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.”
In an NCAA Tournament clash featuring two of college basketball’s most thriving programs, a fleeting moment during a dead ball situation became as memorable as any highlight-reel jam or crucial late-game basket Sunday, in Tulsa, Okla.
Well on his way to going down as one of those transcendent Kansas basketball stars, senior point guard Frank Mason III drove to the basket for a first-half lay-in like he has umpteen times over the course of the past four seasons. On this particular strike, the 5-foot-11 dynamo left his counterpart, Michigan State guard Tum Tum Nairn, in a heap out of bounds.
In the aftermath of the play, Mason remained near the baseline waiting for the game to resume. That irked Nairn’s freshman teammate, Miles Bridges, who stepped chest-to-chest with Mason to let him know about it.
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Bridges stared down a good eight inches into Mason’s eyes. KU’s uncompromising, 185-pound leader didn’t as much as blink — almost as if to say, “Bridges, I’m Frank Mason.”
Mason plays at an All-American level nearly every time he steps on the court for Kansas, and that’s one of many reasons the Jayhawks advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory over the Spartans. His bravado, though, as seen when the bigger Bridges tried harassing Mason, gives the Jayhawks an edge, as well.
Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said each of Mason’s teammates know they go to battle with a point guard who won’t show any fear, regardless of his stature.
“We’re all one team, one unit. We’re gonna feed off each other. We fed off of him,” Lucas said, describing how Mason’s interaction with Bridges fired up the Jayhawks.
A predictable smile covered Devonte’ Graham’s face when reminded of Bridges’ failed bullying attempt.
“My boy Frank is not going for none of that,” Mason’s backcourt mate said. “He’s not intimidated by anybody. He thinks he can guard LeBron, so nobody’s gonna intimidate him.”
Watching the scene from the bench at the time, backup big man Dwight Coleby said Mason’s cohorts knew he wasn’t about to back down.
“We was hyped. I was watching like, ‘Yeah,’” Coleby recalled, clapping for emphasis. “‘Let’s go. Let’s go.’”
Lucas revealed the Jayhawks heard plenty of trash talk during their second-round victory. No one ever would accuse Tom Izzo of failing to fully prepare his Michigan State basketball players for any game, let alone one in the postseason. So it must’ve been the Spartans’ idea to try and get in the heads of Mason and his KU teammates. And Bridges’ ploy flatlined.
“I think that’s silly if you’re trying to intimidate Frank,” Lucas said, “because that’s not gonna happen very often. Especially from a freshman. We’ve been through this before. We’ve been through a lot of things and that’s the last thing we’re worried about.”
Bill Self’s Kansas teams often are associated with their toughness, and no one on this year’s roster personifies that trait more than Mason.
“I think we all play with a lot of pride. We all believe in each other, and I think it starts with coach,” Mason said when asked about KU’s grit. “He really gets on to us in practice and he make us compete. And you know, it just carries on to the games. And I’m just proud of the way my teammates played and the great job that my coaches did.”
The image of Mason standing up to Bridges was a lasting one for anyone who saw the game, as well as the Petersburg, Va., native himself. KU’s Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy candidate posted a photo of Bridges’ scare tactic on Instagram after the game, dismissing the notion that someone’s chatter would rattle him.
“I’m about action,” Mason wrote, “like a movie.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Kansas center Landen Lucas didn’t realize it at the time, but when he and his young teammates experienced early exits from the NCAA Tournament as underclassmen, the disappointment doubled as a valuable lesson about what it takes to win in March.
Now a fifth-year senior, Lucas played for KU teams that lost to Stanford (2014) and Wichita State (2015) at the very stage of The Big Dance that his Jayhawks find themselves in now, the Round of 32.
Much wiser and accomplished at this stage of his college career, when Lucas reflects on those seasons that came up short of a Sweet 16 berth, he realizes, at the time, the Jayhawks fell into the trap of assuming March Madness success. He said ahead of KU’s Sunday meeting with Michigan State this year’s veterans know it’s better to approach every tournament game as the most important one.
