisfied with the way the past couple of months turned out or further expose the Jayhawks’ flaws begins at the Big 12 tournament.
Awaiting them at Sprint Center for Thursday’s last quarterfinal will be a Texas team that, though imperfect in its own right, handled KU the last time the two clashed, in Austin, Texas, six weeks ago.
In the fifth of KU’s eight road losses this season, the Longhorns’ front line of Jaxson Hayes (6-foot-11, 220 pounds), Dylan Osetkowski (6-9, 250) and Jericho Sims (6-9, 240) generally made life miserable for the Jayhawks’ go-to big, Dedric Lawson.
But the first-team all-Big 12 forward feels like he has some reinforcement on his side this time. In the midst earlier this week of praising UT’s front court players, Lawson brought up how during KU’s double-digit loss at Frank Erwin Center the Jayhawks were still using a four-guard lineup, and Marcus Garrett had to defend one of UT’s bigs.
Lawson’s eyes lit up when that train of thought led him to referencing how different KU’s lineup looks now, with 6-10, 265-pound David McCormack staring next to him.
“With the way Dave is playing, I’m excited to see that matchup,” Lawson said. “And I’m looking for a very fun game.”
An ankle injury suffered by Garrett a few days after the loss at Texas forced Bill Self to adjust his rotation. He would have to tinker yet again just a week later, when Lagerald Vick left the team. And that’s when Self landed on starting two bigs instead of one, and chose McCormack over Mitch Lightfoot for that role.
The Jayhawks are 6-2 since McCormack became a starter, and, as these things so often go, the more comfortable he gets on the court, the more impactful he’s become. The industrious first-year big man said this past week he feels like he set himself up for more minutes and a larger role.
“I think I’ve just been working and listening to coach and proving myself to gain more opportunities,” McCormack said.
At first, even after joining the starting five, McCormack wasn’t playing a ton. And he looked a lot more like a bit performer than someone who could be counted on to deliver in a pressure situation. As recently as the penultimate week of the regular season, McCormack logged only 7 minutes against Kansas State and 11 at Oklahoma State.
However, in the two games that followed, McCormack produced 18 points in a loss at Oklahoma and 12 points in a home win over Baylor, shooting 14-for-20 combined.
The No. 3 seed in the Big 12 tournament this year, KU (23-8) needs an effective McCormack to counteract a Texas front line that, according to Self, includes “arguably the best” NBA prospect in the conference, Hayes (averaging 10.3 points per game and 5.3 rebounds in league games).
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At Texas on Jan. 29, McCormack played all of 9 minutes off the bench. He wasn’t close to the same player then what he is now. And Self expects the freshman big man to prove himself to be a much greater factor on Thursday night.
"I watched the second game where we played Texas, and we were awful offensively. Awful,” Self said. “But we also tried to play four guards the vast majority of the time and we weren't getting really great production in what we were trying to do.”
Self thinks KU has played better since it began sticking with two bigs — some combination of Lawson, McCormack and Lightfoot. And he said those three will have to make their counterparts in UT’s front court respect them defensively.
“I don't think we did that at all the second time we played them,” Self added. “I think they had free traps — we didn't make them pay for trapping — a lot of things that allowed them to be rim protectors when we didn't get them away from the goal. There's a lot of things we didn't do very well, which hopefully we'll be able to combat and do quite a bit better this time."
KU — and Lawson in particular — could look completely overmatched inside earlier this season, with just one big man on the floor and not much help for Lawson off the bench.
As the Jayhawks enter the postseason, though, they’re better equipped to handle teams with long, strong and athletic front court players, because Lawson won’t be going it alone. Many have wondered all season when — or if — McCormack would reach a point where Self trusted him enough to make him a part of the rotation. Necessity forced the coach’s hand, and it took some time for McCormack to acclimate. But he has arrived.
And for the Jayhawks, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
David McCormack stats - February vs. March
February: 3.7 points per game, 3.0 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 8-for-13 FGs, 6-for-10 FTs, 14.0 minutes a game, in 6 games (DNP at K-State)
March: 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 0.7 blocks, 15-for-24 FGS, 5-for-7 FTS, 16.7 minutes a game, in 3 games