Your best post player goes down. Time for another to step up, right?
Not for this Kansas basketball team.
The absence of center Udoka Azubuike, no matter how long the 7-footer’s right ankle sprain keeps him out of the lineup, doesn’t necessarily mean more minutes for the frontcourt reserves who have been backing him up.
Head coach Bill Self loved the talents of Azubuike and Dedric Lawson too much to not go big and play them together. But now that his starting center is out, Self’s ready to adapt by reviving the four-guard look that worked so well for the Jayhawks the past couple of seasons.
While Lawson, a 6-foot-9 redshirt junior, isn’t the type of low-post player Azubuike is, Self isn’t going to ask his versatile forward, who leads the No. 2 Jayhawks in scoring (19 points per game), rebounds (10.7) and assists (3.1) to try to be someone he’s not. And Self has no intention of forcing junior Mitch Lightfoot or freshman David McCormack into the lineup as a pseudo-Dok just because that’s the style KU played during its 7-0 start.
The offense will start running through Lawson even more now, as guards Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett play around him. If Lawson (32.7 minutes a game) needs a breather, then Self will turn to either Lightfoot (6.6 minutes) or McCormack (4.5 minutes) a little more than he has previously.
But even when KU is faced with defending a team that plays two bigs together, Self doesn’t think that will force him to match it. Garrett, a 6-5 sophomore guard, proved earlier this week in KU’s 72-47 victory over Wofford he can more than hold his own as the 4-man, the role occupied in recent four-guard lineups by Svi Mykhailiuk and Josh Jackson.
“We defended them so much better with Marcus on their big guy,” Self said of one factor that convinced KU’s coaching staff to start Garrett instead of another big in Azubuike’s spot. “I have confidence in Marcus defending the 4-man. Now we may need to trap the post or do some things like that. But I think that’s good for us.”
Ask a guard about the in-season modification to the Jayhawks’ style and he’ll think about what it will do for the offense.
“That gives us a bunch of freedom,” Grimes said of Garrett joining the starting lineup. “Really whoever gets (the ball on a defensive stop), all five can essentially bring it. So I think it’s definitely going to help us out for sure.”
Grimes envisions not only he and Vick catching more lobs but also he and Garrett throwing more of them.
“I think it’ll be really fun,” Grimes said.
Self, though, isn’t moving to a four-guard lineup because he’s concerned about anyone’s enjoyment or entertainment. He’s backing away from a two-big approach because Garrett’s defensive versatility makes it an easy decision.
“He’s got good size, he’s got long arms,” Self began, when asked how Garrett is able to guard both perimeter and post players. “But he is very, very smart. As far as IQ and understanding the game on the defensive side, he’s right up there with the best that we’ve ever had. And he’s tough. And he’s strong. And he pays attention to scouting reports. So he knows when to show, when not to show, when to front. … He just does a better job, I’d say, than the majority of college players out there early in his career, because he does have a great feel defensively.”
And, believe it or not, Self and his staff have long thought this year’s KU team has a chance to become “really good” defensively. Self said Thursday that may even end up becoming this group’s identity.
For much of the first six games, that didn’t look to be the case. But Self saw during Tuesday’s win over Wofford glimpses of speed and length and activity from his guards that he and his assistants first witnessed during both the summer and fall.
He’s not ready to call KU a good defensive team yet. Self remembers how his team “stunk” on that end of the floor against Stanford just five days ago. But he has observed both improvement and potential.
If that’s the vision, it may be difficult for either Lightfoot or McCormack to play huge minutes, even if they play well. KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore can step into the four-guard lineup around Dedric Lawson as needed. And Lightfoot and McCormack can sub in and still find ways to impact the game.
“We’re similar but still different,” the 6-10 McCormack said of what he and the 6-8 Lightfoot bring. “We’re both high intensity, both hustle players, both rebounders. There’s some aspects that Mitch does that I don’t. Like Mitch might step out and he’ll shoot a 3-pointer every now and then — something I may not do,” McCormack added. “Me, I’m more back to the basket. He may want to face up. So there are some differences, but there are some similarities at the same time.”
McCormack has the build and McDonald’s All-American pedigree to potentially perform his way into more playing time. And Lightfoot remains a strong help-side rim protector, as well as the best Jayhawk at taking charges.
But if neither ends up seeing a huge uptick in minutes while Azubuike is out, you won’t see either of them sulking. They’re two high character teammates, too, who will do all they can to contribute in a four-guard lineup that isn’t built to feature them.
