Though the state of the Kansas basketball roster remains in a bit of flux roughly six months before the 2019-20 season officially begins, one definite Jayhawk who seems capable of cracking the rotation is freshman Tristan Enaruna.
Originally from the Netherlands and more recently a four-star prospect at Wasatch Academy, in Mt. Pleasant, Utah, Enaruna won’t arrive in Lawrence ready to dominate, or even start. But the Dutch forward sure looks and speaks like the type of player Bill Self will love to coach.
When KU announced that Enaruna signed his letter of intent, Self invoked the names of Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins while trying to give KU fans an idea of what to expect from the freshman, at least from a “size, athletic ability and skill set” standpoint.
It’s important to note at this point that Self wasn’t labeling Enaruna as a one-and-done 2020 first round NBA draft pick to be by mentioning the new signee in the same breath as Oubre and Wiggins. Enaruna has been on the international basketball radar for a few years now, but the intrigue surrounding him remains rooted in what he may one day become.
Sure, if you squint your eyes just right while watching Enaruna highlights he may sort of resemble Oubre or Wiggins while rising up for a fastbreak jam. However, it seems far more likely that during his freshman season at Kansas Enaruna will favor those two most as a long, athletic wing defender.
Earlier this year, months before Enaruna committed to Kansas, he was in Charlotte, N.C., for the Basketball Without Borders international showcase. It was there that he spoke in detail with ESPN NBA Draft analyst Mike Schmitz about his game.
After exhibiting his abilities in a gymnasium occupied by numerous NBA scouts, Enaruna said his plan was to play aggressively on both ends of the floor.
“A few years ago I was relying too much on offense. If my offense didn’t go well then my defense was probably pretty bad, too. So I worked on that,” Enaruna explained.
According to what the young prospect told Schmitz, he had trouble finding a rhythm during the first half of his senior season at Wasatch Academy, but his game improved during the second half of the schedule by playing “tougher.”
So Enaruna is an incoming freshman who apparently values defense and toughness? It’s hard to imagine a better route to playing time on a Self coached team.
While Enaruna also professed to be a more consistent shooter now than he was a few years ago, his defense will probably be ahead of his offense as a first-year player at the collegiate level. And if he’s consistent on that end of the floor, with his 6-foot-8-ish frame and reported 7-foot wingspan, Enaruna should get to play through more offensive missteps than your typical KU freshman.
Enaruna, like most college basketball players with a pulse, has NBA dreams. In fact, it may be his confidence and willingness to combat on the defensive end of the court that eventually gets him that far.
When Schmitz asked him at Basketball Without Borders about how he thought he would fit into today’s NBA, Enaruna’s response pointed to the “positionless" nature of the game, with bigs capable of driving and shooting.
“You have to be able to guard multiple positions. And I think that I’ll fit in that situation pretty good,” Enaruna said.
While YouTube highlights of Enaruna show him doing plenty offensively — pulling up for 3-pointers, finishing above the rim with his long arms, driving past lazy defenders, attacking off the bounce and dishing to teammates inside and more — it’s hard to watch many of those clips without hearing Self’s voice say “that’s not ball” regarding the level of effort being exerted by some of Enaruna’s victims.
For as smooth as he looks with the ball in his hands at his edited for YouTube best, it will be the not as clickable dirty work on defense — in which Enaruna seems to take great pride — that will make him valuable for KU next season as a reserve.
From the time that it became clear to those who obsess over Kansas basketball that Bill Self was indeed the longterm answer for the program and a more than suitable replacement for Roy Williams, who left KU for North Carolina, those among the fan base prone to worrying about these types of things began fretting about which basketball team would one day lure Self away from Lawrence.
The popular potential offender quickly became the San Antonio Spurs.
KU conspiracy theorists pointed to Self’s longstanding friendship with Spurs general manager R.C. Buford, dating back to their college days at Oklahoma State.
At some point, they figured, head coach Gregg Popovich would leave the Spurs. And when that happened, the premise went, why wouldn’t Buford call up his old pal, Bill Self?
Through the years, fodder for such speculation grew. Self and Buford are close enough that R.C.’s son, Chase, joined the KU basketball team as a walk-on. After Bill’s son, Tyler, graduated from Kansas, he took an entry level job in the Spurs’ basketball operations office.
Yet, here we are, 16 years after Self took over the KU basketball program, and he’s still in Lawrence and Popovich remains in San Antonio.
Even so, this offseason was one that had to be circled on the calendars of the most paranoid KU basketball supporters, because Popovich's $11 million a year contract with San Antonio would expire at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.
