Kansas City, Mo. — As has become the norm for the reserve big man during his debut season with Kansas, Dwight Coleby’s numbers Thursday night against Purdue didn’t jump off the final stat sheet and leave anyone in awe.
But his top-seeded Jayhawks needed everything they got out of Coleby’s 13 minutes off the bench at Sprint Center, where KU limited the Boilermakers’ powerful front line and advanced to the Elite Eight with a 98-66 beating of fourth-seeded Purdue.
The 6-foot-9 Coleby and sophomore guard Lagerald Vick, one of the night’s numerous stars for KU in a Sweet 16 rout, gave a couple starters a breather less than five minutes into what evolved into a Kansas track meet late.
“I expected to play a big role,” Coleby said at the end of a night when his two points and two rebounds didn’t tell the full story of how he battled inside with massive Purdue bigs Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas, “but I had no idea I’d be the first off the bench or something like that. I just take it as it comes and I’m always ready.”
That showed less than 30 seconds after the big man checked in, when Coleby handled a difficult pass from Josh Jackson and kicked the ball out to a wide-open Devonte’ Graham for one of the junior guard’s five successful 3-pointers.
Just more than a minute later, Coleby benefited from a Vick post-feed and scored easily inside.
Initially, though, Landen Lucas’ fill-in wasn’t matching the starting center’s defensive prowess. The Boilermakers’ massive backup big, 7-2 Haas, pinned Coleby in the paint within arm’s reach of the rim and scored over him easily.
When Coleby subbed out, though, he received some more positive reenforcement than scorn.
“Just play better defense. Just do your work early and you should be fine,” Coleby related of the message, a reminder of KU’s game plan to stop Swanigan and Haas.
The junior from Nassau, Bahamas, didn’t feel satisfied with his seven first-half minutes because of his defensive lapses. But Coleby said he got a second wind for the second half, when he, Lucas, Jackson and Carlton Bragg Jr. helped keep Haas scoreless and limited Swanigan to three two-point field goals on six attempts — Purdue’s star big stepped outside to knock down two 3-pointers, which Coleby said KU could live with.
“He was huge,” Kansas junior guard Devonte’ Graham said, when asked about Coleby’s contributions. “We have been telling him, ‘Be ready when your number is called,’ and he's been doing a great job in practice. He's been looking ready since the tournament started and we're going to need him to keep playing like that.”
The reserve helped KU survive a night when Lucas had to navigate four fouls and played just 20 minutes, in part because the Jayhawks blew Purdue out down the stretch.
Like Coleby did earlier in the week, in KU’s second-round win over Michigan State, he left his teammates impressed with his preparedness.
“We never know,” Frank Mason III said, “when guys are going to get in foul trouble or something like that, so they have to be ready and he did a great job of coming in and being confident and being ready to play.”
Now just a win away from KU’s first Final Four trip since 2012, coach Bill Self credited Coleby’s role in the team’s latest tourney rout.
“Obviously, Dwight bought us a ton of minutes whenever Landen was in foul trouble,” Self said. “But I thought Carlton came in and did a good job, too. You add those guys together you get 23 key minutes out of that position when Landen can't be in the game. So I think they both kind of bailed us out.”
Though one might assume Coleby is riding the excitement of two productive March Madness outings in a row, at the tail end of a season in which his minutes usually varied between sparing and none, the steady big man isn’t getting carried away.
“I feel great. But we can’t worry about this game,” Coleby said, minutes after KU reached a regional final and a Saturday night (7:49) matchup with Oregon. “This game is over. We’ve just got to move forward and try to win the next one.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Going into any given game, Kansas backup big man Dwight Coleby never knows how much — or how little — head coach Bill Self will decide to use him.
Twelve times so far during his junior season, the 6-foot-9 reserve from Nassau, Bahamas, never ventured to the scorer’s table to check in for the Jayhawks. So one can imagine his surprise and delight when Coleby, after watching the entire first half of KU’s second-round matchup with Michigan State from the bench Sunday at BOK Center, heard his name called in the midst of a tight second half, in the NCAA Tournament.
What began as an opportunity to give starting center Landen Lucas a breather evolved into a much larger responsibility when Lucas picked up his third foul midway through the second half. Before long, Coleby, who entered the game averaging 5.1 minutes and 1.7 points on the season, began finishing defensive stops with rebounds and extending possessions with offensive boards.
Few would have predicted as much prior to tip-off, but Coleby played as big a part in Kansas advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory as anyone wearing a KU uniform.
“He saved my career,” senior center Lucas said after his understudy contributed three points, four rebounds and a steal in 9 second-half relief minutes. “He made some big plays. I’m not trying to go home. We’re trying to win a championship and that’s what it takes, guys being ready and he was ready.”
Two days earlier, Coleby only logged seven minutes in a game that never was in doubt versus UC-Davis, in the opening round. Though he fully understands his role with the team, the backup big said he always hopes to earn more time.