Lagerald Vick’s borderline ludicrous 3-point shooting over the course of the Kansas basketball team’s previous five games had the Jayhawks ranked seventh in the country in long-distance accuracy (43.9 percent) entering the week.
Those numbers notwithstanding, on the eve of KU’s seventh game, a home matchup with Wofford, Bill Self wasn’t buying the idea that he’s currently coaching an entire group of effective 3-point shooters.
“It’s so misleading, because Lagerald’s shooting 60 something,” Self said, referencing the senior guard’s 28-for-47 success rate (59.6 percent).
The 16th-year Kansas coach, in fact, was more than aware of the disparity in his team’s 3-point shooting.
Speaking with reporters inside Allen Fieldhouse Monday, Self couldn’t recall the exact number — “I know it’s single figures,” he stated correctly — but he pointed out the rest of the roster had barely contributed to KU’s total of 37 made 3-pointers in the past five games.
Jayhawks not named Vick, in that stretch, accounted for just nine 3-pointers, while the senior guard from Memphis made 28.
Sophomore guard Marcus Garrett (1-for-6 in that span) made one 3-pointer versus Marquette. So did junior forward Dedric Lawson (1-for-5 on 3’s in KU’s past five games).
Charlie Moore (2-for-11 during Vick’s 3-fest) made one against Vermont and one vs. Tennessee.
Freshman guard Quentin Grimes (3-for-12 since going 6-for-10 in the opener against Michigan State) hit two against Vermont and one vs. Louisiana.
KU’s other first-year backcourt starter, Devon Dotson (2-for-5 from 3-point range since his 3-for-5 showing vs. Michigan State) knocked down one in the Vermont game and another against Tennessee.
Sophomore guard K.J. Lawson and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot both attempted one 3-pointer since the opener without making one.
Overall, the rest of the team combined to shoot 9-for-41 (22 percent) in wins over Vermont, Louisiana, Marquette, Tennessee and Stanford while Vick rained in 3-pointers.
“That shows you a lot,” Self said of the disparity. “That we’re fortunate that we have the record we have, but also I think when other guys start seeing the ball go in the hole I think it’ll definitely change our team.”
It’s safe to say No. 2 KU (6-0) would benefit from another player or two stepping up and becoming a consistent 3-point shooting option so Vick doesn’t have to do all the work in that department.
“Yeah, I do agree with that,” Garrett said. “But with the way he’s shooting right now he’s not missing. He’s basically carrying the slack for everyone else. I think down the road we could use a couple more guys knocking in some 3’s like he is.”
So who are the top candidates to fill that role?
Without hesitation, Garrett named redshirt sophomore point guard Moore and freshman shooting guard Grimes.
Self, too, brought up those two names first when presented with the same question.
“Charlie’s made two this year,” Self said with a grin. “Charlie and Q, you’d think, would be the ones, and then Dedric needs to be a guy that can stretch it. He’s only made, I think, one this year, if I’m not mistaken. One or two.”
Indeed, Lawson is 1-for-7 from beyond the arc through six games. A surprising statistic, as Self pointed out, considering Lawson shot 4-for-4 in one exhibition against Washburn and 2-for-4 in the other preseason warmup, against Emporia State.
“We know we have capable guys,” Self said. “But they just haven’t had success knocking them down yet.”
KU’s 3-point Shooting Through 6 Games
Lagerald Vick — 28-for-47 (59.6%)
Quentin Grimes — 9-for-22 (40.9%)
Devon Dotson — 5-for-10 (50%)
Charlie Moore — 2-for-12 (16.7%)
K.J. Lawson — 1-for-2 (50%)
Marcus Garrett — 1-for-6 (16.7%)
Dedric Lawson — 1-for-7 (14.3%)
Mitch Lightfoot — 0-for-1 (0%)
Since joining the Charlotte Hornets as a second-round draft pick, former Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham has encountered, and been accountable for processing, loads of information.
Learning how to best complement his new summer roster teammates and playing within new offensive and defensive systems is just the beginning for the rookie, who signed his contract with the Hornets on Friday.
Still, Graham told reporters earlier this week that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by it all. He credited the man who spent the previous four seasons coaching him, Bill Self, for setting the stage for a smooth transition.
“I mean, I feel like coming from Kansas, with Coach Self, I feel like in the pre-season we put in so many plays early on that it kind of helped me get adjusted to this,” Graham said during the Hornets’ mini-camp, before the team left to play in the Las Vegas Summer League. “Coach Self putting the pressure on me to know what all five guys got to do in each play really helped me as a player with my IQ and stuff like that, which has really helped me pick up stuff here pretty well.”
