Throughout the Kansas basketball team’s second-round NCAA Tournament showdown with Michigan State, it seemed the game would not be decided until the final few possessions. Then, over the course of the last seven minutes, it went from a two-score game to a 90-70 Jayhawks victory.
How, exactly, does that happen?
“It didn’t seem like it,” Kansas senior center Landen Lucas said of the vibe on the court ahead of the final 20-point margin, “and the scoreboard didn’t show it, but as a team we felt pretty confident about what we were doing.”
Essentially, KU’s collective will to advance didn’t falter when the Spartans repeatedly challenged the Midwest’s top seed with runs of their own and answers to Kansas scores for the first 30 or so minutes in Tulsa, Okla.
The Jayhawks (30-4) not only remained steadfast in coach Bill Self’s plan, but also cranked up their intensity for the stretch run. MSU cut the KU lead, which already had poked into double-digit territory three times, to five with 7:16 to play. From there, Kansas outscored the Spartans 21-6, held its foe to 2-for-8 shooting and advanced on to the Sweet 16 by converting eight of its 10 final shots.
Several sequences keyed the win for the Jayhawks and they’re the exact types of plays they’ll have to replicate in bunches Thursday at Sprint Center, in Kansas City, Mo., to move past an even better Big Ten challenger — No. 4 seed Purdue (27-7) — on the path to the Final Four.
The Boilermakers’ personnel obviously differs from the makeup of the MSU roster, particularly when it comes to experience and the paint presence of Purdue’s double-double machine, Caleb Swanigan, and his 7-foot-3 wingspan. But the types of plays Kansas made in crunch time against Michigan State should not be forgotten, because many of them had more to do with effort than matchups.
Here are six concepts and standout moments from KU’s final eight minutes of Round 2 that the Jayhawks need to keep in mind moving forward.
- Opponents can get caught up paying too much attention to stars
Josh Jackson (23 points, 9-for-16 shooting) gave MSU headaches all game, so as the end approached, defenders zeroed in on Jackson even more.
On one possession, the star freshman made a cut from the left wing to the paint, then moved on out to the right wing, while Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham exchanged a hand off on the perimeter. With the Spartans worried about those three stars, backup Lagerald Vick made a hard backdoor cut for the paint and Graham sent a pass toward the hoop for a thunderous alley-oop before Vick’s defender had a shot at reacting and recovering.
- Trust your seniors
Just after MSU made it a five-point game, Mason and Lucas worked a variation of the pick-and-roll to perfection. The big man set a screen for his point guard just after Mason caught a pass on on the left side of the floor. When Lucas’ man took a step too far to help on Mason, Lucas bounded toward the paint and met a lob above the rim for an easy slam.
The two seniors will need to assert themselves on both ends of the floor when games get tight. Their ability to execute will ease tensions and increase KU’s chances of moving on.
- Get it and go
This is an idea these Jayhawks have thoroughly embraced and there’s no need to change it just because the lights are brighter, the competition is stiffer and the score may be close. Mason, Graham and Jackson love throwing the ball ahead for potential numbers every time Kansas takes the ball away or snags an opportunistic defensive board.
When backup big Dwight Coleby came away with a steal and got the ball to Jackson late in the second half, the freshman knew what to do. About four seconds after Coleby secured the turnover, Jackson had zoomed up the the floor in four dribbles for a fast-break layup.
- Embrace the moment
Kansas didn’t miss many shots down the stretch, but when Jackson released an unsuccessful 3-pointer with his team up 10, seldom-utilized backup Coleby secured the offensive rebound to extend the possession. A couple passes later, Graham buried a 3-pointer.
Role players tend to find their way into the spotlight during critical junctures in March. Whether it be Coleby, Vick, Carlton Bragg Jr. or even starter Svi Mykhailiuk, the Jayhawks need their less heralded players to step up when opportunities present themselves late in games. Often that’s the only way to advance.
- This is why you brought Jackson to KU
Accurately, Self will tell you any number of his perimeter players are capable of bursting out and fueling offensive runs that alter the outcomes of games. Mason might be the national player of the year for that very reason. But there is no denying the most talented, potentially dominating presence on the floor wears No. 11.
The NCAA Tournament stage hasn’t looked too big for Jackson — he just took over for stretches versus a MSU program filled with friends and a coach who heavily recruited him to become a Spartan. During the game’s final six minutes, Jackson made two free throws, scored a layup, grabbed a defensive rebound and threw down a vicious one-handed jam after driving in from the top of the key in a half-court set.
Jackson has the competitive drive of Mason but also operates with the advantages of existing in a 6-foot-8, NBA-ready frame. He can carry a team to a Final Four if he needs to.
- Defend like it’s only thing that matters
It will take prolonged defensive focus for the Jayhawks to extend their season from here on out. Lucas explained how they turned a five-point game into a massive gap by the final buzzer against Michigan State.
“We knew that the reason that it was so close was because we weren’t executing the keys that the coaches were talking about: stopping in transition, easy buckets here and there,” Lucas explained. “And as soon as we talked about that and tightened those things up, we knew that we were gonna extend the lead. And we did that, and next thing you know it was pretty out of hand.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Going into any given game, Kansas backup big man Dwight Coleby never knows how much — or how little — head coach Bill Self will decide to use him.
Twelve times so far during his junior season, the 6-foot-9 reserve from Nassau, Bahamas, never ventured to the scorer’s table to check in for the Jayhawks. So one can imagine his surprise and delight when Coleby, after watching the entire first half of KU’s second-round matchup with Michigan State from the bench Sunday at BOK Center, heard his name called in the midst of a tight second half, in the NCAA Tournament.
What began as an opportunity to give starting center Landen Lucas a breather evolved into a much larger responsibility when Lucas picked up his third foul midway through the second half. Before long, Coleby, who entered the game averaging 5.1 minutes and 1.7 points on the season, began finishing defensive stops with rebounds and extending possessions with offensive boards.
Few would have predicted as much prior to tip-off, but Coleby played as big a part in Kansas advancing to the Sweet 16 with a 90-70 victory as anyone wearing a KU uniform.
“He saved my career,” senior center Lucas said after his understudy contributed three points, four rebounds and a steal in 9 second-half relief minutes. “He made some big plays. I’m not trying to go home. We’re trying to win a championship and that’s what it takes, guys being ready and he was ready.”
Two days earlier, Coleby only logged seven minutes in a game that never was in doubt versus UC-Davis, in the opening round. Though he fully understands his role with the team, the backup big said he always hopes to earn more time.
“It’s the brightest stage and I want to play,” Coleby said, when asked how he stays mentally focused while never being sure what will be asked of him, “so I’m just ready the whole time.”
A studious observer, he doesn’t mind doing much of his research from his seat on the bench.
“I just watch Landen, and everything he does and how he defends,” Coleby shared. “Whatever he does, I just try to pick up on it and ask him questions.”
It’s a quality that can be difficult to master but Coleby said he felt prepared long before his coach called his name.
Listed at 6-9 and 240 pounds, Coleby looks more the part of a prototypical Michigan State post player than KU sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr. During one second-half sequence, Bragg couldn’t finish over MSU’s Nick Ward after snagging an offensive rebound. When the teams switched ends of the floor, Ward posted up Bragg, spun off him for a layup and a foul, and cut KU’s lead to four.
Bragg only spent one minute on the court in the second half, and Self said after the victory he probably should have went to Coleby even sooner.
“One thing about Dwight, he's not that tall, but he is strong and can hold his position,” said Self, echoing words he often has used while praising Lucas. “And I thought he did a really nice job of holding his position. And also, his ball-screen defense was super, probably as good as any big guy we had today.”
Exerting yourself while college basketball fans across the country are watching sure beats Coleby’s usual contributions.
“It was great to be in and actually help the team,” Coleby said, wearing a huge smile in the locker room. “All the celebration with the bench is cool and all, but actually being on the court and doing it, it’s way much better.”
After a moment in the postseason spotlight, Coleby said he could feel the crowd’s excitement growing with his hustle plays, which also fueled his teammates in a crucial stretch of the win.
“Yeah, everybody was hyped and jumping up and down,” Coleby said of the support he saw. “It lifted us up, so that was great.”
Lucas told Coleby and the rest of his KU teammates before the game they should be prepared for anything. Clearly Coleby listened.
