Salt Lake City — Since the NCAA Tournament bracket was unveiled on Sunday evening it’s proven difficult to mention Northeastern basketball without also bringing up the Huskies’ 3-point shooting.
Hey, when your four starting guards all shoot about 40 percent from deep, that’s pretty hard to ignore.
But the No. 13 seed Huskies aren’t just gunners. The team’s glue guy and the player that could be the key to Northeastern slowing down Kansas in the first round on Thursday afternoon is Shawn Occeus, the Colonial Athletic Association’s 2018 Defensive Player of the Year.
So does all that 3-point talk irk the team’s 6-foot-4 defensive stopper?
“I mean, that’s the game. That’s what it is today. It’s turned into a 3-point shooting game,” Occeus said Wednesday inside the Huskies’ locker room. “I don’t need no credit for anything.”
He’ll get it on Thursday if his work on that end of the floor helps Northeastern pull off the upset.
Whether Occeus, who comes off the bench, ends up drawing the assignment of guarding Dedric Lawson or one of KU’s guards remains to be seen. He was coy about the game plan a day ahead of the No. 3 versus No. 14 matchup in the Midwest region.
“It’s not up to me who I'm going to guard. It is up to the coach. I'm willing to guard anyone on the court, obviously,” Occeus said, when asked whether he would defend Lawson. “He is a great player. He could do a lot of things on the perimeter and the post. For us, we're going to stick to the game plan, watch a lot of film on him and just pick out his weaknesses and stuff. Like I said before, he is a great player. We are confident it won't be one person that will hold him to his averages. It will be everybody, it will be a whole team effort and we will look forward to that.”
Various members of the Huskies have said they are better as a defensive unit with Occeus on the court. The junior defender, who missed 19 games during the regular season due to injuries, takes pride in creating turnovers.
“Ever since I was a little kid I always loved stealing the ball. I used to play football and I was always on the defensive end. I always loved getting interceptions and stuff like that,” said Occeus, who averages 1.4 steals per game for his career. “So when I’m out there on the court obviously I don’t gamble for steals — I’m not trying to chase stats or anything like that. I’m just aggressive. I’m just playing my game.”
Back during the non-conference portion of the schedule, Northeastern (23-10) beat Alabama, but lost other marquee matchups against Virginia Tech, Davidson (twice) and Syracuse.
Occeus didn’t get to play in any of those games.
“Personally, it was very tough, because I looked forward to playing against those teams. I felt like last year for me was a good year. I felt like I got my foot in the door in terms of feeling like I belong in college basketball. So I wanted to prove — we wanted to prove — we’re a good team and a team to be reckoned with,” said Occeus, who is averaging 10.1 points and 2.7 rebounds in 14 appearances as a junior.
“So being out and missing those games, it definitely sucked. But I knew that I was gonna get my chance in the season still to prove that point, and I think I did so in the (CAA) tournament. And I’m gonna continue to do so, regardless of what happens,” he said.
While watching those games in November and December, Occeus observed instances in which he knew his presence would have helped.
“Seeing guards and point guards be able to score the ball as much as they did, I mean, obviously being the player and competitor that I am, I care about defense and stuff like that. Seeing that ticked me off,” he revealed.
Over the course of the year, six of Northeastern’s 10 losses came without Occeus. After watching helplessly for so much of the year, Occeus now has a chance to help the Huskies achieve their greatest victory of the season, and the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since its last Big Dance bid, in 2015.
Is it safe to say that Northeastern, a team that struggled to get stops through much of the regular season and is ranked 144th in defensive efficiency by kenpom.com, will look different against KU than it did against its non-conference Power Five foes a few months ago?
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” a cautious Occeus said. “We can’t just say that we are or that we’re not. At the same time, we do feel confident knowing that a lot of guys are healthy and ready to play. We’re not gonna go in there intimidated or scared. We know each other’s tendencies, and the chemistry and maturity of this team is at an all-time high.”
Salt Lake City — On Thursday afternoon at Vivint Smart Home Arena, seven members of the Kansas basketball team’s rotation will experience the NCAA Tournament — and all the nerves and pressure and highs and lows that accompany it — for the first time.
It was two years ago, in Tulsa, Okla., that Mitch Lightfoot found out exactly what that entails.
“It was UC-Davis,” Lightfoot recalled on Wednesday afternoon inside the Jayhawks’ locker room, stretching his 6-foot-8 frame backward and looking up at the ceiling as he focused to access the portion of his memory bank where that information lives.
“My freshman year. I was guarding their best player. I remember it was Christian something? I think,” Lightfoot guessed, taking an unsuccessful stab at the exact name of his defensive assignment two years and 72 career games later.
Lightfoot was less cloudy on other details surrounding what proved to be some unsuccessful initial moments for him against Chima Moneke. (Don’t pretend like you remembered the name of UC-Davis’ best big from 2017, either.)
“And we won, obviously. And he got a dunk. And that’s all I remember, because I was really pissed off, because I gave up a dunk in the NCAA Tournament,” Lightfoot said of his introduction to college basketball’s grand March stage.
Back then, Lightfoot played sparingly as a reserve for a deep KU team seeded No.1 in the Midwest Region. Sure, his breakdown while hedging on a ball screen in his first minute of March Madness action led to a dunk. But it also came in the second half of a game that KU already led by 40.
That group of Jayhawks had senior and National Player of the Year Frank Mason III on which to lean. The following March, when Mason was a rookie in the NBA, KU’s less seasoned players still had All-American Devonte’ Graham to carry them.
Lightfoot came up as a role player on those KU teams that had dominant star senior guards. Now, as a junior and a backup, he’s the savvy veteran of the locker room. The wise, old man of the bunch who should have all the answers.
“It’s a little different going from feeling like you’re just the youngin’, soaking it all in, to being the guy that helps all the other guys out, getting used to the tournament, what it’s like to play in it, being around this environment,” said Lightfoot, who enters KU’s first-round encounter against Northeastern with seven games of NCAA Tournament experience and two starts.
With Udoka Azubuike sidelined and Lagerald Vick no longer being a part of the team, the role was somewhat thrust upon Lightfoot. But that hasn’t made it any less rewarding for him.
“You get to bide your time and now you get to impart a little bit of what you learned onto the other guys,” Lightfoot said.
While the backup big who averaged 13.4 minutes a game during Big 12 play is known most for his defense in the paint and the energy he provides with his blocked shots (32) and team-leading 14 charges drawn, Lightfoot is just as valuable off the court for this roster, with seven of its top eight scorers — Dedric Lawson, Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Quentin Grimes, David McCormack, Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson — about to play in their first NCAA Tournament game.
Lightfoot has done his best to mentally prepare them for what’s to come before the ball is tipped and there they are, to steal a line from the tournament’s theme song.
“I’ve tried to do it on my own initiative, just because that’s what I would’ve wanted in their position,” Lightfoot said. “You come to this level of basketball, this is what you want to play in — this is the stage you want to be on. Obviously, you want to win at this stage, so I was just giving them some tips and pointers on what we’ve done in the past and what has helped us to win at this level. I’m just excited to be able to get out there and play with these guys and see what we’re capable of doing.”
At some point during Thursday afternoon’s first-round matchup, some tournament newbie from No. 4 seed Kansas (25-9) inevitably will make a mistake, maybe even one that leads to a dunk, like Lightfoot did a couple years ago. And with No. 14 seed Northeastern (23-10) looking to pounce and win over a neutral crowd in such instances, the way KU’s players react when something goes awry could end up playing a large role in the outcome of this game.
In Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who played in all five of KU’s 2018 postseason games, the Jayhawks have a couple of players who can prepare their less experienced teammates. Lightfoot said there are ways to convey some know-how on what it feels like to make a mistake, as well as the need to find a proper response.
“I was talking to a couple of the younger guys. It’s amplified,” Lightfoot explained. “It’s like everything you’ve done times five. And you get a complete — I wouldn’t say it’s a different feeling — but it’s that feeling times five. There’s a lot of joy and there’s a lot of heartache in this tournament. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Just trying to keep everybody on the same page.”
Both Lightfoot and Garrett have helped the rest of the rotation get as ready as possible for the brand new and potentially stressful situation before the tournament has a chance to smack the four freshmen and three transfers over the head.
“They do a good job of coming to practice, having energy, talking, helping guys out,” Dedric Lawson said of Lightfoot and Garrett, adding he watched Lightfoot spend a portion of Wednesday helping McCormack out with details of the scouting report for Northeastern. “They definitely put their imprint upon the game.”
Of course, Lightfoot is always in his teammate’s ears about something that will end up helping them, either that very day or down the line.
“Mitch tells me before every game, ‘Go out there and do your thing.’ It goes along with you, your teammate having your back,” Lawson said. “I think (Lightfoot and Garrett) are definitely important. I’m looking for them to have their impact on this tournament just as much as me.”
Admittedly, Lightfoot called it “crazy” that he and Garrett were the only two active Jayhawks in the locker room with NCAA Tournament experience. But according to his veteran eyes, this relatively inexperienced KU team is “extremely locked in” and peaking at the right time.
The junior forward who grew up cheering for the Jayhawks from afar each postseason will continue doing all he can to educate his teammates on all things March. Part of Lightfoot’s message has echoed that of his coach, Bill Self, in terms of playing without any distractions.
Just as important, though, Lightfoot offered, will be playing loose.
“This is the most fun you’re ever going to have playing basketball. There’s nothing better than this,” Lightfoot said. “Your state championship, your state tournament in high school doesn’t match up with this. The AAU doesn’t match up with this. This is truly unique. And I think everyone’s excited to get out there and play in it. And I think they’re ready to have a good time.”
On Saturday night in Kansas City, Mo., shortly after Kansas lost to Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament championship game, freshman point guard Devon Dotson sat in the Jayhawks’ Sprint Center locker room answering questions about what went wrong.
As he detailed both the positives and negatives of the defeat from KU’s perspective, Dotson emphasized that the disappointing result came with some important lessons, especially when it came to defending a team such as ISU, which plays four guards and one big man.
“They ran some stuff that I think got us tricked up a little bit, but for the most part, I feel like we can learn from this — how to defend four guards better,” Dotson said. “And how we can score on the other end easier when our shots aren’t falling. We can find other ways to get the ball in the basket.”
Thanks to the NCAA Tournament selection committee, the Jayhawks don’t have to wait long for a do-over.
Five days after their four-guard counter failed to topple the Cyclones, they’ll take on Northeastern’s four-guard attack in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday afternoon.
Iowa State’s guards possess their specific strengths and weaknesses and it’s overgeneralizing to say the Huskies will challenge KU in exactly the same fashion. For one, Northeastern’s top four guards rely even more on 3-pointers. According to hoop-math.com, among NU’s four starting guards, three take more than half of their shots from downtown, while the other came up just shy of that cutoff.
Jordan Roland takes 66.7 percent of his shots from 3-point range, Donnell Gresham Jr. comes in at 60.6 percent, Bolden Brace is at 58.7 percent and even Vava Puscia attempts 47.3 percent of his field goals from behind the arc.
After the brackets revealed KU (25-9) would play as the No. 4 seed in the Midwest, head coach Bill Self was asked Sunday evening whether the previous day’s matchup with ISU would help the Jayhawks in any way against No. 13 seed Northeastern (23-10), the Colonial Athletic Association’s postseason champions.
"In theory, yes. But we prepared to play Iowa State with one walkthrough, so it wasn't like we practiced to play Iowa State,” Self noted. “We practiced last week for Texas, with actually a thought we would play Texas Tech (in the Big 12 semifinals, instead of West Virginia, which upset the Red Raiders). It will probably help more than it would hurt, but hopefully we'll be better prepared to be better at it with three days of practice."
Against Iowa State, KU began the game as it usually does, playing with two bigs, Dedric Lawson and David McCormack. But the Cyclones gave KU too many issues and Self went with four guards during much of the title game.
Don’t expect to see Self start Marcus Garrett in the NCAA Tournament’s first round just because Northeastern plays four guards, though. The Jayhawks figure to stick with two bigs to have an advantage inside offensively. And then if and when necessary they can play four guards and do so comfortably after having days to go over actions and strategies designed to overcome Northeastern.
Before the Jayhawks had much time to get into scouting reports or watch video of Northeastern, Lawson indicated Sunday night KU could play with four guards or three against Northwestern in its tournament opener.
“Coach, he already talked about he’s been in the business a long time and he knows what it takes to win. So he basically talked about sometimes play two bigs, sometimes play one big,” Lawson related. “Whatever the case may be, we all just have to buy into that role and that scouting report.”
Should the game dictate that McCormack spend less time on the court and more minutes on the bench, the 6-foot-10 freshman won’t get his feelings hurt. He explained after KU’s loss to Iowa State why logging 8 minutes didn’t catch him off guard or greatly trouble him.
“We have a full understanding of knowing how the other team plays and that they might want to play small — well, not even might — they’re gonna play small. You’re a big man and when you want to play to the advantage of your team, you understand that. It’s not an individual sport. It’s about the team and what we can do to win,” McCormack said. “So the variation in minutes didn’t affect me.”
If McCormack is forced off the floor, it won’t be because of any shortcoming of his, but the result of Northeastern’s shooting and KU’s need to have Lawson on the court as much as possible.
Between 6-foot-1 redshirt junior Roland (.408 3-point shooter), 6-1 redshirt junior Gresham (.393), 6-5 redshirt senior Puscia (.401) and junior Brace (.415), the Huskies may prove to have the fire power to force an adjustment.
If KU spends any time using Garrett, Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and Lawson as its lineup, the Jayhawks are confident in that group, even though it couldn’t rally past the Cyclones this past weekend.
“I felt like we rebounded the ball good for having four guards out there,” Garrett said of one positive, after KU had a 41-36 advantage on the glass against ISU. “We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board, and just learn how to defend at the end of the shot clock.”
Immediately after KU lost to a four-guard lineup in K.C., Lawson predicted the Jayhawks would handle any opponent of that ilk better in the NCAA Tournament.
“Just keep the competitiveness,” he said. “I think guys definitely competed. We keep that competitive nature we’ll be good.”
The Jayhawks obviously have the personnel to handle the Huskies, and by the time the game tips off on Thursday afternoon they’ll be well versed in what each member of the potential Cinderella team from Boston brings to the floor.
KU’s players seem confident. And they’re saying all the right things. Now they just need to prove that they absorbed the wisdom ISU’s four guards made available to them.