Throughout the Kansas basketball team’s second-round NCAA Tournament showdown with Michigan State, it seemed the game would not be decided until the final few possessions. Then, over the course of the last seven minutes, it went from a two-score game to a 90-70 Jayhawks victory.
How, exactly, does that happen?
“It didn’t seem like it,” Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said of the vibe on the court ahead of the final 20-point margin, “and the scoreboard didn’t show it, but as a team we felt pretty confident about what we were doing.”
Essentially, KU’s collective will to advance didn’t falter when the Spartans repeatedly challenged the Midwest’s top seed with runs of their own and answers to Kansas scores for the first 30 or so minutes in Tulsa, Okla.
The Jayhawks (30-4) not only remained steadfast in coach Bill Self’s plan, but also cranked up their intensity for the stretch run. MSU cut the KU lead, which already had poked into double-digit territory three times, to five with 7:16 to play. From there, Kansas outscored the Spartans 21-6, held its foe to 2-for-8 shooting and advanced on to the Sweet 16 by converting eight of its 10 final shots.
Several sequences keyed the win for the Jayhawks and they’re the exact types of plays they’ll have to replicate in bunches Thursday at Sprint Center, in Kansas City, Mo., to move past an even better Big Ten challenger — No. 4 seed Purdue (27-7) — on the path to the Final Four.
The Boilermakers’ personnel obviously differs from the makeup of the MSU roster, particularly when it comes to experience and the paint presence of Purdue’s double-double machine, Caleb Swanigan, and his 7-foot-3 wingspan. But the types of plays Kansas made in crunch time against Michigan State should not be forgotten, because many of them had more to do with effort than matchups.
Here are six concepts and standout moments from KU’s final eight minutes of Round 2 that the Jayhawks need to keep in mind moving forward.
- Opponents can get caught up paying too much attention to stars
Josh Jackson (23 points, 9-for-16 shooting) gave MSU headaches all game, so as the end approached, defenders zeroed in on Jackson even more.
On one possession, the star freshman made a cut from the left wing to the paint, then moved on out to the right wing, while Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham exchanged a hand off on the perimeter. With the Spartans worried about those three stars, backup Lagerald Vick made a hard backdoor cut for the paint and Graham sent a pass toward the hoop for a thunderous alley-oop before Vick’s defender had a shot at reacting and recovering.
- Trust your seniors
Just after MSU made it a five-point game, Mason and Lucas worked a variation of the pick-and-roll to perfection. The big man set a screen for his point guard just after Mason caught a pass on on the left side of the floor. When Lucas’ man took a step too far to help on Mason, Lucas bounded toward the paint and met a lob above the rim for an easy slam.
The two seniors will need to assert themselves on both ends of the floor when games get tight. Their ability to execute will ease tensions and increase KU’s chances of moving on.
- Get it and go
This is an idea these Jayhawks have thoroughly embraced and there’s no need to change it just because the lights are brighter, the competition is stiffer and the score may be close. Mason, Graham and Jackson love throwing the ball ahead for potential numbers every time Kansas takes the ball away or snags an opportunistic defensive board.
When backup big Dwight Coleby came away with a steal and got the ball to Jackson late in the second half, the freshman knew what to do. About four seconds after Coleby secured the turnover, Jackson had zoomed up the the floor in four dribbles for a fast-break layup.
- Embrace the moment
Kansas didn’t miss many shots down the stretch, but when Jackson released an unsuccessful 3-pointer with his team up 10, seldom-utilized backup Coleby secured the offensive rebound to extend the possession. A couple passes later, Graham buried a 3-pointer.
Role players tend to find their way into the spotlight during critical junctures in March. Whether it be Coleby, Vick, Carlton Bragg Jr. or even starter Svi Mykhailiuk, the Jayhawks need their less heralded players to step up when opportunities present themselves late in games. Often that’s the only way to advance.
- This is why you brought Jackson to KU
Accurately, Self will tell you any number of his perimeter players are capable of bursting out and fueling offensive runs that alter the outcomes of games. Mason might be the national player of the year for that very reason. But there is no denying the most talented, potentially dominating presence on the floor wears No. 11.