“It’s the brightest stage and I want to play,” Coleby said, when asked how he stays mentally focused while never being sure what will be asked of him, “so I’m just ready the whole time.”
A studious observer, he doesn’t mind doing much of his research from his seat on the bench.
“I just watch Landen, and everything he does and how he defends,” Coleby shared. “Whatever he does, I just try to pick up on it and ask him questions.”
It’s a quality that can be difficult to master but Coleby said he felt prepared long before his coach called his name.
Listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds, Coleby looks more the part of a prototypical Michigan State post player than KU sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. During one second-half sequence, Bragg couldn’t finish over MSU’s Nick Ward after snagging an offensive rebound. When the teams switched ends of the floor, Ward posted up Bragg, spun off him for a layup and a foul, and cut KU’s lead to four.
Bragg only spent one minute on the court in the second half, and Self said after the victory he probably should have went to Coleby even sooner.
“One thing about Dwight, he's not that tall, but he is strong and can hold his position,” said Self, echoing words he often has used while praising Lucas. “And I thought he did a really nice job of holding his position. And also, his ball-screen defense was super, probably as good as any big guy we had today.”
Exerting yourself while college basketball fans across the country are watching sure beats Coleby’s usual contributions.
“It was great to be in and actually help the team,” Coleby said, wearing a huge smile in the locker room. “All the celebration with the bench is cool and all, but actually being on the court and doing it, it’s way much better.”
After a moment in the postseason spotlight, Coleby said he could feel the crowd’s excitement growing with his hustle plays, which also fueled his teammates in a crucial stretch of the win.
“Yeah, everybody was hyped and jumping up and down,” Coleby said of the support he saw. “It lifted us up, so that was great.”
Lucas told Coleby and the rest of his KU teammates before the game they should be prepared for anything. Clearly Coleby listened.
“It obviously takes a pretty strong mental person to be able to do that,” Lucas said of Coleby’s approach, “and he showed us today he’s prepared for that. And that’s great to see moving forward.”
Added Coleby: “We just needed energy and I brought it.”
When discussing the strengths of the top-ranked Kansas basketball team, one of the last facets likely to come up is the Jayhawks’ bench.
KU’s substitutes definitely haven’t derailed the team’s efforts — Kansas enters its regular-season finale Saturday at Oklahoma State at 27-3 overall and 15-2 in the Big 12. It’s just the backups haven’t blown anyone away, either.
Even so, coach Bill Self has to feel more positive than negative about the state of his bench with the postseason approaching, due to the recent resurgence of sophomore Lagerald Vick. The 6-foot-5 guard from Memphis has established himself as the clear sixth man.
Reserve bigs Carlton Bragg and Dwight Coleby, though, have not left the same kind of impression on their coach. Asked earlier this week what he likes about what the Jayhawks are getting from Vick, Bragg and Coleby, KU’s coach mentioned his big men only to acknowledge each had one memorable performance over the past few weeks.
“Dwight was great against Texas, Carlton was great against TCU. But it's been inconsistent,” Self said, prior to speaking at length about Vick’s qualities.
A 6-10 sophomore from Cleveland, Bragg turned in his best performance of the season against TCU, going for 15 points and 7 rebounds. The very next game, at Texas, 6-9 junior transfer Coleby had his foremost showing in a KU uniform, posting 12 points and 4 boards in 13 minutes.
Still, Self wants more from them, and he doesn’t even worry that much about how many points Bragg or Coleby — or even Vick — add to the Kansas mission. KU’s coach, who has navigated the program to 13 consecutive Big 12 titles, referred to bench scoring as a statistic that is “way, way, way, way overrated.” So he couldn’t care less that the Jayhawks’ bench players out-scored their counterparts in six straight games before losing that battle by 2 against Oklahoma earlier this week.
Vick’s scoring and shooting aren’t always there, but Self mentions him as the vital component of the bench unit because the springy sophomore can inject the lineup with energy.
Obviously, Bragg and Coleby can’t fly around the court the way Vick does. But they could win their coach’s favor by emulating the least showy player on the roster, starting center Landen Lucas.
So much of a glue guy it wouldn’t be surprising to see his face on a bottle of Elmer’s, Lucas provided an easy guide for Bragg and Coleby. According to the starter, here’s what KU needs out of either relief big when the fifth-year senior is on the bench:
- “Just to come in and defensively be in the right positions, making sure that it’s tough for the other team’s bigs to score,” Lucas began.
- “You know, use your fouls wisely — if you’re gonna foul, foul somebody. Make sure there’s not and-ones.”
- “Making sure that you just make the people that surround you better. That’s what I try to do and hopefully when I come out the game they can come in and continue to make the other guys better.”
- “And that really starts with the defensive end … and also rebounds and doing the small things.”
There you have it, straight from an expert on the subject. Bragg and Coleby can impact KU victories by taking the Lucas approach. When big men do that type of dirty work, the more enjoyable rewards, such as dunks and blocked shots, tend to follow, as well.
