Self still searching for ways to give Graham a break; but KU's schedule makes it tough
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self is facing a dilemma. But it’s one for which there actually is an easy answer, even if it’s not an answer he likes.
The question of how much to play senior point guard Devonte’ Graham — and how much to rest him — has hovered over this Kansas team throughout the season. But as much as Self would love to give his leader a few more minutes of rest each night, the 10th-ranked Jayhawks’ current reality does not allow for it.
“We can’t play without him right now,” said Self following a 38-minute, 28-point performance by Graham during Saturday’s 88-84 road win at TCU. “We need Malik (Newman) to be able to play that (backup point guard) position for us or somebody to play that position for us. It may not be. This may be the hand we’re dealt and the hand he’s dealt all year long.”
Graham, who leads the Jayhawks (12-3 overall, 2-1 Big 12) in just about every meaningful offensive category, has played 38 or more minutes eight times this season and all 40 on three separate occasions. That includes a current stretch of three consecutive 38-plus-minute outings.
A deeper look at those numbers reveals a trend that produces visions of Graham playing more big-minute games in the future not fewer. Six of Graham’s eight games of 38 minutes or more came against current Top 50 teams in the KenPom rankings. The two that weren’t? A one-point win at Nebraska and KU’s first loss of the season against Washington.
Twelve of KU’s final 16 regular season games come against teams currently ranked in the KenPom Top 50, including six in a row after Tuesday’s 8 p.m. home clash with Iowa State, which ranks 103rd.
It's not as if the extended playing time is exactly hurting Graham's bottom line. His past two games — 27 points in 40 minutes vs. Texas Tech and 28 points in 38 minutes against TCU — have produced his third and fourth best point totals of the season and he has now scored 23 points or more in three consecutive games.
Regardless, the difficulty of what lies ahead, along with the already-high usage and the nasty spill Graham took late in the win over TCU, appears to have Self even more dialed in on trying to figure out a way to lighten Graham's load.
“We may have to play zone or something to, I hate to say this, rest on defense,” Self said. “Or run a different offense where maybe he can rest on offense some because he’s worn out.”
Graham’s not the only one.
“Svi (Mykhailiuk) told me (Friday), ‘Coach, I’ll play better if I play 27,’ because he’s playing too many. And he knows it,” said Self of his senior sharp shooter, who joined Graham in topping 20 points and 38 minutes in Saturday’s win. “Here he is, he has to play 38 because no way you can take him out.”
Self has tried throughout the season to find an answer for back-up point guard but no one has emerged with any kind of consistency that would lead Self to believe he is reliable.
Newman has been given the most chances to run the show, both with Graham in the game and on the bench, but the Mississippi State transfer has not shown Self what he needs to see to entrust him with the backup job on a full-time basis and has slipped into a mid-season funk during recent weeks. And junior Lagerald Vick, who, at times, has been KU’s best player off the dribble, is not a natural point guard by any means.
“Let’s just call it (what it is),” Self said. “Malik is struggling. And Lagerald’s had a bad week. So, if we can get those guys going (that would help). I don’t think we can get much more out of Devonte’ and Svi. We’ve got to get more out of those (other) guys.”