Throw in recent rumors of Self being a candidate for the Chicago Bulls’ job — as if Self doesn’t know Fred Holberg well enough to know to avoid that franchise; and, by the way, the Bulls signed Hoiberg's replacement, Jim Boylen, to a contract extension in January — and theorists might have even more reasons to worry about Self leaving for San Antonio, because the 70-year-old Popovich, hypothetically, could decide to retire.
If Self shooting down NBA rumors earlier this month and declaring his intentions to not only coach the Jayhawks next season, but also “hopefully” begin negotiating an extension of his contract, which expires following the 2021-22 season, didn’t do the trick for the Self to San Antonio worry warts out there, maybe this will.
Popovich told reporters Monday, two days after the Spurs’ season ended with a first-round loss to Denver, he’s negotiating a new contract with San Antonio.
We don’t know yet how long Popovich's new deal will last with the Spurs, so perhaps these developments only kick the Self as Pop’s replacement suspicions down the road a few years.
But here’s another hunch. Self won’t be the next coach in San Antonio.
The Spurs, unlike many NBA organizations, emphasize system and culture, because that’s what Popovich, head coach and president of the team, has put in place.
Popovich is to the Spurs what Dean Smith was to UNC and what Mike Krzyzewski is to Duke.
So when Popovich eventually decides to leave behind the franchise that is as synonymous with his name and face as it is with Tim Duncan’s, you can bet that Buford will ask Popovich for advice in finding the first new Spurs head coach since the 1996-97 season.
And when that day comes, here’s my hypothesis of how it will play out: it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Popovich helps pave the way for some NBA history by recommending the Spurs become the first team to hire a female head coach, San Antonio assistant Becky Hammon.
With so many rotation players from the Kansas basketball team transferring, declaring for the draft or testing the NBA waters it seemed a safe bet that Udoka Azubuike, who dipped his sizable toes into the pre-draft process a year ago, might not be around for the 2019-20 season, either.
Unfortunately for the center from Delta, Nigeria, his still mending right wrist led him to stick around.
This is, of course, also quite the fortunate development for head coach Bill Self and every player who gets a chance to team up with Azubuike at KU next season, because his presence equates to more victories.
As a junior, the largest man on KU’s campus averaged 13.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, while shooting 70.5% from the floor in Kansas victories.
Here’s what Azubuike’s numbers looked like in KU losses: …
Just a second. Still looking. …
Hold on. …
Oh, here we are. There aren’t any of those stats.
When the big man played KU won. Would the Jayhawks have gone undefeated with a healthy Azubuike? Obviously not. But, let’s be honest, they would have finished with a better overall record than their 26-10 mark, would have had a much better chance of extending the program’s Big 12 title streak and would have ended up with a better seed in the NCAA Tournament — and, theoretically at least, an easier March Madness path.
True, Azubuike missed 75% of the season — a four-game stretch in December, followed by the wrist injury in early January that sidelined him for the remainder of the schedule. But in the games in which the 7-footer played, the Jayhawks didn’t lose.
KU went 9-0 with Azubuike manning the paint and finishing possessions with his backboard-vibrating dunks. What’s more, three of KU’s best wins of the season came with Azubuike in the lineup: neutral court victories over Michigan State, Marquette and Tennessee.
Outside of a surefire top-three draft pick, Azubuike is as big a difference-maker as any college basketball coach could dream to have on a roster.
Per sports-reference.com’s advanced stats, KU’s colossus in a No. 35 jersey led all Jayhawks during the 2018-19 season in player efficiency rating (31.5), true shooting percentage (64.9%), effective field goal percentage (70.5%), total rebounding percentage (18.3%), defensive rebounding percentage (23.4%) and usage percentage (30%).
The man is so massive inside that KU opponents know he can’t be stopped and still can’t do much about keeping the ball out of his hands. In his previous two seasons, a span of 45 games, Azubuike shot 266-for-352 (75.6%) from the floor, because he doesn’t take shots outside of his comfort zone and knows his limitations on offense.
The big man isn’t perfect, far from it. Good thing for KU, because if he was he would have already left for the NBA, either last year or this year.
Even when facing teams better equipped to deal with him, Azubuike’s presence alone makes KU a better offensive team. His minutes are still impactful ones when foul trouble limits how long he can be on the floor, as his 270-pound frame wears out the opponents who have to do their best to guard him.
When facing double teams from larger front lines that make it more difficult for him to catch and get to the rim, the fact that Azubuike’s out there at the very least makes it easier for KU perimeter players to find open shots and/or driving lanes. The attention he demands can open up offensive rebound opportunities for his teammates, too. Congratulations, David McCormack, you’ve just been gifted some easy putbacks and follow jams for your sophomore highlight reel.
We all know about Azubuike’s free throw issues — 41.3% as a sophomore and 11-for-32 as a junior (34.4%). That’s a discussion for another day. For now, head coach Bill Self and his Jayhawks can focus on how much easier it will be to win games next season, with their overpowering senior center on the floor.