Vick might be the most reliable member of the Kansas bench right now, but there’s no reason Bragg and Coleby can’t try to catch up. Self knows Vick can make winning plays even without scoring. Now it’s time for the backup big men to do the same.
Said Self: “You know, we talk about people a lot of times as a team saying, you know, you can breathe life into the room or you can suck all the energy out of the room. And a guy off the bench needs to breathe life, breathe life into his team.”
Ideally, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self says, he would like to implement an eight-man rotation this season — something Self was able to do before freshman center Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury.
On the perimeter, the coach has all the help he needs in Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick. But down low, Self would love to trust either Mitch Lightfoot or Dwight Coleby enough to have them support Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg. The coach just is not there yet.
“I would like nothing more than for those guys, for another big, to give us seven to 10 minutes a game — I think that would be very good for our team,” Self said. “Neither one of them are quite ready to do that.”
On the year, Lightfoot, a freshman forward from Gilbert, Arizona, is averaging just 4.1 minutes, 1.2 points and 1.2 rebounds. Through four Big 12 games for Kansas (15-1 overall, 4-0 conference), though, the 6-foot-8 backup has only got off the bench in two games and played four combined minutes.
Earlier this week at Oklahoma — after Bragg picked up two first-half fouls and Self wanted to protect Lucas from picking up a second foul before halftime — Lightfoot entered the game, missed a shot, and committed one foul and one turnover in one minute before Self took him out of the game and decided against putting him in again.
At that point, Self gave Coleby, who had yet to play a minute of Big 12 basketball, a shot. The 6-foot-9 junior, who transferred to Kansas from Ole Miss, grabbed a defensive rebound, got whistled for setting an illegal screen and returned to the bench for good after playing two minutes.
The coach wanted to see, on the road with his team struggling at the time, if either Lightfoot or Coleby could give the Jayhawks what they needed.
“And in that little stretch there, it was a really bad stretch,” Self said. “And it wasn't all on them, but coincidentally (the Sooners) were in the game, so they didn't get a chance to play as much.”
So what would Self like to see from either Lightfoot or Coleby (averaging 1.2 points and 2.0 rebounds in 5.6 minutes — and just 10 appearances — this season) that would inspire him to utilize one of them more?
“I would say just being able to carry out defensive assignments and play smarter. There are some things, like Mitch — I want to play Mitch — and he got in the game the other day. It's not that it's that complicated, but we're ball screen defense, in what we call 32. And, you know, he forgot to hedge a ball screen,” Self explained. “The guy just went and made a layup. And you can't have that. It's an easy play. And I think it's not that he can't do it. It's just that he gets excited right now and he's trying too hard.”
KU’s veteran big man, Lucas, knows exactly what his coach is talking about when Self references Lightfoot’s enthusiasm. The senior can’t help but laugh when he thinks about how the freshman’s exuberance manifests itself at practices, where Lightfoot is most involved on the court.
“An example of this is he says everything he’s doing. We’ll be at practice and we’ll joke with him, ‘You don’t have to say, OK, breathe now. Blink.’ Something like that,” Lucas shared. “He says ‘ball fake,’ just everything. It just shows how much he’s trying, which is good. You want guys to try.”
It appears Lightfoot is more likely than Coleby to become the eighth man Self wants, because of his activity and athleticism. Coleby, the coach says, still hasn’t fully recovered to the form he showed at Ole Miss, prior to tearing his ACL in late 2015.
“I do think that Mitch has a chance to be a really good player,” Self said. “He’s an athlete, he’s tough. But right now, he’s got to be able to take the practice and do the things that the team needs him to do in the short minutes that he’s in there. And he’s just been a little bit inconsistent with that.”
Lucas, who sees the work Lightfoot and Coleby put in behind closed doors, thinks both have the ability to make a positive impact for KU this season.
“Mitch and Dwight are great bigs. (At) most schools they’re playing a lot. I have a ton of faith in them. They’ve just gotta understand what they can come in and do well for our team during those short periods of time. It took me a while, too. It’s not easy,” said Lucas, who played just 4.9 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman during the 2013-14 season. “You kind of get out there and expect, you start thinking, ‘OK, maybe I’ve gotta make a couple shots to stay in the game for longer or prolong my time,’ but that’s not how it works, you know. If you want to go out there and stay out there, everybody else around you has to be better — the team has to be better — and you have to extend the lead or come back, whatever the case is.”
Self thinks Lightfoot will perform better once the coach can put the freshman in a game and keep him in for extended minutes — a scenario that could play out the next time Kansas builds a significant second-half lead.
Lucas envisions his young teammate improving, too, by making the best use of his feistiness.
“But the next step is, all right now, concentrate that on the right things, don’t overthink things,” Lucas said. “It’s better, I’m sure, as a coach, to pull a player’s excitement and stuff back than try to do it the other way. So he has the right mindset when he goes out there, he has the right energy. Now it’s just kind of making sure that he’s understanding and focusing in on what he needs to do and channel all that energy in the right places.”