“It obviously takes a pretty strong mental person to be able to do that,” Lucas said of Coleby’s approach, “and he showed us today he’s prepared for that. And that’s great to see moving forward.”
Added Coleby: “We just needed energy and I brought it.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Kansas center Landen Lucas didn’t realize it at the time, but when he and his young teammates experienced early exits from the NCAA Tournament as underclassmen, the disappointment doubled as a valuable lesson about what it takes to win in March.
Now a fifth-year senior, Lucas played for KU teams that lost to Stanford (2014) and Wichita State (2015) at the very stage of The Big Dance that his Jayhawks find themselves in now, the Round of 32.
Much wiser and accomplished at this stage of his college career, when Lucas reflects on those seasons that came up short of a Sweet 16 berth, he realizes, at the time, the Jayhawks fell into the trap of assuming March Madness success. He said ahead of KU’s Sunday meeting with Michigan State this year’s veterans know it’s better to approach every tournament game as the most important one.
“I think it was obviously an important game, but it wasn’t the most important game,” Lucas shared of the approach that bit KU during his freshman and sophomore seasons. “I think last year put so much on us to make sure that we got past this game (second round) that we did whatever it took. We were meeting as a team outside of the coaches telling us to, just to make sure we had scouting report down, and we’ll do that again this year.”
Now that KU’s veterans know what it’s like to get as far as the Elite Eight, which Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk all accomplished a year ago, Lucas said they understand there is no harm in expending all the energy they have to advance.
“We’re treating this like it’s a championship — like it’s our very last game,” Lucas said of No. 1 seed KU’s showdown with No. 9 Michigan State (20-14). “Because then, as we know last year, you get a couple days, you can regroup, reset a little bit and then go into the next weekend. So we’ve got to treat this like it’s our last game and go out there and really not look ahead at all.”
Two years removed from KU’s second-round loss to Wichita State, Mykhailiuk and Mason said they both have forgotten about that game by now. Mykhailiuk, though, sees some similarities that should help Kansas (29-4) know what to expect at BOK Center versus the Spartans.
“But that (Wichita State group) was a pretty tough team, like Michigan State,” the junior from Ukraine said. “They were a low seed but really good, and that’s the main point about them. They can beat anyone.”
The elder Jayhawks know now what they didn’t when they were younger. Those second-round losses, Lucas said, taught them your mental approach during the NCAA Tournament is as important as anything.
“It’s really what helped us out last year,” Lucas said of KU coming one win away from a Final Four in 2016. “It’s what’s gonna help us out again this year, because we learned from that. At the time there was really nothing against those teams, because those teams didn’t have very many people who had done it before. It was a lot of young guys or transfers or different things. We were all learning together, and that’s the benefit that the guys who have been here for that long period of time have, because we did learn from those experiences.”
Tulsa, Okla. — Tom Izzo’s intense sideline demeanor and the success that accompanies it this time of year has become synonymous with the NCAA Tournament.
The 22-year Michigan State head coach has navigated the Spartans to seven Final Four appearances and a national championship, so anyone who follows college basketball recognizes him and MSU as a distinct brand.
Before Kansas (29-4) attempts to send Izzo’s Spartans (20-14) home earlier than the young bunch from the Big Ten planned, several of the Jayhawks gave their impressions of the hall of fame coach and his history of March Madness victories (47-18 all-time).
“He’s a great coach,” said KU freshman Josh Jackson, who was heavily recruited by Izzo before he opted to play for Bill Self at Kansas. “He’s always gonna coach his guys to be tough. That’s why I think he’s always got a tough team year in and year out — and this year he does. And I feel like he really knows what he’s doing. He’s had a lot of guys come through his program, and I feel like just off of his coaching ability, any team that you give him he’s gonna find success and, you know, make the best of what he’s got.”
Jackson said he felt starstruck when he first met Izzo, as a young high school standout in the state of Michigan, around the age of 14. The legendary coach attended one of Jackson’s games.
“I’d been watching him for my whole life, basically,” Jackson shared.
A Portland, Ore., native, Kansas senior center Landen Lucas didn’t necessarily grow up in awe of Izzo. But the old school big man certainly enjoyed the tough style displayed by MSU’s many successful teams through the years. The idea of bruising in the paint versus the Spartans on Sunday night at BOK Center has Lucas fired up.
