Why can't KU guard Sam Cunliffe get on the floor?


Kansas guard Sam Cunliffe (3) puts up a three from the corner against Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver (23) during the first half, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Sam Cunliffe (3) puts up a three from the corner against Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver (23) during the first half, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

In December, just before the Kansas basketball schedule turned from non-conference tune-up to Big 12 grind, the Jayhawks received help in the form of an additional body to plug into the rotation.

It came in the form of sophomore guard Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Arizona State who sat out the second semester last season and the first semester this season and, in the eyes of the KU fan base, was sure to bring a little spark to the thin KU basketball rotation.

It hasn't happened.

After playing a forgettable two minutes against Nebraska in his first game back, Cunliffe enjoyed an average of 12 minutes per game during the next four outings and appeared to be settling into some kind of reserve role.

In the three games since then, however, Cunliffe has played two minutes vs. Iowa State, four minutes vs. Kansas State and did not play at all on Tuesday night at Oklahoma.

Asked after the K-State game if Cunliffe were available, KU coach Bill Self said he was but added that the newcomer had been struggling of late.

On Thursday, Self elaborated a little on where Cunliffe currently stands.

“I think he could,” said Self when asked if Cunliffe still could carve out some kind of a role on this year's team. “Sam is a terrific athlete. He's got a lot to learn from a basketball standpoint and, when he's in the game, what his role is. I like Sam a lot. I like his athletic ability and I like his talent. But he hasn't performed very well in the limited opportunities he's had that have been big-time opportunities.”

One such example comes from the Iowa State game on Jan. 9 — an 83-78 KU victory at Allen Fieldhouse — when Cunliffe checked in midway through the first half, fouled an ISU jump shooter in the first 15 seconds he was on the floor and immediately was subbed out.

On other occasions, rapid-fire, ill-advised shots by Cunliffe, instead of moving the ball and running offense, also have inspired Self to pull Cunliffe from the game.

Consider this: In Cunliffe's 57 minutes so far this season, the career 36 percent field goal shooter has taken more shots per minute than senior point guard and leading scorer Devonte' Graham.

Sure, the minutes are weighted heavily in Graham's favor. And, yeah, Cunliffe's eight games is a small sample size. But the fact that he is shooting more times per minute than all but one player in the KU rotation is the perfect indication of that understanding his role that Self talked about.

A quick look at the shots per minute from the nine players in KU's regular rotation:

KU player Shots Per Minute Makes-Attempts Minutes Played
Svi Mykhailiuk 0.39 120-265 (.453) 676
Sam Cunliffe 0.37 9-21 (.429) 57
Devonte' Graham 0.35 104-253 (.411) 726
Lagerald Vick 0.33 110-214 (.514) 658
Udoka Azubuike 0.33 130-168 (.774) 507
Malik Newman 0.32 83-185 (.449) 584
Mitch Lightfoot 0.21 30-57 (.526) 267
Marcus Garrett 0.17 30-71 (.423) 422
Silvio De Sousa 0.07 1-1 (1.000) 14

While his quick trigger has been less than ideal for the KU offense in terms of ball movement and getting the best shot possible, it also has gone against all of the things Cunliffe said he wanted to bring to the lineup when he became eligible — crashing the glass, playing great defense, giving max effort and other intangibles that can get you on the floor in a hurry for a coach like Self.

Those kinds of mistakes — not fouling a jump shooter is one of the cardinal rules of Self's defense — and other absent-minded miscues like them have led to Self feeling more comfortable with Cunliffe on the bench than on the floor.

Self understands that the belief among many KU fans is that Cunliffe might play better and make fewer mistake if he were to get an opportunity to play through a few of them. But it's clear that Self would like to see Cunliffe eliminate the mental mistakes first before giving him more minutes.

It's not crazy to consider or question what Cunliffe might be able to do with more minutes. He rarely has been given a chance to run up and down and get into the game and there's no disputing that it's difficult to come off the bench to play two or three minutes when what you want to do is get your blood flowing and compete on every possession.

But with so many KU games coming down to the wire and being tight throughout, it should come as no surprise that Self has not quite been ready to turn Cunliffe loose.

“A lot of people may think, 'Well, give him an opportunity and (he'll) play better,'” Self said. “Well, that is true. You could also say, 'Well, why was Silvio (De Sousa) in when he turned the ball over three times in a minute?' Well, he needs an opportunity, too. So there's the devil's advocate to everything that you possibly could say. But I would say that Sam has had minimal opportunities but probably hasn't made the most of those or his practice opportunities as much as what we'd like to see.”