The NCAA Tournament stage hasn’t looked too big for Jackson — he just took over for stretches versus a MSU program filled with friends and a coach who heavily recruited him to become a Spartan. During the game’s final six minutes, Jackson made two free throws, scored a layup, grabbed a defensive rebound and threw down a vicious one-handed jam after driving in from the top of the key in a half-court set.
Jackson has the competitive drive of Mason but also operates with the advantages of existing in a 6-foot-8, NBA-ready frame. He can carry a team to a Final Four if he needs to.
- Defend like it’s only thing that matters
It will take prolonged defensive focus for the Jayhawks to extend their season from here on out. Lucas explained how they turned a five-point game into a massive gap by the final buzzer against Michigan State.
“We knew that the reason that it was so close was because we weren’t executing the keys that the coaches were talking about: stopping in transition, easy buckets here and there,” Lucas explained. “And as soon as we talked about that and tightened those things up, we knew that we were gonna extend the lead. And we did that, and next thing you know it was pretty out of hand.”
We all know the Kansas basketball team is about to have another typically great season under the guidance of Bill Self. Win 30-plus games. Capture another Big 12 regular-season title. Enter March Madness as one of the favorites to reach the Final Four. You know the drill.
What we don’t know, however, is which of KU’s talented players will finish 2016-17 as the team’s leading scorer.
Each of the last couple of years, you got the feeling Perry Ellis would take that honor, and he did — 13.8 points per game as a junior and 16.9 as a senior during his (insert a number of years here that makes you laugh) season playing inside Allen Fieldhouse.
No Ellis means a new leading scorer for the Jayhawks this season, but it’s easy to make an argument for a number of different players, as Matt Tait has discussed recently here at KUsports.com.
In a not-so-scientific poll of KU basketball fans, the majority (53%) predicted junior guard Devonté Graham will put up the most points. Sure one-and-done wing Josh Jackson finished second, with 22% of the votes. Senior guard Frank Mason III accounted for 11% of the fans’ picks, but 14% thought another Jayhawk on the roster will score more than Graham, Jackson or Mason.
Thanks to SI.com, we now have some more information to digest in this debate. SI’s College Basketball Projection System forecasted statistical outputs for every player from the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, AAC, Atlantic 10 and Big East, as well as players on numerous marquee mid-major programs, and came up with a list of the top 100 scorers for the upcoming season.
The first Jayhawk to appear on the list is Jackson, at No. 49. SI’s system projects the versatile freshman small forward will average 15.7 points.
The only other Kansas representative on the list — which ends at players averaging 13.8 points — is Mason. The cunning veteran lead guard is expected to score 14.0 a game.
According to SI, Jackson figures to use 23% of KU’s possessions on offense, while Mason’s volume projects at 21%. Those numbers are close and indicative on how this team figures to play. There is no ball-dominant guard nor must-feed big man down low. The Jayhawks should have multiple capable scorers and matchups will determine who leads the team in points from game to game.
Of course, these computer-simulated numbers don’t mean the season actually will play out this way. Maybe Jackson leads KU in scoring before moving on to the NBA, like Andrew Wiggins did before him. Perhaps Mason’s athleticism and toughness help him accumulate the most buckets and free throws. Graham seems like a legit candidate, as well, with his three-point shooting touch and ability to finish in the open floor. And it’s hard to rule out Carlton Bragg Jr., who is poised for a significantly larger role as a sophomore. It should be an interesting storyline for KU fans to follow in the months ahead.
Also of note from SI’s projections, Kansas will have to figure out ways to stop some of the best scorers in the nation this year. Davidson senior point guard Jack Gibbs tops the list, with 23.6 points per game predicted. KU faces Gibbs at Sprint Center in December.
Duke junior guard Grayson Allen, whom the Jayhawks will see at Madison Square Garden in the second week of the season, came in at No. 3, with a projection of 20.1 points.
When Kansas opens the regular season in Hawaii, SI’s No. 13 scorer, junior guard James Blackmon Jr. (17.6 projected PPG) will be there trying to outgun Mason, Graham and Jackson.
Once Big 12 play begins, the most difficult man to stop might be Oklahoma State sophomore guard Jawun Evans, the conference’s top player on SI’s list (16.2 projected PPG).
