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Stock watch: Josh Jackson’s versatility makes him best small forward in NBA Draft

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Still almost a month away from the May 16 NBA Draft Lottery and some real clarity about where one-and-done Kansas star Josh Jackson could land in the NBA, one factor in his stock is discernible: Jackson is the best small forward available.

For months, experts have raved about the 2017 draft class and its point guards, and Jackson’s name often comes up after Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball in terms of most-coveted prospects. But even with the buzz increasing around Duke freshman small forward Jason Tatum’s stock, Jackson’s versatile game and defensive approach make him the primary target for a team looking to add a wing.

A 6-foot-8 20-year-old from Detroit who finally officially turned pro earlier this week, Jackson’s name takes the No. 1 position on a big board of small forwards, according to a feature David Aldridge wrote for NBA.com.

Jackson, who averaged 16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists for Bill Self’s Jayhawks during his one season, ranked ahead of the aforementioned Tatum (easily his biggest non-point guard competition for a top spot in the draft), Florida State freshman Jonathan Issac and Indiana sophomore O.G. Anunoby.

In compiling the list, Aldridge, a veteran NBA reporter, ranked the college and foreign players based on who, in theory, would be best suited to step onto an NBA floor tonight and make the most significant impact. To do so, he used intel from general managers and coaches around The Association, as well as college coaches.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) floats in for a bucket over Michigan State forward Kenny Goins (25) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) floats in for a bucket over Michigan State forward Kenny Goins (25) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

While discussing who Jackson might be comparable to, Aldridge’s conversations led him to the names of two NBA Finals MVPs: all-league San Antonio forward Kawhi Leonard and Golden State veteran Andre Iguodala.

“I freaking love him,” an executive of a team likely to have a high lottery pick told Aldridge. “This guy’s getting better as he goes, so I can’t see how he can’t be Iguodala — a guy who can defend and pass, and who’s becoming a better shooter. I know the Kansas people, and in terms of work and all that stuff … they were absolutely in love with him as a kid — not a little bit, a lot. He has (Andrew) Wiggins’ athleticism with character off the chain.”

Since Jackson decided to play at Kansas we’ve heard the Wiggins comparisons, but the Iguodala one is unique and intriguing. Casual fans may know the 6-foot-6 wing, now 33, as a phenomenal veteran role player for Golden State. But earlier in his career Iguodala gave his teams in Philadelphia and Denver those intangibles and so much more. Iguodala averaged 17.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists in 2009-10 — arguably his best stat-stuffing season — for the Sixers.

The fascinating aspect of Jackson’s potential is that the Iguodala comparison is only the baseline. Jackson could turn into an even more devastating version of Iguodala, and that’s likely why someone invoked the name of MVP candidate Leonard. No one saw the Spurs’ 6-7 small forward turning into one of the best players on the planet before the 2011 draft, but evaluators look at Jackson’s skill set and competitive nature and envision greatness.

Leonard didn’t enter the league as a player anyone feared as a 3-point shooter, yet he has turned himself into a threat. During his just-completed sixth regular season, the former San Diego State stud shot 38.1% from long range while setting career-highs in makes (147) and attempts (386).

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) puts a shot over Michigan State guard Miles Bridges (22) during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) puts a shot over Michigan State guard Miles Bridges (22) during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

In order to one day become an all-league type of talent Jackson will need to follow a similar path. He arrived at KU with questions about his jump shot, but steadily improved throughout the season to finish at 37.8% on 3-pointers, after making less than 30% in both November and December.

Aldridge reported some wonder how the NBA’s deeper 3-point arc will impact Jackson’s shot-making from deep, but one Pacific Division executive didn’t seem too worried about it.

“There’s a lot less of a concern now than there was in the early part of the season, maybe the middle of the season,” the executive said. “He shot 40 percent the last month, month and a half of the year (Jackson shot 48.1 percent, 25 of 52, behind the arc the last seven weeks of the season). He’s been the best player in his class. He has that kind of pedigree. If he can consistently shoot from NBA range, he does so many other things well he’s going to be a good NBA player.”

— See David Aldridge’s SF big board for the 2017 NBA Draft: Kansas’ Josh Jackson sure thing in small forward group full of surprises

Team’s chances of winning the lottery

Boston (from Brooklyn) - 25%

Phoenix - 19.9%

L.A. Lakers - 15.6%

Philadelphia - 11.9%

Orlando - 8.8%

Minnesota - 5.3%

New York - 5.3%

Sacramento - 2.8%

Dallas - 1.7%

New Orleans - 1.1%

Charlotte - 0.8%

Detroit - 0.7%

Denver - 0.6%

Miami - 0.5%

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An introduction to future Jayhawks Dedric and K.J. Lawson

Memphis' Dedric Lawson looks to shoot as Connecticut's Kentan Facey, right, defends in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Memphis' Dedric Lawson looks to shoot as Connecticut's Kentan Facey, right, defends in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Once a national championship opponent of the Kansas Jayhawks, Memphis hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament in three years. So you get a pass if you weren’t particularly familiar with a couple of second-year Tigers by the names of Dedric and K.J. Lawson before news of their plans to transfer to KU came out Monday.

Who are the Lawsons, exactly? Well, they’re brothers, as you likely guessed. Though they’re both in the same class from a student-athlete perspective, K.J. is actually a year older than Dedric, who reclassified to join Memphis at the same time as his brother.

Between them they combined to average more than 31 points per game this past season for Memphis (19-13) and head coach Tubby Smith.

Dedric, a 6-foot-9 guard/forward, proved to be more prolific offensively for the brothers’ hometown program, while nearly averaging a double-double — 19.2 points and 9.9 rebounds — as a sophomore. He only shot 27% from 3-point range (30-for-111) but converted much more effectively on 2-point shots (52%) before he and his brother decided to move on. Dedric made himself a presence on defense, too, averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.3 steals a game.

K.J., a 6-foot-7 guard/forward improved his production with a leap in minutes — and health — between his freshman and sophomore years. K.J. only played 10 games as a freshman, due to a foot injury, and averaged 8.8 points and 3.5 boards in 19.7 minutes.

South Carolina forward Mindaugas Kacinas (25) fouls Memphis forward K.J. Lawson, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

South Carolina forward Mindaugas Kacinas (25) fouls Memphis forward K.J. Lawson, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Able to play 32 games the following year, his sophomore numbers improved to 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds in 33.7 minutes. This past season, K.J. was more accurate from 3-point range than his brother, connecting on 22 of 67 attempts (32.8%). K.J. shot 39.9% from the floor overall in 2016-17, while Dedric converted 46.1% of his field goals.

Dedric got to the free-throw line a lot more, hitting on 152 of 205 attempts (74.1%) as a sophomore. K.J. made 82 of 118 free throws (69.5%) this past year.

Considered the more talented of the two, Dedric tested the NBA Draft waters in 2016 after becoming the American Athletic Conference’s Rookie of the Year and returned to school after attending the draft combine and hearing from NBA decision-makers about his stock.

Though his sophomore production wasn’t enough to make him an NBA player after two college seasons, Dedric and K.J. likely had their professional futures in mind when deciding to transfer to a high-profile program and play for Bill Self at Kansas.

Here’s a look at one of Dedric’s more effective games of his sophomore season — when he went for 26 points and 6 rebounds against Tulsa — which includes various examples of why he was named First Team All-AAC.

K.J. made it back-to-back AAC Rookie of the Year awards for the Lawson household as a sophomore. His 8.1 boards ranked him third in the conference, behind Dedric’s league-leading 9.9. Like his brother, who averaged 2.9 offensive rebounds a game, K.J. attacked the glass on that end of the floor, gathering 2.3 a game.

Though he wasn’t featured in the Tigers’ offense as much as his brother, he showed a smooth handle and shooting touch in spots, and put together a 19-rebound outing in January versus East Carolina.

“I think my strongest skill set is just my aggressiveness and my rebounding skills,” K.J. said in an interview after picking up his rookie hardware. “Just playing and just enforcing my will on people.”

The Lawson brothers, per NCAA rules, won’t make their KU debuts until the 2018-19 season, after sitting out this coming season as transfers.

