The offensive lifeblood of a four-guard lineup, 3-pointers — sometimes just the mere threat of them — space the floor for Kansas, give 7-footer Udoka Azubuike space to dominate on touches in the paint and have helped make a third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 possible.
Of their 81.4 points per game this year, the Jayhawks average 30.1 from behind the arc (22nd in Division I). In other words, their opponents know KU’s guards would like nothing more than to drown them in a deluge of 3-pointers.
With foes doing everything within their powers to limit one of this Kansas team’s most effective weapons, timing and precision are vital for getting the best look at the basket possible while rising up from long range. Within an offense that revolves around ball screens, dribble hand-offs and drive-and-kicks it sure helps to have senior point guard Devonte’ Graham penetrating and distributing.
Among the 16 teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament, Graham’s 7.5 assists per game on the season lead all players. While plenty of those dimes come on fast breaks or alley-oops for KU bigs, the guards who play alongside Graham are thankful his kick-out passes allow them to consistently catch and shoot in one fluid motion.
So what percentage of Graham’s deliveries to 3-point shooters are perfect?
Junior Lagerald Vick briefly paused to calculate before responding, with a grin: “I would say about 99.7 of those are right on the money. I definitely think he’s a good passer, especially off penetration and kick.”
A more generous grader, senior Svi Mykhailiuk went ahead and gave Graham a 100.
“I think every time,” Mykhailiuk said. “He knows where I’m going to be and he just passes to me and I’m gonna make a shot.”
In KU’s second-round victory over Seton Hall, Graham didn’t have his typical shooting touch, but he assisted on 4 of his team’s 9 successful 3-pointers.
Two days earlier, the Jayhawks only made 7 from deep while defeating Penn. Graham assisted on three and made two 3-pointers.
Per Synergy Sports, Kansas has averaged 17.76 points in its first two NCAA Tournament victories off Graham assists alone — 2.4 points for every dish that sets up a basket.
Playing to his roster’s strengths, coach Bill Self has the Jayhawks (29-7) run a lot of ball-screen offense. While Graham is a strong 3-point shooter (his 40.4% accuracy ranks 60th in the country), it often falls on the lead guard to make sure senior Mykhailiuk (45.5%, 10th nationally), sophomore Malik Newman (40.9%) and Vick (37.8%) get the ball in advantageous situations once he begins attacking off the dribble.
“You’ve got to make the defense commit to you and I’ve got to find my guys for open shots,” Graham said.
Occasionally, every step of the process comes easily. On one possession against Penn, Graham turned the corner off a Mitch Lightfoot ball screen, drove to the paint and hit Vick, spotting up nearby in the right corner, for a perfect look.
Other times, Graham has to get more crafty.
In one second-half sequence versus Seton Hall, Graham dribbled left off a pick from Azubuike, drawing the attention of four Pirates defenders as he made his way into the paint. Their resulting rotation accounted for Vick in the right corner, which is where his opponents assumed Graham would look.
Instead he bounced a pass through a gap in the defense, all the way out to the right wing for a wide-open Newman 3-pointer.
Of course, Graham knows how to set up teammates for 3-pointers in every way imaginable.
While facing Penn, Graham misfired on a floater he released in the paint. When the ball rimmed out and found its way back to his hands for an offensive rebound, a little court awareness and quick improvisation paid off.
Graham knew where Vick was when he released his shot, so he easily kicked the ball out to his teammate near the left corner upon securing the rebound. Making the best of his circumstances, the point guard’s hustle set up an easy 3-pointer.
“He’s been a pretty good passer since I’ve known him, even when I came my freshman year when he was at the 2,” Vick said, referring to Graham’s days playing with Frank Mason III. “He’s a good passer.”
Graham’s recognition and vision prove valuable in transition, as well. Off a defensive rebound against Seton Hall, with nine players in front of him on the court, Graham knew KU had the spacing on the break for Newman to get an open 3-pointer on the left wing.
The senior point guard also trusted the shot would drop, raising his hands into the air to signal a successful 3 as Newman went into his shooting motion.
Graham’s familiarity with his fellow guards leads to such trust — as well as to so many accurate passes.
“Just playing with them, game experience, knowing where they like the ball at,” Graham said of how his passes so often generate 3-pointers, “and just tying to get it to them where they can just catch and shoot it before the defense goes out.”
Ahead of Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown with Clemson, in Omaha, Neb. (6:07 p.m., CBS), Vick, Mykhailiuk and Newman have combined to make 13 of 26 3-pointers in the tournament. Vick said their confidence as shooters is growing as a result, “especially with the big fella (Azubuike) back.”
Although Graham missed all four of his 3-point tries against Seton Hall after making 3 of 8 in the first round, his fellow guards have him to thank for much of their offensive impact.
“I would just say he knows how to play,” Mykhailiuk said, “and knows how to pass. He’s been doing this his whole life, so I guess he’s pretty good at it.”
Not even Naismith Award finalists can do it all every single night.
When Kansas star guard Devonte’ Graham’s shots weren’t falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks knew they could look elsewhere and find the scoring they needed to survive.
After Graham knocked down a jumper in the opening minutes Saturday night versus Seton Hall, not one of the six field-goal attempts that followed would drop for KU’s leading scorer.