— Check out the full list of 100 scorers at SI.com.
Perhaps it is far too early to claim Player A will beat out Player B and Player C for some college basketball award that will be handed out 10 months from now. Maybe we should save such discussions for weeks before the season starts, instead of months.
Whatever your take on that front, it is at least noteworthy that those debates already are taking place in some circles, and a Kansas veteran might be in line for some major hardware by the end of the 2016-17 season.
While looking ahead to next year in the Big 12, NBC Sports predicts not only a 13th consecutive regular-season championship for Bill Self’s Jayhawks, but also a Player of the Year honor for senior-to-be Frank Mason III.
It’s not too farfetched of a conclusion when you consider all the talent the Big 12 has lost from this past season.
All five members of the 2016 All-Big 12 first team won’t be around next year, thanks to Texas point guard Isaiah Taylor unexpectedly entering the NBA Draft, joining Buddy Hield, Georges Niang, Perry Ellis and Taurean Prince as professionals.
Only Iowa State point guard Monté Morris and Mason return from the All-Big 12 second team, with Wayne Selden Jr. and Devin Williams turning pro, and Jaysean Paige done with his college career.
Even the all-conference third team featured three players who won’t be back next season: seniors Rico Gathers, Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler. Baylor’s Johnathan Motley and Wesley Iwundu of Kansas State will have a crack at making bigger names for themselves and contending for a first-team spot in 2017, or perhaps even challenging the Big 12’s other top talents for the honor of Player of the Year.
So if Mason is one of the top contenders for the coveted award next season, who else might push him or surpass him in the race?
You have to start with Morris. The Cyclones, like the rest of the mostly rebuilding Big 12, honestly, don’t seem likely to threaten KU for a league championship. However, if ISU can finish in the top three or four and Morris puts up big numbers — and he’ll have a chance to lead Iowa State in scoring while still distributing as much as ever — the Cyclones’ lead guard could turn out to be the favorite.
Athletic Baylor big man Motley could become one of the league’s breakout stars next season, now that Prince and Gathers won’t be part of the Bears’ frontcourt.
Looking at other younger players in the conference poised for a leap in productivity, one would think West Virginia’s Jevon Carter will become Bob Huggins’ featured guard next season, and the Mountaineers seem to remain competitive in the Big 12 regardless of who Huggins puts on the floor.
With all the upperclassmen Shaka Smart is losing at Texas, a blossoming player will have to carry the load. Here’s a vote for Kerwin Roach Jr. emerging as a havoc-inflicting guard. The Longhorns might be a year or two away from really challenging KU for a Big 12 title, but next season Texas will start looking more like a Smart VCU team and less like a Rick Barnes team.
Implausible as it sounds, Oklahoma State, which finished ninth in the Big 12 in Travis Ford’s final season as head coach, might have a pair of dark horse candidates for player of the year. If either veteran Phil Forte III (who only played 3 games last season after suffering a ligament tear in an elbow) or young dynamo Jawun Evans put up eye-popping enough numbers and new coach Brad Underwood gets the Cowboys back into the top half of the league, don’t count out one of these explosive guards.
If you think about it, though, Mason’s toughest challenger in the race for Big 12 Player of the Year just might be in his own locker room. Should the Jayhawks roll through the conference as expected it would be hard to make a case for a player from another school winning. But it isn’t too difficult to see Devonté Graham becoming just as legitimate a candidate as Mason for the league’s top individual honor.
Plus, can we really count incoming KU freshman Josh Jackson out of this conversation? Probably not at this point. Should Jackson indeed come in and essentially play as much as Selden did this year on the wing, while at least matching the freshman-year production of Andrew Wiggins, Jackson would deserve some consideration, too.
If Self has the team dominating all season, the discussion might not be if a KU player will win Big 12 Player of the Year. The better question could be: which one?
From time to time during Devonté Graham’s freshman season at Kansas, the young point guard exhibited the shooting, passing and decision-making of a veteran.
The 6-foot-2 lead guard from Raleigh, North Carolina, scored a team-high 14 points in his debut, came away with three steals against Florida in a comeback victory, didn’t miss a shot on his way to a career-high 20 points against TCU and got KU to overtime by hitting two clutch free throws late against West Virginia.