Reply 12 comments from Memhawk Koolkeithfreeze Shannon Gustafson Dale Rogers Mallory Briggans Steve Corder Cairo_jayhawk Ryan Mullen Greg Ledom Scott Callahan

KU’s Frank Mason III discusses his pro potential on NBA TV, with Grant Hill

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) extends to the bucket past Michigan State forward Nick Ward (44) during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) extends to the bucket past Michigan State forward Nick Ward (44) during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

The next time the public gets to watch national player of the year and Kansas great Frank Mason III play basketball, odds are it will double as Mason’s chance to prove he deserves a spot in the NBA, by playing in the summer league a few months from now.

His odds of pulling off the leap from college standout to trusted member of an NBA roster wasn’t a subject Mason had time for over the past several months, with his tunnel vision focused on getting the Jayhawks as far as he could in his final NCAA Tournament.

Now that the 23-year-old point guard’s KU playing days are through, he felt willing to look ahead to what’s next in an interview with Grant Hill for NBA TV’s “Inside Stuff,” which aired on Saturday.

“I dreamed of things like these,” Mason told Hill of appearing on the show almost three months ahead of the draft. “I’m just thankful for this opportunity, and it just shows you how much work I’ve put in over the years. And I’m just excited about everything and just ready to get started with this process.”

Mason, who said he didn’t consider his college career “great,” because he didn’t win a national championship, thought he had “a pretty good four years.” While, as Hill brought up in the one-on-one, NBA decision-makers have varying ideas about what kind of player Mason can become professionally, the Petersburg, Va., native envisions finding success at the highest level of basketball.

“I think I’m a really good play-maker,” said Mason, who scored 20.9 points a game as a Kansas senior and dished 5.2 assists. “I can shoot the ball, I can get others involved. I think I’ll just be an overall great teammate and good player.”

On NBA TV, Hill actually got Mason to crack a smile a few times, including when he asked the KU star which of the many great point guards in the league he’s looking forward to facing.

“Everyone’s good players in the NBA,” Mason said. “So I’m looking forward to competing with the best and just getting out there and playing against those guys and having the opportunity to be on the floor with them and competing against them.”

The most recent mock draft at DraftExpress.com projects Mason as the next-to-last pick, 59th overall, a spot currently occupied by San Antonio.

— Watch Mason’s complete interview with Hill below.

None by NBA TV

Reply 3 comments from Brian Steward Andrew Dunlap Andy Godwin

Analyzing what skilled forward Billy Preston will bring to Kansas next season

Oak Hill Academy's Billy Preston #23 in action against Nathan Hale during the second half of a high school basketball game at the 2017 Hoophall Classic on Monday, January 16, 2017, in Springfield, MA. Nathan Hale won 80-77. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Oak Hill Academy's Billy Preston #23 in action against Nathan Hale during the second half of a high school basketball game at the 2017 Hoophall Classic on Monday, January 16, 2017, in Springfield, MA. Nathan Hale won 80-77. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

With the Kansas basketball team’s season over a week earlier than those in Lawrence hoped, it became easy to look ahead to the 2017-18 season and what kind of team Bill Self will be able to put on the floor.

Those thoughts conveniently coincided with the 40th Annual McDonald’s All-American Game and KU-bound Billy Preston’s appearance in the Chicago showcase, where he put up 10 points and hit a pair of 3-pointers in 16 minutes.

One can only learn so much about a top-rated high school player via YouTube mixtapes and nationally-televised all-star games, though. So I was excited to find out Wednesday night wasn’t the only time Preston’s game would be on display. As it turns out, his Oak Hill Academy (Va.) team also played Thursday afternoon — yes, as in: less than 24 hours after the McDonald’s game — at the Dick’s Sporting Goods High School Nationals, in New York — as in: nowhere near The Windy City. ESPNU broadcasted the quarterfinals of the eight-team tournament, giving us the opportunity to analyze Preston’s game in a slightly more competitive setting.

You may have learned by now Preston, a 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward ranked No. 8 in the Class of 2017 by Rivals, went for 21 points and 9 rebounds in his high school finale against Findlay Prep (Nev.) on the short turn-around that involved an early-morning flight from Chicago to NYC. Preston’s Hall of Fame coach, Steve Smith, said Oak Hill’s star forward, who came in off the bench on Thursday, was tired entering his second ESPN-broadcasted event in one day.

