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 — 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.”
In spite of the Kansas basketball team’s undefeated home record and the necessity for a Jayhawks victory against Baylor, what with Selection Sunday coming up in just more than a week, this season’s Allen Fieldhouse finale figures to lack the buzz and fervor of recent regular season closers.
Many KU students will already be hundreds of miles away basking in all the diversions spring break has to offer. There is no beloved senior to celebrate. No nets to cut. Nor a shiny new Big 12 championship trophy to wheel out and add to the collection.
And the relative lack of interest, at least compared to the full-blown zeal that typically accompanies the last KU basketball home game on a given year’s schedule, has everything to do with the Jayhawks’ shortcomings this season.
Bill Self has coached more than enough Big 12 title-winning teams at KU to notice some characteristics that this particular team lacked, the types of limitations that paved the way for either Kansas State or Texas Tech — or both — to dethrone the 14-time reigning champions in 2019.
“I think there's some reasons,” Self began. “I think maturity is one. I think distractions is another and, you know, those are things that you don't really change.”
The disturbances Self referenced may have been too unpredictable for the Jayhawks to avoid feeling at least somewhat blindsided by them.
“Now, if it was distractions on judgment and things like that, then that's another thing — you can eliminate (those). These are distractions, whether it be health, whether it be a decision is made by a third party, whether it be obviously some personal things, those things are hard to navigate and deal with,” Self said. “I think those are probably reasons why, as much as anything.”
Of course, losing 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury, the NCAA ruling Silvio De Sousa ineligible and Lagerald Vick presumably leaving the team for good four months into the season all played a factor in KU coming up short of a 15th straight conference title. But the Jayhawks also possess on-court imperfections that have kept them from overcoming those aforementioned obstructions.
“And the other thing is, guys, our margin for error isn't what it used to be,” Self would add Thursday, during his weekly press conference. “I mean, going to win on the road is a huge win. Like going to Morgantown, up six (points) with two (minutes) left, that's what we’re going to look back on — or that’s what I’ll look back on.”
The road wrecked KU’s chances at living up to the program’s absurd conference-championship-every-season standards this year. The Jayhawks went 3-6 in the arenas occupied by other Big 12 programs this season, blowing a late lead at WVU, not putting up much of a fight in defeats at Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma, losing late at K-State and showing no ability to match Texas Tech’s intensity or level of play in Lubbock, Texas.
As Self said of the nail-in-the-coffin defeat at OU earlier this week, the Jayhawks (22-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12) needed to play “great” to beat the Sooners that night. But winning on the road usually requires a gutty defensive effort.
“We couldn’t be great. We had to make them play poorly. That's what this team has not done,” Self said. “It's not so much how we play, it's how we make other teams play. That’s probably the reason why we didn't have a better opportunity to win the league this year, to be quite candid."
Defending the 3-point line proved to be an issue for KU in Big 12 road losses. Iowa State went 13 for 25, Texas 10 for 28, K-State 10 for 24, Tech 16 for 26 and Oklahoma 9 for 24.
Through 30 games, KU’s 34.3% 3-point field goal percentage defense ranks 177th in the nation. To make matters worse, per TeamRankings.com, KU is allowing opponents to attempt, on average, 25.6 3-pointers a game, which ranks 317th.
Junior Mitch Lightfoot, a part of two Big 12 title-winning teams during his first two years at KU, didn’t have to think long to point to a primary reason this season hasn’t been as successful.
“Like coach has always said, you’ve got to win on the road,” Lightfoot replied, when asked if there was a specific characteristic he saw KU lacking. “We haven’t done that too spectacularly with this team in particular. That is the reason that it happened (KU didn’t win the Big 12). We have to address that, because throughout the tournament, throughout the rest of all of our careers here, we’re going to have to win on the road. We’re going to have to win in opposing environments and we’ve got to figure that out.”
The clock is ticking on this KU basketball season, and its expiration date will come sooner than usual if the Jayhawks don’t find ways to demand defensive responses from themselves when facing an offense that’s clicking. Whether that’s denying shooters behind the 3-point arc or impeding driving and passing lanes on the perimeter, the Jayhawks will have to make their opponents more uncomfortable from here on out.
Otherwise they’ll be setting themselves up for the type of finish to a season that is viewed as intolerable among KU’s rabid fan base.
Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 64-49 win over Kansas State on Big Monday at Allen Fieldhouse.
Considering that K-State has one of the better defenses in the nation, the Jayhawks were highly unlikely to blow out their rivals in this Sunflower Showdown.