The floor general in the making, though, made his most lasting impression in the Jayhawks’ season-ending loss to Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32. Graham led KU with 17 points, pilfered five takeaways and knocked down three 3-pointers.
For a program that has suffered two consecutive early exits in March Madness, optimism abounds for Kansas heading into the 2015-16 season. The Jayhawks are expected to be just as good as — if not better than — any of the nation’s projected top teams, such as North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Maryland, Iowa State, Virginia and Arizona. The return of Graham, Perry Ellis, Frank Mason III, Wayne Selden Jr., Brannen Greene, Jamari Traylor, Landen Lucas, Svi Mykhailiuk and Hunter Mickelson to go with another highly regarded recruiting class brings on those expectations.
At Kansas, one comes to expect significant individual improvements from season to season, and Graham has heaps of potential as a point guard. Just ask his coach, Bill Self.
“Devonté’s gonna be our next Aaron Miles,” Self proclaimed at KU’s end-of-season team banquet. “That’s what Devonté is. He’s Aaron, but can actually shoot it better than Aaron. A lot better than Aaron.”
Miles could be considered the last true point guard to start at Kansas. Most of Self’s primary ball-handlers through the years have played more like combo guards or scoring point guards.
How does Graham compare to Miles and other former KU ball-handlers? We’ve only seen one season of Graham, so it helps to narrow down the sample size for all the players in the discussion. Check out the NCAA Tournament numbers for Miles, Graham and every other lead Kansas guard to play a significant role during his freshman season in the past 15 years.
Each Jayhawk point guard is listed with the season of his tourney debut and the seed KU earned that year.
Kirk Hinrich — 2000, No. 8 seed
• vs. No. 9 seed DePaul — 81-77 win (OT):
8 points, 3/4 FGs, 2/2 3s, 4 assists, 5 turnovers, 4 rebounds in 29 minutes
• vs. No. 1 seed Duke — 69-64 loss:
12 points, 4/7 FGs, 3/5 3s, 1/3 FTs, 6 assists, 3 turnovers, 2 rebounds in 28 minutes
— Averages: 10 ppg, 63.6% FGs, 71.4% 3s, 33.3% FTs, 5.0 assists, 4.0 turnovers, 3.0 rebounds in 28.5 minutes
Aaron Miles — 2002, No. 1 seed
• vs. No. 16 seed Holy Cross — 70-59 win:
7 points, 3/8 FGs, 0/1 3s, 1/1 FTs, 1 assist, 5 turnovers, 2 steals in 36 minutes
• vs. No. 8 seed Stanford — 86-63 win:
8 points, 2/4 FGs, 0/0 3s, 4/4 FTs, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, 4 rebounds, 1 steal in 25 minutes
• vs. No. 4 seed Illinois — 73-69 win:
13 points, 5/11 FGs, 1/3 3s, 2/2 FTs, 5 assists, 3 turnovers, 7 rebounds, 1 steal in 35 minutes
• vs. No. 2 seed Oregon — 104-86 win:
6 points, 2/10 FGs, 0/2 3s, 2/2 FTs, 8 assists, 3 turnovers, 2 rebounds, in 30 minutes
• vs. No. 1 seed Maryland — 97-88 loss:
12 points, 1/7 FGs, 0/4 3s, 10/12 FTs, 10 assists, 3 turnovers, 3 rebounds, 2 steals in 28 minutes
— Averages: 9.2 points, 32.5% FGs, 10% 3s, 90.4% FTs, 5.8 assists, 3.6 turnovers, 3.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals in 30.8 minutes
Russell Robinson — 2005, No. 3 seed
• vs. No. 14 seed Bucknell — 64-63 loss:
Did not play
— Averages: DNP
