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.
Over the course of the past couple of months every coach in the Big 12 spoke about the quality and depth of the league this year. Yet as the postseason begins this week, some college basketball observers might hesitate to pick any of the Big 12’s best teams to make a deep run in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
On Monday’s coaches conference call, Bill Self addressed the notion that the Big 12 lacks a nationally elite team this season.
“Usually the appearance of the best leagues are the ones that are top-heavy and bottom-heavy, because you have guaranteed — not guaranteed — but you have W’s built in supposedly if you’re not good. In our league, if you play poorly you lose,” Self explained.
In his 15 seasons coaching KU, Self certainly has fielded more complete and/or deeper teams, as well as faced some Big 12 opponents better suited for longterm March success.
“I don’t know that the teams at the top are maybe as talented as some of the teams that we’ve had in the past at the top,” Self admitted. “But all the other teams (this season) are more talented.”
That is what has made the Big 12 so unique and intriguing this season. The worst team in the conference turned out to be Iowa State, and the Cyclones defeated both West Virginia and Texas Tech in Ames, and even gave the Jayhawks a scare in Lawrence.
One could argue that speaks to the teams atop the conference lacking dominance this season. But when Self observes the national landscape, he notices more parity than supremacy.
“So I think you could say, on paper, there may not be a (Big 12) team that stands out that could make a Final Four run. You could say that, but I don’t believe that’s absolutely true at all either, because I think all leagues across America are somewhat similar,” Self said. “There’s a lot of really, really, really good teams, but there’s few dominant teams like there have been in the past years.”
Final Big 12 standings
Texas Tech, 11-7
West Virginia, 11-7
Kansas State, 10-8
Oklahoma State, 8-10
Iowa State, 4-14
Here’s a look at this week’s Big 12 Power Rankings. Each team’s best victories and its losses — good, bad and in between — are considered in this process, using KenPom.com’s ratings to classify the league’s most and least impressive squads to date. Results from all league games also are listed.
Big 12 Power Rankings — March 5, 2018
No. 1 - Kansas (24-7)
Kenpom ranking: No. 12
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +2.5
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 23 Kentucky, No. 51 Syracuse, at No. 40 Texas, at No. 20 TCU, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 33 Baylor, No. 32 Texas A&M, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 20 TCU, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 40 Texas
Losses: No. 97 Washington, No. 38 Arizona State, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 57 Oklahoma State
No. 2 - West Virginia (22-9)
Kenpom ranking: No. 13
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +5.9
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 39 Missouri, No. 1 Virginia, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 33 Baylor, No. 40 Texas, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 20 TCU, at No. 33 Baylor, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 10 Texas Tech
Losses: No. 32 Texas A&M, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 20 TCU, No. 23 Kentucky, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 40 Texas (OT)
No. 3 - Texas Tech (23-8)
Kenpom ranking: No. 10
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +3.6
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 19 Nevada (OT), No. 33 Baylor, at No. 12 Kansas, No. 44 Kansas State, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 40 Texas (OT), at No. 20 TCU, No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 20 TCU
Losses: No. 29 Seton Hall, at No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 40 Texas, at No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia
No. 4 - TCU (21-10)
Kenpom ranking: No. 20
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +2.9
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 19 Nevada, at No. 33 Baylor (OT), No. 104 Iowa State, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 40 Texas, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 33 Baylor, No. 44 Kansas State
Losses: No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 40 Texas (2OT), at No. 43 Oklahoma (OT), at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 84 Vanderbilt, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 10 Texas Tech
No. 5 - Kansas State (21-10)
Kenpom ranking: No. 44
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -0.9
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 20 TCU, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 40 Texas, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 40 Texas, No. 33 Baylor
Losses: No. 38 Arizona State, No. 102 Tulsa, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 12 Kansas, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 20 TCU
No. 6 - Baylor (18-13)
Kenpom ranking: No. 33
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +0.5
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 27 Creighton, No. 40 Texas, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 40 Texas (2OT), No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 43 Oklahoma
Losses: at No. 15 Xavier, No. 17 Wichita State, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 20 TCU (OT), at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 12 Kansas, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 21 Florida, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 20 TCU, at No. 44 Kansas State
No. 7 - Texas (18-13)
Kenpom ranking: No. 40
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -2.1
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 24 Butler, at No. 104 Iowa State (OT), No. 20 TCU (2OT), No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 13 West Virginia (OT)
Losses: No. 3 Duke (OT), No. 8 Gonzaga (OT), No. 9 Michigan, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 10 Texas Tech (OT), No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 20 TCU, No. 33 Baylor (2OT), at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 12 Kansas
No. 8 - Oklahoma State (18-13)
Kenpom ranking: No. 57
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -2.8
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 35 Florida State, No. 104 Iowa State (OT), No. 40 Texas, No. 43 Oklahoma (OT), at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 12 Kansas
Losses: No. 32 Texas A&M, No. 17 Wichita State, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 37 Arkansas, No. 20 TCU, No. 33 Baylor, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 20 TCU, at No. 40 Texas
No. 9 - Oklahoma (18-12)
Kenpom ranking: No. 43
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -2.7
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 46 USC, at No. 17 Wichita State, at No. 20 TCU, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 20 TCU (OT), No. 12 Kansas, No. 33 Baylor, No. 44 Kansas State, No. 104 Iowa State
Losses: No. 37 Arkansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 57 Oklahoma State (OT), at No. 53 Alabama, at No. 40 Texas, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 40 Texas, at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 33 Baylor
No. 10 - Iowa State (13-17)
Kenpom ranking: No. 104
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -6.8
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 33 Baylor, No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 43 Oklahoma
Losses: at No. 39 Missouri, No. 207 Milwaukee, No. 44 Kansas State, No. 40 Texas (OT), at No. 57 Oklahoma State (OT), at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 20 TCU, at No. 40 Texas, No. 14 Tennessee, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 20 TCU, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 43 Oklahoma
It’s not that uncommon for a team to come out of nowhere and reach college basketball’s biggest stage, the Final Four — think No. 7 seed South Carolina a year ago, 10th-seeded Syracuse in 2016, No. 9 seed Wichita State in 2013 or 11th seed VCU in 2011
But every once in a while one of those teams actually cuts down the nets at the completion of the Big Dance as national champions.
Kansas coach Bill Self wouldn’t exactly be floored if this year’s NCAA Tournament concluded with such mayhem.
Appearing recently on Andy Katz’s podcast, March Madness 365, Self’s conversation with Katz included some discussion of the 2014 tournament, when senior guard Shabazz Napier guided seventh-seeded Connecticut, a team that finished third in the American Athletic Conference, to six straight wins and a national title.
Katz wondered whether this might be a year when some under-the-radar team outside of the top five, or even the top 10, catches fire and surfaces as the NCAA champion.
“There’s no question that can happen,” Self replied. “And when you say may not be in the top five, you could talk about in the country or you could talk about in the seeds. There may be a six seed, or a seven, or an eight or a nine, whatever, that could challenge and get hot at the right time. That has happened in the past — it’s been rare.”
Self correctly recalled UConn faced a No. 8 seed, Kentucky, in the 2014 title game. The Wildcats, who had lost three of their last four regular-season games, recovered for a postseason run with a typically youthful-yet-talented lineup, led by freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
“That could happen again. I don’t think that’s far off,” Self continued, “if the right players get hot at the right time. You would still think the percentage play would be the ones that have shown consistency throughout the year, but as we’ve all found out, you know, 1988 Kansas won it on Danny’s back. It’s just a six-game tournament. They had 11 losses that year.”
As KU’s 15th-year coach referenced, 30 years ago Naismith and Wooden award-winner Danny Manning carried the sixth-seeded Jayhawks to glory, highlighted by a regional final victory over No. 4 seed Kansas State and Final Four wins against No. 2 seed Duke and No. 1 seed Oklahoma.
“I think it’s very possible that this could be a year that somebody like that could do it,” Self said.
Among the country’s top candidates for player of the year, most are not in position to pull off something as miraculous as Manning and KU back in 1988, or even as unexpected as what Napier and UConn did four years ago.
Between the 10 Naismith Trophy semifinalists (listed below), only two of them play for teams currently projected by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi as heavy underdogs to make a lengthy March run toward San Antonio.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona — No. 4 seed
Marvin Bagley III, Duke — No. 2 seed
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State — No. 4 seed
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier — No. 1 seed
Miles Bridges, Michigan State — No. 2 seed
Jalen Brunson, Villanova — No. 1 seed
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech — No. 4 seed
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas — No. 1 seed
Jock Landale, St. Mary’s — No. 9 seed
Trae Young, Oklahoma — No. 10 seed
Assuming the Sooners make the field when it is announced in a little more than a week, it would take a string of remarkable performances by freshman point guard Trae Young as well as some vastly improved defense by OU as a team to pull off a Final Four run.
Similarly, while 6-foot-11 St. Mary’s senior center Jock Landale has overmatched opponents inside, averaging 21.5 points and 10.2 rebounds this year, the Gaels also would need to bolster their team defense to do real damage in the tournament.
Still, plenty of other Cinderella candidates for 2018 exist, including:
Nevada, a projected No. 6 seed led by junior forward Caleb Martin (19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 43.8% 3-point shooting)
Houston, a projected No. 7 seed featuring senior guard Robert Gray Jr. (17.7 points, 4.7 assists)
Creighton, a projected No. 7 seed powered by senior guard Marcus Foster (20 points, 2.7 assists, 43.4% 3-point shooting), a transfer from Kansas State, and junior wing Khyri Thomas (15.2 points, 2.9 assists, 41.4% 3-point shooting), who is considered a first-round talent by NBA scouts
Arkansas, a projected No. 7 seed with two productive senior guards, Jaylen Barford (18.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 43.5% 3-point shooting) and Daryl Macon (17.3 points, 4 assists, 44.3% 3-point shooting), as well as a potential first-round draft pick inside with freshman Daniel Gafford (11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks)
Butler, a projected No. 8 seed led by senior forward Kelan Martin (20.7 points, 6.4 rebounds)
Missouri, a projected No. 9 seed featuring senior guard Kassius Robertson (16.6 points, 2.4 assists, 43.2% 3-point shooting), senior forward Jordan Barnett (13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 41.1% 3-point shooting) and — possibly (?) — soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Michael Porter Jr.
Alabama, a projected No. 10 seed with the services of a likely top-10 draft pick, freshman point guard Collin Sexton (18.1 points, 3.5 assists)
Middle Tennessee, a projected No. 12 seed led by senior forward Nick King (21.3points, 8.3 rebounds)