Though still a rookie with a lot to prove at the NBA level, Graham explained why he can embark on this high-pressure journey feeling more comfortable than many of his fellow 2018 draftees might.
Calling him one of the nation’s best coaches, Graham said Self’s demanding style and the way the hall-of-famer trained the Jayhawks to “play together and fight every night” allowed the point guard to take on a professional approach before he ever joined the NBA’s ranks.
“We would do stuff that you would do at this level. I feel like a lot of our guys leave there and come here to the league and adjust pretty well to it just because of the way he coaches and his coaching style,” Graham said.
The 23-year-old’s basketball upbringing hasn’t gone unnoticed by Charlotte’s first-year coach, James Borrego.
“Devonte’s come in, I see the maturity in him. I see why he’s played four years at Kansas,” Borrego told reporters in Charlotte. “This kid has played at a very high level, well coached, good head on his shoulders and I expect him to run the group at a very high level this week.”
As Borrego referenced, Graham will serve as the Hornets’ primary point guard during summer competition, as he teams up with fellow rookie Miles Bridges, second-year guard Malik Monk and various other prospects, many of whom went un-drafted and/or don’t have NBA contracts lined up.
His responsibilities likely will diminish considerably once the regular season begins months from now, as the Hornets already have an all-star point guard in his prime, Kemba Walker. Plus, reports surfaced Friday afternoon of Charlotte agreeing to terms with longtime San Antonio floor general Tony Parker.
But during Las Vegas exhibitions Graham will be trusted to make the same types of decisions he did at KU. The rookie doesn’t anticipate his obligations becoming burdensome.
“It’s just different plays. We didn’t do like delay action and stuff like that (at KU),” Graham shared. “But pick and roll, coming off ball screens, coming off the 4-man or the 5-man, double-picks and stuff like that, we always did that. That was our main thing. I probably did 40, 50 ball screens every game, so it’s just about reading the defense and making plays based off that, which I’m pretty used to.”
Further adaptations await him on the defensive end of the floor, where the presence of more talented, versatile players than existed at the college level and a longer 3-point arc will inevitably ask more of him, just as it does every newcomer in the league.
“Defensively it’s just the spacing. Everybody’s so spaced out and it’s not all clogged up,” Graham noted of the differences he already has experienced at the next level. “You can’t just sit in the paint — defensive three seconds and stuff like that — so you’ve got to close out a little bit further than you would normally have at the collegiate level. But it’s something that I’ve gotta get adjusted to — getting in and out of the lane and jumping over to the nail and having to close out, just different things like that. But for the most part it’s the same.”
Borrego already has stated publicly he wouldn’t hesitate to insert Graham, the No. 34 overall pick in the draft, into the Hornets’ rotation.
According to Graham, the franchise’s general manager, Mitch Kupchak, said from the get-go he envisioned Graham, who now projects as the third point guard, doing a lot of the same things that made Graham successful at KU.
“Just play my game and when I’m in there, making the right reads. If I’m playing off the ball you’ve gotta be able to knock down shots — if I’m playing with Kemba or somebody off the ball — because those guys get a lot of attention, so they might leave me open and stuff like that,” Graham said of possible scenarios outlined by Kupchak. “But if I’m running the point just make the simple plays and get us in the offense. Don’t turn the ball over, just little things like that, which I’m definitely capable of doing.”
Graham makes his Hornets debut against Oklahoma City at 4:30 p.m. Friday (ESPNU).
When USA Basketball announced this past March that University of Kansas coach Bill Self would lead the U18 men’s national team at the FIBA Americas championship it seemed fitting one of his assistants this summer would be former KU All-American and Self staffer Danny Manning.
As two of the most popular men in KU’s storied history reunited at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, in Colorado Springs, Colo., just more than a week ago, Manning, too, thought it felt natural.
“This is like learning to ride a bicycle again,” Manning told Gary R. Blockus in an interview for USA Basketball’s website. “I hopped out there onto the court and felt really comfortable with what coach Self was teaching and how he was teaching it. It felt really good.”
Manning, of course, played a part in both of KU’s two most recent national championships, leading the Jayhawks to the 1988 title as a player and later serving as an assistant on Self’s staff in 2008.
Now heading into his fifth season as Wake Forest’s head coach, Manning credited Self for helping him carve out his post-NBA career path. Upon retiring in 2003, Manning first served as a director of student-athlete development and team manager at KU, before Self made him an assistant.
“I needed to see this business from the bottom up, see how it worked and see the way guys handled things. I just wanted to be a sponge,” Manning said of learning from both Self and longtime KU assistant Norm Roberts.