No big deal. The other three guards in the starting lineup had their floor general’s back. Graham may have only provided eight points, but sophomore Malik Newman, senior Svi Mykhailiuk and junior Lagerald Vick combined for 57 as Kansas advanced to the Sweet 16.
“That’s what we do,” Graham, who averages 17.4 points a game, said matter-of-factly following the fourth single-digit scoring outing of his senior season. “If somebody’s having an off night, somebody’s got to step up, and they did a good job of knocking down shots and being aggressive.”
During a nine-assist night for Graham, he liked the way fellow senior Mykhailiuk (7-for-16 shooting, 2 of 5 on 3-pointers, 16 points, three assists) kept getting to the paint and making plays.
In the final four minutes of the victory that moved top-seeded Kansas on to the Midwest regional semifinals, it was Newman (8-of-14 shooting, 4 of 8 from 3-point range, 28 points, two assists) hitting a must-have 3-pointer, going 8 of 8 at the foul line and finding Mykhailiuk for a clutch 3-pointer that stretched the lead to eight with 1:20 to go.
“Everybody was just being aggressive and being a threat,” Graham said proudly.
Following his fifth straight double-digit scoring game, Vick (5-for-9 shooting, 3 of 4 on 3-pointers, 13 points) echoed the point guard’s reference to an assertive backcourt approach. The 6-foot-5 junior from Memphis scored eight points in a row for Kansas during a 2:09 stretch of the second half.
“We just, all us guards had a talk. We’re the head of the team so we knew everybody had to step up and make plays for each other,” Vick said. “We all just played off each other and were bringing energy.”
Even though Graham went from the 7:57 mark of the first half until the 7:52 mark in the second half without scoring a point for Kansas (29-7), Mykhailiuk said his four-year teammate’s floor game kept Graham as an essential component of KU’s success.
“If he’s on the court he just gives us confidence. He just controls the tempo of the game. He’s a point guard, so he doesn’t need to score, he doesn’t need to get assists,” Mykhailiuk added. “He just needs to do what he does and tell us what to do.”
During the regular season, a low-scoring game from Graham only cost KU a victory once — Dec. 6, when he shot 1 of 8 and scored three points against Washington’s 2-3 zone in a 74-65 defeat. The Jayhawks rolled against South Dakota State in November, when Graham finished with eight points, and they won an SEC-Big 12 Challenge encounter at Allen Fieldhouse with Texas A&M, when Graham’s 2-for-11 shooting left him with eight points.
Every aspect of the regular season prepares college basketball teams for the madness that awaits in March — even if those lessons don’t seem helpful at the time.
As Kansas moves on to Omaha, Neb., for a Friday matchup with Clemson (25-9), Graham’s teammates aren’t exactly worried about his scoring output moving forward. And if they need to pick up the slack in the points column, they won’t have any reason to panic.
“He still did good,” Mykhailiuk said of the team leader’s uncharacteristic showing in the second round. “He did all he could, and sometimes shots are just not falling down. So it’s a part of the game. I bet he’s gonna play better next time.”
Graham followed his three regular-season single-digit scoring games with 17 points against Texas Southern in a home win, 19 points versus Arizona State in a home loss and 16 points in a road victory at Kansas State.
Wichita — The hot shooting hand of guard Malik Newman and a resurgent Udoka Azubuike helped No. 1 seed Kansas get past feisty No. 8 Seton Hall, 83-79, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
But plenty more went into the Jayhawks’ survive-and-advance victory at Intrust Bank Arena.
Here are five statistics that helped send KU on to Omaha, Neb., and a spot in the 2018 Sweet 16.
No offensive missteps in final minute
The Jayhawks’ season could have ended ahead of schedule had they not handled their business at the foul line in crunch time, when their lead shrank to as little as three points.
As Seton Hall senior guard Khadeen Carrington did everything within his power to will the Pirates to an improbable comeback, scoring 13 points in the final 1:06 — no, that’s not a typo — KU guards Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman combined to make all 10 of their free-throw attempts in the game’s final 53 seconds.
Add a press-break out of a timeout that concluded with Graham finding Mitch Lightfoot for a two-handed slam and KU had just enough to move on.
Seton Hall outscored Kansas 16-12 in the final 1:06 thanks to Carrington’s heroics and a last-second Myles Powell 3-pointer. Had the Jayhawks turned the ball over or missed free throws, the game could have flipped.
Vick in rhythm in March
Lagerald Vick continued trending upward in the postseason in KU’s second-round victory.
For the fifth consecutive game — a stretch that began with the Jayhawks’ Big 12 quarterfinal victory over Oklahoma State — the junior guard provided double-digit scoring to the Kansas attack.
Against Seton Hall, Vick scored 13 points and, as he has in every Big 12 and NCAA tournament game this March, made at least 50% of his shot attempts, going 5 of 9.
Vick also made more than two 3-pointers for the first time since KU’s home romp over Oklahoma, knocking in 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
Shutting down Rodriguez
Two nights after Seton Hall’s leading scorer, senior Desi Rodriguez, went for 20 points in a first-round win over North Carolina State, the 6-foot-6 senior never got rolling against the Big 12 champions.