If Azubuike can stay healthy during what will be his final year in Lawrence, it’s hard to envision the Jayhawks having another turbulent on-court season, such as the one they just went through, mostly without him.
And should the NCAA happen to clear Silvio De Sousa for takeoff, by granting KU’s appeal of his suspension, assuming Devon Dotson returns, KU should have one of the best lineups in the country.
Unless the NCAA hits Kansas where it hurts in the form of a postseason ban as a result of the federal investigation into college basketball corruption, the Jayhawks look like a team that will pick up plenty of 2020 Final Four buzz between now and next March.
Since the day he accepted the position 16 years ago, Bill Self’s job title at the University of Kansas has been head men’s basketball coach. But it might as well be general manager, CEO, president of basketball operations and czar of roster engineering, too.
Sure, his assistants help Self a great deal in both discovering and zeroing in on talented prospects on the recruiting front, but it’s ultimately up to the commander in chief of KU basketball to determine the composition of KU’s roster each and every season.
Through the years, Self has even often mastered the art of college basketball’s version of the waiver wire, with more than a dozen players transferring in and even more transferring out during his tenure. All the while, he’s adding high school prospects and often dealing with the possibility of any number of current players deciding to leave Lawrence early in pursuit of their NBA dreams.
As well as Self has handled that juggling act, tweaking KU’s roster has now become more difficult than ever. Rules currently in place allow college players to declare for the draft as underclassmen, do so with the help of an NBA-certified agent, receive feedback about where they may land in the first or second round and then decide whether it’s in their best interest to return to school or stay in the draft.
These rules exist to help each player make the best possible decision for his future. And that’s the way it should be.
This revamped pre-draft process just happens to make it extra challenging for high profile college basketball head coaches/general managers to plan in April for the following year’s roster.
Nine rotation players appeared in KU’s season-ending loss to Auburn in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. Most likely, at least four of them — Dedric Lawson (draft), K.J. Lawson (transfer), Charlie Moore (transfer) and Quentin Grimes (draft) — will be gone.
Five others — Ochai Agbaji, David McCormack, Marcus Garrett, Mitch Lightfoot and possibly Devon Dotson (draft) — could be back.
Then, as of Tuesday night at least, there’s the who knows category, occupied by ineligible through next season Silvio De Sousa and injured Udoka Azubuike.
If both of those bigs decide to go pro, too, Self and his staff, in a doomsday scenario, could have as many as six or seven scholarships to fill for next season, with only two Class of 2019 recruits — Christian Braun and Isaac McBride — currently on board.
And with those dipping their toes into the NBA Draft waters, there’s always the new possibility, even if they have an agent, that they could decide to come back by withdrawing from the draft.
“I think the new rule, maybe it’s a good rule, maybe it’s not,” Self said Tuesday night, following the team’s end of season banquet. “I think time will tell. But I do think it makes it hard to manage rosters, because it’s much easier to say ‘I’m gonna try something.’”
If anybody can pull off this dance, it’s Self. He made it clear that KU’s staff won’t sit back idly, waiting to hear what each potential draftee will decide.
“But the thinking of it is that if you open yourself up to try, then certainly you’re telling us that it’s OK to go sign somebody. So that’s probably not the ideal situation to be in. But I’d much rather have too many than not enough,” Self said.
It appears Dotson is using the early entry rules the way every talented player should, as an information-gathering tour that will set him up someday down the line for a successful NBA career. So at least some semblance of stability (probably) exists on that front.
But how will KU fill the rest of the roster with rotation-level players when the coaches don’t yet know how many spots they have to fill?
The man in charge, as you might have guessed, hardly seemed worried.
“So we’ve got some things that we’re working on to do,” Self said. “But I think in the next 10 days a lot of this is gonna clear up.”
As much as the Kansas basketball players who lived through Saturday’s second-round NCAA Tournament encounter with Auburn would like to wipe the night full of lowlight memories from their heads, that’s not the way season-ending defeats work.
These types of losses frustrate, linger and fester. But eventually the mental wounds begin to heal, and when that happens they can fuel players, too. For all the pain and disappointment that dominated the Jayhawks’ thoughts inside Vivint Smart Home Arena, first as Auburn ran away to advance to the Sweet 16, then in the locker room when the season’s finality hit the team’s leaders with an emotional knockout punch, their psyches will recover in the days ahead.
For the KU players who are both driven and plan on returning for another postseason run in 2020, this 14-point loss to Auburn in a game that felt like a 30-point Tigers lead much of the night has the potential to be a launching pad for an offseason of growth and improvement.