As Self, Manning and incoming KU freshman guard Quentin Grimes head this weekend into preliminary-round play at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship, in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, Manning’s past experiences with USA Basketball figure to be an immeasurable bonus in the team’s preparation.
The same year that he became the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, Manning averaged 11.4 points and 6.0 rebounds a game for the U.S. Olympic Team, which won a bronze medal in 1988. Prior to that, Manning was named USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year in 1987, after posting a team-best 14.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game for the U.S. Pan American Games Team, which captured silver. A versatile 6-foot-10 forward in his prime, Manning also won gold medals with the 1985 U.S. Olympic Festival North Team and the 1984 USA R. William Jones Cup Team.
What’s more, this isn’t Manning’s first time representing his country in a coaching capacity. He worked on the U.S. staff that won a bronze medal at the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup and served as a court coach at the 2014 USA Men’s U18 National Team training camp.
So Manning enters the upcoming tournament featuring teams from the USA, Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Canada, Chile and Ecuador uniquely knowledgable of all that goes into competing on such a stage.
“For other countries, playing against the USA team is something they look forward to,” Manning said. “I was guilty of overlooking that as a player, and to a certain extent, these kids are guilty as well, because they don’t know any better.”
Manning said he, Self and Dayton head coach Anthony Grant (the other assistant on the USA U18 staff) must make their assemblage of talented, young individuals understand what it means to have those USA letters on their jerseys.
“You’re going to get everybody’s best shot night in, night out, game in, game out,” Manning said. “You’ve got to be prepared for that, and you’ve got to be able to battle through some adversity if things don’t go your way. We’re trying to incorporate these things into the team process.”
Team USA opens the FIBA Americas U18 Championship at 5 p.m. CT, Sunday, versus Dominican Republic, with matchups against other Group A members Panama (Monday) and Puerto Rico (Tuesday) to follow. Tournament play begins Thursday, using the results from group play to seed the bracket.
“I’m looking forward to getting them as best-prepared as we can be,” Manning said, “with the ultimate goal of winning the gold medal.”
Nearly four years ago, at the age of 16, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk had a life-altering decision to make.
Already an accomplished youth basketball player within Ukraine’s national team program, as well as the Ukrainian Basketball SuperLeague, it was time for Mykhailiuk to pick:
• Stick with the established protocol for promising young European talents, and sign to play professionally.
• Or head to the U.S. and take a crack at college basketball.
Upon seriously contemplating his options, it came down to relocating to Spain to join Real Madrid or migrating even farther west to play at the University of Kansas.
Mykhailiuk, now known as “Svi” by anybody associated with the KU basketball program, of course, opted for a decision that may have seemed odd to his contemporaries at the time.
“Most of them try to stay there and make money,” he related this past week, during the last days of his four seasons with the Jayhawks.
Reflecting on his unique basketball path now, is the 6-foot-8 guard from Cherkasy, Ukraine, glad he chose Lawrence, Kansas, and college over Madrid, Spain, and a contract?
“Yeah, for sure,” Mykhailiuk replied, without hesitation. “I met a lot of new people. I’ll be able to get a degree from Kansas and just be a part of a program like Kansas and make it to the Final Four.”
KU and 15th-year head coach Bill Self couldn’t have reached college basketball’s ultimate weekend for the first time since 2012 without Mykhailiuk. The senior guard’s 236th 3-pointer as a Jayhawk tied an Elite Eight matchup against Duke with less than 30 seconds to play in regulation, allowing Kansas to reach overtime and eventually emerge victorious.
Further memorable baskets wouldn’t follow in a national semifinal loss to Villanova, in San Antonio. Mykhailiuk completed his KU journey with 10 points and three assists, in defeat.
He shot 44.4 percent from 3-point range as a senior and leaves the program with the current record for 3-point makes in a season (115). The final “Svi for 3,” in his 136th game and 70th start, moved him to fourth place all-time at KU for 3-pointers in a career, with 237.
Even more important to Mykhailiuk, he can now proceed to the professional ranks confident his experience at Kansas shaped him into a better player.
“Being here four years, being coached by Coach Self, and he’s a hall of famer,” Mykhailiuk said, “so I think if I hadn’t got here I wouldn’t have played for a hall of famer.”
Self thought so highly of his Ukrainian recruit that he even tried the freshman out as a starter at the age of 17. Although that move didn’t stick past a six-game stretch of the 2014-15 non-conference schedule, Mykhailiuk said his relationship with Self only improved from that point. By his sophomore and junior years, Mykhailiuk noticed Self pulling him aside during practices for more and more conversations.