KU stymied Rodriguez, who entered averaging 17.9 points per game, limiting him to 2-for-10 shooting and 6 points in 35 minutes.
Vick spent portions of the game defending Seton Hall’s typical double-digit scorer, but other Jayhawks checked him at times, too, as switches occurred within the half court.
Rodriguez went 2 of 7 in the first half and barely even found opportunities to take shots in the second, despite playing 18 minutes.
Surviving Seton Hall’s offensive rebounding
The Jayhawks have run into their fair share of strong offensive rebounding teams this season and they continued to escape the wrath of devastating second-chance points in their matchup with Seton Hall.
Although the Pirates grabbed 15 of their missed shots against Kansas, they only cashed in on 14 second-chance points in a tight, loser-goes-home game.
Senior center Angel Delgado often operated as he pleased within the paint, en route to 24 points and a career-best 23 rebounds (9 on the offensive glass). But the key for Kansas was handling the Pirates when someone other than the skilled 6-foot-10 big controlled the offensive boards.
When Delgado snatched Pirates misses, the ball found its way through the net on those possessions — either by immediate putback, eventual basket or free throws — on six of eight occasions.
However, when a different Pirate came down with an offensive rebound, Kansas repeatedly found its way to a stop. On six possessions, one of Delgado’s teammates got credited with an offensive rebound. The Pirates scored just one basket as a result.
More second-chance points could have swung the game in Seton Hall’s favor, but KU found a way to move on, despite finishing with only 23 defensive rebounds on 38 opportunities.
Graham in set-up role
KU star guard Graham wasn’t himself versus the Pirates, going 1 of 7 from the floor, missing all four of his 3-pointers and finishing with 8 points.
As the senior has shown in the past, though, an off shooting night didn’t get him down. Kansas needed Graham running the show and making plays that led to his teammates scoring. Throughout the second half Graham did just that.
KU’s leader assisted on 7 of his team’s 15 field goals in the second half to finish with 9 assists in the victory.
The Jayhawks built a double-digit lead in the second half, not only because of Udoka Azubuike’s presence, but also through Graham’s distributions.
His passes led to a Svi Mykhailiuk layup, an Azubuike slam, a Newman lay-in, a Vick 3-pointer, a Mykhailiuk 3-pointer, a 3 from Newman and the aforementioned Lightfoot jam.
And, after a 4-turnover first half by Graham, he only coughed the ball up once while playing the entirety of the second half.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Seton Hall
- Dominant Dok: Azubuike plays big role to lift Jayhawks past Seton Hall
- Tom Keegan: Nudge in right direction awakens Malik Newman
- Graham survives injury scare, breaks program record for minutes in a season
- Angel Delgado’s historic performance not enough to beat Kansas
- The Keegan Ratings: Malik Newman shoots Kansas into Sweet 16, tops ratings
- KU’s supporting cast pushes Jayhawks past Seton Hall and into Sweet 16
Wichita — In order to get past Seton Hall and reach the Sweet 16, top-seeded Kansas will have to either thwart or survive one of the Pirates’ best offensive sources: rebounding their own misses.
Averaging 12.2 offensive rebounds per game (37th nationally), Seton Hall thrives at securing second chances due in large part to the presence of 6-foot-10 senior center Angel Delgado, who accounts for 3.7 offensive rebounds an outing.
“I always say it’s like he’s got a magnet in his hands,” Pirates senior Desi Rodriguez said. “The ball’s just attached to his hands when he’s rebounding the ball.”
Delgado, of course, has caught KU’s attention, sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot said.
“Obviously he’s a great offensive rebounder, knows how to wedge, and box out really well. We’ve got to figure out how to keep him off the glass,” Lightfoot began, before saying the guards around Delgado benefit from his presence, too, crashing and finding angles to track down misses. “They’re a load to box out.”
Player after player in the KU locker room at Intrust Bank Arena mentioned how much Seton Hall (22-11) reminds them of West Virginia, with their physical style of play and tendency to thrive on the offensive glass. WVU averages 14.0 offensive boards and rebounds 34.6% of its misfires. The Pirates’ offensive rebounding percentage of 32.2% ranks 36th in the country.
When KU senior point guard Devonte’ Graham watched video of Seton Hall, though, he saw a style similar to another Big 12 foe in the Pirates’ game.
“That’s a little bit of the physicality that we had to talk about, going ahead and rebounding. They go to the glass just as good as anybody in the country — kind of like Oklahoma State,” Graham said, “in how physical their guards can be and how big they are.”
The Cowboys, who beat Kansas twice during the regular season, average 12.6 offensive rebounds and come away with 32.5% of their missed shots.
The Jayhawks (28-7) have enough experience facing teams that make a living on the offensive glass to know how costly opponents’ second-chance points can be.
Senior Svi Mykhailiuk noted KU will have to play tough and put a body on someone on every defensive trip down the floor.
“And like the guards gotta help Mitch and Silvio (De Sousa) and just to box out, because I don't think everybody's on the glass like the point guards,” Mykhailiuk said, “so they just gotta come inside and just help him to rebound.”
With Udoka Azubuike on a minutes restriction, KU won’t have its most consistent defensive rebounder much of the game. But sophomore guard Malik Newman, who has come away with 5 or more rebounds 20 times this season, is more than capable of pitching in and making things easier on Azubuike, De Sousa and Lightfoot.