Jet lag might have played a factor in the the future Jayhawk’s performance. But who could pass up a sneak peek at Preston, particularly given he spent much of the game competing against Kentucky signee P.J. Washington, a 6-7 prospect ranked 11th in the class by Rivals.

What follows are observations of Preston on both ends of the floor during a 77-65 victory by Findlay.

FIRST QUARTER

OFFENSE

  • Down 13-5 before he subbed in for good, Preston spent his first couple of possessions occupying the space near the free-throw line and top of the key against Findlay’s 2-3 zone. He first touched the basketball going up for an offensive rebound several possessions later

  • Preston’s first true touch within the offense came in the final minute of the first quarter. He took a jumper from roughly 17 feet, which rimmed out.

  • Got in the scoring column by running the floor with guard Ty-Shon Alexander, a Creighton commit. Alexander sucked the defense in, setting Preston up for an easy, two-handed flush.

  • After going many of his initial minutes against Findlay un-utilized, Preston got the ball with the first-quarter clock winding down by finding an opening in the zone, at the free-throw line. Preston rose up to drill a jumper. Very Marcus/Markieff Morris of him.

DEFENSE

  • Just getting into the game’s flow, Preston went under a screen and his man, Kentucky-bound Washington, knocked down a 3-pointer on the right wing.

  • Preston moved well in the half court but didn’t assert himself at times.

SECOND QUARTER

OFFENSE

  • Upon securing a long defensive rebound, Preston showed his ball-handling ability, pushing it up the floor and using a hesitation dribble and cross-over to get into the paint, before finding a wide-open teammate in the left corner.

  • After his transition push, the ball swung over to the opposite side of the floor and Preston jumped out of bounds to keep the ball alive on a missed shot, allowing Oak Hill to retain possession.

  • With a smaller defender on him on the perimeter, Preston displayed a quick and effective behind-the-back dribble going left to right to create some space before moving the ball to to a teammate when a help defender came his way.

  • Posting up on the left baseline with an immense height advantage, Preston took three back-down dribbles before turning into the paint, drawing three defenders and dropping off a perfect pass for guard Lindell Wigginton, an Iowa State signee.

  • On a catch in the right corner, Preston sized up the defender in front of him, took a dribble to his right and drained a long 2-pointer (had a toe on the arc) to give Oak Hill a three-point lead in the final minutes of the first half.

  • After showing his willingness to keep the ball moving within the offense, Preston flashed to the ball at the right elbow and used his strength and athleticism to get off a difficult fall-away jumper that he left short.

  • Trapped in the back court, near the right sideline against Findlay’s full-court press, Preston put too much air under a diagonal pass into the front court, resulting in a turnover.

  • With Findlay still pressing in the final minute of the quarter, Preston waited along the baseline for Oak Hill to break the pressure, then cut hard toward the rim to receive a lob pass from future Texas Longhorn Matt Coleman. Preston finished it with an easy layup.

DEFENSE

  • Though he anticipated the screens coming in the paint as he began chasing Washington from the left wing to the right corner, Preston left his man with a little too much space and the future Wildcat buried a 3-pointer over the soon-to-be Jayhawk. You could tell that Washington is more of a true perimeter player and Preston was doing his best as a rangy man to defend him. Washington will play small forward at Kentucky and Preston will be more like a stretch-4 for Self at Kansas.

  • Charged with defending Washington with an on-the-ball screen coming, Preston let his big man show before jumping back into position, but he did so at an angle that allowed Washington to drive to the left side of the paint for a layup attempt, which his foe missed.

  • Unable to haul in a layup attempt altered by one of his teammates, Preston couldn’t recover quickly enough to prevent an easy second-chance bucket in front of him.

THIRD QUARTER

OFFENSE

  • Left wide-open on the right wing, Preston’s first touch of the second half, which he started and played every minute in, resulted in a smooth and easy 3-pointer.

  • After running the floor and finding an open spot on the right side, Preston looked effortless rising up on a catch, and in one motion sent another 3 splashing through the net.

  • Fresh off a steal at the opposite end of the court, Preston took off for the right sideline, caught the ball behind the 3-point line, made a head fake to get space and elevated for a pretty 2-point jumper.