Mario Chalmers — 2006, No. 4 seed
• vs. No. 13 seed Bradley — 77-73 loss:
15 points, 6/11 FGs, 2/4 3s, 1/2 FTs, 0 assists, 5 turnovers, 3 steals, 3 rebounds, 5 fouls in 34 minutes
— Averages: 15.0 points, 54.5% FGs, 50% 3s, 50% FTs, 0.0 assists, 5.0 turnovers, 3.0 steals, 3.0 rebounds in 34.0 minutes
Sherron Collins — 2007, No. 1 seed
• vs. No. 16 Niagara — 107-67 win:
15 points, 4/9 FGs, 2/3 3s, 5/6 FTs, 6 assists, 0 turnovers, 4 steals, 1 rebound in 20 minutes
• vs. No. 8 Kentucky — 88-76 win:
8 points, 4/11 FGs, 0/2 3s, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 rebound in 26 minutes
• vs. No. 4 Southern Illinois — 61-58 win:
2 points, 1/3 FGs, 0/1 3s, 1 assist, 3 turnovers, 2 steals, 3 rebounds in 23 minutes
• vs. No. 2 UCLA — 68-55 loss:
0 points, 0/4 FGs, 0/1 3s, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 1 rebound in 15 minutes
— Averages: 6.3 points, 33% FGs, 29% 3s, 83% FTs, 2.8 assists, 1.8 turnovers, 1.5 steals, 1.5 rebounds in 21.0 minutes
Tyshawn Taylor — 2009, No. 3 seed
• vs. No. 14 seed North Dakota State — 84-74 win:
8 points, 4/9 FGs, 0/1 3s, 0/1 FTs, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 2 rebounds in 27 minutes
• vs. No. 11 seed Dayton — 60-43 win:
3 points, 1/5 FGs, 0/1 3s, 1/3 FTs, 3 assists, 6 turnovers, 1 steal, 3 rebounds in 27 minutes
• vs. No. 2 seed Michigan State — 67-62 loss:
8 points, 2/4 FGs, 0/1 3s, 4/4 FTs, 2 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 steal, 1 rebound in 28 minutes
Averages: 6.3 points, 38.8% FGs, 0% 3s, 62.5% FTs, 2.0 assists, 3.7 turnovers, 0.7 steals, 2.0 rebounds in 27.3 minutes
Elijah Johnson — 2010, No. 1 seed
• vs. No. 16 seed Lehigh — 90-74 win:
0 points in 1 minute
• vs. No. 9 seed Northern Iowa — 69-67 loss:
Did not play
— Averages: 1 GP, 0.0 points in 1.0 minutes
Josh Selby — 2011, No. 1 seed
• vs. No. 16 seed Boston — 72-53 win:
4 points, 2/6 FGs, 0/2 3s, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 2 rebounds in 15 minutes
• vs. No. 9 seed Illinois — 73-59 win:
0 points, 0/0 FGs, 2 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 rebound in 10 minutes
• vs. No. 12 seed Richmond — 77-57 win:
9 points, 3/9 FGs, 3/5 3s, 0 assists, 1 turnover, 3 rebounds in 17 minutes
• vs. No. 11 seed VCU — 71-61 loss:
2 points, 1/5 FGs, 0/3 3s, 0 assists, 0 turnovers, 1 rebound in 15 minutes
— Averages: 3.8 points, 30% FGs, 30% 3s, 1.0 assists, 0.5 turnovers, 1.8 rebounds in 14.3 minutes
Naadir Tharpe — 2012, No. 2 seed
• vs. No. 15 seed Detroit — 65-50 win:
0 points, 0/3 FGs, 0/1 3s, 1 assist, 2 turnovers in 13 minutes
• vs. No. 10 seed Purdue — 63-60 win:
3 points, 1/3 FGs, 1/3 3s, 0 assists, 1 turnover, 1 rebound in 4 minutes
• vs. No. 11 seed North Carolina State — 60-57 win:
Did not play
• vs. No. 1 seed North Carolina — 80-67 win:
Did not play
• vs. No. 2 seed Ohio State — 64-62 win:
Did not play
• vs. No. 1 seed Kentucky — 67-59 loss:
Did not play
— Averages: 1.5 points, 17% FGs, 25% 3s, 0.5 assists, 1.5 turnovers, 0.5 rebounds in 8.5 minutes
Conner Frankamp — 2014, No. 2 seed
• vs. No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky — 80-69 win:
10 points, 3/6 FGs, 0/2 3s, 4/4 FTs, 4 assists, 0 turnovers in 25 minutes
• vs. No. 10 seed Stanford — 60-57 loss:
12 points, 4/8 FGs, 4/7 3s, 0 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 rebounds, 1 steal in 18 minutes
— Averages: 11 points, 50% FGs, 44% 3s, 100% FTs, 2.0 assists, 0.0 turnovers, 1 rebound, 0.5 steals in 21.5 minutes
Frank Mason III — 2014, No. 2 seed
• vs. No. 15 seed Eastern Kentucky — 80-69 win:
2 points, 1/1 FGs, 0/2 FTs, 4 assists, 1 turnover, 4 rebounds in 9 minutes
• vs. No. 10 seed Stanford — 60-57 loss:
2 points, 0/4 FGs, 0/3 3s, 2/2 FTs, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 2 rebounds, 1 steal in 22 minutes
— Averages: 2 points, 20% FGs, 0% 3s, 50% FTs, 3.0 assists, 1.0 turnover, 3.0 rebounds, 0.5 steals in 15.5 minutes
Devonté Graham — 2015, No. 2 seed
• vs. No. 15 seed New Mexico State — 75-56 win:
8 points, 2/6 FGs, 2/2 3s, 2/2 FTs, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, 2 rebounds in 25 minutes
• vs. No. 7 seed Wichita Stte — 78-65 loss:
17 points, 5/13 FGs, 3/8 3s, 4/4 FTs, 3 assists, 1 turnover, 1 rebound, 5 steals in 29 minutes
— Averages: 12.5 points, 37% FGs, 50% 3s, 100% FTs, 3.5 assists, 2.0 turnovers, 1.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals in 27 minutes
Now let’s throw all those stats in one place to make things easier, and see which KU freshman point guards/combo guards truly performed the best.
Key: BLUE NUMBERS = Best in the group; RED NUMBERS = 2nd-best
|KU Freshman PGs NCAA Tournament Numbers — 2000 to present|
|Kirk Hinrich ('00)||2||10||64%||72%||34%||5.0||4.0||3.0||--||28.5|
|Aaron Miles ('02)||5||9.2||33%||10%||90%||5.8||3.6||3.2||1.2||30.8|
|Russell Robinson ('05)||0||--||--||--||--||--||--||--||--||--|
|Mario Chalmers ('06)||1||15||55%||50%||50%||0.0||5.0||3.0||3.0||34.0|
|Sherron Collins ('07)||4||6.3||33%||29%||83%||2.8||1.8||1.5||1.5||21.0|
|Tyshawn Taylor ('09)||3||6.3||39%||0%||63%||2.0||3.7||2.0||0.7||27.3|
|Elijah Johnson ('10)||1||0||--||--||--||0.0||0.0||0.0||0.0||1.0|
|Josh Selby ('11)||4||3.8||30%||30%||--||1.0||0.5||1.8||0.0||14.3|
|Naadir Tharpe ('12)||2||1.5||17%||25%||--||0.5||1.5||0.5||0.0||8.5|
|Conner Frankamp ('14)||2||11||50%||44%||100%||2.0||0.0||1.0||0.5||21.5|
|Frank Mason III ('14)||2||2.0||20%||0%||50%||3.0||1.0||3.0||0.5||15.5|
|Devonté Graham ('15)||2||12.5||37%||50%||100%||3.5||2.0||1.5||2.5||27.0|
When you stack the numbers together, four guys stand out as the clear-cut leaders: Kirk Hinrich, Aaron Miles, Mario Chalmers and Devonté Graham.
Hinrich led in FG% (64%), 3-point % (72%) and took second place in assists (5.0) and rebounds (3.0).
Miles played in the most games (5), dished the most assists (5.8) and pulled down the most boards (3.2), while posting the second-best free-throw numbers (90%) and minutes played (30.8).
In his one tournament game as a freshman, Chalmers scored 15 points, swiped 3 steals and played 34 minutes to lead the group, and finished second in FG% (55%), 3-point % (50%) and rebounds (3).
Graham’s numbers look just as good as the ones posted by any of those other three guys. By the way, Hinrich, Miles and Chalmers all became some of the best Kansas players in recent memory. Graham hit 100% of his free throws to tie the departed Conner Frankamp for first, and had the second-best numbers among the 12 freshman point guards in points (12.5), 3-point % (50%) and steals (2.5).