[''] 1 year, 10 months ago

"Why KU guard Sam Cunliffe can't get on the floor?" Two words: D-FENSE

Steve Zimmerman 1 year, 9 months ago

Which means, that's it. He won't see any minutes this season. If I were Sam, I'd quit and transfer. Basically his opportunities are gone, based on what coach BS said above if I understood it correctly. BTW, thanks to editor for bringing this topic to attention. I like Sam, but he seems to panic easily. I feel bad that he lost his opportunities. Garrett is very lucky. He doesn't need to rebound or score that much, but as long as he plays good D, he continues to be a regular on the floor.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 9 months ago

Man, you've ignored the stats if not the game altogether if you think Garrett is just lucky he doesn't need to rebound that much. He's on the floor for that very reason. I think he's even been the leading rebounder when he got the minutes. Garrett's gotten the minutes because he has actually done all the things Sam just talked about.

Sam has a great chance to see minutes. He just needs to do more of what otherwise has mostly talked about - what Marcus does.

Pius Waldman 1 year, 9 months ago

I believe this to be fairly accurate. Some players are allowed to play through mistakes others get the jerk immediately. Adoka and Sam.It is true lately all games are extremely close. So hopefully we will see some not so close games and our new guy and Sam will get a longer playing time.
How effective is the weave?

Dale Rogers 1 year, 9 months ago

I agree but also think DOK and Silvio are allowed more to play through mistakes because we don't many options to replace them and we really, really need them to pull it all together. On the other hand, Sam is a guard and we have plenty of options there. If his position were in short supply I suspect he'd be allowed more leeway in learning on the job.

Allan Olson 1 year, 9 months ago

I guess I just don't understand Self at all. Sam and Dok were both top recruits. Both have been at KU for over a year of coaching. Yet both are still so raw despite the volume of time exposed to Self's system and requirements. And, after all this time, both are considered crunch time liabilities that seem to refuse to work out their shortcomings. Why were these two, and many others who eventually moved on, given valuable scholarships in the first place?

Kent Richardson 1 year, 9 months ago

This article bears out your summation. Cunliffe doesn't get it, hasn't been coached to get it or doesn't want to get it. Acts like a newly minted freshman instead of a red shirt sophomore. Maybe it's an inflated sense of his skills by him. But if he hasn't sensed his worth or lack thereof by now then what can you do?

Self throwing shade again with he hasn't even worked that hard in practice is a recurring theme that we are led to believe today's players are coddled and unaware and need more tough love but not too much so we hurt their fragile egos. That limited tough love went out the window at OU.

Hope it doesn't backfire and seems to suggest it is easier to slap the whole team instead of working with each individual. If a player wants to step up then it's really on them and you may grow into that in about three or four years and only after you get over yourself.

Today's game is relatively meaningless so rest DeVonte, let Malik run things, play Sam and Silvio along with Mitch, Marcus and Lagerald.

Larry Knzas 1 year, 9 months ago

Good article Matt. Wouldn’t you agree that two very good examples of previous players who earned PT through ball movement were Morningstar and Releford? (beyond defense alone)

Seems the real deathknel to Sam was the quick trigger upon just entering the game.

Matt Tait 1 year, 9 months ago

You bet. If he could pattern his game on the early days of those guys, he would have a much better chance at extended minutes. He's still young, though, and it's both not easy and takes some time to learn how to play for Self.

Michael Sillman 1 year, 9 months ago

Sorry Matt but from my schooling at KU I don’t think that there is any statistical difference among the top six in your table. Therefore I would not feel comfortable describing Cunliffe as having a quick trigger. He’s shooting as frequently as you would expect from any player.

To me the interesting statistic in your. table is Garrett. He’s not shooting often enough to make other teams even guard him.

Matt Tait 1 year, 9 months ago

The problem is he's not just any player. He's a reserve. A deep reserve at that. The fifth option among the guards in the rotation. And almost always the fourth or fifth option in the offense when he's on the floor. That guy, in my opinion, should not be shooting as much or more than the rest of the options.

Again, small sample size, but I think it's relevant.

Like Self, I like Cunliffe, too. Enjoy talking to him and respect the work that he's putting in to get better.

This was not intended to be a knock on the kid, merely an answer to the question people are asking — why isn't he playing more?

Drew Doerfler 1 year, 9 months ago

to play devil's advocate.....isn't one of our biggest problems scoring off of the bench? don't we want someone to come off the bench to actually contribute offensively? and from his percentages in your stats, isn't he actually shooting a higher percentage than devonte and about the same as malik and svi......which would be good? yes, he has his defensive issues....but his shots/min doesn't seem to be the actual i'm sorry, but i don't see the point of this particular article....(i enjoy reading all of your other ones...;) )

Dirk Medema 1 year, 9 months ago

"don't we want someone to come off the bench to actually contribute offensively?"

The answer depends completely upon how "we" is defined. If "we" is commenters and commentators, then yes. If we is the person/people making personnel decision, then no.

Allan Olson 1 year, 9 months ago

I played enough B_BALL, no college though, to know that you need to be in the game for more than one minute to adjust yourself to the opponents' skills, weaknesses, patterns, etc., each half, each game. Scouting reports can't tell you what to do when you're just a foot apart and moving! I agree with idea for today's out of conference "exhibition" game. Leave Graham, Malik, Svi & Dok in reserve, and let the other five play until they drop. Who really cares about this game loss?