“If I’m open, he always wants me shooting the ball, no matter what,” Mykhailiuk shared of how Self boosted his confidence. “He’s always telling me, ‘Just be a player.’”
The shooting, passing, rebounding and defensive reps could have come anywhere. Mykhailiuk feels grateful his took place at Kansas these past four years, because he learned more about how to be an impactful player as a result.
“It’s all about the mental part. It’s not about physicality and stuff,” he said of some of his biggest lessons. “It’s just about how bad you want it and how much you’re ready.”
After testing the NBA’s draft waters a year ago, Mykhailiuk determined he wasn’t yet prepared to leave college basketball behind. Attending the league’s combine and receiving feedback from scouts, coaches and general managers proved beneficial in his development, too.
“I think it just helped me mentally, knowing I can play against other people. And it helped me know what I’ve got to do to go to the next level and be a better player,” he said.
Mykhailiuk took all the information from Self and NBA decision-makers and turned it into a second-team All-Big 12 season. He averaged career-highs with 14.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.9 3-point makes per game.
“Just be more aggressive,” Mykhailiuk said of the most significant piece of advice he carried with him into his final season, “and do whatever you can to help your team.”
Still just 20 years old (he’ll turn 21 in June), Mykhailiuk projects as a mid-second-round pick in the 2018 draft, four years after he could have become a young pro in Europe. Other than Ukrainian teammate Ilya Tyrtyshnik, who played at Ole Miss this past season, most of his peers chose a more typical basketball path.
What made Mykhailiuk different?
“That’s just me,” he said. “Every person’s different. I just wanted to play NCAA.”
Basketball lifer Larry Brown coached the Denver Nuggets, UCLA Bruins, New Jersey Nets, Kansas Jayhawks, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Charlotte Bobcats and SMU Mustangs during the course of the past 40-plus years, after getting his start in the profession with the ABA’s Carolina Cougars.
Two years as a retiree hasn’t kept the former coaching nomad from spending time around the game, though. Brown arrived in San Antonio this past week with the Kansas contingent at the Final Four, three decades removed from winning it all with the Jayhawks.
Now that leading a team is no longer his job, Brown explained what he misses about his former life.
“I don’t like games. I like being around the coaches and teaching the kids,” he told a group of reporters on the eve of the national semifinals. “And I get a little frustrated, because I don’t think a lot of kids are getting taught. They’re leaving too early. They’re thinking they’re in the NBA before they play a college game. A lot of them think they’re failures if they don’t make it, and that troubles me.”
The compositions of the teams that advanced out of their regionals and made it to the Alamodome, though, offered Brown encouragement on that front. Although one-and-done talents such as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony have helped lead their teams to six NCAA Tournament wins and a national title in the past, this March’s Final Four field lacked one such freshman star.
Seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk, as well as junior Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman, in his third season with a college program, were instrumental in getting KU to San Antonio. The same was true of Loyola seniors Ben Richardson, Donte Ingram, and Aundre Jackson, plus junior Clayton Custer. Senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and juniors Moe Wagner and Charles Matthews propelled Michigan to the Final Four, as did Villanova juniors Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall and Phil Booth.
“It seems to me the longer they stay, the better they are and the more chance they’ll have to graduate and make something of their lives,” Brown said, while praising KU’s Bill Self, Loyola’s Porter Moser, Michigan’s John Beilein and Villanova’s Jay Wright for being coaches who go about their business “the right way.”
From Brown’s perspective, college basketball provides players with “an unbelievable opportunity” to receive an education and “make their lives better,” while crafting their skills in the hope of extending their basketball experience to the professional ranks.
However, Brown isn’t against allowing high school players to skip college completely and enter the NBA Draft — a system the league went away from in 2006, leading to college basketball’s current era of one-and-dones.
“Golfer, tennis player, musician, you can come out if you have a gift,” Brown offered, in regards to other young adults turning their skills into jobs without ever attending a university.
Here’s the catch. Brown would be in favor of keeping those players who go to college with a program for multiple years, instead of giving them the option to declare for the draft after as little as one year of education.
“If they go to school, I’d like to see them stay as long as possible,” he said.
A similar structure is in place for the MLB draft. A player can declare out of high school. But once a baseball player joins a college program, he can’t turn pro until completing his third year. In the NFL, a player has to be three years removed form high school graduation to turn pro.
“To me the longer you stay, the better your life’s gonna be, the better you’re gonna impact others,” Brown said. “And then when you do get to the NBA the better prepared you’re gonna be.”