“I think it was obviously an important game, but it wasn’t the most important game,” Lucas shared of the approach that bit KU during his freshman and sophomore seasons. “I think last year put so much on us to make sure that we got past this game (second round) that we did whatever it took. We were meeting as a team outside of the coaches telling us to, just to make sure we had scouting report down, and we’ll do that again this year.”
Now that KU’s veterans know what it’s like to get as far as the Elite Eight, which Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk all accomplished a year ago, Lucas said they understand there is no harm in expending all the energy they have to advance.
“We’re treating this like it’s a championship — like it’s our very last game,” Lucas said of No. 1 seed KU’s showdown with No. 9 Michigan State (20-14). “Because then, as we know last year, you get a couple days, you can regroup, reset a little bit and then go into the next weekend. So we’ve got to treat this like it’s our last game and go out there and really not look ahead at all.”
Two years removed from KU’s second-round loss to Wichita State, Mykhailiuk and Mason said they both have forgotten about that game by now. Mykhailiuk, though, sees some similarities that should help Kansas (29-4) know what to expect at BOK Center versus the Spartans.
“But that (Wichita State group) was a pretty tough team, like Michigan State,” the junior from Ukraine said. “They were a low seed but really good, and that’s the main point about them. They can beat anyone.”
The elder Jayhawks know now what they didn’t when they were younger. Those second-round losses, Lucas said, taught them your mental approach during the NCAA Tournament is as important as anything.
“It’s really what helped us out last year,” Lucas said of KU coming one win away from a Final Four in 2016. “It’s what’s gonna help us out again this year, because we learned from that. At the time there was really nothing against those teams, because those teams didn’t have very many people who had done it before. It was a lot of young guys or transfers or different things. We were all learning together, and that’s the benefit that the guys who have been here for that long period of time have, because we did learn from those experiences.”
Tulsa, Okla. — After missing his first Kansas basketball start of the season due to a suspension at the Big 12 tournament a week ago, star freshman Josh Jackson, whose off-the-court issues have led to outsiders scrutinizing both the guard and the program, Jackson told reporters Thursday he’s ready to put any distractions behind him.
According to his teammates who have been around the 6-foot-8 guard throughout KU’s eight-day break from actual games, Jackson shouldn’t have any problem bouncing back after disappointing himself, the Jayhawks and members of the fan base with his actions.
Jackson hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, but at practices since he served his one-game suspension, senior Landen Lucas said the freshman has proven to be assertive and vocal.
“Trying to be even more of a leader than he already was, and I think that was important for all of us to see, because we knew he felt bad after that last game and we were all disappointed by it,” Lucas said. “But he came out with a whole other level to him, and I’m just excited to see him carry it over into the games.”
The Detroit native and projected top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Jackson will get a chance to prove Lucas right in the NCAA Tournament, beginning Friday evening against UC-Davis (23-12).
Starting junior wing Svi Mykhailiuk expects a great response from Jackson in his postseason debut, and said Jackson will pick up right where he left off, prior to his suspension.
“Definitely, because he’s a great competitor,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a winner, and he always wants to play, he always wants to win. I think he’s gonna be really hungry in the game, and he’s gonna show his best.”
KU head coach Bill Self repeatedly has supported Jackson publicly, and did so again on the eve of KU’s tourney run, saying he had no concern about Jackson’s approach to the game moving forward.
“I think Josh is focused. I do,” Self said. “He's a tough-minded individual. I think he's focused. And certainly his role or playing time or whatnot, whatever will only be dictated by what happens between the lines. It won't be dictated by anything else. And I think he's ready to go.”
KU’s senior leader and point guard, Frank Mason III said Jackson has handled lingering off-the-court issues and various allegations well.
“Josh is a great kid. We all love him. We all know he has great experience and things like that,” Mason said. “So we just tell him to focus on the things that he can take care of and that's exactly what he does. And we're just proud of how far he came so far throughout his year, and we're just focused on today and we're not really worried about anything off the court.”
Obviously, Kansas missed Jackson’s athleticism, defense, passing, scoring and rebounding in its Big 12 tournament loss to TCU. Lucas emphasized the importance of the freshman’s presence as the Jayhawks begin what they hope will be a lengthy journey through March Madness.
