When the arena lights are on and the Kansas basketball team is playing on a national broadcast, the newest big on campus, Silvio De Sousa, has yet to provide his head coach, Bill Self, with much incentive to keep the 6-foot-9 forward on the court.
In six games so far De Sousa never has played more than seven minutes. In the past two weeks, his cameos have ended even more abruptly — 2 minutes versus Baylor, 1 at Oklahoma, 2 against Texas A&M and 2 at Kansas State.
Self would like to have another player to fill in for Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot in the paint. However, the coach admitted Thursday he still hasn’t totally determined what type of role to assign to De Sousa, who arrived in Lawrence in late December after graduating from high school early.
“I’d like for it to develop. He's had a bad last two Big 12 games. You know, he had three turnovers in one minute,” Self began, referencing the freshman forward’s stat line at OU. “The other day, Wade (Dean, at Kansas State) gets six points, and (De Sousa) has a turnover in one minute. He really hasn't had a chance to do much.”
Neither Self nor De Sousa’s teammates have come close to giving up on the 19-year-old from Angola, though, because the former five-star prospect at IMG Academy (Fla.) has displayed both progress and promise during KU practices, behind closed doors.
At times during the past several weeks, sophomore guard Malik Newman has witnessed the big man not resemble the still-learning post player who has only scored 2 points in 18 minutes over the course of six in-game appearances.
Whether it’s “some kind of crazy” dunk out of a screen and roll, soaring to swat a KU teammate’s shot attempt or simply grabbing a defensive rebound and sprinting the other direction to beat every other player down the floor for a dunk, Newman easily recalls examples of De Sousa forcing everyone in the gymnasium to take notice.
“Did Silvio just do that? Wow. I didn’t know he could do that,” Newman narrated of his reactions in those moments.
Self isn’t one to become as enamored with such examples if they aren’t coming regularly. But even the most demanding man watching De Sousa’s every move affirmed the freshman has made noticeable strides since joining the team just more than five weeks ago, instead of finishing out his senior high school season.
“I think his energy level is better. I think he goes after balls better. I think he's an above-average rebounder when he's doing those things,” Self appraised. “And you can just see the wires aren't quite connecting, but they're getting closer. I mean, there's a chance that they may touch each other here pretty soon. They haven't quite done that yet.”
Since being cleared to play for Kansas on Jan. 13, De Sousa’s far more public auditions to join the rotation haven’t looked nearly as encouraging. He committed 3 fouls in 2 minutes against Baylor. He only has attempted and made one shot during his 18 minutes on the court. In five of six games he didn’t secure a rebound. What’s worse, according to sports-reference.com, his turnover percentage (an estimate of turnovers per 100 plays) currently stands at 83.3 percent.
“Right now I would say his head's spinning,” Self said. “I mean, it's spinning. It's going too fast for him. He shows flashes in practice of being terrific. And he is going to be terrific. He just hasn't been able to probably get the minutes nor the opportunities, nor is he quite confident enough for that to translate to the games yet.”
The man directly ahead of De Sousa on the Jayhawks’ depth chart, sophomore Lightfoot, trusts those hints at a more impactful freshman big man will turn into something more substantial for No. 7 KU (18-4 overall, 7-2 Big 12).
“He’s good. It’ll come to him. It’ll click. I remember first getting here. I thought everything was three times the speed. I was like, ‘Whoa. What the heck is going on?’” Lightfoot remembered of his first few weeks in the program. “It’ll come to him. He’s getting so much better each day in practice. And he wants to get better, so it’ll happen.”
While the process might be somewhat frustrating for De Sousa, Newman said the young backup has maintained high spirits.
“We know he’s got it,” Newman declared. “It’s just a matter of time of him getting comfortable in the system and just him translating from the high school to the college level, and just going out there and relaxing and playing.”
It’s possible Self could provide De Sousa with more game minutes to work through his miscues in the weeks ahead. The coach conceded Thursday he needs to keep the freshman in the game for longer stretches.
Self expressed that possible shift on Feb. 1, the date he for weeks has referenced as a mile marker for when he would have a better grasp of what this season’s roster could become.