  • His 7-foot wingspan made it easy for Preston to control an offensive rebound off a missed 3 by Wigginton.

  • A rare offensive miscue, Preston caught a pass on the left wing, made two strong dribbles toward the left block but turned the ball over while trying to get up for a shot.

  • Showing how his size and athleticism could make him a problem for opponents in the open floor, Preston went right at his man in a one-on-one opportunity to draw a foul.

  • Defenders will have a difficult time closing out on Preston, who can shoot or drive. He went right by Washington on one possession after catching the ball in the left corner. The play resulted in a missed shot in the paint once the help came over, but served as a reminder of the forward’s multiple skills.

DEFENSE

  • After helping off Washington to protect the paint, Preston closed back out to his man but left himself suspect to a drive. Washington took advantage and got past Preston, and although the UK-bound forward missed he beat Preston to the offensive board.

  • Lurking in the paint in Oak Hill’s zone when a pass came in his area, Preston knocked it away for a steal and then ran the floor to get another quality offensive look.

  • Manning the spot on the right baseline within the 2-3 zone, Preston didn’t slide over to cut off a pass to the paint after his teammates shifted to the left side of the floor and Findlay scored an easy lay-in.

FOURTH QUARTER

OFFENSE

  • Receiving the ball on the move to the hoop on a baseline-out-of-bounds set, Preston initially had his shot rejected by Washington before gathering the miss and powering his way over his defender for a basket inside.

  • In response to Findlay taking a double-digit lead, Preston attacked the paint in a three-on-three situation, forcing the defenders to converge on him before he dished an assist.

  • Late in the game, Preston delivered his top highlight. Once Oak Hill solved the press, Wigginton had Preston breaking from the left side and floated a pass above the rim for the KU signee to flush with a two-handed slam.

  • Not a dazzling passer, Preston is an effective one. In the final minutes with the game all but decided he whizzed a pass ahead while pushing the ball toward mid-court, finding a teammate for a successful 3-pointer.

  • Missed a corner 3-pointer and a potential one-handed alley-oop in the final 30 seconds, with Oak Hill down 15.

DEFENSE

  • Gave up an offensive rebound inside with Oak Hill down 10 and just more than four minutes remaining. … Surrendered another offensive board less than a minute later.

As Matt Tait rightly pointed out earlier this week, Preston is not Josh Jackson; nor should fans expect him to be.

Jackson is a top-three pick in this year’s draft. As of now at least, DraftExpress.com doesn’t even project Preston as a one-and-done 2018 early entry. That obviously qualifies as good news for Kansas. Two years of a high school all-American sure beats one.

The biggest difference between Jackson and KU’s latest blue-chipper has to be their level of intensity, not to mention Jackson’s dazzling passing ability and court vision.

ESPNU analyst Paul Biancardi said the following of Preston during the broadcast: “I mean this in the nicest way. Billy Preston has one-and-done ability, but he has four-and-out … effort. It’s not the talent with Billy Preston. It’s the consistent effort.”

It could take Preston a while to adapt to the college level, the analyst suggested, but Biancardi also went on to praise the Kansas signee at various points, especially regarding his shot selection, which often involved Oak Hill’s top frontcourt player making quick decisions with the ball in his hands.

Just how long Preston sticks around at KU remains to be seen, but the smooth-shooting forward will become a fan favorite. And you have to figure Self and his assistants will determine how to light a fire under Preston and get him to compete harder on both ends of the floor.

Now that his high school playing days are through, it’s time for Preston to embrace the idea of constant improvement, because that’s what will get him to his ultimate destination, the NBA.

None by Billy Preston♕

None by Billy Preston♕

Reply 5 comments from Layne Pierce Harlan Hobbs Humpy Helsel Randy Maxwell Steve Johnson Chris DeWeese

Where KU’s 1988 and 2008 titles rank among most difficult roads to championship

Members of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, including Danny Manning hold up their trophy after winning the championship game of the NCAA final four tournament in Kansas City on Monday, April 5, 1988. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)

Members of the Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, including Danny Manning hold up their trophy after winning the championship game of the NCAA final four tournament in Kansas City on Monday, April 5, 1988. (AP Photo/Susan Ragan)

No one ever claimed emerging from the madness of March as the NCAA Tournament’s champion was easy. But some paths are more difficult than others.