“We were confident in our team in the game that he missed that we should’ve won, but he just adds so much to this team,” Lucas said, “especially with the four-guard lineup that we like to go with so much. His presence is definitely important to us. He brings a lot of energy during runs and spurts that we really need. He’s a top three, five pick in the NBA, so it’s always nice to have somebody like that on your team.”
In the moment’s following their unexpected early exit from the Big 12 tournament, Kansas basketball players sulked inside their temporary Sprint Center locker room Thursday, as they pondered a quarterfinal loss to TCU.
The Jayhawks lamented what they and head coach Bill Self deemed a lackluster defensive stretch with star freshman Josh Jackson serving a one-game suspension, but also tried to begin moving past the team’s fourth loss of the season. Looking ahead to The Big Dance, though, came with questions, and a feeling they could have blown a chance to control their path in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior all-everything point guard Frank Mason III wondered aloud about how KU’s loss to TCU might impact the team’s hierarchy among No. 1 seeds.
“And I think that, you know, if we would’ve done a good job in this tournament we probably would’ve been in the Midwest,” Mason said, implying the Jayhawks (28-4) could have cemented their chances to return to Kansas City, Mo., for games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, “so we would’ve had home advantage.”
Kansas definitely hasn’t been eliminated from the running for a No. 1 seed and a spot in the Kansas City regional. But the players felt disappointed following the defeat, because they essentially left that decision in the selection committee’s hands, instead of winning three more games and forcing those in charge of the bracket to put the Jayhawks in the most favorable situation.
“We’re not really sure what’s gonna happen now,” Mason added.
Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, said KU’s potential travel plans seemed up in the air due to its conference tournament setback.
“But it’s the tournament,” Bragg added of the upcoming NCAAs. “No matter where we play, we’re just gonna come to compete.”
Although KU’s most recent Sprint Center experience didn’t live up to the team’s expectations, the program is 34-7 all-time in the K.C. arena and 3-1 there this season. So the Jayhawks still hope to play two more games there March 23 and 25.
“For sure,” Bragg said. “Why not just play at home?”
As Matt Tait detailed, KU likely has no reason to worry about dropping to a No. 2 seed when the brackets are unveiled on Sunday, and it’s nearly a foregone conclusion the regular-season Big 12 champions will open March Madness in Tulsa, Okla. But the Jayhawks’ anxiety regarding where they will be sent for regional semifinals and finals — should they handle their business in the rounds of 64 and 32 — has some merit.
A year ago, Villanova ended up in the Louisville regional instead of its hometown of Philadelphia, after losing to Seton Hall in the Big East title game. The Wildcats, who overcame that more difficult road to win the national championship, entered the NCAA Tournament 29-5, but lost their potential No. 1 seed in the East to North Carolina, the ACC’s regular-season and postseason champion.
Could KU end up in the West (San Jose, Calif.), South (Memphis, Tenn.) or East (New York) regional now? When teams don’t make the selection committee’s job easy, one never knows how the road to the Final Four will look.
Senior big man Landen Lucas said the unpredictability the Jayhawks brought upon themselves made them feel worse.
“I think even today we saw how much a Kansas City crowd can help us at times,” Lucas said. “And we knew that, and we came out here and now nothing’s guaranteed. We’ve just gotta hope that our résumé up to this point does us enough to get the seed and the region that we want and go from there.”
Once the Jayhawks learn their bracket fate, Lucas isn’t worried about how they will respond.
“I think either way we’re looking at it just fine,” he said. “I mean, we’ve faced adversity throughout the whole year, so a challenge isn’t too big of a deal. But obviously playing here in front of this crowd would be helpful.”
While Frank Mason III’s extraordinary senior year has elevated Kansas to the No. 1 ranking in the nation and allowed the Petersburg, Va., native to accumulate a growing collection of individual awards, it also could pave his way to the NBA — which appeared far less likely before Mason’s supreme run through the 2016-17 season began.