KU shot 39.6% from the floor overall and only made 8 of 24 3-pointers.
But the ball security (see: 10 Kansas turnovers) kept the Wildcats from feasting off takeaways.
Freshman David McCormack accounted for 2 of those mistakes, while the rest of KU’s rotations players combined for just 8. That may be the most important thing accomplished offensively for Kansas in this one.
KU’s ability to switch defensively, Barry Brown said after shooting 1 for 8, turned the Wildcats’ offense stagnant.
Mitch Lightfoot (credited 3 blocks) defended the paint well, too, and with Dedric Lawson competing inside as well, the Wildcats couldn’t manage any more than 8 points in the paint.
K-State only connected on 31.6% of its shots in the loss and the Big 12’s first-place team hit 8 of 24 3-pointers.
Lawson was back to his double-double ways, putting up 18 points and 14 rebounds. But he shot 6 for 20 from the floor and missed all 4 of his 3-point tries.
The big man’s passing proved useful, though, as Lawson dished 5 of KU’s 14 assists.
While McCormack started once again, he made little to no impact.
Devon Dotson attacked off the dribble, seeking out the paint whenever he could. Even when those ventures didn’t conclude with baskets or assists, his successful drives for paint touches forced the K-State defense to react, making the freshman point guard a critical cog for the offense.
Dotson produced 16 points on 5-for-12 shooting and hit 1 of his 5 3-pointers.
Fellow freshman Quentin Grimes was in catch-and-fire mode all night from beyond the arc, and shot 3 for 6 from deep on his way to 12 points.
Ochai Agbaji had a rare ineffective home game offensively, finishing scoreless in 16 minutes.
Lightfoot at points controlled the game while fueling a crucial KU victory. His energy and want-to were off the charts, making it easy for him to finish with the stat line: 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists in 31 minutes.
Marcus Garrett played 27 minutes in his second game back from his ankle injury and knocked in a couple of 3-pointers (one of them banked in).
KU’s bench outscored the K-State reserves 18-10.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 78-53 win over West Virginia on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
To the Jayhawks’ credit they rarely let up or faltered in cruising to an afternoon victory. More importantly, they didn’t play down to their competition and looked like they were playing one of the Big 12’s lesser teams throughout, rather than making the types of mistakes that would benefit the underdog Mountaineers.
Kansas shot 53 percent from the field, went 8 for 20 on 3-pointers and finished with 17 assists on 28 baskets.
Great defensive activity in the first half, both inside and out, made sure the Mountaineers didn’t get comfortable.
WVU began the game hitting just 3 of its first 15 shots, as KU’s guards and bigs opened the afternoon locked in and ready to compete.
Kansas was able to gain its first double-digit lead less than 9 minutes in as the Jayhawks contested just about every shot WVU could manage to get up early on.
The Mountaineers turned the ball over 12 times in the first half and shot 7 for 28 in the opening 20 minutes, allowing KU to hit halftime in total control, up 43-16.
WVU finished the loss shooting 34 percent from the floor, with 24 turnovers.
It wasn’t a banner day for Dedric Lawson, but the Jayhawks didn’t need him to dominate, either. A ho-hum game by Lawson’s standards, KU’s typical go-to guy went for 14 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
Lawson was engaged, he just seemed to willingly take on a supportive role with KU rolling.
Starting for the third game in a row and for the third time in his young career, David McCormack made his presence felt on the defensive end of the floor in the first half. McCormack (10 points, 4 rebounds) swatted 2 WVU shots in the opening 5 minutes.
The big man showed some promising footwork early on, too, taking what looked to be a possible turnover on the baseline under the basket, and working his way to a tough finish and layup.
The freshman trio of Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji made a ludicrous start for Kansas possible with their efforts on the defensive end of the floor. Between ball pressure and staying assignment sound the Jayhawks’ guards kept WVU in check throughout the first half.
Dotson (15 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) picked up on Saturday right where he left off at TCU this past Monday, going for 13 points in the first half. With Dotson taking an assertive approach at point guard, it was easy for the rest of the Jayhawks to follow his lead.
Even when Agbaji (10 points, 3 rebounds) wasn’t scoring consistently in the first half, he made KU better offensively just by pushing the ball in the open floor when he could and driving hard into the paint against poor closeouts.
Grimes (4 points, 2 assists) missed all four of his 3-point attempts, but helped KU out a great deal with his perimeter defense and passing in the first half.
K.J. Lawson, like Dotson, kept his positive momentum rolling from KU’s road win in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier in the week.