In Lawrence, the 1988 title captured by “Danny and The Miracles” will live on forever not only because national championships are in their very nature elusive and memorable, but also because Larry Brown and Danny Manning guided KU to that glory as a No. 6 seed. It was one of the more improbable and formidable runs in college basketball lore.

Where does it rank among the most demanding roads to a championship? Well, according to a study from Luke Benz of Yale University’s Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group, KU’s 1988 ascension stands out more than most since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Per the breakdown, the 2014 Connecticut Huskies are the champions of grueling title runs, after winning it all as a No. 7 seed. And only the classic, Cinderella-esque 1985 Villanova Wildcats (a No. 8 seed) also rank ahed of the ’88 Jayhawks.

Interestingly, the data used to compile the list takes into account more than a given team’s seeding in the year it won. The research involves NCAA Tournament history and the frequencies with which a specific seed beats a team from another particular seed line.

Here’s how the author, Benz, explains it: “For example, since 1985, 5 seeds have beaten 12 seeds 63.5% of the time, meaning a victory for the 5 seed in the game would net a Game Difficulty Rating of 0.365. Finally, I computed the total difficulty of a team’s championship by summing all of its Game Difficulty Ratings en route to the title.”

The analysis emerged in response to current tourney buzz surrounding Gonzaga’s first trip to the Final Four, with many arguing the Zags had far too easy a road to navigate. So the list includes projections for this year’s national semifinalists and where they would rank all-time should they cut down the nets this coming Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium. As it turns out, Frank Martin’s seventh-seeded South Carolina team, with two more victories, would dethrone 2014 UConn.

Anyway, back to the KU angle of this thought-provoking examination of tournament feats. You might be somewhat surprised to learn KU’s 2008 championship ranks as the fifth-easiest on the list.

Kansas guard Sherron Collins, center, celebrates with Mario Chalmers (15) and Darrell Arthur (00) after the Jayhawks defeated Memphis in the national championship game on April 7, 2008, in San Antonio. KU and Memphis meet tonight for the first time since the title game.

Kansas guard Sherron Collins, center, celebrates with Mario Chalmers (15) and Darrell Arthur (00) after the Jayhawks defeated Memphis in the national championship game on April 7, 2008, in San Antonio. KU and Memphis meet tonight for the first time since the title game. by Thad Allender

The Jayhawks had to beat a pair of No. 1 seeds in North Carolina and Memphis to raise another banner in Allen Fieldhouse, but Bill Self’s Jayhawks beat teams seeded 16th, eighth, 12th and 10th prior to reaching the Final Four.

Studying the list from another angle, some KU teams played a part in other programs’ arduous routes to the NCAA championship. Syracuse and Carmelo Anthony topped Kansas in the 2003 title game, and the Orange just behind the 1988 Jayhawks. Melo’s crowning achievement comes in one spot ahead of Arizona’s 1997 run, when the Wildcats in the Sweet 16 knocked out a two-loss KU team that included future NBA lottery picks Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce.

What’s more, Villanova’s 2016 championship, which included an Elite Eight victory over Kansas, ranks as the eighth-most difficult championship to date.

— Check out the complete list and breakdown from Yale’s Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group: NCAA Championship Difficulties

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Stock watch: Where does Devonte’ Graham’s NBA candidacy stand after his junior year?

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From the moment Josh Jackson decided to play at Kansas, everyone knew he would spend one season with the Jayhawks before becoming an NBA lottery pick. And now that his freshman year is done, we can see Jackson’s a near lock to go in the first three picks this coming June.

The immediate future of KU junior guard Devonte’ Graham — and his whole should I stay or go conundrum — qualifies as far more cloudy.

At various points before and during the Jayhawks’ now completed 31-5 season, Graham’s name appeared on mock drafts near the bottom of the first round and/or hovering close to the top of the second round. At DraftExpress.com, his stock peaked at 28th overall, in October.

However, in a Draft Express projection updated this past weekend, the name of the 6-foot-2 guard from Raleigh, N.C., didn’t appear until near the bottom third of the two-round mockup, with Graham predicted as the 50th overall selection, by the Denver Nuggets.