Listed at 5-foot-11, Mason’s size, more than anything else, inspires evaluators at the next level to hesitate rather than assume his game translates perfectly to the NBA, where players are taller, stronger and faster than in the college ranks.
But Mason’s numbers this season — 20.5 points a game, 5.1 assists, 48.8 percent shooting from the floor, 49.3 percent accuracy from 3-point range — have forced his name into the NBA Draft conversation.
His college coach, Bill Self, who undoubtedly will go to bat for Mason via conversations with scouts, general managers and coaches in the months ahead, said Monday his tough-minded senior point guard has helped his case in another way, as well.
“I think winning trumps everything,” Self said. “I think Frank would agree with that. But also, you know, the naysayers would say, ‘Look, he's only 5-10.’ But the league is getting a little bit smaller and there’s more guys having success, whether it be a Yogi Ferrell or whatnot that's not that big.”
In the 2016 draft, the entire league passed on Ferrell, the Indiana point guard Self referenced. Now the 6-foot rookie is starting for Dallas and has a guaranteed contract.
Mason is so diminutive by NBA standards that he even lacks Ferrell’s size — unless you add Mason’s hair to the equation. As Self mentioned, Mason probably is closer to 5-10. Fair or unfair, the league the KU senior aspires to join always has been one of giants. Self is right that the NBA is trending toward more guard-and-wing-heavy lineups, but the fact is very few roster spots are occupied by players similar to Mason.
So far this year in the NBA, only six players under 6-feet have appeared in games. One, Boston’s 5-9 dynamo, Isaiah Thomas, is enjoying an all-NBA-level campaign, which in theory could inspire some decision-makers to give Mason a longer look.
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Although Thomas’ success is an outlier, the NBA once had serious questions about his chances, too, before Sacramento took him with the final pick in the 2011 draft. Self understands Mason will have to overcome similar skepticism.
“I don't think anybody has ever questioned his toughness or the fact that he's a good player. I just think they questioned can he do what he does against bigger guys and NBA players” Self said.
“The way he finishes and now the way he shoots it, it certainly puts you in a situation where you’ve gotta guard him,” KU’s coach added, championing his point guard’s ability and referencing Mason’s remarkable 70-for-142 shooting from 3-point range. “Now if you guard him, all you do is open up driving angles, which we all know he's very good at touching the paint off the bounce.”
The good news for Mason is the more of a name he makes for himself at KU, the more those who doubt him in the NBA will have to reevaluate their opinions. Entering the postseason, DraftExpress.com has Mason as the No. 58 choice (two picks before the final spot) in this June’s draft.
Mason began transforming himself into a legitimate NBA prospect this past summer. He said he learned a lot by going through pro-type workouts with players who had experienced the game at that level.
“And I think it really paid off for me,” he said.
Of course, Mason’s NBA future is not even in the driven senior’s field of vision right now, with his Jayhawks (28-3) gearing up for what they hope will be a March full of cutting down nets.
“I haven't really been thinking about that,” Mason said Monday in response to a question regarding his draft chances. “I’ve just been enjoying college and just focusing on the season. I haven't been thinking about the NBA.”
Had they come in another setting, instead of during the final home game for seniors Frank Mason III, Landen Lucas and walk-on Tyler Self, the 19 turnovers Kansas committed against Oklahoma would have put head coach Bill Self in a grumpier mood Monday night.
Following the Jayhawks’ late recovery and Senior Night victory, though, the head coach went out of his way to deliver more positives than negatives in his post-game message.
Still, it’s not in Self’s nature to ignore plays he deems soft, sloppy or conducive to forming bad habits. So the 14th-year KU coach, while reviewing a first half versus OU in which he thought the Jayhawks (27-3 overall, 15-2 Big 12) played as poorly as they had all season, acknowledged ball security contributed to that forgettable stretch.
“Just throw the ball away, give it to ’em,” the coach said of KU’s apparent offensive approach at times against the Sooners.
It marked the second game in a row in which Self followed a victory by bringing up his thinking that turnovers are one of his team’s flaws. When you’re coaching the No. 1-ranked team in the nation, of course, complacency isn’t an attribute you’re striving for, either — that’s why Self initiates these types of discussions.