K.J. (15 points, 3 rebounds) drained a 3 from the left corner on the way to 7 first-half points.
Mitch Lightfoot didn’t start but KU relied on its backup big man more than it did McCormack, and Lightfoot delivered his typical energy and hustle plays on both ends of the floor. Lightfoot (5 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks), with his activity, even if it was just coming through with a hard foul to make sure WVU didn’t get an easy basket inside, continued to be a vital part of the Jayhawks’ rotation.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 84-72 win over Oklahoma State on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
A slow start from 3-point range kept KU from building anything larger than a 6-point lead in the first half. Then the Jayhawks needed some late-half 3-pointers from Ochai Agbaji to head into the locker room tied with the Cowboys.
KU wasn’t finding a lot of easy baskets in the paint in the first 20 minutes, when they scored just 12 inside, leading to the tight game against the Big 12’s ninth-place team.
But the Jayhawks opened up the second half by establishing Dedric Lawson as a focal point and high-percentage looks and some needed energy followed for the Jayhawks.
KU shot 51.5 percent from the floor in the final 20 minutes.
Some defensive breakdowns late in the first half allowed OSU to score easily and head to halftime with some confidence.
While Kansas didn’t allow OSU to take a ton of 3-pointers, the defense often left the Cowboys’ most capable shooters open for great looks when they did take them. The Cowboys shot 9 for 20 from long range and the makes always seemed timely.
Ultimately OSU wasn’t able to hoist enough 3-point bombs to keep pace with the home team, and the Cowboys shot 38 percent from the floor in the second half.
Although David McCormack made the first start of his career, it was, of course, Dedric Lawson who did most of the damage inside for Kansas.
Lawson began to take over in the second half, exactly when KU needed him to. His smooth finishing and shooting touch were on full display, but so was his passing, decision-making and feel for the game, as the Jayhawks’ most talented player put up 25 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists.
McCormack had trouble making much of an impact early, though his energy and effort and want-to was plenty evident.
The freshman’s 10 first-half minutes netted 1 rebound and 0 points. By the end of the game, McCormack had played just 4 more minutes and had 0 points and 5 boards to show for his starting debut.
Playing without two potential starters in Marcus Garrett (injured ankle) and Lagerald Vick (leave of absence), Kansas went with a three-guard lineup versus the Cowboys.
Devon Dotson’s innate ability to find steals and take off the other way for a bucket reached new heights in the first half, when the freshman delivered the first dunk of his KU career. A few minutes later he had an even more impressive finish on a layup, because he was challenged this time, by OSU big Yor Anei, and finished off glass over the 6-foot-10 freshman.
With Vick out of the mix, Kansas definitely needs someone stepping up in the scoring department and Dotson did his part Saturday, putting up 18 points to go with his 4 assists and 5 rebounds.
Fellow freshman Ochai Agbaji, one of four freshmen in the starting lineup, was even better in that department, providing the offense with a real boost, as well. Agbaji (23 points, 5-for-7 on 3-pointers, 6 rebounds) drained 3 of 4 from 3-point range in the first half, as KU entered the locker room tied with the Cowboys at 36.
Freshman Quentin Grimes (6 points, 4 rebounds) had a difficult start to his day, twice called for a charge while trying to be aggressive off the dribble. He didn’t score until the 12:20 mark of the second half, but his contributions proved timely, as a pair of 3-pointers in a little more than a minute, out of a timeout, pushed KU’s lead to 8.
Mitch Lightfoot and Charlie Moore were the first players off KU’s bench, and got in much earlier than they would have a couple of weeks back, when they were at the end of the rotation.
Lightfoot (6 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks) pleased the crowd in the first half by going all out for a tough defensive rebound at one point and later on challenging Cameron McGriff for a would-be highlight dunk that ended a foul.
Lightfoot, who started the second half in place of McCormack, got the half off to an electric start on defense by smothering a would-be Anei dunk attempt up in the air.
Moore came out firing off the bench, but was 1 for 5 in the first half and missed all 3 of his 3-point tries. The redshirt sophomore finished with 4 points.
If Bill Self has to ditch the Kansas basketball team’s four-guard lineup, and the head coach puts two bigs on the floor versus Baylor on Saturday afternoon, Self will do so somewhat begrudgingly and not because he’s enthusiastic about a return to a traditional look.
Asked following the Jayhawks’ home victory over TCU what he thought about a nearly six-minute stretch in the second half, when Dedric Lawson and Mitch Lightfoot played together, it brought about a visceral reaction from Self, his face grimacing in borderline disgust.