But De Sousa has shown his coach just enough in practices to make Self delay his appraisal for the time being.
“I think we have a better idea of it. But we're still not a complete team until he starts giving us more,” Self said, “because he's very capable of being one of the better 6-7, 6-8 guys in our league.”
De Sousa’s next opportunity to prove himself worthy of more minutes comes Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, when Kansas plays host to Oklahoma State (13-9, 3-6).
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.”
Ideally, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self says, he would like to implement an eight-man rotation this season — something Self was able to do before freshman center Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury.
On the perimeter, the coach has all the help he needs in Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick. But down low, Self would love to trust either Mitch Lightfoot or Dwight Coleby enough to have them support Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg. The coach just is not there yet.
“I would like nothing more than for those guys, for another big, to give us seven to 10 minutes a game — I think that would be very good for our team,” Self said. “Neither one of them are quite ready to do that.”
On the year, Lightfoot, a freshman forward from Gilbert, Arizona, is averaging just 4.1 minutes, 1.2 points and 1.2 rebounds. Through four Big 12 games for Kansas (15-1 overall, 4-0 conference), though, the 6-foot-8 backup has only got off the bench in two games and played four combined minutes.
Earlier this week at Oklahoma — after Bragg picked up two first-half fouls and Self wanted to protect Lucas from picking up a second foul before halftime — Lightfoot entered the game, missed a shot, and committed one foul and one turnover in one minute before Self took him out of the game and decided against putting him in again.
At that point, Self gave Coleby, who had yet to play a minute of Big 12 basketball, a shot. The 6-foot-9 junior, who transferred to Kansas from Ole Miss, grabbed a defensive rebound, got whistled for setting an illegal screen and returned to the bench for good after playing two minutes.
The coach wanted to see, on the road with his team struggling at the time, if either Lightfoot or Coleby could give the Jayhawks what they needed.
“And in that little stretch there, it was a really bad stretch,” Self said. “And it wasn't all on them, but coincidentally (the Sooners) were in the game, so they didn't get a chance to play as much.”
So what would Self like to see from either Lightfoot or Coleby (averaging 1.2 points and 2.0 rebounds in 5.6 minutes — and just 10 appearances — this season) that would inspire him to utilize one of them more?
“I would say just being able to carry out defensive assignments and play smarter. There are some things, like Mitch — I want to play Mitch — and he got in the game the other day. It's not that it's that complicated, but we're ball screen defense, in what we call 32. And, you know, he forgot to hedge a ball screen,” Self explained. “The guy just went and made a layup. And you can't have that. It's an easy play. And I think it's not that he can't do it. It's just that he gets excited right now and he's trying too hard.”
KU’s veteran big man, Lucas, knows exactly what his coach is talking about when Self references Lightfoot’s enthusiasm. The senior can’t help but laugh when he thinks about how the freshman’s exuberance manifests itself at practices, where Lightfoot is most involved on the court.
“An example of this is he says everything he’s doing. We’ll be at practice and we’ll joke with him, ‘You don’t have to say, OK, breathe now. Blink.’ Something like that,” Lucas shared. “He says ‘ball fake,’ just everything. It just shows how much he’s trying, which is good. You want guys to try.”
It appears Lightfoot is more likely than Coleby to become the eighth man Self wants, because of his activity and athleticism. Coleby, the coach says, still hasn’t fully recovered to the form he showed at Ole Miss, prior to tearing his ACL in late 2015.
“I do think that Mitch has a chance to be a really good player,” Self said. “He’s an athlete, he’s tough. But right now, he’s got to be able to take the practice and do the things that the team needs him to do in the short minutes that he’s in there. And he’s just been a little bit inconsistent with that.”
Lucas, who sees the work Lightfoot and Coleby put in behind closed doors, thinks both have the ability to make a positive impact for KU this season.
“Mitch and Dwight are great bigs. (At) most schools they’re playing a lot. I have a ton of faith in them. They’ve just gotta understand what they can come in and do well for our team during those short periods of time. It took me a while, too. It’s not easy,” said Lucas, who played just 4.9 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman during the 2013-14 season. “You kind of get out there and expect, you start thinking, ‘OK, maybe I’ve gotta make a couple shots to stay in the game for longer or prolong my time,’ but that’s not how it works, you know. If you want to go out there and stay out there, everybody else around you has to be better — the team has to be better — and you have to extend the lead or come back, whatever the case is.”