“With this team, if you have 11 turnovers you think you handled it like Princeton did back in the glory days,” Self joked shortly after KU’s 11-giveaway evening at Texas on Saturday.
So just how much of a concern is KU’s ability to maximize possessions? Given it will be March the next time the Jayhawks play — Saturday’s regular-season finale at Oklahoma State (5 p.m., ESPN) — there’s no better time to fine-tune your offense.
Entering Tuesday, Kansas ranked 154th in the country in turnovers per game (13.0). That doesn’t read too favorably when you think about the fact that only 68 teams make the NCAA Tournament. But the Jayhawks aren’t awful, either. Per sports-reference.com, they rank 98th out of 351 Division I teams in turnover percentage — an estimate of turnovers per 100 plays — at 15.5%.
Kansas encountered some luck versus OU, because the Sooners only turned KU’s 19 gifts into 11 points. The Jayhawks weren’t so fortunate a few weeks earlier, when Iowa State pulled off an almost unheard of road victory at Allen Fieldhouse by scoring 22 points on 19 KU turnovers. The other league loss for the Big 12 champions, at West Virginia, featured 19 points for the Mountaineers via 13 Kansas mistakes.
“We can definitely not be very good, which is a negative,” Self said Monday, in reference to some stretches this season, such as the prolonged one vs. OU, when the offense — ranked fifth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com — has sputtered.
Among KU’s top nine players, three upperclassmen guards rank as the surest ball-handlers statistically. From sports-reference.com, here are the individual turnover percentages for the Jayhawks who are on scholarship and healthy:
Svi Mykhailiuk: 12.3%
Frank Mason III: 13.2%
Devonte’ Graham: 13.3%
Dwight Coleby: 13.8%
Lagerald Vick: 15.2%
Josh Jackson: 15.9%
Carlton Bragg Jr.: 16.3%
Mitch Lightfoot: 21.7%
Landen Lucas: 22%
Playing in what was sure to be his final home game, too, Jackson’s turnover issues flared up against the Sooners, when the freshman committed eight. Mason, likewise, was uncharacteristically lax with the ball, losing a possession four times.
For the most part, Self trusts his skilled four-guard lineup to deliver winning plays game after game. He’s right, nevertheless, to remind them when they’re trending more atypically careless, as he did following a largely clean win at Texas, rebuking cross-court passes that gave the Longhorns layups.
Steering the Jayhawks as close as possible to a mistake-free offense isn’t nitpicking, it’s a ploy to increase KU’s chances of getting where every team wants to go this year: Glendale, Arizona, for the Final Four.
This season, Self’s team repeatedly has displayed late-game poise and a collective belief that the Jayhawks will figure out a way to win. Those qualities also allow their coach to worry a little less, while emphasizing the need to never stop improving.
“We’re not always gonna play well,” Self said, “but usually at game point these guys compete about as hard as anybody I’ve had.”
The Kansas basketball team loses so infrequently — see: the Jayhawks’ two setbacks 20 games into this season and just 6.4 a year in Bill Self’s previous 13 seasons in charge at KU — it’s easy to spot the common issues that lead to defeats over the course of a few months.
The Jayhawks went more than 10 weeks between their season-opening loss to Indiana, in Honolulu, and their first Big 12 road bump Tuesday at West Virginia, but a handful of commonalities tied the games together.
Here are five areas of concern that emerged for Kansas (18-2 overall, 7-1 Big 12) in its defeats.
Uncharacteristically low field-goal percentage
Headed into Saturday’s primetime showdown at Kentucky, KU is shooting .498 from the field this season. But the Jayhawks underperformed offensively in both of their losses. In a 103-99 overtime loss to the Hoosiers, KU went 31-for-71 (.437). At West Virginia, the reigning Big 12 champions only made 25 of 69 shots (.424).
The Jayhawks actually have shot worse and won this season (.387 against Georgia, and .403 at Oklahoma), but a below-average outing against talented, high-profile teams typically won’t cut it. When shots aren't falling, working harder for better looks is a must.