“I come into every game thinking that if I can get out and rebound then it will help the team,” Newman said, “because now we can start our break and we can play fast. That’s coach’s biggest emphasis. He always wants us to have fun, play with confidence and play fast.”
Throughout the season, Bill Self’s team has faced seven opponents that are similar to Seton Hall from an offensive rebounding standpoint.
KU went 1-2 against Oklahoma State, 3-0 versus West Virginia, 2-0 in matchups with TCU, 1-1 in meetings with Baylor and picked up non-conference victories over Kentucky, Syracuse and Texas A&M. That’s a 10-3 mark overall versus strong offensive rebounding teams.
7 (at OSU)
|19 (at TCU)
9 (at BU)
|14 (at WVU)
|2nd Chance Points
10 (at OSU)
|14 (at TCU)
14 (at BU)
|14 (at WVU)
|KU result||84-79 L
|79-68 W||76-60 W||65-61 W||70-67 W
Lightfoot said Delgado reminds him a little bit of both Sagaba Konate and Kenrich Williams in his pursuit of missed shots. So can the Jayhawks reference the success they’ve had in those matchups and others as they prepare to take on Seton Hall and Delgado?
“Yes and no,” Lightfoot said. “It’s kind of hard to say, ‘I played well against this guy, so I’m going to play well against this guy.’ I think that we’ve just got to learn from those games and just come out and play hard. If we play hard then we will be hard to stop.”
Wichita — The top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks knew entering their NCAA Tournament opener against Penn that getting past the Ivy League champions would be no easy task.
With senior point guard Devonte’ Graham leading the way, the Jayhawks moved on to the second round of The Madness for the 12th March in a row.
Here are five statistics that fueled the Jayhawks (28-7) against the Quakers.
Penn entered the NCAA Tournament as a team built more on defense than offense. For Kansas it was imperative the Quakers didn’t get hot and gain confidence offensively.
Although the Quakers jumped out to a 21-11 lead early in the first half, the Jayhawks’ defenders settled in and limited Penn to 35.7-percent shooting in the first 20 minutes as the underdogs missed 11 of their final 15 shot attempts leading into the halftime break.
Kansas kept Penn leading scorer Ryan Betley in check (3-for-9 shooting, 8 points) and limited A.J. Brodeur, a 54.2-percent shooter entering the game, to 6-of-16 success from the field.
The Quakers only converted on 39.3 percent of the shot attempts. They were the first KU opponent to shoot under 40 percent since the Jayhawks won at Kansas State (though West Virginia shot exactly 40 percent in the Big 12 title game).
KU’s defense might be trending the right direction ahead of a Saturday matchup with Seton Hall, which scored 94 points against North Carolina State.
Lightfoot’s 2nd half
With Udoka Azubuike limited while recovering from a sprained MCL in his left knee, Kansas needed some interior contributions from either Silvio De Sousa, the unexpected breakout performer of the Big 12 tournament, of sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot.
Against Penn, the slightly more experienced Lightfoot came through after Azubuike played 3 relatively ineffective minutes in the first half.
Before halftime, Lightfoot played 10 minutes. He missed a baseline jumper, grabbed 2 defensive rebounds and blocked a shot.
In the second half, though, Lightfoot gave KU far more, scoring all 9 of his points and, even more importantly, putting in work on the glass, with 2 offensive boards and 7 more rebounds on the defensive end of the floor.
His 11 boards gave the 6-foot-8 fill-in starter a new career high. And Lightfoot played solid defense, finishing with 3 blocked shots.
Vick’s efficient offensive outing
In one of his more effective scoring outings of his junior season, Lagerald Vick only needed 7 shot attempts to provide KU with 14 points.
Vick nailed 2 of his 4 3-point tries and both of his free-throw attempts to help his cause. But he also found low-risk, high-reward looks.
The springy guard got open for one score at the rim in each half and put in another easy basket in the paint.
The productive NCAA Tournament opener gave Vick his fourth consecutive game in double figures for the first time this season. Even when he was routinely hitting the 20-point mark in November and December, Vick never scored 10 or more points in more than three consecutive outings.
His 14 points were the most since he went for 17 in KU’s home win over Oklahoma.
The upperclassmen from Memphis didn’t force many bad shots and Kansas handled a pesky Penn team as a result. Moving forward, Vick can make an even larger imprint on the game with offensive rebounds or an assists — he finished with 0 in both categories.
Points off turnovers
Penn was by no means sloppy with the basketball, committing 11 turnovers, right around its season average. But when the Quakers gave the ball away, the Jayhawks often pounced.
In a 16-point victory, Kansas scored 15 points off Penn’s 11 miscues.
The Jayhawks turned the ball over only 8 times (1 away from their season low) and Penn only forged 4 points off of those slip-ups.
KU’s 11-point advantage in points off turnovers was the most since a plus-17 margin at Iowa State.
A postseason victory on the glass
Benefiting from a more athletic lineup, KU oftentimes looked faster than Penn. But the Jayhawks also utilized their advantage on the glass.