“It was fine,” Self followed, with his reply.
KU went big for a short stretch, the coach explained, because the Horned Frogs were cutting into the Jayhawks’ lead, narrowing it to two just before Self replaced K.J. Lawson with Lightfoot. Self hoped running some plays designed for two big men might provide a variant look, if not a spark.
“And Mitch is the best we have to do that, to give Dedric a touch,” Self added.
The No. 7 Jayhawks led 55-50 when Lightfoot subbed in at the 10:55 mark, and 66-59 when he checked out with 5:03 left to play.
Lawson scored all 11 of KU’s points during the stretch, as the lead grew by two points. Not bad. But not great, either. Throw in TCU’s 3-pointer and a pair of layups during those five-plus minutes and you can see why Self wasn’t gushing about the experiment.
Even so, Saturday’s matchup with Baylor (9-5 overall, 1-1 Big 12) means Self most likely will have to use two-big lineups to counter the Bears’ length within coach Scott Drew’s zone defense.
“You’re gonna have to play two bigs against them, I think the majority of the time, in order to be able to see inside the zone and be easier receivers,” Self figured. “”So I think that as much as we played four guards (Wednesday), I don’t know if I’d bank on that (at Baylor).”
This doubles as potentially great news for a couple of KU reserves: Lightfoot, who’s averaging 8.8 minutes a game this season, and freshman big David McCormack, who is averaging 6.7 minutes and only checked in for 34 seconds against TCU.
Unless Dedric Lawson proves to be a zone dissector as a passer versus BU, and he’s able to hit cutting guards for easy looks, both Lightfoot and McCormack should get relatively extended runs as the other big on the floor.
Self clearly trusts Lightfoot, a junior, more at this juncture of the season, but this could be a great opportunity for McCormack to gain some confidence and take another step toward proving he can handle more than what the coaches have asked of him up to this point.
Both Lightfoot and McCormack are great providers of energy off the bench and solid rebounders. Self won’t ask them to do a ton offensively versus Baylor, but the Jayhawks very well could need both of the bigs to fill larger roles than usual, at least for one day.
Your best post player goes down. Time for another to step up, right?
Not for this Kansas basketball team.
The absence of center Udoka Azubuike, no matter how long the 7-footer’s right ankle sprain keeps him out of the lineup, doesn’t necessarily mean more minutes for the frontcourt reserves who have been backing him up.
Head coach Bill Self loved the talents of Azubuike and Dedric Lawson too much to not go big and play them together. But now that his starting center is out, Self’s ready to adapt by reviving the four-guard look that worked so well for the Jayhawks the past couple of seasons.
While Lawson, a 6-foot-9 redshirt junior, isn’t the type of low-post player Azubuike is, Self isn’t going to ask his versatile forward, who leads the No. 2 Jayhawks in scoring (19 points per game), rebounds (10.7) and assists (3.1) to try to be someone he’s not. And Self has no intention of forcing junior Mitch Lightfoot or freshman David McCormack into the lineup as a pseudo-Dok just because that’s the style KU played during its 7-0 start.
The offense will start running through Lawson even more now, as guards Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Lagerald Vick and Marcus Garrett play around him. If Lawson (32.7 minutes a game) needs a breather, then Self will turn to either Lightfoot (6.6 minutes) or McCormack (4.5 minutes) a little more than he has previously.
But even when KU is faced with defending a team that plays two bigs together, Self doesn’t think that will force him to match it. Garrett, a 6-5 sophomore guard, proved earlier this week in KU’s 72-47 victory over Wofford he can more than hold his own as the 4-man, the role occupied in recent four-guard lineups by Svi Mykhailiuk and Josh Jackson.
“We defended them so much better with Marcus on their big guy,” Self said of one factor that convinced KU’s coaching staff to start Garrett instead of another big in Azubuike’s spot. “I have confidence in Marcus defending the 4-man. Now we may need to trap the post or do some things like that. But I think that’s good for us.”
Ask a guard about the in-season modification to the Jayhawks’ style and he’ll think about what it will do for the offense.
“That gives us a bunch of freedom,” Grimes said of Garrett joining the starting lineup. “Really whoever gets (the ball on a defensive stop), all five can essentially bring it. So I think it’s definitely going to help us out for sure.”
Grimes envisions not only he and Vick catching more lobs but also he and Garrett throwing more of them.
“I think it’ll be really fun,” Grimes said.