Self will be the first to say this team doesn’t rebound like he wants it to. KU has out-rebounded its foes on 12 occasions, drawn even in three games and lost the battle of the boards in five games.
The Jayhawks’ average margin for the season is +5.9, but, as you probably guessed or remember, they were out-rebounded in both of their losses. Indiana dominated the glass, 50-39, and WVU outworked KU 39-32 on the boards.
There obviously isn’t an abundance of size within KU’s rotation. Senior Landen Lucas (11.3 rebounds a game in Big 12 play) and freshman Josh Jackson (6.6) need all the help they can get on the glass. In KU’s lone conference loss so far, substitutes Carlton Bragg and Lagerald Vick each only contributed one rebound, while playing a combined 26 minutes. And now, Self announced Thursday night, Bragg has been suspended indefinitely.
Speaking of Bragg and Vick, they essentially represented the extent of the Kansas bench, because they had been the only two substitutes with consistent roles.
Plenty has changed for the Jayhawks since their November loss to Indiana, when the Hoosiers’ backups outscored KU’s 28-21. Svi Mykhailiuk has moved into the starting lineup and Udoka Azubuike is out for the season with a wrist injury. And bench production has become a massive concern since, with Bragg out of the mix for who knows how long.
West Virginia’s substitutes out-produced KU 21-7. The 14-point margin in that category marked the fourth time in the past six games Kansas was outscored by double digits in bench points. This category will inevitably remain an issue against deeper opponents. The Jayhawks definitely need more than the combined seven points Bragg and Vick contributed at WVU moving forward, and they'll have to look for it from Vick and, most likely, less experienced freshman Mitch Lightfoot.
Off night for Frank Mason
Kansas wouldn’t have spent the past 10 weeks ranked within the top five in the AP poll without its senior point guard. Averaging a team-leading 19.9 points and 5.2 assists in his fourth and final college season, Mason’s success on offense ties in closely with his team’s ability to win.
For the most part, Mason has been great. He’s shooting .512 from the field this season and .528 from 3-point range. Kansas is fortunate to have his efficient scoring.
On the rare occasions when Mason’s shots aren’t falling, though, KU is in trouble. He shot 8-for-20 versus Indiana and 6-for-16 at West Virginia. In Morgantown this week, Mason missed five layups and another point-blank shot.
Of course, Mason isn’t going to be flawless every game, but he typically makes up for any shooting woes at the free-throw line. The 5-foot-11 guard also shot 6-for-16 from the field against Oklahoma State, but went 9-for-12 at the charity stripe. Against WVU, though, Mason didn’t even attempt one free throw.
Mason knows exactly how much his coach and teammates need out of him, and he’s proven capable of handling a multitude of duties. If an opponent has success stopping Mason, at least one of his teammates — other than the reliable Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson — needs to step up and give KU a scoring boost.
Opposing frontcourt players going off
Self doesn’t have waves of big men to utilize in the paint the way some of his past teams did, and KU’s opponents have taken note.
Six-foot-10 Indiana center Thomas Bryant and 6-8 forward OG Anunoby overpowered KU in the opener, when Bryant produced 19 points and 10 rebounds and Anunoby went for 13 points and seven boards.
In KU’s latest setback, it was 6-8 WVU forward Esa Ahmad who thrived, going for a season-high 27 points and converting 10 of his 16 2-point shots, while scoring 14 points in the paint.
Six-nine West Virginia senior forward Nathan Adrian gave Kansas issues, too. He scored 11 points and drained all three of his 3-point attempts, bringing up another potential issue for Kansas.
KU’s bigs (and/or guards defending opposing bigs while playing as an undersized 4) haven’t proven they can properly defended centers and power forwards who stretch the floor by spotting up behind the 3-point arc. Anunoby and Bryant found success there, too, combining to make five 3-pointers.
With Bragg unavailable and Lightfoot not able to defend the paint as well as Lucas has, the Jayhawks might have to aggressively double effective big men inside, as they did against Texas in the first half. And when one of those rare stretch-bigs appear, Kansas could be better off sending 6-foot-8 freshman Jackson to keep him in check.