Lightfoot obviously made the biggest impact, with his 11 rebounds, but he got plenty of help as Kansas won the battle of the boards, 41-33. It marked KU’s fifth rebounding victory in the past eight games.
Starting guards Graham and Malik Newman each chipped in 6 rebounds. Freshman Marcus Garrett came in off the bench to add 5 more, and backup big De Sousa delivered 4 rebounds in just 10 minutes.
On 34 misses, Penn only came away with 5 offensive rebounds and 3 second chance points.
Kansas scored 14 points as a result of its 8 offensive boards.
Wichita — In the days leading up to the NCAA Tournament it seemed that not one discussion of Kansas versus Penn could go by without someone referencing the success of the Quakers’ second-ranked 3-point defense.
Penn opponents, anybody who follows either team closely could surely recite, only made 29.2 percent of their shots from behind the arc before Thursday’s first-round game at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Jayhawks didn’t rely upon 3-pointers in defeating Penn, 76-60, but they did prove more effective with their long-range looks than most foes of the Ivy League champs.
In knocking down 7 of 17 from 3-point distance, Kansas (28-7) moved on to the second round having converted more 3s than 17 previous Penn opponents. Only six Quakers foes all season shot more accurately than the Jayhawks (41.2 percent).
KU’s first successful 3 came on its first attempt, off the fingertips of junior Lagerald Vick, less than three minutes in. But seven consecutive Kansas 3-point misses — from Malik Newman, Devonte’ Graham (3), Vick (2) and Svi Mykhailiuk — followed over the course of the next 10-plus minutes, contributing to a 21-11 Penn advantage on the scoreboard.
Nerves might have contributed to the 1-for-8 start, but senior Mykhailiuk credited the Quakers (24-9) for executing their game plan, as well.
“They wanted to run us off the 3-point line, and they did a pretty good job of that today,” Mykhailiuk said after hitting 2 of 3 3-pointers. “Sometimes when Devonte’s going downhill, or Malik or Lagerald or me, they’ve definitely got to help. And then if they help we’re just trying to find the open man.”
Amid KU’s string of misfires, Graham (29 points) told his teammates to keep the 3-pointers coming.
“We can't keep missing,” he figured.
A Mykhailiuk 3-pointer from the right corner 3:51 before halftime, when he baited Caleb Wood into the air and then took a hard step to his left to rise up and fire, seemed to put KU’s shooters back on track. Including that open make, the No. 1 seed made 6 of its final 9 from downtown.
Penn’s relative success in defending the arc came in not allowing KU guards to attempt as many 3-pointers as they’re used to. In Big 12 play, the Jayhawks averaged 9.4 makes a game on 24.7 tries, and hit 38.2 percent.
KU coach Bill Self said his team bailed Penn out early by taking too many contested shots.
“Defensively, they don't pressure, but they make it hard to get all the way to the basket, and then they do do a good job of contesting the 3-point line,” Self said.
Only Mykhailiuk, Graham (3 of 8) and Vick (2 of 4) made 3-pointers against Penn. Newman missed both of his looks. Considering KU entered the tournament with a 40.3 percent 3-point shooting mark and averaging 10.1 makes a game, Quakers coach Steve Donahue actually applauded his players’ perimeter defense in defeat — pointing to the fact KU only led by eight with less than seven minutes to play in a pro-Kansas building.
“Defense was awesome,” Donahue said. “Got them to shoot 18 hard 2s, something we preach. Got seven 3s for a team that makes 10.”
Kansas connected on just 1 of 5 2-point jumpers outside of the paint in each half but found 28 points off layups and dunks in the victory.
“They pack it in so well,” Graham said, “it’s hard to actually get into the paint. And the bigs, they switch up how they guarded off the ball screens, so they keep you thinking and keep you on your toes. We was just trying to keep getting downhill and make plays.”
It took some effort, but the Jayhawks drove with persistence and eventually found the open looks — sometimes inside, sometimes outside — they needed to advance.
KU will face No. 8 seed Seton Hall on Saturday. The Pirates held North Carolina State to 11-for-30 3-point shooting in a 94-83 win. Seton Hall entered the tournament with a 33.4 percent 3-point defense (98th nationally).
Whenever Udoka Azubuike returns to the Kansas basketball rotation — whether it’s Thursday against Penn, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, or in the days that follow — the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region will essentially roll out an updated version of itself, with noticeable upgrades both in the paint and on the perimeter.
The Jayhawks that won the regular-season Big 12 championship barely used freshman big man Silvio De Sousa.
The KU team that captured the league’s postseason tournament crown in Kansas City, Mo., didn’t benefit from one second of Azubuike.
The Kansas team trying to navigate its way to the 2018 Final Four should be able to throw Azubuike, De Sousa and a suddenly-high-scoring Malik Newman at opponents, possibly as soon as the first round.
Senior point guard Devonte’ Graham said De Sousa, who went for 16 points and 10 rebounds in KU’s Big 12 title game win over West Virginia, and Newman, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, broke through at just the right time.
“Now on the scouting report it’s not just going to be me, Svi (Mykhailiuk) and Udoka (Azubuike), Malik,” Graham said. “It’s going to be Silvio — they’re going to have to guard everybody. When you’ve got five guys out there that can be in attack mode it’s hard to guard that. It’s perfect timing and the perfect time for them to get hot.”