Self thinks Lightfoot will perform better once the coach can put the freshman in a game and keep him in for extended minutes — a scenario that could play out the next time Kansas builds a significant second-half lead.
Lucas envisions his young teammate improving, too, by making the best use of his feistiness.
“But the next step is, all right now, concentrate that on the right things, don’t overthink things,” Lucas said. “It’s better, I’m sure, as a coach, to pull a player’s excitement and stuff back than try to do it the other way. So he has the right mindset when he goes out there, he has the right energy. Now it’s just kind of making sure that he’s understanding and focusing in on what he needs to do and channel all that energy in the right places.”
Every year, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self brings in a new batch of recruits to add to the Jayhawks’ stockpile of talent. When he does, many of those freshman arrive in Lawrence with fans hoping the first-year college players will take on key roles in propelling KU to the Final Four.
Mitch Lightfoot isn’t one of those players. And that’s a good thing.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Gilbert, Ariz., isn’t a one-and-done like Andrew Wiggins, Kelly Oubre Jr. or Josh Jackson. Unhyped, Lightfoot doesn’t have to step on campus with unrealistic expectations of becoming a game-changer before he has even, you know, played a college game.
Still, that shouldn’t temper fans’ excitement for Lightfoot. The hard-working, 219-pound forward will have a chance to develop season after season, and likely one day become a reliable veteran — perhaps even a special player. Having those types of four-year mainstays in a program is vital, too.
Freshman Mitch Lightfoot, trying to break into a front-court rotation that includes Landen Lucas, Carlton Bragg Jr., Udoka Azubuike and Dwight Coleby, might not make much of an impact. But junior Mitch Lightfoot or senior Mitch Lightfoot? He could be the exact type of upperclassman every successful program needs on the floor and in the locker room. By then, he’ll know Self’s system and demands far better than the latest ultra-hyped one-and-dones to put on a Kansas uniform, and he’ll have the age and experience to help those young guys while also showcasing his own skills.
In the midst of scoring 32 points and grabbing 6 rebounds in the Ballislife All-American Game this past weekend, Lightfoot was asked to describe his game, and project how he might fit in at KU.
“I like to work hard. I’m doing everything I can for us to win — taking charges, getting rebounds, scoring if they need me to score,” Lightfoot said. “With us losing Jamari (Traylor) and Perry (Ellis) there’s opportunity there. I just have to work my butt off and take advantage of that.”
While certainly confident in his abilities, Lightfoot also seems very realistic about his limitations and what it will take for him to contribute in his first season in the program.
“I’m working on shooting and getting bigger,” Lightfoot said, adding he has been lifting weights six days a week. “I’m really working my butt off trying to get better and being able to shoot the rock.”
Back when Lightfoot committed to Kansas, in October, he looked too slim, and a few years away from making any kind of meaningful contributions at the next level.
Wise beyond his years, though, you can tell Lightfoot already has begun to address his bulk with his workouts, and he looks significantly stronger now than he did entering his senior year.
Playing at Gilbert Christian, Lightfoot (currently ranked 118th in the Class of 2016 by Rivals and 67th by ESPN) faced double- and triple-teams in high school. If he can earn minutes next season on a stacked Kansas team poised to win a 13th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title and make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament, he’ll enjoy a very different on-court experience, with defenses focused on shutting down the talented players around him. If Lightfoot is comfortable enough, he should be able to find open gaps for high-percentage shots and ease his way into the college game.
Regardless of whether Lightfoot plays regularly or sparingly as a freshman at Kansas, he appears to be the type of person who will remain committed to the difficult challenges that come with cracking Self’s rotation. So even if he is a few years away from being one of the first guys mentioned when you’re talking about the Jayhawks, just remember there is nothing wrong with that.
Playing for KU means a lot to Lightfoot, who was born in Kansas City. So even if it isn’t until 2018 or 2019, his time in the spotlight at Allen Fieldhouse should come eventually.