That’s really the only good thing about such brutal losses. Even when the sting downgrades from a 10 to more manageable level, it won’t go away for competitors. And because it will always be there for certain players, they’ll be reminding themselves the entire offseason that they need to push themselves harder in order to make sure this brand of heartache that they confronted in Slat Lake City doesn’t devastate them again.
Five-star prospects don’t sign with Kansas to lose in the tournament’s first weekend. This wasn’t what Devon Dotson envisioned for his first taste of March Madness. And when he couldn’t will the Jayhawks to some semblance of a rally versus Auburn, it crushed him.
The toll of goals unrealized first weighed on KU’s freshman point guard late in the inevitable defeat, as he sat on the bench and did his best to fight off tears — covering his mouth with a towel, attempting mask the raw emotions of the moment.
But Dotson couldn’t escape those feelings by leaving the floor after the final buzzer. They hovered over him in the postgame locker room, too. Upon taking his seat, Dotson slumped over. A towel soon draped over his head, as he powered through answers to reporters’ questions, pausing on several occasions to find some composure when the tears wouldn’t stop falling form his eyes.
“We’re all brothers. This team has an unbelievable bond,” Dotson said regarding the visibly shaken look the Jayhawks wore in the aftermath of the defeat. “We’d do anything for each other. At the end of the day, we just wanted to play for each other. It just hurts.”
Dotson must’ve uttered some variation of that last word at least a dozen times during postgame interviews, repeatedly shaking his head in disbelief, covering his face with his hand at times, and his eyes downcast most of the session.
While the future of his teammate Dedric Lawson is unknown at this juncture — Bill Self said after KU’s loss to Auburn that Lawson and others will have decisions to make regarding their chances of going pro — Lawson summed up the mood inside the locker room perfectly, describing the NCAA Tournament as something he and his teammates grew up dreaming about.
“And it went away so quick,” Lawson said.
The Auburn Tigers know that feeling. In 2018, their dreams of a March run were dashed by Clemson in the second round with a 31-point loss.
A year later, they were the experienced team crushing a second-round foe for a berth in the Sweet 16. The Tigers looked not only fast, but also experienced, as they buried the Jayhawks in the first half.
For Dotson and other members of the KU rotation who return, this dismantling at the hands of Auburn, impossible as it may have seemed while they endured it, could end up becoming a driving force within the team’s DNA when the Jayhawks try to redeem themselves in the 2020 tournament.
“It’ll definitely be beneficial,” Dotson said of the admittedly upsetting circumstances. “You know, us growing as a team and taking that next leap next year.”
While Dedric Lawson and his brother, K.J., and Quentin Grimes didn’t want to get into on Saturday whether they will be back for another go-round at The Big Dance, it doesn’t look like Dotson is going anywhere.
“I’m just heartbroken from this loss,” Dotson said, when asked what’s next for him, quickly adding he would turn his focus to the offseason and “getting better.”
If Dedric Lawson were to leave to pursue a professional career, this would immediately become Dotson’s team. Regardless of the pecking order, the point guard already is a program leader, and he’ll continue to grow in that role in the months between now and the start of his sophomore season.
Dotson is the most competitive player on KU’s roster. And now that he’s felt what an early exit from the NCAA Tournament is like, he’s not the type of athlete to let it happen again. If he has to become the lead guard who carries the Jayhawks he’ll do it. If he has to motivate his teammates as they work together toward something greater, he’ll do that, too.
The Jayhawks won’t ignore or forget their March shortcomings anytime soon. And if they try to, Dotson will be there to remind them that’s not an option.
Salt Lake City — Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 89-75 loss to Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas would need some form of life offensively in the first half to keep Auburn within reach, but didn’t come close to accomplishing that.
The Jayhawks’ season was all but over by halftime, after shooting 8-for-27 in the opening 20 minutes and turning the ball over 8 times. A 1-for-10 half from 3-point range derailed KU’s chances of keeping pace, too, as Auburn built an insurmountable 51-25 lead by intermission.
The offense was more tentative than assertive when KU needed to find a way to step up and match Auburn’s intensity.
While KU shot nearly 60% from the floor in the second half, it barely put a dent in the Tigers’ massive lead.
Auburn wanted to play fast and shoot 3-pointers, and the Jayhawks did nothing to stop the Tigers from doing so.
With Bryce Brown burying 3’s out of the gate, the SEC Tournament champions were the aggressors and KU didn’t come up with anything that would make them feel uncomfortable.
The Tigers sprinted to a 34-8 advantage in fast-break points and shot 52% from the floor to advance to the Sweet 16.
No one in a KU uniform was ready in the first half to counter Auburn’s energy. Even Dedric Lawson, who once again finished with a double-double (25 points, 10 rebounds), went 1-for-7 from the floor in the opening 20 minutes.
Freshman big David McCormack got off to a promising start, with 5 quick points, as well as 5 rebounds in the first half. But matchups and the game’s tempo dictated that Kansas had to play smaller, with four guards, and McCormack was the odd man out.
McCormack capped his freshman year with 11 points and 6 rebounds, plus a couple of assists.
Devon Dotson (13 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) tried to give KU some kind of spark early on, but couldn’t get going offensively until the second half.
Some defensive missteps by Quentin Grimes in the game’s opening minutes, as Auburn exploded to a big lead, drew the ire of Bill Self.
And Grimes (15 points, 5-for-11 shooting, 2 assists) got most of his stats in the second half, when Auburn’s ticket to Kansas City was basically already punched.
Ochai Agbaji again failed to get out of his late-season slump, going 1-for-5 from the floor and grabbing 1 rebound.
Marcus Garrett, too ill to join the team for Friday activities at the arena, didn’t appear to be back at full health. In 20 minutes, the sophomore guard provided 7 points and 3 rebounds, but seemed a little less quick.
K.J. Lawson was the only other substitute to score, and he put up his 2 points at the free throw line.
Mitch Lightfoot grabbed 2 rebounds in 10 minutes.
Salt Lake City — Thursday afternoon inside the Kansas locker room, shortly after the Jayhawks opened their path through the NCAA Tournament with a first-round victory over Northeastern, head coach Bill Self had a question for his players.
“Good job. Hey, guys. One down and how many to go?” Self asked.
A mixture of responses followed, with “five” being the overriding reply.
“One,” Self quickly corrected them, as seen in a video posted on KU’s social media accounts. “One down. One to go. Hey, hey. One down and one to go, OK? All right, good job.”
When it comes to March Madness, Self always prompts his teams to look at each stop along the way as its own, four-team, two-game tournament. If the Jayhawks win the first two-game tournament, they get to go somewhere else and try to win another.
Apparently at least a few players who grew up watching The Big Dance and came to KU with dreams of chasing a national championship got caught up in the moment, knowing six wins is what it takes to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
“That tells you the impact I’ve had on their lives, as far as them paying attention,” Self would joke after the fact.
So who was to blame? Who said five?
“I think I said five,” a smiling Dedric Lawson admitted Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, ahead of KU’s second-round matchup with Auburn. “I forgot it was a two-game tournament.”
And with that response, Lawson didn’t hesitate to use the conversation as an opportunity to mess with nearby teammate Charlie Moore, teasingly throwing him under the bus.
“It was really Charlie’s fault. Charlie, he play too much. He’s the one that made me say five,” a grinning Lawson continued. “But we all know it’s a two-game tournament, one game at a time and things like that, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Why was Moore at fault? What did he do?
“He play too much, man,” Lawson replied. “I ain’t even gonna say what he did.”
Learning that Lawson had just placed the blame on him, Moore provided his version of the story.
“That was definitely Dedric. I wasn’t gonna say nothing. But Dedric said five. If you’re listening closely to the video you’ll hear Dedric say it,” the smiling Moore insisted.
With Moore and Lawson cracking themselves up with their accusations, Moore’s assertion continued.
“Everybody said one. Dedric yelled five,” Moore argued. “He over-yelled everybody, ’cause he thought he was right. But he really wasn’t.”
Why did Lawson say it was Moore then?
“I was next to him. I don’t know why he said that,” Moore retorted.
As the allegations flew back and forth, the reactions from David McCormack, sitting in the locker stall between Lawson and Moore, indicated he knew something.
Asked for some insight, McCormack provided his opinion.
“I mean, you can never tell with these two. Between them, Marcus (Garrett), all of them, they all like to joke around,” McCormack said. “Maybe Charlie might have tapped Dedric … I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. He probably told him the right answer was five and everybody else said one.”
What was McCormack’s response to Self’s question?
“I took the smart route and I didn’t say anything. I just whispered to myself,” the freshman big explained, “and said one after the fact. So right or wrong, I just didn’t get called out.”
Whomever was to blame, McCormack said Lawson was “by far” the loudest to give the incorrect answer. But he wasn’t sure if there were others on Team Five.
“I just know I was standing next to Dedric, so he definitely said five,” McCormack said.
Surely veteran Mitch Lightfoot didn’t fail Self’s postgame locker room test, right?
“I don’t know what I said, to be honest,” Lightfoot claimed. “I’m not gonna self-incriminate, either. The next time he asks, we’ll be locked in on one.”
Of course, in order to do that the Jayhawks will have to get past Auburn on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to lock in for our second game of this one,” Lightfoot said, “and hopefully get to the next one.”