Newman, a sophomore guard who transferred from Mississippi State, enters his NCAA Tournament debut (1 p.m. Thursday, on TBS) having just averaged 24 points per game on 15-for-22 3-point shooting at the Big 12 tournament.
His explosive three-day-long performance followed back-to-back single-digit scoring games to close the regular season. Now those ineffective outings seem as if they transpired months ago, instead of occurring in the previous two-plus weeks.
“I feel like I’m playing at a very high level,” Newman said. “That’s just thanks to my teammates and the coaching staff. Those guys had confidence in me throughout the year, no matter if I was at my lowest or at my highs. They’ve just always said, ‘Be aggressive and things are going to be fine.’ So credit to those guys for rallying around me and keeping me high.”
Similarly, De Sousa’s teammates always trusted he eventually would bloom and begin playing to the potential of a five-star prep prospect — even though he arrived in Lawrence during the middle of the campaign, in late December, as an early high school graduate.
“He’s been working so hard in practice,” Graham said of the 6-foot-9 backup forward, who played sparingly for KU in January and February, “and going through ups and downs. Learning all the plays in two months is extreme for him. He’s just been battling and it’s starting to pay off.”
Graham could see it coming. It just so happened everything began clicking for De Sousa when KU needed him most, with Azubuike out of the lineup in Kansas City, due to a left-knee injury. Even before De Sousa averaged 10 points and 9.7 rebounds at the Big 12 tournament, KU’s team leader witnessed the young big “grinding” at practices, arriving early and spending extra time studying video with assistant coach Norm Roberts.
“At any point in time we knew he was going to have a breakout game, and it was the perfect time with Dok being out,” Graham added, “so his confidence should be high. Sky high.”
Newman left K.C. this past weekend impressed with De Sousa the player and the man, praising the freshman’s character and speaking of the way he seemed to respond to any and all adversity with a smile and positive attitude.
“Each day he just tried to learn. Whenever he messed up he would just go ask coach. ‘Coach, what do I need to be doing? Did I do this right?’ Things like that. We knew sooner or later he was gonna turn the corner,” Newman shared. “Not too long ago in the regular season I remember saying that Silvio, he was on the porch, but he’s not in the house yet, as far as him just being comfortable. But I think this tournament, I think it really helped him and let him know that we’ve got confidence in him to go out and play.”
De Sousa brought energy to KU’s frontcourt in the Big 12 championship game, and made impactful plays to help the Jayhawks win without their starting 7-footer, Azubuike. In doing so De Sousa looked completely different from the freshman whom coach Bill Self hesitated to keep checked into games for more than a minute or two as recently as a month ago.
“I’m not gonna lie, when I came here out of high school I knew it was going to be hard,” De Sousa said. “And I just believed in myself and just tried hard during practices. Now, months later, I’ve actually got my confidence up. Today I finally can play a lot better than I used to.”
When Azubuike returns to the floor, Graham thinks Kansas (27-7) will have an even more dynamic team to unleash in the NCAA Tournament, now that De Sousa has proven he can produce and play with confidence.
Whether March brought out the best in De Sousa and Newman or the emerging Jayhawks just have impeccable timing, Newman isn’t ruling out the idea of another KU player stepping to the forefront soon.
“Svi could’ve stepped up, Lagerald (Vick) could’ve stepped up and did what I did,” Newman said of carrying the offensive load this past weekend. “Or instead of Silvio playing how he played, Mitch (Lightfoot) could’ve played like that. I don’t think it’s just me and him. It was one man goes down, one man step up.”
Kansas City, Mo. — Just as West Virginia learned twice during the regular season against eventual Big 12 champion Kansas, the Jayhawks can be a difficult team to put away.
The Mountaineers didn’t establish a double-digit lead against KU like they did in their previous two meetings, but WVU once again couldn’t shut down a hot Kansas offense late in the second half of Saturday’s Big 12 title game.
The Jayhawks, who trailed by as many as eight in the second half, beat West Virginia, 81-70, to capture KU’s 15th conference tournament championship overall and 11th in the Big 12.
Here are five statistics that drove a victory that almost certainly cemented Kansas as a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
De Sousa key to 1st-half stretch run
Silvio De Sousa — the same player coach Bill Self didn’t trust enough to put on the court the last time Kansas squared off with West Virginia — was the only Jayhawk in uniform who could score inside most of the first half.
As West Virginia spent more than 11 minutes before halftime with the lead, the Jayhawks weren’t finding many chances for quality looks at the basket unless they came on 3-pointers.
Enter suddenly-super sub De Sousa.
When the 6-foot-9 freshman from Angola checked in with 14:49 to go until halftime, KU had 2 points in the paint. It turned out De Sousa was the only Jayhawk who could get the job done, as he proceeded to score 10 of KU’s 12 points in the paint before the break.
De Sousa shot 5 for 5 in 13 first-half minutes with two tip-ins, two slam dunks and a layup. His teammates combined to make 4 of 10 attempts at the rim.
By the end of De Sousa’s perfect 8-for-8 shooting night he accounted for 16 of KU’s 24 points in the paint.
Red-hot second half
It seemed as if every shot KU put up at Sprint Center in the second half was going to end up dropping through the net.
The Jayhawks made their first three shot attempts out of halftime, including a 3-pointer each for Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick. And even though the next few minutes featured a 1-for-4 stretch with two missed layups, the Kansas offense exploded soon after.
KU connected on 14 of its final 18 field-goal attempts en route to 72-percent shooting in the final 20 minutes. It was the fourth time this season the Jayhawks shot 70 percent or better in a half, and what a half in which to pull it off again, with the Big 12’s postseason championship up for grabs.
Senior leader Devonte’ Graham put on quite a show, hitting 6 of 7 shots in the decisive stretch. But his supporting cast was nearly as effective. De Sousa (3 of 3) didn’t miss, and both Newman and Vick shot 3 for 4.
As a result, KU poured in 48 second-half points and finished the victory with a 56.4 field-goal percentage. The Jayhawks are 13-0 this year when reaching the 50-percent mark.
Power of the 3-ball (again)
As important as their 3-pointers were against Kansas State the night before at the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks inflicted far more damage on WVU in the championship game from long distance.
KU’s four starting guards combined to bury 15 of 26 3-pointers, meaning the regular-season and postseason Big 12 champions scored 56% of their points from beyond the arc against West Virginia.
In three days at the league tournament, Kansas made 34 shots from long range — the most 3-pointers by a team that only played three games in Big 12 tournament history. (Oklahoma State made 35 over four games in 1999.)
KU improved to 15-2 this season when making at least 10 shots from 3-point range.
Although West Virginia hurt Kansas much of the night with its offensive rebounding, gathering 17 of its own misses for 14 second-chance points, the Jayhawks proved much more diligent on the glass when it mattered most.
When Sagaba Konate scored a second-chance bucket with 9:37 to play, it pushed the WVU lead to 63-56. However, the Jayhawks only allowed the Mountaineers to secure one more offensive rebound on 11 missed shots the rest of the way.
De Sousa (3 defensive boards in the final 9:00), Newman (3), Vick (2) and Mykhailiuk (1), cleaned the glass in crunch time, as West Virginia failed to score another second-chance point.
Graham smooth under pressure
Although, as usual, Graham played 40 minutes and owned far more ball-handling responsibilities than any of his teammates, the senior point guard only committed two turnovers against the always-assertive WVU defense, while also supplying a career-high 13 assists.
In 120 minutes this season versus the Mountaineers and two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter, Graham turned the ball over 7 times and assisted on 26 of his teammate’s baskets.
The Jayhawks’ senior point guard set a new Big 12 title game record with his 13 assists against WVU, as well.
Kansas City, Mo. — Perennial league champion Kansas improved to 13-6 all-time in the Big 12 tournament semifinals on Friday, with an 83-67 victory over rival Kansas State at Sprint Center.
The Jayhawks only shot 44% from the floor and allowed the Wildcats to hit 53.6% of their shots in the second half, but advanced to the conference championship game for the sixth time in nine seasons.
Here are five stats that stood out — four good for Kansas, one not — in the Jayhawks’ semifinal victory over K-State.
Offense recovers in crunch time
A better opening to the second half would’ve helped the Jayhawks avoid putting the game’s outcome in danger, but they did manage to close the game appropriately.
A key Marcus Garrett steal and layup made sure of that. The freshman’s timely bucket ignited the Jayhawks, who converted 8 of their final 13 shot attempts over the course of the final 10 minutes. Up to that point, Kansas had made just 3 of 12 from the floor in the final half.
Suddenly energized after a lethargic stretch, especially for postseason basketball, KU’s players finished off the win by following Garrett’s lay-in with more high-percentage looks:
- 2 putbacks by Silvio De Sousa
- 2 Malik Newman 3-pointers
- A Lagerald Vick dunk
- Another Vick bucket
- A Mitch Lightfoot jam
Those baskets turned a 2-point Kansas lead into 12 before the Jayhawks spent most of the game’s final 2:00 at the foul line, going 8 for 10.
Controlling the glass
For the fourth time in the past six games, Kansas out-rebounded its opponent. Not bad for a team that did the opposite in 15 of 16 games before that.
The Jayhawks won the battle of the boards, 37-30. Even more impressive, though, they only let K-State gather 5 offensive rebounds on 32 missed field goals. The Wildcats only managed 2 second-chance points.
Big 12 opponents averaged 14.3 second-chance points a game against Kansas in the regular season and each of KU’s past eight foes scored at least 10 points in that category.
De Sousa’s 8 defensive boards led the team, and Newman secured 5 on that end. Both Devonte’ Graham and Garrett added 4 defensive rebounds.
Power of the 3-ball
For the 16th time this season, KU made 10 or more 3-pointers.
By knocking down 11 of 28 (39%) versus K-State, the Jayhawks improved to 14-2 when scoring at least 30 points from beyond the arc. K-State, meanwhile, made just 2 of 13 from 3-point range (15%) — the fewest makes and worst percentage by a KU opponent this season.
Both Newman (5 of 8) and Svi Mykhailiuk (4 of 8) routinely exploited the Wildcats for leaving them open.
Bench (and former sub) scoring
Between KU’s four regular members of the starting five, each contributed double-digit points in Friday’s win.