“It’s cool,” Lucas said. “I feel like it’s a school I would’ve enjoyed playing at, because of the way they play and their style. Their known for that kind of stuff — getting extra possessions.
“It’ll be fun for me to play against them. It usually is,” added Lucas, who also went up against Sparty in 2014 and 2015. “And I’m looking forward to it.”
A Cleveland prep who grew up in Big Ten country, KU forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, is fully aware of Izzo’s impressive résumé.
“He has a great program, great legacy behind him,” said Bragg, a KU sophomore who at one point was offered a scholarship to MSU. “He develops his players really good, just like Coach Self, as well.”
MSU big men are associated with toughness in the paint, and Bragg expects nothing different this March, even if, like Self, Izzo hasn’t had his traditional lineup. Freshman Miles Bridges plays much the same role as his friend Jackson does at KU, in a four-guard starting lineup.
“They’re pretty aggressive,” Bragg said, adding the Jayhawks expect the Spartans to give KU their best shot. “Nick Ward (6-foot-8 freshman forward), he’s playing great basketball right now, coming off a big game versus Miami. He’s gonna be a challenge down low, and we’ve got to just keep him off the glass.”
The name Izzo, Kansas freshman Mitch Lightfoot added, conjures up images of grit and offensive rebounding.
“Doing all the little things, working their butt off,” Lightfood responded when asked to characterize Izzo’s Spartans. “You think of Draymond Green, stuff like that, players like that. Really athletic players. You know, Miles (Bridges) is super-athletic. But overall, really hard-working teams.”
Tulsa, Okla. — For weeks, Kansas coach Bill Self has referenced his hope that the Jayhawks would play loose, worry-free basketball this March, as they try to land the program in the Final Four for the first time in five seasons.
Once KU built a 20-point lead in the first half Friday night against UC-Davis, the players got to spend the remainder of a 100-62 rout living in the moment and enjoying the stage. This time of year can quickly become a stressful time for players and coaches, so opening the NCAA Tournament with laughs and chemistry-bolstering endorphins seemed ideal.
Senior center Landen Lucas definitely takes his job seriously, and doing so led to a 13-point, 11-rebound double-double for the KU veteran versus the Aggies (23-13). The 6-foot-10 big got to feel like a kid again, too, posting up on the blocks and showing off post moves that led to high-percentage buckets in the paint.
“Yeah, it was fun,” a smiling Lucas said in the locker room. “I don’t get a whole lot of chances to do that, so it was nice to do a couple. And then also it’s good moving forward because it gives me a little confidence to go to that if needed or if I see an opportunity for it.”
No one in a KU uniform enjoyed any play more than often subdued junior Svi Mykhailiuk, who coaxed a near-impossible 3-pointer through the net in the second half. With the shot clock clicking toward zero and his defender all over him, Mykhailiuk took a step-back, fading prayer from behind the arc that looked like it had no chance of dropping. But it did, the KU lead ballooned to 34 with more than 11 minutes to play and Svi cheesed harder than he seemed capable of as his buddy Devonte’ Graham ran toward him, screaming over the wild, highlight-level heave and make.
You would have sworn the Jayhawks (29-4) were just celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on the floor based on the looks on their faces. Mykhailiuk, who scored 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, said having a good time in the midst of executing should benefit Kansas.
“We were just playing ball,” the junior from Ukraine said, “and just enjoying the game.”
Lucas said Mykhailiuk’s crazy 3 and a late-game drain from senior walk-on Tyler Self highlighted a happy-go-lucky night.
“It’s always fun when Tyler gets in,” Lucas said. “But, you know, it’s fun. You try to have fun with these games, especially once you have a comfortable lead, because we know as soon as it’s over this time, you’ve got to get serious again to move forward to the next one.”
Indeed, a more than formidable Michigan State team awaits the Jayhawks in the Round of 32 on Sunday at the BOK Center.
After contributing six points and five rebounds in the victory, backup forward Carlton Bragg Jr. emphasized the importance of opening the team’s tournament run on a mellow note.
“Coach said in the locker room, just go out there and have fun,” Bragg shared of the pre-game message. “Just play hard. This is fun to play in March. So just go out there and have fun. Just let it go.”