You can’t knock any of KU’s players for having large scale goals this time of year. The vibe the Jayhawks gave off in their locker room was one of confidence. They believe in themselves and their ability to make a deep run.
The incorrect “five” response that popped to the front of some players’ minds allowed them to have some fun along the way, too. But they all understand the crux of Self’s one down, one to go message.
“You can’t win five games if you don’t win one game,” Lightfoot said. “Slight issue.”
Salt Lake City — Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 87-53 win over Northeastern on Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
Though the Jayhawks missed shots in the opening minutes, they were able to get out in front by securing second chances on the glass and getting out in the open floor for transition opportunities.
The Jayhawks’ burst of 7 consecutive fast-break points helped them lead 18-11 a little more than 8 minutes in.
KU’s clear advantage inside assured the No. 4 seed and favorite of easy points much of the first half.
After a low-turnover opening 20 minutes, KU coughed it up three times in the first three minutes of the second, allowing NU to trim KU’s lead to 7 quickly. However, the Jayhawks gave the Huskies a dose of their own medicine after a timeout, as both Quentin Grimes and Dedric Lawson drained a 3-pointer, and Lawson got back to work inside to give KU a 15-point advantage, its largest lead of the game at that point.
The Jayhawks dissected NU’s defense, shooting 56 percent from the field in a win that advanced them to a Saturday matchup with Auburn.
The Huskies’ 3-point attack proved effective right out of the gate in the first-round matchup, with Jordan Roland draining a couple and big man Tomas Murphy another to give the Vegas underdogs the start they wanted and a 3-for-5 mark from deep early.
Bill Self didn’t stick with his starting lineup or two-big look for long, though, and with four guards capable of defending the perimeter on the court, KU did a solid job in the first half of keeping Northeastern from getting hot from long range.
While the Huskies were able to get inside for looks, KU’s bigs did a nice job of staying active and making it less than automatic for NU in the paint, and the CAA postseason champs went 1-for-9 on layups and dunks in the first half.
NU’s season ended as KU limited the would-be Cinderella to 6-for-28 3-point shooting and 28-percent shooting overall.
Other than a defensive misstep here or there in the first half, Dedric Lawson gave KU exactly the type of first half it wanted out of its best player.
Lawson had 16 points and 7 boards by intermission, as well as a block and a steal as KU led 37-25 at the break.
KU’s go-to big entered the second half ready to resume his takeover. And once the Jayhawks got back on track by following his lead, Lawson was able to rest longer than usual for a stretch in the second half, en route to experiencing his first NCAA Tournament win in style, producing 25 points and 11 rebounds.
David McCormack started the game but only logged 11 minutes, many of them with the game basically over. KU played variations of its four-guard lineup through much of what turned into a rout and didn’t need its freshman big man much.
McCormack went scoreless but provided 5 rebounds and 2 assists.
It became evident within a few minutes that NU didn’t have a defensive answer for Devon Dotson, especially in the open floor.
The freshman point guard’s confidence and assertiveness with the ball in his hands allowed KU to avoid any real first-half scare or nerves.
Dotson routinely sped by defenders, both in transition and in the half court. Just the threat of what he could do opened up the floor for his teammates, as well.
Though Quentin Grimes went scoreless in 18 first-half minutes, his defense was usually spot on and he continued to be an important passer offensively. The freshman shooting guard finished 1-for-5 from 3-point range and provided 3 points and 3 assists.
Ochai Agbaji’s best energy plays came when he crashed the offensive glass for tip-ins in the second half as KU was in the process of putting Northeastern away.
While Agbaji started, he played 20 minutes, coming through with 13 points and 5 rebounds.
Marcus Garrett didn’t start, but it only took a couple minutes for Self to turn to his team-first glue guy and sixth man. One of KU’s smarter players on both ends of the court, Garrett gave the Jayhawks their first separation of the afternoon when he scored back-to-back layups, the second of which he created by stealing the ball near midcourt.
While Garrett (8 points, 5 rebounds) was solid it was K.J. Lawson who stole the show off the bench.
K.J.’s first few minutes off the bench weren’t great, but that didn’t discourage him one bit. His assertiveness picked up when NU totally ignored him on a fast break for an easy layup in the first half and that seemed to empower him.
KU needed an offensive boost from someone off the bench and, boy, was K.J. the man for that job. The tough-nosed redshirt sophomore contributed 13 points and 3 rebounds.
KU’s old man, junior big Mitch Lightfoot, gave the victors 5 points and 7 rebounds.
Salt Lake City — Since the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled on Sunday evening it’s proven difficult to mention Northeastern basketball without also bringing up the Huskies’ 3-point shooting.
Hey, when your four starting guards all shoot about 40 percent from deep, that’s pretty hard to ignore.