The longtime coach, who has observed from both sides of the spectrum, called college basketball “the greatest minor-league system in the world.” Brown conjectured struggling young NBA players who leave college after one year weren’t ready to become professionals when they declared.
“And a lot of them, they have developmental coaches,” Brown said. “We need teachers.”
The man who owns both an NCAA and NBA championship ring said this year’s Final Four featured four “great teachers.”
“But,” he added, wearing a grin, “I’m like a voice in the wind.”
San Antonio — When No. 1 and No. 2 seeds began dropping out of the South and West regionals before the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, it became clear The Madness was intent on devouring the left side of the bracket.
So by the time a team emerged from each region as a Final Four participant, one national semifinal quickly became characterized as the undercard.
With the first national semifinal Saturday night at The Alamodome placing No. 3 seed Michigan against March darling and No. 11 seed Loyola (5:09 p.m., TBS), some have gone as far as to label the matchup on the opposite side of the bracket between No. 1 Villanova and No. 1 Kansas as the de facto national championship game.
In his 17th season at Villanova, head coach Jay Wright trusts his players won’t buy into that line of thinking. Whichever team gets out of KU-Villanova alive will have to win one more time to secure the national title.
“The good thing is I think our guys have a good understanding and respect for everybody in this tournament,” Wright said earlier this week, “so I don't think they would even think that this is the national championship game. Our guys wouldn't think that way.”
The NCAA could avoid having one semifinal appear more stacked than another by changing its Final Four format and re-seeding the teams for the season’s ultimate weekend. This year, for example, Villanova, as the top remaining No. 1 seed, would take on No. 11 Loyola in one game, while No. 1 KU and No. 3 Michigan would play in the other.
Kansas coach Bill Self, asked for his thoughts on the re-seeding debate, replied: “Well, since they are not going to, I'm going to say: No, I love it exactly the way it is.”
The coach then conceded it would be “great” to re-seed for the national semifinals.
“I think whoever is saying that, obviously is probably getting a little bit ahead of themselves,” Self said of KU and Villanova being a two-days early title game. “It looks like it's maybe the marquee game of Saturday, just because it's one versus one, but trust me, the other game is just as marquee as this one.”
Of course, nationally renowned coaches ultimately don’t care how games are being categorized or what modifications talking heads are debating. Wright mostly is concerned with devising a game plan that will push Villanova (34-4) past Kansas (31-7) and into the actual national championship game.
“They are as explosive an offensive team, I think, as we've played all year in terms of always having the ability to be a great team and using their big men,” Wright said. “And now they've probably got, in addition to their bigs, the best perimeter team they've ever had.”
Wright said he and his staff, through the years, have always watched Self’s teams to pick up different ideas on how to best use their big men.
“And now he's still got those big guys that are really effective, but the guards are amazing,” Wright said. “So it's going to be a very difficult defensive matchup for us.”
Omaha, Neb. — The proverbial “Road to the Final Four” hasn’t been kind to Kansas the past two years, particularly the hazard known as the Elite Eight.
In order to move past the regional final stage of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks will first have to navigate through — or shoot over — the active arms of Duke’s half-court zone defense.
“They’re so long,” KU center Udoka Azubuike said of the Blue Devils, and how they discourage passes and effectively defend inside and out. “It’s something new. It’s going to be a huge challenge because of their size.”
The most imposing members of the Blue Devils’ defense are freshman bigs Wendell Carter Jr. (6-foot-10, 259 pounds) and Marvin Bagley III (6-11, 234). Carter said Duke (29-7) evolved from a standard 2-3 zone, once head coach Mike Krzyzewski implemented it as a primary strategy in early February.
At times it more closely resembles a 4-1, with four players surrounding the arc and Carter in the paint, protecting the basket.
“As we started playing great shooting teams, we had to stay high to make sure we recover all parts of the perimeter,” Carter said. “I just go in there and do my best to protect the rim.”
Against the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, Kansas (30-7), Duke likely will play its morphed, arc-protecting zone almost exclusively. KU’s four-guard lineup and 3-point success (40.5% on the year) means the Devils can’t afford to give up many open looks.
Ahead of Sunday’s blue blood matchup at CenturyLink Center, Krzyzewski voiced his concern with KU’s perimeter attack, pointing out Duke’s zone and transition defense will have to be effective.
“They get a lot of 3’s,” the five-time national-title winning coach said. “Bill's teams have always attacked in transition and not necessarily just to throw it into the post or drive. They'll take early 3’s and good ones. So we have to be able to cut down the number of good looks they get in transition and in the half court.”