An enjoyable Friday night could make a Sunday battle a little easier on the legs and minds of the Jayhawks, as they try to get back to Kansas City, Mo., for the Sweet 16
Tulsa, Okla. — After missing his first Kansas basketball start of the season due to a suspension at the Big 12 tournament a week ago, star freshman Josh Jackson, whose off-the-court issues have led to outsiders scrutinizing both the guard and the program, Jackson told reporters Thursday he’s ready to put any distractions behind him.
According to his teammates who have been around the 6-foot-8 guard throughout KU’s eight-day break from actual games, Jackson shouldn’t have any problem bouncing back after disappointing himself, the Jayhawks and members of the fan base with his actions.
Jackson hasn’t played in nearly two weeks, but at practices since he served his one-game suspension, senior Landen Lucas said the freshman has proven to be assertive and vocal.
“Trying to be even more of a leader than he already was, and I think that was important for all of us to see, because we knew he felt bad after that last game and we were all disappointed by it,” Lucas said. “But he came out with a whole other level to him, and I’m just excited to see him carry it over into the games.”
The Detroit native and projected top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Jackson will get a chance to prove Lucas right in the NCAA Tournament, beginning Friday evening against UC-Davis (23-12).
Starting junior wing Svi Mykhailiuk expects a great response from Jackson in his postseason debut, and said Jackson will pick up right where he left off, prior to his suspension.
“Definitely, because he’s a great competitor,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a winner, and he always wants to play, he always wants to win. I think he’s gonna be really hungry in the game, and he’s gonna show his best.”
KU head coach Bill Self repeatedly has supported Jackson publicly, and did so again on the eve of KU’s tourney run, saying he had no concern about Jackson’s approach to the game moving forward.
“I think Josh is focused. I do,” Self said. “He's a tough-minded individual. I think he's focused. And certainly his role or playing time or whatnot, whatever will only be dictated by what happens between the lines. It won't be dictated by anything else. And I think he's ready to go.”
KU’s senior leader and point guard, Frank Mason III said Jackson has handled lingering off-the-court issues and various allegations well.
“Josh is a great kid. We all love him. We all know he has great experience and things like that,” Mason said. “So we just tell him to focus on the things that he can take care of and that's exactly what he does. And we're just proud of how far he came so far throughout his year, and we're just focused on today and we're not really worried about anything off the court.”
Obviously, Kansas missed Jackson’s athleticism, defense, passing, scoring and rebounding in its Big 12 tournament loss to TCU. Lucas emphasized the importance of the freshman’s presence as the Jayhawks begin what they hope will be a lengthy journey through March Madness.
“We were confident in our team in the game that he missed that we should’ve won, but he just adds so much to this team,” Lucas said, “especially with the four-guard lineup that we like to go with so much. His presence is definitely important to us. He brings a lot of energy during runs and spurts that we really need. He’s a top three, five pick in the NBA, so it’s always nice to have somebody like that on your team.”
Tulsa, Okla. — From the time Big 12 play began the last week of December up until the league’s tournament started in March, the Kansas basketball team existed on a steady diet of two games a week. The Jayhawks expected an even larger plate on the first weekend of the postseason, in Kansas City, Mo., before TCU sent them home early.
By the time KU, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, tips off its NCAA Tournament opener against UC-Davis at BOK Arena Friday evening, eight days will have passed since the players last competed full-out on a basketball court.
“I think this is the longest break we’ve had between games since the start of the season — at least that I can remember,” said senior center Landen Lucas, whose assessment was nearly spot on (KU also had eight days off with its holiday break in late December). “And, you know, it is weird. It almost feels like preseason again. You’re getting tired of battling against your teammates and stuff and ready to play somebody else.”
The subject rarely comes up for Kansas in March, one of the program’s busiest times of year, but the prolonged and unexpected layoff in action inspired a locker room discussion with media ahead of the Jayhawks’ tourney opener against UC-Davis (23-12).
“There’s always that debate about rust and rest and which one’s gonna come up, but I feel like it equals out,” Lucas predicted. “The rest is gonna be helpful at times maybe later in the game and the rust is early. If you were gonna say which one would you rather have, I think later would be better. We’ll be fine, and I think that as a team we’re mature enough that we can handle the rust.”
Indeed, the Jayhawks (28-4) have overcome all sorts of in-game challenges over the course of the past four months, often with veterans Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Lucas coming through with one play or many in crunch time.
While KU’s time off had plenty to do with Josh Jackson’s suspension, and how much the team missed his defense, rebounding and play-making, it did allow junior wing Svi Mykhailiuk to bust out of a personal slump. The starter from Ukraine could have used another game (or two) to keep building off the momentum of an 18-point outing.
So, Svi, is this break from action a positive or negative for KU?
“I think the bad thing was we lost and we wanted to play more games and win the Big 12 tournament,” Mykhailiuk responded. “But I think the good thing is we got more time to prepare for the NCAA Tournament — working on mistakes, working on the defense and offense and just preparing better.”
Even if certain Jayhawks were battling fatigue right now, Mykhailiuk said they would find ways to ignore it this time of year, because all they care about are the games and finding ways to win.
According to Mason, who averaged 37.2 minutes a game in Big 12 play, KU spent its eight days off wisely.
“Yeah, definitely. Once we got back from last game, we got a little bit of rest,” said Mason, never one to seek out such respite. “And the next day we had practice. We practiced really hard. I think we got better as a team. And just a few days after the game, we practiced really hard and we're really prepared for this tournament.”
In the time since KU lost, UC-Davis, which also played that day, has played three more games, winning them all.
The Jayhawks haven’t exactly been idle, but their March got off to what Lucas said felt like a strange start. That odd feeling, though, might come accompanied with fresh legs that will prove rather handy in the days ahead.
“It could be helpful,” Lucas said of those eight game-free days. “I think we’re using this as motivation, using it as some momentum off of the practices going into this next game.”
For what it’s worth, Kansas lost in the Big 12 semifinals in 2012, then had seven days off before beginning a run to the national title game.
In the moment’s following their unexpected early exit from the Big 12 tournament, Kansas basketball players sulked inside their temporary Sprint Center locker room Thursday, as they pondered a quarterfinal loss to TCU.
The Jayhawks lamented what they and head coach Bill Self deemed a lackluster defensive stretch with star freshman Josh Jackson serving a one-game suspension, but also tried to begin moving past the team’s fourth loss of the season. Looking ahead to The Big Dance, though, came with questions, and a feeling they could have blown a chance to control their path in the NCAA Tournament.
Senior all-everything point guard Frank Mason III wondered aloud about how KU’s loss to TCU might impact the team’s hierarchy among No. 1 seeds.
“And I think that, you know, if we would’ve done a good job in this tournament we probably would’ve been in the Midwest,” Mason said, implying the Jayhawks (28-4) could have cemented their chances to return to Kansas City, Mo., for games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, “so we would’ve had home advantage.”
Kansas definitely hasn’t been eliminated from the running for a No. 1 seed and a spot in the Kansas City regional. But the players felt disappointed following the defeat, because they essentially left that decision in the selection committee’s hands, instead of winning three more games and forcing those in charge of the bracket to put the Jayhawks in the most favorable situation.
“We’re not really sure what’s gonna happen now,” Mason added.
Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, said KU’s potential travel plans seemed up in the air due to its conference tournament setback.
“But it’s the tournament,” Bragg added of the upcoming NCAAs. “No matter where we play, we’re just gonna come to compete.”
Although KU’s most recent Sprint Center experience didn’t live up to the team’s expectations, the program is 34-7 all-time in the K.C. arena and 3-1 there this season. So the Jayhawks still hope to play two more games there March 23 and 25.
“For sure,” Bragg said. “Why not just play at home?”
As Matt Tait detailed, KU likely has no reason to worry about dropping to a No. 2 seed when the brackets are unveiled on Sunday, and it’s nearly a foregone conclusion the regular-season Big 12 champions will open March Madness in Tulsa, Okla. But the Jayhawks’ anxiety regarding where they will be sent for regional semifinals and finals — should they handle their business in the rounds of 64 and 32 — has some merit.