But the No. 13 seed Huskies aren’t just gunners. The team’s glue guy and the player that could be the key to Northeastern slowing down Kansas in the first round on Thursday afternoon is Shawn Occeus, the Colonial Athletic Association’s 2018 Defensive Player of the Year.
So does all that 3-point talk irk the team’s 6-foot-4 defensive stopper?
“I mean, that’s the game. That’s what it is today. It’s turned into a 3-point shooting game,” Occeus said Wednesday inside the Huskies’ locker room. “I don’t need no credit for anything.”
He’ll get it on Thursday if his work on that end of the floor helps Northeastern pull off the upset.
Whether Occeus, who comes off the bench, ends up drawing the assignment of guarding Dedric Lawson or one of KU’s guards remains to be seen. He was coy about the game plan a day ahead of the No. 3 versus No. 14 matchup in the Midwest region.
“It’s not up to me who I'm going to guard. It is up to the coach. I'm willing to guard anyone on the court, obviously,” Occeus said, when asked whether he would defend Lawson. “He is a great player. He could do a lot of things on the perimeter and the post. For us, we're going to stick to the game plan, watch a lot of film on him and just pick out his weaknesses and stuff. Like I said before, he is a great player. We are confident it won't be one person that will hold him to his averages. It will be everybody, it will be a whole team effort and we will look forward to that.”
Various members of the Huskies have said they are better as a defensive unit with Occeus on the court. The junior defender, who missed 19 games during the regular season due to injuries, takes pride in creating turnovers.
“Ever since I was a little kid I always loved stealing the ball. I used to play football and I was always on the defensive end. I always loved getting interceptions and stuff like that,” said Occeus, who averages 1.4 steals per game for his career. “So when I’m out there on the court obviously I don’t gamble for steals — I’m not trying to chase stats or anything like that. I’m just aggressive. I’m just playing my game.”
Back during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Northeastern (23-10) beat Alabama, but lost other marquee matchups against Virginia Tech, Davidson (twice) and Syracuse.
Occeus didn’t get to play in any of those games.
“Personally, it was very tough, because I looked forward to playing against those teams. I felt like last year for me was a good year. I felt like I got my foot in the door in terms of feeling like I belong in college basketball. So I wanted to prove — we wanted to prove — we’re a good team and a team to be reckoned with,” said Occeus, who is averaging 10.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in 14 appearances as a junior.
“So being out and missing those games, it definitely sucked. But I knew that I was gonna get my chance in the season still to prove that point, and I think I did so in the (CAA) tournament. And I’m gonna continue to do so, regardless of what happens,” he said.
While watching those games in November and December, Occeus observed instances in which he knew his presence would have helped.
“Seeing guards and point guards be able to score the ball as much as they did, I mean, obviously being the player and competitor that I am, I care about defense and stuff like that. Seeing that ticked me off,” he revealed.
Over the course of the year, six of Northeastern’s 10 losses came without Occeus. After watching helplessly for so much of the year, Occeus now has a chance to help the Huskies achieve their greatest victory of the season, and the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since its last Big Dance bid, in 2015.
Is it safe to say that Northeastern, a team that struggled to get stops through much of the regular season and is ranked 144th in defensive efficiency by kenpom.com, will look different against KU than it did against its non-conference Power Five foes a few months ago?
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” a cautious Occeus said. “We can’t just say that we are or that we’re not. At the same time, we do feel confident knowing that a lot of guys are healthy and ready to play. We’re not gonna go in there intimidated or scared. We know each other’s tendencies, and the chemistry and maturity of this team is at an all-time high.”
Salt Lake City — On Thursday afternoon at Vivint Smart Home Arena, seven members of the Kansas basketball team’s rotation will experience the NCAA Tournament — and all the nerves and pressure and highs and lows that accompany it — for the first time.
It was two years ago, in Tulsa, Okla., that Mitch Lightfoot found out exactly what that entails.
“It was UC-Davis,” Lightfoot recalled on Wednesday afternoon inside the Jayhawks’ locker room, stretching his 6-foot-8 frame backward and looking up at the ceiling as he focused to access the portion of his memory bank where that information lives.
“My freshman year. I was guarding their best player. I remember it was Christian something? I think,” Lightfoot guessed, taking an unsuccessful stab at the exact name of his defensive assignment two years and 72 career games later.
Lightfoot was less cloudy on other details surrounding what proved to be some unsuccessful initial moments for him against Chima Moneke. (Don’t pretend like you remembered the name of UC-Davis’ best big from 2017, either.)
“And we won, obviously. And he got a dunk. And that’s all I remember, because I was really pissed off, because I gave up a dunk in the NCAA Tournament,” Lightfoot said of his introduction to college basketball’s grand March stage.