Limiting the turnovers-per-game numbers to those who played at least 20 minutes, Graham’s 2.0 giveaways were only bettered by Frankamp (0.0) and Sherron Collins (1.8).
After playing in his first NCAA Tournament game this past March, in Omaha, Nebraska, Graham said staying loose keyed his performance on that stage.
“When you have fun,” he said, “a lot of good things happen.”
Graham didn’t didn’t just look comfortable, he stood out as someone who could change the flow and make a critical impact.
“As soon as the game started, as soon as I got on the court, after I got up and down, started sweating a little bit, I just felt like it was another normal game,” Graham said. “I’m not thinking about how big it is and all the pressure. You’ve just gotta be calm in that situation.”
Whether Graham starts or remains a key backup in his sophomore season has yet to be determined. KU’s summer play at the World University Games should heavily play into that decision for Self.
After averaging 18.1 minutes, 5.9 points and 2.1 assists as a freshman, all those numbers figure to increase in Graham’s second season at KU. Self likes what he has in Graham, and even if Mason keeps his starting spot the two easily could could play side-by-side for long stretches to give KU a pair of play-makers.
“When we’re in a game together, we’re always thinking: attack,” Graham said of teaming up with Mason. “It’s kind of hard to stay in front of both of us at the same time. We try and break the defense down, find the right guys open to pass it to — create for others and also ourselves.”
More playing time for a more experienced Graham should mean more success for the Jayhawks next season, as they try to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2012. That KU team had Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson as point guards, and neither looked nearly as good his freshman season as Graham did.
Thursday marked the very unofficial start of the college basketball season at Kansas University, where Bill Self and the Jayhawks went through media day at Allen Fieldhouse.
Self provided some insight on what’s to come in the months ahead for KU, as well as some of the shortcomings that impacted last season, and what he, the coaching staff and the players learned from those experiences.
• KU has three smaller point guards. He doesn’t know yet what the norm will be. Kansas needs more ball-handling and play-making from its lead guards. That position didn’t play as he hoped in 2013-14. Wayne Selden, a bigger option, could play point with two big wings or Frank Mason or Conner Frankamp or Devonté Graham could be out there running things.
• The Jayhawks could be very versatile this season. Self sees them playing small a lot, but could play Kelly Oubre or a bigger wing player at the power forward.
• Junior forward Hunter Mickelson is a “prototypical” four-man. He faces up. The challenge will be for him to play bigger than he is. Self can’t see anybody beating Perry Ellis out for power forward minutes. With Mickelson’s skills, he’ll have to do some more things to see playing time. He is the team’s best shot-blocker. Mickelson blocked more shots than Joel Embiid did last year in his last season at Arkansas.
• Self likes who Ellis is. He doesn’t want to get him too much out of his comfort zone in some aspects. Ellis won’t be a vocal leader. Leading by example involves doing your job. If Ellis adds a little leadership to his repertoire, it will make KU a lot better. Self wants Ellis to go score. That’s who he is.
• Brannen Greene has really improved. He was very talented last year, too, and didn’t play much. He is in a loaded position, with Selden and Oubre and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Greene is arguably as good a shooter as Kansas has. He still has to buy into guarding on the other end.
• So far Mykhailiuk is transitioning great. "Svi" understands the language maybe less than Joel Embiid did when he first arrived. The only knock on Svi is he is young. He is going to be really good. His youth could be a factor in how much he plays. A defender could knock him off his line pretty quickly. He may have played against the strongest competition, among current KU players, in his international experience.
• Alexander can be a physical player. He will have to learn how to guard and pick his spots. Self sees some similarities with Thomas Robinson and Alexander. Alexander has to get where he goes after every ball. If he plays his best and everyone else does, too, Alexander should be their most physical player.
• Without seeing this team going up and down a lot yet, Self doesn’t know for sure what the team and some young individuals will look like. But Devonté Graham is a well liked guy that pushes the ball up the floor and is certainly capable of challenging for starting minutes. Graham reminds him of Aaron Miles. He is a leader and can make a shot. His intangibles will probably allow him to play more immediately. The Marines who worked with the Jayhawks picked Graham as the best leader. But Oubre and Selden will be leaders, too.