Because Kansas doesn’t play two big men, Carter could find himself in difficult spots when a KU guard has the ball in the high post and Carter has to defend multiple players, as well as anticipate angles, as his teammates try to collapse down and help him out.
Carter said that’s where his lateral quickness is key. He can fake or step hard toward the high post with the hope of baiting a pass away. If successful, he can just wall-up on the next offensive player that comes his way inside.
Every time the ball makes its way to the high post, Carter tries to anticipate what’s coming next, and the most difficult possibilities tend to be a lob or a shot.
“Yeah, it makes it hard, because I’m not going to be perfect every time,” Carter said of the challenge. “They’re gonna score sometimes, but I’m gonna do all I can to prevent them from scoring.”
15th-year KU coach Bill Self, looking to get the Jayhawks to their third Final Four under his watch, credited Krzyzewski for moving to zone, a strategy that has worked for Syracuse for so long. The Jayhawks, of course, defeated the Orange’s version of the 2-3 zone this past December (and weren’t as successful the very next game, in a loss to Washington and its zone).
“You know, even though we played Syracuse early in the season, we didn't do a good job of attacking it at all. We just made shots, made some hard shots,” Self said.
KU’s coach thinks what makes Duke’s zone so tough to overcome is the wingspans of its defenders, likening that aspect of it to the more successful Baylor zones of the past.
“You can't simulate the length that some of the teams can play with, and primarily the way Duke can play with theirs. And they also have — even though they want their bigs to stay in the game, but they've got multiple bigs they can put in and do some things,” Self said. “And I think that's the thing that makes it the hardest is their activity out front and then their length behind it.”
Kansas City, Mo. — When Kansas lost starting center Udoka Azubuike for the Big 12 tournament due to a left knee injury, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham knew the top-seeded Jayhawks would need Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa to produce in the 7-footer’s absence.
What Graham didn’t realize before Thursday’s quarterfinal against Oklahoma State, though, was KU would even lean a little bit on basketball walk-on and football scholarship player James Sosinski — in the first half no less.
Two fouls apiece on fill-in starter Lightfoot and backup big De Sousa before intermission forced Bill Self to turn to Sosinski for just the fourth time this season.
“I was surprised when he got in,” Graham said. “It’s funny, because coach did tell him, ‘James, you better be ready.’ I thought he was just joking.”
It was at that point in the discussion that Graham, enjoying the team’s 82-68 victory over the Cowboys, spotted Lightfoot walking nearby in KU’s locker room and let it be known Sosinski had the Jayhawks’ sophomore big man to thank for his unexpected role.
“But numbnuts over here, when he’s fouling, when Mitch’s fouling and Silvio comes in and fouls, you’ve got to put somebody in,” Graham said toward Lightfoot, who grinned in response. “We might as well get James to come in and get a foul off. He used to playing football, so he just hacked him when he got in.”
Indeed, the Cowboys’ Yankuba Sima drew a foul on Sosinski, put in two free throws, and scored another basket inside during the 6-foot-7 KU reserve’s 1:25 of playing time.
“He fouled as soon as he got in,” Self said afterward, before joking a yellow flag might have landed on the Sprint Center court in response to the KU tight end’s aggressive play. “It should’ve been 10 yards.”
Before De Sousa got comfortable, finishing with 6 points and 8 rebounds in 15 minutes, Self didn’t think the freshman played very well in his first opportunity off the bench. KU’s coach even thought about turning to Sosinski earlier than he did in the first half. The next time Self needed to sub out Lightfoot, he wanted to insert Sosinski, before his assistants talked him out of it.
“I’m probably glad I made the decision I did,” Self said. “It’s nice to have James, but I never thought going into this season, when you’ve got Udoka and you’ve got Billy Preston, that James Sosinski may be important in the postseason,” he added with a chuckle.
In truth, Sosinski's presence didn’t make or break KU. The only statistic he recorded in his minute-plus was a personal foul. In the final seconds of the half, Sosinski looked to be positioned for an offensive rebound on a missed Marcus Garrett 3-pointer. However, senior Svi Mykhailiuk came crashing in from the weak side, soaring above the low-to-the-floor football/basketball player. Mykhailiuk scored a buzzer-beating layup for a 43-42 halftime lead.
“I was thinking I was gonna get it and Svi got it,” Sosinski said. “I just kind of let him shoot it, that’s his go-to. It was a big momentum swing going into the second half.”
Just a bad-luck situation for the seldom-used backup to KU’s backup bigs? Not according to Graham.
“No, that was a good-luck situation,” a smiling Graham countered. “I’m glad Svi got it and scored. No telling what James would’ve done with it.”