Self, though, isn’t moving to a four-guard lineup because he’s concerned about anyone’s enjoyment or entertainment. He’s backing away from a two-big approach because Garrett’s defensive versatility makes it an easy decision.
“He’s got good size, he’s got long arms,” Self began, when asked how Garrett is able to guard both perimeter and post players. “But he is very, very smart. As far as IQ and understanding the game on the defensive side, he’s right up there with the best that we’ve ever had. And he’s tough. And he’s strong. And he pays attention to scouting reports. So he knows when to show, when not to show, when to front. … He just does a better job, I’d say, than the majority of college players out there early in his career, because he does have a great feel defensively.”
And, believe it or not, Self and his staff have long thought this year’s KU team has a chance to become “really good” defensively. Self said Thursday that may even end up becoming this group’s identity.
For much of the first six games, that didn’t look to be the case. But Self saw during Tuesday’s win over Wofford glimpses of speed and length and activity from his guards that he and his assistants first witnessed during both the summer and fall.
He’s not ready to call KU a good defensive team yet. Self remembers how his team “stunk” on that end of the floor against Stanford just five days ago. But he has observed both improvement and potential.
If that’s the vision, it may be difficult for either Lightfoot or McCormack to play huge minutes, even if they play well. KJ Lawson and Charlie Moore can step into the four-guard lineup around Dedric Lawson as needed. And Lightfoot and McCormack can sub in and still find ways to impact the game.
“We’re similar but still different,” the 6-10 McCormack said of what he and the 6-8 Lightfoot bring. “We’re both high intensity, both hustle players, both rebounders. There’s some aspects that Mitch does that I don’t. Like Mitch might step out and he’ll shoot a 3-pointer every now and then — something I may not do,” McCormack added. “Me, I’m more back to the basket. He may want to face up. So there are some differences, but there are some similarities at the same time.”
McCormack has the build and McDonald’s All-American pedigree to potentially perform his way into more playing time. And Lightfoot remains a strong help-side rim protector, as well as the best Jayhawk at taking charges.
But if neither ends up seeing a huge uptick in minutes while Azubuike is out, you won’t see either of them sulking. They’re two high character teammates, too, who will do all they can to contribute in a four-guard lineup that isn’t built to feature them.
Omaha, Neb. — As top-seeded Kansas enters its Sweet 16 matchup with Clemson, a board on a wall inside the Jayhawks’ locker room back home feels more relevant than ever.
Sometimes it is referenced, other times just thought of but unmentioned. Either way, it has been on the minds of KU’s players this week.
The essence of the board inside Allen Fieldhouse traveled easily to CenturyLink Center. KU coach Bill Self mentioned its message on the eve of his players’ next NCAA Tournament game: the Jayhawks could have one day left in their season, or they could keep playing for 11 more.
“It’s pretty simple,” sophomore Mitch Lightfoot related. “We go out here and compete and we can win and keep this team together. I think that’s what we all want. It’s a pretty close, tight-knit team. We’re looking to go out there and play for each other.”
The board displays various other significant countdowns, too, for easy referral as the Jayhawks grind their way through the season.
“It shows how many days left ’til the Final Four, how many days left ’til this, left ’til that,” Lightfoot shared on Thursday. “Everything else is erased. There’s no days left ’til the Big 12 tournament, there’s no days left ’til the NCAA Tournament. It’s here. The Final Four’s up there, and I think we all understand that it’s either one day left of 11 days left with this team, and we all take that to heart. I think we go out there and play that much harder for each other.”
While Self has brought up the dwindling number of days left on the college basketball calendar, Lightfoot said it hasn’t necessarily become a talking point from KU’s seniors, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Clay Young.
If he were in their adidas, Lightfoot probably wouldn’t want to make it a constant topic of discussion either.
“I just think they love this place so much. Svi, Clay, D’tae, they’ve given so much to this organization, and I think it’s gonna be hard for them to leave,” Lightfoot said. “I think we’re going to go out there and play for them and send them out right.”
Mykhailiuk said the seniors are keenly aware of both how close they are to their ultimate goal of cutting down nets in San Antonio and just how quickly their careers could come to an abrupt, undesired conclusion.
“It’s one or 11, so we’ve just got to leave it on the court and on the practice court,” Mykhailiuk said. “It might be one day we could be with each other or it might be 11 left. We don’t know. We’ve got to take it as a last practice or last game. We’ve got to leave it on the court and compete as hard as we can.”
Because Mykhailiuk and Graham have played on the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight stages each of the past two seasons, they know better than any of their teammates what type of efforts the Jayhawks will need to get past Clemson. But the senior from Ukraine wasn’t worried those of his teammates who will be asked to perform on this stage for the first time. He trusts they grasp the gravity of the situation.