But Kansas nearly had three more players join Newman (22), Graham (15), Mykhailiuk (12) and Vick (10) in double figures.
A starter in just 4 games this season, Lightfoot added 8 points for the Jayhawks, who also picked up 8 points apiece from backups Garrett and De Sousa.
Newman carried the load offensively, but every other member of the rotation found opportunities to score, too, giving Kansas some balance in its distribution, making the attack less predictable.
No resistance in the paint
KU typically fares well inside or at least goes toe to toe with opponents in terms of making baskets around the hoop.
The Jayhawks averaged a +7.5 points in the paint margin during the regular season (+2.2 vs. Big 12 foes) and even outscored Oklahoma State by 10 inside without Udoka Azubuike in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
However, the Jayhawks lost the battle for the paint against K-State. The Wildcats scored 42 points inside, matching the most by any KU opponent this season.
Confident in taking their chances against Kansas bigs Lightfoot and De Sousa, the Wildcats finished with a 42-28 advantage in points in the paint, stimulated by Makol Mawien’s 29-point explosion, 16 of which came at the rim.
You know West Virginia will try to inflict even more damage against KU’s interior defense in Saturday night’s Big 12 title game.
Kansas City, Mo. — When Kansas lost starting center Udoka Azubuike for the Big 12 tournament due to a left knee injury, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham knew the top-seeded Jayhawks would need Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa to produce in the 7-footer’s absence.
What Graham didn’t realize before Thursday’s quarterfinal against Oklahoma State, though, was KU would even lean a little bit on basketball walk-on and football scholarship player James Sosinski — in the first half no less.
Two fouls apiece on fill-in starter Lightfoot and backup big De Sousa before intermission forced Bill Self to turn to Sosinski for just the fourth time this season.
“I was surprised when he got in,” Graham said. “It’s funny, because coach did tell him, ‘James, you better be ready.’ I thought he was just joking.”
It was at that point in the discussion that Graham, enjoying the team’s 82-68 victory over the Cowboys, spotted Lightfoot walking nearby in KU’s locker room and let it be known Sosinski had the Jayhawks’ sophomore big man to thank for his unexpected role.
“But numbnuts over here, when he’s fouling, when Mitch’s fouling and Silvio comes in and fouls, you’ve got to put somebody in,” Graham said toward Lightfoot, who grinned in response. “We might as well get James to come in and get a foul off. He used to playing football, so he just hacked him when he got in.”
Indeed, the Cowboys’ Yankuba Sima drew a foul on Sosinski, put in two free throws, and scored another basket inside during the 6-foot-7 KU reserve’s 1:25 of playing time.
“He fouled as soon as he got in,” Self said afterward, before joking a yellow flag might have landed on the Sprint Center court in response to the KU tight end’s aggressive play. “It should’ve been 10 yards.”
Before De Sousa got comfortable, finishing with 6 points and 8 rebounds in 15 minutes, Self didn’t think the freshman played very well in his first opportunity off the bench. KU’s coach even thought about turning to Sosinski earlier than he did in the first half. The next time Self needed to sub out Lightfoot, he wanted to insert Sosinski, before his assistants talked him out of it.
“I’m probably glad I made the decision I did,” Self said. “It’s nice to have James, but I never thought going into this season, when you’ve got Udoka and you’ve got Billy Preston, that James Sosinski may be important in the postseason,” he added with a chuckle.
In truth, Sosinski's presence didn’t make or break KU. The only statistic he recorded in his minute-plus was a personal foul. In the final seconds of the half, Sosinski looked to be positioned for an offensive rebound on a missed Marcus Garrett 3-pointer. However, senior Svi Mykhailiuk came crashing in from the weak side, soaring above the low-to-the-floor football/basketball player. Mykhailiuk scored a buzzer-beating layup for a 43-42 halftime lead.
“I was thinking I was gonna get it and Svi got it,” Sosinski said. “I just kind of let him shoot it, that’s his go-to. It was a big momentum swing going into the second half.”
Just a bad-luck situation for the seldom-used backup to KU’s backup bigs? Not according to Graham.
“No, that was a good-luck situation,” a smiling Graham countered. “I’m glad Svi got it and scored. No telling what James would’ve done with it.”
It’s not that the Jayhawks don’t appreciate Sosinski and his contributions. De Sousa said he never looks forward to his encounters with the scout team big during Kansas practices. When they match up, De Sousa thinks to himself, “Man, why you gotta guard me right now?”
“He’s really hard to score on,” De Sousa added. “He just plays hard. He goes after every single ball. That’s how he is.”
“He always plays great in practice. If he gets in I’m pretty confident he’s not going to let his guy score easily, and if he had to foul he’s gonna foul really hard,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a good player, and he definitely helped us today.”
The two-sport athlete from Chandler, Ariz., has played sparingly, with two similarly brief appearances, since getting four minutes of playing time Dec. 18 versus Omaha and scoring 4 points in mop-up duty.
Sosinski left the arena Friday feeling grateful for his short cameo and a rare chance to chip in.
“Even though it was a minute and a half, every minute’s important in games like this,” Sosinski said. “Since I know I’m not going to play any minutes, I’ve just got to play as hard as I can.”