A year ago, Villanova ended up in the Louisville regional instead of its hometown of Philadelphia, after losing to Seton Hall in the Big East title game. The Wildcats, who overcame that more difficult road to win the national championship, entered the NCAA Tournament 29-5, but lost their potential No. 1 seed in the East to North Carolina, the ACC’s regular-season and postseason champion.
Could KU end up in the West (San Jose, Calif.), South (Memphis, Tenn.) or East (New York) regional now? When teams don’t make the selection committee’s job easy, one never knows how the road to the Final Four will look.
Senior big man Landen Lucas said the unpredictability the Jayhawks brought upon themselves made them feel worse.
“I think even today we saw how much a Kansas City crowd can help us at times,” Lucas said. “And we knew that, and we came out here and now nothing’s guaranteed. We’ve just gotta hope that our résumé up to this point does us enough to get the seed and the region that we want and go from there.”
Once the Jayhawks learn their bracket fate, Lucas isn’t worried about how they will respond.
“I think either way we’re looking at it just fine,” he said. “I mean, we’ve faced adversity throughout the whole year, so a challenge isn’t too big of a deal. But obviously playing here in front of this crowd would be helpful.”
The limited second-half contributions of Kansas post players Tuesday night against Long Beach State weren’t enough to restore head coach Bill Self’s trust in his team’s bigs.
After all, the Jayhawks already had put the 49ers away by halftime, long before starting center Udoka Azubuike or sophomore power forward Carlton Bragg put the basketball through the hoop in a 91-61 rout.
For years, Self’s teams have relied upon a low-post scoring threat to facilitate the offense — from Wayne Simien, to Thomas Robinson, to Joel Embiid. Seven games into this season, though, the coach doesn’t think that traditional approach will work for his Jayhawks (6-1).
“We scored 48 points the first half and our big guys combined for one,” Self marveled after the victory, referencing Udoka Azubuike’s single made foul shot during the first 20 minutes. “And we had to bank in that one from the free-throw line to get one. So obviously you’re not gonna win consistently against good teams relyin' on makin’ three-point shots all the time, because there’s gonna be times where you don’t make ’em.”
Self expected much more out of his big men against Long Beach State, but utilized a four-guard approach often on a night KU shot 14-for-26 from three-point range and frontcourt players accounted for just 18 of the team’s 91 points.
The coach conceded Long Beach State (1-8) played a “kind of funky” matchup zone that the Jayhawks didn’t prepare much for and that kept the offense out of rhythm. Self also said Landen Lucas (oblique strain) missing the game hampered the team’s inside play, as did Bragg picking up two fouls in the first half, when the sophomore got on the floor for all of one minute.
But when Self looked at the box score and saw the following numbers from his big men, it just translated into disappointment.
- Azubuike: 3-for-6 FGs, 2-for-6 FTs, 8 points, 7 rebounds, 0 blocks
- Bragg: 3-for-7 FGs, 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers
- Dwight Coleby: 1-for-1 FGs, 2 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block
Considering Azubuike had dunked his way to 17 points four days earlier against UNC Asheville, Self demanded more from the freshman 7-footer, calling him “no factor” against LBSU.
The coach proceeded to present his wish list for the Kansas bigs moving forward.
“At least a big can block a shot. We get no blocked shots tonight. I think the bigs can rebound better and I think that we can score with angles better, and certainly we can shoot our free throws better,” Self said. “But we’re not gonna be a team that scores 20 points out of the post this year. I don’t think that’s gonna be the case.”
KU veteran Devonté Graham understands his coach’s frustrations. But the junior guard said this Self team, even when it has four guards on the floor, won’t completely abandon its interior players as an offensive option.
“We still got that same mentality, though. Coach always tellin' us to play inside-out,” Graham said. “But I just think tonight we shot the ball real well, so we was just trying to be aggressive — kept attacking, kept shooting and making shots.”
Plus, Graham pointed out, LBSU set up its defense to pack in and try to take away points in the paint (though KU still scored 36 of those), almost inviting Kansas to shoot 3-pointers instead.
Obviously KU won’t see the same kind of defense every night if its guards keep burying open looks from downtown. And then the burden to score will increase for the team’s bigs. What’s more, Graham doesn’t think the Kansas post players will let their woes persist, even after a disappointing night.