It’s not that the Jayhawks don’t appreciate Sosinski and his contributions. De Sousa said he never looks forward to his encounters with the scout team big during Kansas practices. When they match up, De Sousa thinks to himself, “Man, why you gotta guard me right now?”
“He’s really hard to score on,” De Sousa added. “He just plays hard. He goes after every single ball. That’s how he is.”
“He always plays great in practice. If he gets in I’m pretty confident he’s not going to let his guy score easily, and if he had to foul he’s gonna foul really hard,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a good player, and he definitely helped us today.”
The two-sport athlete from Chandler, Ariz., has played sparingly, with two similarly brief appearances, since getting four minutes of playing time Dec. 18 versus Omaha and scoring 4 points in mop-up duty.
Sosinski left the arena Friday feeling grateful for his short cameo and a rare chance to chip in.
“Even though it was a minute and a half, every minute’s important in games like this,” Sosinski said. “Since I know I’m not going to play any minutes, I’ve just got to play as hard as I can.”
Less than two weeks ago Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, while discussing a recent uptick in Malik Newman’s play, stated how proud he was of the starting guard’s progress.
The sophomore transfer from Mississippi State was coming off one of his best offensive showings as a Jayhawk, going for 20 points and 5 assists in a rout of Oklahoma. It was Newman’s third time posting at least 20 points and ninth time in double figures over a stretch of 10 games.
Even more encouraging, the 6-foot-3 guard from Jackson, Miss., looked better handling the ball. Newman had shown he could be more than a spot-up 3-point shooter by driving to the paint to either draw contact, score or set up teammates. In a five-game span that concluded with the OU game on Feb. 19, Newman averaged 4.2 assists and 0.6 turnovers — far better than his current season averages of 2.1 assists and 1.5 turnovers.
While Self appreciates the headway Newman has made to become a more complete player than what he showed back in the non-conference portion of the schedule and Self is happy the shooting guard won the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Year award, KU’s coach is hoping for a Newman resurgence with the postseason’s arrival.
In the Jayhawks’ final three games of the regular season, Newman, who is supposed to complement Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham in the backcourt, didn’t always deliver on his potential, and his numbers began trending in the wrong direction.
At Texas Tech, Newman was solid, with 12 points and 5 defensive rebounds, but he made just 1 assist (in the first half) — his lowest ball distribution total in three weeks — and committed 1 turnover. Against Texas in KU’s home finale, Newman provided 9 points, 4 defensive boards and 1 assist, with 1 turnover. He bottomed out in the Jayhawks’ loss at Oklahoma State, with 7 points, 3 defensive rebounds, 0 assists and 3 cough-ups.
After averaging 4.2 free-throw attempts a game in the previous 12 contests, Newman didn’t get to the foul line once in his final two games of the regular season.
“I think he's shown flashes of being, of showing a lot of progress,” Self said of Newman, who averaged 12.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in Big 12 play, while shooting 43.4% from the field and making 33 of 88 3-pointers (37.5%). “And then I honestly think he's shown flashes of not. I would like more consistency.”
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Newman needs to revive the versatility that made him so valuable in late January and most of February now that it’s March. Newman has stated a number of times how important it is for he and other Jayhawks to help take some of the burden off Graham’s shoulders.
If Newman wants to make that happen on a regular basis in the weeks ahead, he can just recall some of Graham’s advice. The senior point guard said when Newman was at his best recently it was all about taking an assertive approach on offense and trying to reach the paint off the bounce.
“I keep telling him that,” Graham related. “Just look to score. Don’t worry about nothing else. Because once you start thinking you just get all messed up. So just look to score, be aggressive on the offensive end and it just takes care of itself.”
Just more than half of Newman’s shot attempts this season have come from behind the arc. A 36.9% 3-point shooter on the year (37.5% in Big 12 action), spotting up isn’t always Newman’s best play. When he is more diverse with the ball in his hands, it tends to benefit both him and his teammates.
Plus, Self wants Newman contributing in less trackable manners. As you might expect, those areas where the coach would like to see more consistency directly tie to relieving Graham of some of his duties. KU’s 15th-year coach finds himself examining what Newman does on a game-by-game basis to help Graham.
“I’d love to see Malik be able to say, ‘I want to guard the other team's best perimeter player.’ I would love to see us be able to initiate offense with Malik, so Devonte' doesn't have to,” Self said. “And those don't have anything to do with stats, but those are things that would help our team a tremendous amount. He's shown he can do that, but I think he can be more consistent with that.”
Newman’s first crack at a late-season renaissance comes Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., when the top-seeded Jayhawks face either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State.