What’s to be made of him going from a possible first-round pick to the 20th choice in Round 2? It could have to do with Graham’s shooting.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) puts up a three over Purdue guard Dakota Mathias (31) during the first half, Thursday, March 23, 2017 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) puts up a three over Purdue guard Dakota Mathias (31) during the first half, Thursday, March 23, 2017 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

In his third season at Kansas, Graham took 32 more 3-pointers than he did in his first two years combined, but only totaled two more 3-point makes than when you add up his freshman and sophomore numbers. In other words, his accuracy took a noticeable dip.

Here’s a look at his percentages from beyond the arc at Kansas:

- Freshman year: 17-for-40, 42.5% (29 games, 17.8 minutes)

- Sophomore year: 75-for-170, 44.1% (38 games, 32.5 minutes)

- Junior year: 94-for-242, 38.8% (36 games, 35.3 minutes)

Graham definitely has other qualities that will help him as he tries to make an NBA roster, but his 3-point marksmanship a year ago made the idea of selecting a 6-2, 185-pound guard more appealing. Graham’s mark of 38.8% this season wasn’t bad by any means — it currently ranks tied for 52nd nationally — but that 44.1% really made him stand out as a shooting prospect.

We still don’t know whether Graham will enter the draft or return to Kansas for his senior year. He could opt to test the waters without hiring an agent. Should he choose option No. 3, Graham could go to the NBA Draft Combine in May, get feedback on his status from various franchises and determine then what to do next.

Withdrawing from the draft in order to pad a pro résumé worked well over the past year for Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan, North Carolina wing Justin Jackson, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Villanova’s Josh Hart and Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame.

A late second-round draft pick isn’t guaranteed anything, so Graham could be more interested in returning to Kansas for the 2017-18 season and another run at a Final Four next March if his stock doesn’t take a jump upward in the next several weeks.

Of course, it’s ultimately his decision, and if Graham is ready to become a professional, Bill Self won’t stop him. The coach only will help his 22-year old guard make the most informed resolution possible.

Reply 15 comments from Pius Waldman Steve Corder Jay Hawkinson Craig Alexander Alex Berger Andrew Foster Steve Johnson Mike Riches Janet Olin Tim Orel and 2 others

‘Always ready’: Dwight Coleby comes through again on tournament stage

Kansas forward Dwight Coleby (22) and Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) have a laugh after a bucket by Coleby and a Michigan State foul during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas forward Dwight Coleby (22) and Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) have a laugh after a bucket by Coleby and a Michigan State foul during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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.”

By the Numbers: Kansas 98, Purdue 66

By the Numbers: Kansas 98, Purdue 66

Reply 2 comments from Mallory Briggans Doug Merrill

Josh Jackson’s best is yet to come

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) delivers a dunk during the second half on Friday, March 17, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) delivers a dunk during the second half on Friday, March 17, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. by Nick Krug

Kansas City, Mo. — A finite number of games remain in Josh Jackson’s college basketball career. And although his first 33 in a Kansas uniform have included a 31-point show, 11 double-doubles, 50 dunks and countless examples of the kind of floor vision one just doesn’t expect out of a 6-foot-8 freshman, we have not yet seen the best of Jackson.

That’s what the projected top-three pick in this June’s NBA Draft told reporters Wednesday, on the eve of the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 showdown with Purdue.

Jackson conceded he has had his share of performances he would grade as “good games” in specific areas, “whether it be scoring or playing defense or passing the ball,” KU’s latest basketball prodigy said. “I don’t think I’ve had a game yet this season where I’ve put it all together in one game.”

That might initially come across as an absurd statement, but it’s an example of what Jackson expects from himself and what he knows top-seeded KU (30-4) needs from him in order to do something extraordinary during this NCAA Tournament.

Be honest. Do you really remember anything in particular about Jackson’s 31-point game at Texas Tech in February? That’s a big number and it’s basically forgettable at this juncture because the first-year (or: one-year) perimeter star has so much talent in so many aspects of the game. You know he’s capable of far more striking outings and so does he.