Back then, Lightfoot played sparingly as a reserve for a deep KU team seeded No.1 in the Midwest Region. Sure, his breakdown while hedging on a ball screen in his first minute of March Madness action led to a dunk. But it also came in the second half of a game that KU already led by 40.
That group of Jayhawks had senior and National Player of the Year Frank Mason III on which to lean. The following March, when Mason was a rookie in the NBA, KU’s less seasoned players still had All-American Devonte’ Graham to carry them.
Lightfoot came up as a role player on those KU teams that had dominant star senior guards. Now, as a junior and a backup, he’s the savvy veteran of the locker room. The wise, old man of the bunch who should have all the answers.
“It’s a little different going from feeling like you’re just the youngin’, soaking it all in, to being the guy that helps all the other guys out, getting used to the tournament, what it’s like to play in it, being around this environment,” said Lightfoot, who enters KU’s first-round encounter against Northeastern with seven games of NCAA Tournament experience and two starts.
With Udoka Azubuike sidelined and Lagerald Vick no longer being a part of the team, the role was somewhat thrust upon Lightfoot. But that hasn’t made it any less rewarding for him.
“You get to bide your time and now you get to impart a little bit of what you learned onto the other guys,” Lightfoot said.
While the backup big who averaged 13.4 minutes a game during Big 12 play is known most for his defense in the paint and the energy he provides with his blocked shots (32) and team-leading 14 charges drawn, Lightfoot is just as valuable off the court for this roster, with seven of its top eight scorers — Dedric Lawson, Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Quentin Grimes, David McCormack, Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson — about to play in their first NCAA Tournament game.
Lightfoot has done his best to mentally prepare them for what’s to come before the ball is tipped and there they are, to steal a line from the tournament’s theme song.
“I’ve tried to do it on my own initiative, just because that’s what I would’ve wanted in their position,” Lightfoot said. “You come to this level of basketball, this is what you want to play in — this is the stage you want to be on. Obviously, you want to win at this stage, so I was just giving them some tips and pointers on what we’ve done in the past and what has helped us to win at this level. I’m just excited to be able to get out there and play with these guys and see what we’re capable of doing.”
At some point during Thursday afternoon’s first-round matchup, some tournament newbie from No. 4 seed Kansas (25-9) inevitably will make a mistake, maybe even one that leads to a dunk, like Lightfoot did a couple years ago. And with No. 14 seed Northeastern (23-10) looking to pounce and win over a neutral crowd in such instances, the way KU’s players react when something goes awry could end up playing a large role in the outcome of this game.
In Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who played in all five of KU’s 2018 postseason games, the Jayhawks have a couple of players who can prepare their less experienced teammates. Lightfoot said there are ways to convey some know-how on what it feels like to make a mistake, as well as the need to find a proper response.
“I was talking to a couple of the younger guys. It’s amplified,” Lightfoot explained. “It’s like everything you’ve done times five. And you get a complete — I wouldn’t say it’s a different feeling — but it’s that feeling times five. There’s a lot of joy and there’s a lot of heartache in this tournament. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Just trying to keep everybody on the same page.”
Both Lightfoot and Garrett have helped the rest of the rotation get as ready as possible for the brand new and potentially stressful situation before the tournament has a chance to smack the four freshmen and three transfers over the head.
“They do a good job of coming to practice, having energy, talking, helping guys out,” Dedric Lawson said of Lightfoot and Garrett, adding he watched Lightfoot spend a portion of Wednesday helping McCormack out with details of the scouting report for Northeastern. “They definitely put their imprint upon the game.”
Of course, Lightfoot is always in his teammate’s ears about something that will end up helping them, either that very day or down the line.
“Mitch tells me before every game, ‘Go out there and do your thing.’ It goes along with you, your teammate having your back,” Lawson said. “I think (Lightfoot and Garrett) are definitely important. I’m looking for them to have their impact on this tournament just as much as me.”
Admittedly, Lightfoot called it “crazy” that he and Garrett were the only two active Jayhawks in the locker room with NCAA Tournament experience. But according to his veteran eyes, this relatively inexperienced KU team is “extremely locked in” and peaking at the right time.
The junior forward who grew up cheering for the Jayhawks from afar each postseason will continue doing all he can to educate his teammates on all things March. Part of Lightfoot’s message has echoed that of his coach, Bill Self, in terms of playing without any distractions.
Just as important, though, Lightfoot offered, will be playing loose.
“This is the most fun you’re ever going to have playing basketball. There’s nothing better than this,” Lightfoot said. “Your state championship, your state tournament in high school doesn’t match up with this. The AAU doesn’t match up with this. This is truly unique. And I think everyone’s excited to get out there and play in it. And I think they’re ready to have a good time.”