“I think everybody knows. Coach has been talking about this to us and I think everybody realizes how important it is,” Mykhailiuk said, “and how important it is to come prepared and know what you’re doing and compete as hard as we can to get a win.”
Wichita — The top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks knew entering their NCAA Tournament opener against Penn that getting past the Ivy League champions would be no easy task.
With senior point guard Devonte’ Graham leading the way, the Jayhawks moved on to the second round of The Madness for the 12th March in a row.
Here are five statistics that fueled the Jayhawks (28-7) against the Quakers.
Penn entered the NCAA Tournament as a team built more on defense than offense. For Kansas it was imperative the Quakers didn’t get hot and gain confidence offensively.
Although the Quakers jumped out to a 21-11 lead early in the first half, the Jayhawks’ defenders settled in and limited Penn to 35.7-percent shooting in the first 20 minutes as the underdogs missed 11 of their final 15 shot attempts leading into the halftime break.
Kansas kept Penn leading scorer Ryan Betley in check (3-for-9 shooting, 8 points) and limited A.J. Brodeur, a 54.2-percent shooter entering the game, to 6-of-16 success from the field.
The Quakers only converted on 39.3 percent of the shot attempts. They were the first KU opponent to shoot under 40 percent since the Jayhawks won at Kansas State (though West Virginia shot exactly 40 percent in the Big 12 title game).
KU’s defense might be trending the right direction ahead of a Saturday matchup with Seton Hall, which scored 94 points against North Carolina State.
Lightfoot’s 2nd half
With Udoka Azubuike limited while recovering from a sprained MCL in his left knee, Kansas needed some interior contributions from either Silvio De Sousa, the unexpected breakout performer of the Big 12 tournament, of sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot.
Against Penn, the slightly more experienced Lightfoot came through after Azubuike played 3 relatively ineffective minutes in the first half.
Before halftime, Lightfoot played 10 minutes. He missed a baseline jumper, grabbed 2 defensive rebounds and blocked a shot.
In the second half, though, Lightfoot gave KU far more, scoring all 9 of his points and, even more importantly, putting in work on the glass, with 2 offensive boards and 7 more rebounds on the defensive end of the floor.
His 11 boards gave the 6-foot-8 fill-in starter a new career high. And Lightfoot played solid defense, finishing with 3 blocked shots.
Vick’s efficient offensive outing
In one of his more effective scoring outings of his junior season, Lagerald Vick only needed 7 shot attempts to provide KU with 14 points.
Vick nailed 2 of his 4 3-point tries and both of his free-throw attempts to help his cause. But he also found low-risk, high-reward looks.
The springy guard got open for one score at the rim in each half and put in another easy basket in the paint.
The productive NCAA Tournament opener gave Vick his fourth consecutive game in double figures for the first time this season. Even when he was routinely hitting the 20-point mark in November and December, Vick never scored 10 or more points in more than three consecutive outings.
His 14 points were the most since he went for 17 in KU’s home win over Oklahoma.
The upperclassmen from Memphis didn’t force many bad shots and Kansas handled a pesky Penn team as a result. Moving forward, Vick can make an even larger imprint on the game with offensive rebounds or an assists — he finished with 0 in both categories.
Points off turnovers
Penn was by no means sloppy with the basketball, committing 11 turnovers, right around its season average. But when the Quakers gave the ball away, the Jayhawks often pounced.
In a 16-point victory, Kansas scored 15 points off Penn’s 11 miscues.
The Jayhawks turned the ball over only 8 times (1 away from their season low) and Penn only forged 4 points off of those slip-ups.
KU’s 11-point advantage in points off turnovers was the most since a plus-17 margin at Iowa State.
A postseason victory on the glass
Benefiting from a more athletic lineup, KU oftentimes looked faster than Penn. But the Jayhawks also utilized their advantage on the glass.
Lightfoot obviously made the biggest impact, with his 11 rebounds, but he got plenty of help as Kansas won the battle of the boards, 41-33. It marked KU’s fifth rebounding victory in the past eight games.
Starting guards Graham and Malik Newman each chipped in 6 rebounds. Freshman Marcus Garrett came in off the bench to add 5 more, and backup big De Sousa delivered 4 rebounds in just 10 minutes.
On 34 misses, Penn only came away with 5 offensive rebounds and 3 second chance points.
Kansas scored 14 points as a result of its 8 offensive boards.