Craig Carson 1 year, 9 months ago

Sam needs to learn to play D..defense and rebounding is why Garrett,a player who brings little offensively, gets minutes and he doesnt...despite the fact that Sam has practiced for over a year

Marsh Garrick Rice 1 year, 9 months ago

Great article, Matt! Thanks for all your work. . . .Nitpicking, perhaps, but Cunliffe did play for 11.5 seconds at Oklahoma after Devonte' fouled out.

Tony Bandle 1 year, 9 months ago

If anyone is waiting for much of an impact from either Silvio or Sam, I am afraid you will be disappointed. Next season should be a different story but, for now, any contribution would be a bonus.

My guess is that Silvio's impact this year will be greater than Sam's it just won't be as great as what we all dreamed about!

Dirk Medema 1 year, 9 months ago

If nothing changes.

The good news is that these aren't players like most of us. Some people think that Dok was "devastated" by the FT shooting at OU, but that's projecting their own identity on him. Personally, I think Dok is a dedicated enough athlete that he is going to make a change for the better.

Accounts are that it is the same for Silvio, and Coach Self will continue to give him an opportunity to show his progress, because he can absolutely be the difference this season.

People were writing off Malik a couple weeks ago and are now starting to do the same for Vick. This too will be a matter of how they approach their prep and game time. Maybe Vick will follow Malik's path, and Marcus will start in place of him. If Sam could come in and just move the ball and only move the ball until Self tells him to take the open shot, he probably stands a better chance of staying on the floor.

As Robert says below though, he could end up being undone by his own defensive deficiencies. It does make you wonder what he's been watching for the past year, or whether someone made any comments to him in advance of his first start/interview.

Lawrence McGlinn 1 year, 9 months ago

His lack of defense may be an excuse, but nobody on the team is playing great defense this year. Young abused our guards the other night. I have not checked the record, but I am certain we have gone entire seasons under Self without allowing 85 points in a game. Interesting team, win at WVU and lose a couple at home. Streaky shooting, sketchy defense. Not much like a Self team at all. I think Self sees Cunliffe as a potential top-notch defended because he is quick enough to stay with water-bug-quick guards from other teams, and he just has not embraced that role yet.

Robert Brock 1 year, 9 months ago

Cunliffe is a lousy defender. When Self can trust him on D, Sam will play. Shooting too much is a weak excuse. It’s his defense...

Dirk Medema 1 year, 9 months ago

It's not weak, it's just statistically accessible. It does also follow closely with Coach Self's comments.

Humpy Helsel 1 year, 9 months ago

See Russell Robinson Freshman year. The fastest way to get to a players brain is via his butt. Watch, listen, and learn, Sam. Minutes will come.

Dirk Medema 1 year, 9 months ago

Fortunately, Sam has a strong dad in his corner like RussRob did back in 2005.

Kyle Neuer 1 year, 9 months ago

Self had a hair trigger on Frank Mason his freshman year, too. That turned out OK. Not saying Sam is Frank, though. Some respond to the challenge.

Bradley Sitz 1 year, 9 months ago

Like Frankamp, Self has washed his hands of Sam. I doubt that 66 Sam will see any meaningful playing time this. year. Too bad he doesn't have a Dennis Rodman attitude towards rebounding. 6-6 should be adequate size to battle. And, I would assume that he, like so many guards before him, will move on to another opportunity. I think it is amazing how many players float through the KU program. Just as a note: Frankamp is averaging 12 ppg and has made 20 consecutive free throws. I don't see Marcus Garrett as a really tenacious man defender. He is a liability on the offensive end. Virtually zero offensive rebounds. And, he is only a 40% free throw shooter. That is the worse of any guard in the Big 12. Fortunately, he does not drive the ball at all, so his opportunity to shoot and miss FTs is limited. His good points; he seems to be a good defensive rebounder and he is a decent passer with a lot fewer TOs than either Vick or Svi, per minutes played. Basically, with Vick and Garrett seemingly incapable of scoring, KU has only four viable offensive options. They are playing four on five on the offensive end. And, Graham is the only one driving the ball and getting to the line. Which is real detriment, because Svi and Newman are better than 80%.

Edward Daub 1 year, 9 months ago

As Al McGuire used to say "there is no "I" in the word Team"! Therefore, Sam "I Am" Sits!

He has to pay attention to the details Bill Self demands, on both ends of the floor in practice first to earn playing time!

I for one truly hopes he succeeds, I think Sam can help us win!

Chad Smith 1 year, 9 months ago

The way I see this, listen to what your coach is saying. You want more minutes? When you get in the game, do the things that are asked of you and do them well and compete and make the hustle plays other players aren't willing to make. Stop with the quick trigger, pass the ball, find your teammates and if you find yourself with a wide open look or layup, then take it and make it. when you are a fringe/bench player, you have ti defer to the better/experienced players most of the time. this is not a new concept. pretty simple actually.

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