None of Frank Mason III’s 12 Kansas basketball teammates would consider the senior point guard and leader a selfish player. Sometimes, however, the 5-foot-11 Mason just has to take over.
The Jayhawks weren’t exactly in dire straits, up eight against Texas at halftime Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, but they definitely needed a more assertive Mason down the stretch to win, 79-67.
The veteran has played too many games for KU — 128 and counting — to be unaware of when and how to pounce. It’s instinctual for Mason at this point.
Take one second-half possession as an example. Attacking off the bounce from the perimeter, toward the paint, Mason spotted sophomore big man Carlton Bragg breaking toward the rim behind the UT defense. The point guard jumped off his left foot near the free-throw line appearing poised to float a lob pass Bragg’s way for an easy alley-oop. At the last second, though, Mason opted to take a shot instead, flicking a teardrop high and through the net.
His form on the difficult runner characterized it as one of the floaters he has mastered in his fourth season with Kansas, but just to make sure, Mason was asked about the play after the Jayhawks won their 18th consecutive game, and he finished with double-digit points (17) for the 18th time this season.
The typically stoic play-maker had to laugh when reflecting on the shot that could’ve been a pass if he had altered his aim a couple feet to the right.
“It was actually a floater, but I thought about it,” Mason said, explaining how one of his 15 shot attempts and seven makes was a split-second decision. “That should’ve been a lob to Carlton. It was just a mistake on my end. I’m just happy it went in.”
That’s a charitable assessment. Mason could’ve joked he trusted his shot over Bragg’s, given that one of them is a likely All-American and the other is still trying to find out how to thrive as one of two inside options for the Jayhawks (18-1 overall, 7-0 Big 12). That’s not Frank Mason, though.
Mason — averaging 20.1 points and 5.4 assists on the season, following his 17-point, seven-assist outing versus Texas — is a team-first guy. And what Kansas required of him during the final 20 minutes was to control the game.
At intermission, Mason only had five points and three assists, and was 2-for-6 from the field. He only played 14 minutes, due to picking up his second foul midway through the first half.
So what did the cagey Petersburg, Virginia, native do to finish the game? Mason never left the floor in the second half, shot 5-for-9, scored 12 points, dished four assists and did not turn the ball over. He carried the team to its destination after backcourt teammate Devonte’ Graham bolstered the offense in the first half, with 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting.
Texas coach Shaka Smart noticed how well the two complemented each other.
“I thought Mason and Graham were awesome in just the way they controlled the game,” Smart said after his team fell to 7-12 overall and 1-6 in the Big 12. “Looking at the stat sheet, those guys — 12 assists and one turnover. That’s what veteran guards do. And then they made some really timely shots, too — six threes between the two of them.”
Mason knocked down two of his four 3-point tries in the victory, bringing his season percentage to .537 — one of the countless examples of the senior’s mammoth impact.
So what changed for the compact floor general to close out the win against Texas?
“Nothing,” Mason said. “Just think I was more aggressive the second half and my teammates found me. I made plays for them and myself. That’s it.”
He would know. No one on the floor has a better feel for what the Jayhawks need.
Finding talented players with which to work never has been an issue for Bill Self in his 14 seasons as the head coach of the Kansas basketball program. Some of Self’s teams have featured dominant big men, others dynamic guards, but every season he knows what will work for the Jayhawks and what won’t.
Often times, Self’s squads are known for their toughness and defense, and this year’s group might get closer to embodying those qualities in the weeks ahead, but there is no questioning the strength of the 2016-17 Jayhawks. It’s their offense.
Led by the high-octane backcourt of senior Frank Mason III, junior Devonte’ Graham and freshman Josh Jackson, KU is averaging 85.8 points per game and shooting 50.4% from the floor (eighth in the nation) entering Saturday’s matchup with Texas. With that trio acting as the team’s lynchpin, and Kansas lacking its typical depth in the post, Self had the savvy to long ago implement an uncharacteristic four-guard lineup and accept that the Jayhawks could maximize their impact by playing faster than his other teams.
Mason, in particular, can push the ball at a breakneck pace in the open court. But it’s not as if the veteran point guard is the only player capable of taking an outlet pass and sprinting up the floor. Any Jayhawk who secures a defensive board can look to Mason, Graham, Jackson, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk or Lagerald Vick and know each one is able to attack the retreating defense.
“What we have, we have four good players that you can pitch ahead and they can all go make plays,” Self said.
Other backcourts in the coach’s time at KU have played fast, but this specific group might end up turbocharging its way past its predecessors. Over the past several years, no Kansas team has played at a pace — defined as possessions per 40 minutes — higher than 69.8. Sports-reference.com only has statistics on pace dating back to 2009-10, but when comparing this year’s number to those the difference is distinct. Eighteen games into the season, KU’s pace is at 72.2.
That’s a great sign the Jayhawks are playing to their strengths, because the more possessions they have the more chances they get to burn opponents with their proficient scoring. KU’s offensive rating — points scored per 100 possessions — currently sits at 118.0, the 10th-best number in the nation.
|Season||W-L||Pace (rank)||ORtg (rank)||Leading scorer (PPG)|
|2009-10||33-3||69.4 (77th)||116.8 (2nd)||Sherron Collins (15.5)|
|2010-11||35-3||69.7 (50th)||116 (7th)||Marcus Morris (17.2)|
|2011-12||32-7||67.3 (118th)||108.8 (42nd)||Thomas Robinson (17.7)|
|2012-13||31-6||67.8 (97th)||109.1 (34th)||Ben McLemore (15.9)|
|2013-14||25-10||68.6 (85th)||114.3 (22nd)||Andrew Wiggins (17.1)|
|2014-15||27-9||66.7 (96th)||106.3 (92nd)||Perry Ellis (13.8)|
|2015-16||33-5||69.8 (144th)||115 (14th)||Perry Ellis (16.9)|
|2016-17||17-1||72.2 (97th)||118 (10th)||Frank Mason III (20.3)|
At times, KU even pushes the ball successfully after an opponent gets a basket, putting its perimeter play-makers in position to score early in the shot clock — bringing on more possessions — as often as possible. Self said he wouldn’t have necessarily encouraged that with previous teams.
“I think playing faster is definitely more of an emphasis,” he said of this season. “No question. I think I'm giving my guys a little bit more freedom to shoot it early, which I think sometimes is good and sometimes it's not good. But the good thing is they're playing with a freer mind.”
In the past, Self would’ve been more likely to discourage his teams from quick shots, instead insisting they swing the ball and run half-court sets regularly. As an example, the coach said when he has a talented big such as Joel Embiid, he wants that man getting touches in the post.
“You know, if we had Joel, those (quick looks) would be bad shots. If you don't have Joel, those are maybe OK shots,” Self said. “So I think our personnels dictate a little bit that we're trying to score earlier.”
Although the coach said he doesn’t ask players to run a secondary break out of transition, quicker shots mean more frequent occasions to have Jackson, Landen Lucas, Carlton Bragg or anyone in position, really, to attack the offensive glass, as well. The Jayhawks average 14.7 second-chance points a game and, per sports-reference.com, gather 35.7% of available offensive boards (32nd, nationally).
This Kansas team is going to play fast, no matter which combination of five players is on the floor. But doing so when Bragg comes in as the big should be a mandate, too, in order to get the most out of the 6-foot-10 forward’s minutes off the bench. The sophomore, coming off a 10-point outing at Iowa State, identified running the floor in transition as the area where he can be the biggest problem for bigs who are guarding him.
“Just me beating my man up the court,” Bragg said of perhaps his biggest offensive strength.
There’s no guarantee KU will be able to finish the season maintaining its current pace. With 12 more Big 12 contests and the postseason ahead, odds are opponents will try to slow games down as a way to limit the Jayhawks’ effectiveness.
Then again, this group is so swift and Mason so hellbent on winning, there might not be any reliable way to slow KU down.
According to Bragg, the Jayhawks haven’t reached their potential in a number of areas — including offensively.
“I think we can play a lot faster than what we’re playing now,” he said.