• The Jayhawks need to be better defensively than last year. They “stunk” last season on defense. Embiid could cover up mistakes. They don’t have that this year. But Self expects KU to be better defensively.
• KU has a lot of things that will be good for recruiting, with the DeBruce Center and McCarthy apartments and new locker room renovations.
• Self used to do more micro-managing when he was young. Now that he is older he doesn’t think as much about things that don’t impact wins and losses, such as where guys sit in a locker room and things like that.
• Mason didn’t guard last year like he can. Graham can pressure the ball. Svi can slide his feet and anticipate defensively, he is so quick and athletic. Jamari Traylor does some things with pressure and running the floor, as well. Self isn’t a big press-defense advocate. You play a style that gives you the best chance to win in the postseason. When you play good teams they have good guards, and good guards often love to see a press. Full-court pressure won’t be a staple.
• Landen Lucas might have had as good an offseason as anyone. He is fighting for major minutes.
• Frankamp, in high school, was a volume shooter, as most high school stars are. Then he only got a few looks as a freshman and he felt like he had to make them. His whole play was based on whether he made a shot. Strength has been a factor for him some in the past, but he can help the team in other ways, besides shooting the ball. He had to make shots for minutes the way it played out last season. … Frankamp has to get stronger. Everybody has something they have to get better at. Strength and shooting are key for Frankamp becoming great.
• Self learned something through “The Program” they went through with Marines. KU has some guys who are really good at what they do and they don’t want to take away from who they are. Kansas needs Graham and Selden to be leaders.
• Selden, Self thinks, needs to play more consistently and knock down more shots from three-point range.
• It is hard for Self to make a complete evaluation of Oubre yet. And Oubre is good enough that he won’t be at KU very long. He can do some things that a lot of wings don’t typically do. He is a talented player.
• You always think about a starting five before the season begins. Whether he will tell anybody publicly right now is another thing. Guys have to earn it. By Big 12 play, Self has a team in mind but a lot has to do with how fast the young guys pick stuff up.
• Top to bottom, this Kansas team reminds him a little bit of the 2008 team. That team’s best player was Brandon Rush and he went in the NBA lottery. That team had pros. This is a team like that, there isn’t a top-three pick right now, but KU has a whole bunch of good players and depth. There isn’t much size, but they are skilled and deep. A lot of balance.
• There isn’t hoopla this year like they had with Andrew Wiggins, who handled it well. But KU has players that will be as good at the college level as Wiggins and Embiid. Kansas has more guys who can impact the college game this year.
• Self doesn’t know who would be a candidate to red-shirt this season. Right now he doesn’t think it will be a possibility.
• Late Night is always big for recruiting. It is big for the players, too. Guys look forward to it. Last year there were some issues with getting people in and those have been resolved. Only twice has KU had to turn people away, Self’s first year and last season.
• Self may talk about last year’s NCAA Tournament performance with this year's players. But that team wasn’t truly who the Jayhawks were. That team on the floor wasn’t a No. 2 seed. They didn’t have Embiid. That could be their motivation, to not let that happen again this coming postseason. But sometimes unexpected things just happen in sports. They didn’t have a lot of margin for error last season.
• Looking at the All-Big 12 preseason team, Self was surprised that not one of KU’s players got a vote other than Ellis. “That may be something that we tell our guys.”
• KU might be picked to win the Big 12 when those predictions come out. But Texas could be a top-5 team nationally and plenty of other teams appear to have top-25 talent.
• With the personnel KU had last year, the Jayhawks weren’t as tough as a typical Kansas team. The staff didn’t do a good enough job fixing that. Coaches will emphasize toughness this year. Personalities and youth probably had a lot to do with that last season.
• Just a bit off topic, on the Kansas City Royals… It’s awfully cool to watch. It’s fun to see guys having the time of their lives. They had the fastest guy in baseball (Jarrod Dyson) dancing at third base in extra innings on Tuesday and he hadn’t even scored yet. That’s cool. Self gets a kick out of all the strategy, too. The Royals are really good.
— Listen to the complete press conference: Self talks 2014-15 expectations at media day