“They’re doin’ real well with it,” Graham said. “They’ve been goin’ hard at each other in practice. So they’re gettin' better. They havin' that little slump, but I think definitely Carlton and Landen and ’Dok are doin’ a great job of gettin' through it.”
When Kansas University junior forward Landen Lucas contemplates the quantity and quality of big men in KU’s basketball program right now, he almost can’t believe it.
The Jayhawks rarely lack in the depth department down low. Now entering his fourth season in Lawrence, Lucas (who red-shirted his first year) has played alongside or practiced with interior contributors such as Tarik Black, Joel Embiid, Kevin Young and Jeff Withey in the past. Still, the 6-foot-10 Lucas said the 2015-16 KU roster is more crowded in the front court than any he has seen.
“It’s weird to say that,” Lucas admitted earlier this summer, “because I feel like the last couple years we’ve had that kind of depth. But this year there will be an insane amount of people who have either started here, started at other schools — Hunter (Mickelson) started at Arkansas — mixed in with (high school) All-Americans.”
Indeed, KU seniors Perry Ellis (71 career starts), Jamari Traylor (19 starts) and Mickelson (25 starts in two seasons at Arkansas), like Lucas (14 starts), know what it’s like to be one of the first five on the court. Even 6-9 junior Dwight Coleby, who will sit out this season after transferring from Ole Miss, has seven career starts.
Plus, Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff brought in highly touted freshman big men Cheick Diallo (Rivals.com’s No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2015) and Carlton Bragg (ranked No. 21 by Rivals).
If the NCAA Eligibility Center clears Diallo to play, upon completing its review of his academic records from Our Savior New American High, in Centereach, New York, the Jayhawks will have six players available to use at power forward and center.
Lucas said just four big men in a rotation allows for aggressive play in the paint. He thinks the collective assertiveness of the front court should only improve with more options.
“Hopefully it will get people to go out there and play hard,” Lucas said. “If you go out there and you don’t, there’s somebody who’s ready to come in and do that.”
Each available big figures to bring something a little different to the floor.
The 6-foot-8 Ellis can score in a variety of ways.
Also 6-8, Traylor is quicker than most big men and has shown the ability to use that to his advantage.
Thus far a backup at KU, 6-10 Mickelson looked like a steady rim protector, as well as an effective scorer and passer as the Jayhawks won gold medals at the World University Games this summer.
And Lucas might be the best defensive rebounder among the veterans.
Without Bragg and Diallo making an immediate impact, though, the Jayhawks will only have a comparable version of last season’s front court. If the two rookies prove game-ready, KU could drive opposing teams mad inside.
While playing in South Korea this summer, the 6-9 Bragg showed he can run the floor, play with toughness and knock down open jumpers.
Diallo, meanwhile, might be the exact kind of player KU lacked this past season. The 6-9 big man is expected to play with manic energy on the defensive and offensive glass, protect the rim and compliment Ellis’s scoring inside.
Mickelson said transitioning from the high school ranks to high-major college basketball is different for every player, and although getting acclimated can be difficult, Bragg and Diallo shouldn’t have too much trouble. Freshmen, Mickelson added, usually can pick up drills and plays quickly enough, but KU’s veterans will be sure to remind them about other aspects of the game, such as body language or how to approach different situations.
“There’s just little tweaks and stuff like that that you can point out to help them,” Mickelson said.
In June, before playing in the World University Games, when asked what his weaknesses were, Bragg replied “everything.” The humble freshman’s point: he wanted to improve as much as possible every day. Bragg said KU’s veterans help him stay positive and let him know what to expect.
“They’re getting me ready, mentally,” the young big from Cleveland said. “Going through what they went through their freshmen, sophomore years, how coach was getting on you.”
Traylor already seems convinced Bragg will fit right in at KU, noting Self has said as much in complimenting Bragg’s feel for the game.
“But as far as natural stuff and natural athletic ability and instinct,” Traylor added, “he’s gonna be great for us.”
Because KU only has two newcomers inside, Traylor said it will be easy for the veteran Jayhawks to take Bragg and Diallo under their wings. It won’t be like the past couple seasons, when KU had first- and second-year players all over the floor — inside and out.
“We’re pretty much an old team now, so things are pretty much going quick,” Traylor said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.