Jackson enters Thursday night’s game against the fourth-seeded Boilermakers (27-7) averaging 16.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists, with a 51.7% field-goal percentage and 38.6% accuracy from 3-point range (43.5% in Big 12 play). While Jackson’s free throws (56.7% on the season) have been one relative weakness, he has led KU in scoring nine times, in rebounds 11 times and in assists four times.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) gets up for an attempted dunk over Iowa State guard Deonte Burton (30) during the second half, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse. Burton fouled Jackson on the play.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) gets up for an attempted dunk over Iowa State guard Deonte Burton (30) during the second half, Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse. Burton fouled Jackson on the play. by Nick Krug

His defensive impact — as witnessed when Kansas lost to TCU at Sprint Center two weeks ago while Jackson served a one-game suspension — is just as key. Fourteen times this season the freshman has led KU in steals, a number one better than the occasions when he finished as the team leader in blocks (13).

When asked what makes him so effective as a basketball player, Jackson referenced his basketball I.Q., height and athleticism after first naming his greatest intangible, his competitive drive. Those qualities combined make it easy to visualize Jackson out-doing himself against Purdue, and improving upon his 23-point outing against Michigan State this past weekend, when he only grabbed three rebounds and shockingly passed out zero assists.

KU couldn’t have picked a better time to see Jackson’s confidence continue to grow, and it’s coinciding with the Jayhawks peaking as a team, according to him.

“I think we’re playing the best defense that we’ve played all year,” Jackson said, “and I feel like it’s getting better and better every game. I feel like it’ll be even better (versus Purdue).”

In the past four games with Jackson on the floor, Kansas held Oklahoma to 34.9% shooting, Oklahoma State to 42.3%, UC-Davis to 33.9% and Michigan State to 43.9%. The Jayhawks defended the 3-point arc admirably in those wins, too: OU shot 28.6%, OSU 33.3%, UCD 20% and MSU 34.8%.

A reporter asked Jackson Wednesday if Kansas is the best team in the Sweet 16. He didn’t hesitate to answer: “In my opinion, yes.”

Why?

“We have a lot of things that other teams don’t have. Well, for one, we have Frank Mason,” Jackson began, with a chuckle. “Two, we’ve got guys who know their role and are really good at doing their role and we’ve got an amazing coach. We’ve got a coach who really knows basketball, trusts his players and gives us a lot of freedom.”

Indeed, Bill Self has equipped Jackson to do it all for this Kansas team, and the trust the freshman has earned from his coach and teammates makes it possible for him to overshadow other moments in his dazzling season every time the ball is tipped.


More news and notes previewing Kansas vs. Purdue


Reply 6 comments from Jim Chastain Ryan Zimmerman Mike Greer Jaston Archie Len Shaffer Dannyboy4hawks

Late-game lessons Jayhawks should carry with them to Sweet 16

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) and Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) defend Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (5) around the perimeter during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) and Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) defend Michigan State guard Cassius Winston (5) around the perimeter during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick (2) delivers a dunk over Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Lagerald Vick (2) delivers a dunk over Michigan State guard Joshua Langford (1) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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

None by NCAA March Madness

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

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) goes in for a bucket against Michigan State forward Kenny Goins (25) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) goes in for a bucket against Michigan State forward Kenny Goins (25) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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 forward Dwight Coleby (22) celebrates during a Jayhawk run in the second half against Michigan State on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas forward Dwight Coleby (22) celebrates during a Jayhawk run in the second half against Michigan State on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) raises up his arms as he leaves the court with little time remaining during the Jayhawks' 90-70 win over Michigan State on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) raises up his arms as he leaves the court with little time remaining during the Jayhawks' 90-70 win over Michigan State on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) nearly gets a steal from Michigan State guard Alvin Ellis III (3) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) nearly gets a steal from Michigan State guard Alvin Ellis III (3) during the second half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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.”

Reply 1 comment from Kent Richardson

Bridges’ failed attempt to intimidate Mason fired up Jayhawks

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges (22) and Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) get up close after a drive by Mason during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla.

Michigan State forward Miles Bridges (22) and Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) get up close after a drive by Mason during the first half on Sunday, March 19, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla. by Nick Krug

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.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BR15WOsAOfU/

Reply 6 comments from Carl O'Hair Ben Berglund Pius Waldman Jim Woodward Marcus  Balzer Doug Longstaff

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