KU's rotation still intact despite disappearance of depth
A little more than a week ago, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self during an appearance on the weekly Big 12 coaches teleconference shared his thoughts about his ideal rotation and how it related to this year’s team.
“I’ve always thought that eight or nine was the number, depending on your particular team,” Self said then. “Five perimeter players, with the fifth one playing the least amount of minutes, and you need four big guys, with the fourth one playing the least amount of minutes.”
Because of strong recruiting, strategic depth and the team-first mentality of nearly all of the players he has brought to Lawrence, Self, more often than not, has enjoyed the luxury of playing to that number while still having bodies on reserve in the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency role.
Even with the recent, season-ending injury to freshman center Udoka Azubuike, nothing really has changed regarding Self’s rotation and the way he would like to use it. What is gone is the Jayhawks’ margin for error and any depth this team once appeared to have.
“Each situation’s different,” Self said. “When I was at Illinois, we had four really good bigs so I didn’t care about fouls. We played extra aggressive and when a guy got two fouls in the first half he basically took himself out, which was great for team chemistry because it forced us to play everybody.”
The Azubuike injury very well may force Self to play “everybody” in the coming weeks, but the playing time tiers for each available Jayhawk seem to be clearly defined.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at where the Jayhawks’ rotation sits 12 games into the season with the beginning of Big 12 play less than a week away.
Believe it or not, the Jayhawks have used four different starting lineups so far this season, with guards Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson being the only players to start all 12 games thus far.
After starting the season with the traditional two-big-man approach, Self went to the four-guard lineup in Game 6 and has played some version of his four-guard lineup the majority of the time since.
After tinkering with sophomore Lagerald Vick in the starting lineup for three games, Self has moved on to Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk in that fourth guard role and the junior from the Ukraine who stayed in Lawrence for Christmas has responded with some of the best games of his career.
Because of that, at least right now, it seems as if Mykhailiuk has a hold on that fourth perimeter player spot and Vick sits at No. 5. Most years, that would put Vick on the outside looking in for minutes. But because of the four-guard approach, Vick still stands to get plenty of playing time and enters Big 12 play averaging 25 minutes per game, just 0.9 minutes per game less than Mykhailiuk.
Up front, things might be even clearer.
With Azubuike out, Lucas slides back into a starting role and, barring foul trouble figures to play 30-plus minutes per night.
Sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr., who remains in search of some consistency and comfort, is the obvious No. 2 big man both because of his potential and experience and all of a sudden could be one of the most important players on the team, even while struggling. Self talked after the Jayhawks’ victory over UNLV about needing Bragg to play big because of the Jayhawks’ lack of depth in the front court.
Freshman Mitch Lightfoot, who opened the season strong before getting stuck on the bench, has returned to action of late and is KU’s clear No. 3 big with junior transfer Dwight Coleby working as the No. 4 forward.
Unlike Vick as the team’s fifth perimeter player, Coleby seems more likely to fit into Self’s ideal vision of what a fourth big man would be. Coleby is averaging just six minutes per game and has played just eight minutes combined in the last five games.
Although that nine is now set in stone — even if some shifting occurs — Self said the impending arrival of Big 12 play might tighten the rotation a little on its own, which, barring further injury or foul trouble, would give KU’s suddenly thin lineup the appearance of more depth.
“I don’t know if your bench shortens,” Self said of the start of conference play. “But I do think you probably play your most productive players a couple or three minutes more than what you would during non-conference play.”
The third-ranked Jayhawks (11-1) will open Big 12 play at 8 p.m. Friday at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas.