Vick's return gives KU a loaded roster, but Bill Self has recent experience handling such a luxury


The 12-man U18 USA Basketball team that won gold at the FIBA Americas tournament in Canada in June. (Photo courtesy USA Basketball)

The 12-man U18 USA Basketball team that won gold at the FIBA Americas tournament in Canada in June. (Photo courtesy USA Basketball) by Matt Tait

The benefits of his three-week stint with USA Basketball last month were many and seemed to cover just about every aspect of the coaching profession.

From getting a head start on working with a player he will coach at Kansas in Quentin Grimes and spending extended time around a few key recruits in next year’s class to dabbling with different styles of play and the personal pride of representing your country, KU coach Bill Self got a lot out of leading Team USA to a gold medal at the U18 FIBA Americas tournament in Canada in June.

But figuring out a way to keep a crop of ultra-talented, elite-level players happy with the minutes they were getting for an extended period of time might go down as Self’s biggest advantage from the experience.

It worked. Obviously. The USA squad won gold and Self, and Grimes for that matter, came away from the experience with glowing reviews about how it felt to represent the United States and, more to the point, how impressed they were with how quickly the newly-formed team bonded and came together.

And now Self gets to do it for real, at Kansas, with the professional stakes much higher. And the success he had with Team USA indicates it is certainly possible for him to figure out how to handle this suddenly deep and loaded Kansas roster during the 2018-19 season. This, after playing a serious game of depth roulette for the past couple of seasons.

With KU’s stellar 2018 recruiting class and the addition of three red-shirt transfers who sat out a season ago, things certainly were deep enough for KU before last week’s Lagerald Vick announcement. Now, with Vick and his 94 career games and 41 career starts returning to the roster, it’s downright silly how deep and talented Kansas appears to be on paper. Now, all of those cliche’ comments about KU’s second five being able to finish in the Top 3 of the Big 12 actually seem true for a change.

Stick with me for a moment while I state the obvious: Self is not John Calipari. So he is not going to platoon lineups during the upcoming season in an attempt to keep everyone happy. But he could.

That might not mean five-in and five-out at all times, but it’s not hard to envision 10 players playing 20 minutes a game. And even at that, there are still more bodies Self could use.

Regardless of whether you agree with the breakdown or not, here’s a look at a potential first and second five for the 2018 season.

PG: Devon Dotson — Charlie Moore

SG: Quentin Grimes — Lagerald Vick

3G: Marcus Garrett — K.J. Lawson

PF: Dedric Lawson — Silvio De Sousa

C: Udoka Azubuike — David McCormack

So that’s 10 legit players, all of whom either have started or almost certainly will start college basketball games at some point in their careers.

Missing from that group are junior forward Mitch Lightfoot, junior guard Sam Cunliffe and freshman guard Ochai Agbaji, all big time players who not only would be in the rotation for every other Big 12 program but would probably start for a lot of them.

So, obviously, something is going to have to give. A couple of guys are going to have to red-shirt, a couple of guys are going to have to be OK with playing fewer minutes than they might during a more normal season and every one of those players is going to have to sacrifice and surrender his individual focus for the good of the team.

Sound familiar? It should. That’s exactly what a coach has to get out of his players in a USA Basketball setting and, again, Self succeeded big time with that challenge last month.

Fielding the cream of the crop in the 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes — a group of 12 players chosen from a tryout that included 33 Team USA hopefuls — Self found a way for all 12 players to average double-digit minutes per game.

What’s more, eight players averaged 16 minutes or more per game and just four averaged better than 21 minutes per game, with nobody topping Grimes’ 23.2 minutes-per-game average. Self also managed to trot out three different starting lineups during the six-game tournament, with Cole Anthony, Quentin Grimes, Tyrese Maxey, Matthew Hurt and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl starting together during four of the six games.

For clarification, while the sample size of six games might be a little small, these were 40-minute games like Kansas will play, which no doubt helped Self get a feel for juggling so much talent and keeping everybody locked in and ready to contribute. It’s not that Self has never done this, just that it has been a while and the past two seasons have been almost the polar opposite, depth-wise, of what he’ll be dealing with this year.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Kansas fans, even those who like to question and cuss Self when the team does not play well, it’s that they generally trust KU’s head coach to figure it out no matter what obstacles he is facing. So it’s not as if people were even the least bit worried about whether Self would be able to handle a roster with so much talent and quality depth. But given how things have played out during the past couple of seasons, playing with a stacked deck will be different and challenging and, I’m sure, a whole lot of fun.

Before Self went to Colorado Springs for the Team USA tryout, he told me one of his big personal goals for the entire experience was to step out of his comfort zone in the way he operates, learn elements of a new system or two and be able to incorporate those new skills into his already-wildly-successful coaching chops.

Getting a refresher course on how to run a loaded roster and succeeding with it in a short amount of time, no doubt delivered on Self’s personal goals. Not only did it lead Team USA to gold, but it also figures to benefit Self and the Jayhawks quite a bit during the 2018-19 season.

Final stats from the U18 USA men's team's 6-0 run through the FIBA Americas tournament in June.

Final stats from the U18 USA men's team's 6-0 run through the FIBA Americas tournament in June. by Matt Tait


Kenneth Johnson 1 year, 6 months ago

Several of the preseason basketball mags have picked KU No. 1 for the 2018-19 season, and I tentatively agree.

You may remember last year, when I picked KU early to win it all, and then they reached the Final Four where they lost to eventual national champion Villanova. I still think they would have won it all, if the NCAA had done their job and approved 5-star freshman recruit Billy Preston to play.

Who knows what terrible thing the NCAA might do again this year to screw KU (maybe shaft De Sousa), but if they don’t, here are the reasons why KU should win the championship this coming season, in spite of the fact that four of their starters from 2018 have gone to the pros.

First of all, Udoka Azubuicke, KU’s 7-foot center is back for his senior season. In 2018 he led the nation in making 77% of his field goals, averaged 13 points per game, captured 252 rebounds and blocked 60 shots. If he substantially improves his 41.3% free-shooting average, he will likely be a first team All-American. His main backup at center will likely be 6’10 freshman David McCormack, a 5-star recruit from Oak Hill Academy.

Secondly, as opposed to last year when KU only had two big men, they are loaded this year. In addition to Azubuicke and McCormack, the Jayhawks have four other experienced big men, although there is word out that Mitch Lightfoot, 6’8 junior may redshirt. Junior transfer from Memphis, 6’9 Dedric Lawson will likely be the power forward starter, with 6’9 soph Silvio DeSousa backing him up. Lawson’s sophomore brother K.J. will likely split time as a backup for both forward spots.

They are also loaded at small forward. It’s expected that either soph Marcus Garrett or senior LaGerald Vick will start, but will be pushed by K.J. Lawson, junior Sam Cunliffe (who is also reported to be redshirted), and freshman Quentin Grimes. All are 6’5 or 6’6.

The last two seasons, KU had All-Americans Frank Mason and Devonte Graham leading the team. This year’s team will not have that experience, as it looks like the point guard position will be taken by incoming 5-star 6’2 freshman Devon Dotson, or by 5’11 soph Charlie Moore who sat out last year after transferring from California.

They are so loaded, and given the above talent taking up all the playing time, I expect that Incoming freshmen, 6’5 Ochai Agbaji, 6’3 Elijah Elliott, and 6’2 Garrett Luinstra, will also likely red-shirt.

Even if KU doesn’t end a national championship, bet a ton of money they will win their 15th league championship.

Kenn Johnson (KU MS '70). Author of Kansas University Basketball Legends (2013) and More University of Kansas Basketball Legends (2014), both published by The History Press, and available at KU Bookstores and Amazon.

Allan Olson 1 year, 6 months ago

Very detailed assessment and I agree 100%. Agbaji and Mitch are both most likely expecting to red shirt this season. Mitch still needs to work on his body, and fine tune his shooting stroke to maybe replace Dedric next year. Agbaji can spend a productive year getting an offensive and defensive education UNDER our 5-star coaching staff, and daily AGAINST our 5-star roster. Sam, with no red shirt possible, should see many more spot minutes this season. Just cannot wait for this year to begin!!!

Brian Leslie 1 year, 6 months ago

Sam was high school class of 2016 and has played two half-seasons. He has three years left to play two, which is to say that he can still take a redshirt season.

Allan Olson 1 year, 6 months ago

He sat out full 12 mos. at KU, his red shirt year is behind him.

Dave Miller 1 year, 6 months ago

Not trying to be fussy or picky or anything, but Udoka is a Jr. I checked the roster for the 2018-2019 team and Udoka is listed as a Jr.

Just posting this for your information only. I'm not trying to start anything here.

Eric Bernauer 1 year, 6 months ago

I'll play the devil's advocate, not because I don't hope you're right, but because the odds are against you and I want to recognize just what it takes to win the NCAA. First, David McCormack was a 4 star recruit by Rivals and the #33 recruit by ESPN. I didn't look up his ranking by any other service, but I want to limit expectations because many of us, and I've certainly been guilty, often expect domination of highly ranked big men. After watching Diallo in the McDonald's game and the Nike game I expected him to dominate through shot blocking and rebounding. He did not. McCormack is not ranked nearly as high.

Second, I don't see us as loaded at small forward. We have one proven player, LaGerald Vick and he hasn't mastered turning his athleticism into consistent points or a defensive blanket. Garrett I love defensively, not so much offensively. I hope he works all summer on his shot because he needs to improve it and to gain the confidence that only comes from watching it go through the hoop. I have no doubt he will put in the work. You don't become a defensive stopper he is by not being willing to put in the work. K.J.? I haven't seen him play. Sam? He is willing to put up shots, but I have yet to see him play defense effectively and play well off the ball.

Elliot and Luinstra redshirt? They're walk-ons. I'm sure their families are thrilled that they will be on the Jayhawks this year. Are they so thrilled that they would like to pay for an extra year of school so they can play basketball?

Allan Olson 1 year, 6 months ago

I saw several of McCormack's AAU games on tv last season. His agility, footwork, shot blocking and offensive skills show better than Dok. He more than held his own against 5-star bigs. Your take on Diallo was way off. Those all-star games are like playground basketball...whoever has the ball, shoots it! This year's offensive talents needs a Garrett to do the unsung jobs that make them more productive. And, K.J. will show much more then you expect. Led KU in rebounding in Italy last summer.

Eric Bernauer 1 year, 6 months ago

I think I didn't communicate my take on Diallo well. I did not expect him to put the ball in the hole for KU. His hustle to get to every loose ball and help on defense is what I expected. His motor was very impressive, of course that may be because the All Star games often involve guys standing around until they get the ball in their hands. I would guess the reason he got drafted and plays in the NBA is because of his athletic ability, hustle, and drive. It certainly wasn't because of his contribution during his NCAA hamstrung year in Lawrence.

I think I pointed out I haven't seen K.J. play. I don't claim to have low expectations or any expectations of him. I actually remember posting on this site recently that he was actually a very well thought of player coming out of high school. Self himself downplayed the Italy trip competition. Still, I hope you're right.

I just think I see too much counting our chickens before they hatch. So much has to go right to win a national championship. The year Xavier signed with KU I was ecstatic. I thought we had it all. Cole in the middle after a great sophomore year, Sherron running the show after three unstoppable years, the Morris twins providing toughness and punch inside, and the three point shooting of Tyrel and Brady. Xavier was the missing piece, or so I thought. Back then I worked with a person who went to Northern Iowa. She not so gently asked me about the game afterwards. Another example, 1996-97 Jayhawks. I don't know if you are old enough to remember that team. If you are, I am sorry for conjuring up the memory as I'm sure you felt as helpless as me watching our #1 ranked 'hawks, who had stood head and shoulders above every other team in the country, go down in the Sweet Sixteen. My point is I just think it is far fetched to expect any team to win a National Championship based on expectations born in players who starred in high school and haven't played as a team yet.

Allan Olson 1 year, 6 months ago

I'm not saying this team will win it all. You're right, when its down to 8 teams in NCAA finals, rosters and records mean less. You certainly cite some KU super teams that missed even the Final Four. All predictions now are just the odds of achieving that brass ring. Much can happen over 40 games. But yes, I'm expecting another B-12 championship and Final Four appearance. Our non-conference schedule will be an excellent barometer going into 2019.

Craig Carson 1 year, 6 months ago

I feel bad for Cunliffe and Lightfoot...they seem to be the 2 guys left out that deserve to play...if DeSousa is deemed ineligible to play, then Lightgfoot will see minutes..neither Garrett or KJ is known as a shooter..if Cunliffe can show vast improvement and make outside shots, he could push for playing time at the SF spot...i cant imagine Cunliffe thought when he choose to transfer here that he might see 2 1/2 years of riding the bench...hopefully he will stick it out..Self isnt promised to land another top recruiting class next year...guys like Cunliffe, Garrett and Lightfoot are the kind of kids that can keep KU competitive if they strike out a lot of the recruiting trail..too many players is a problem Self hasnt had in seemingly years

Noel Backwards 1 year, 6 months ago

The rotation with this team is so hard to predict. With Vick coming back it’s damn near impossible but here goes nothing:

Garrett (Moore, Dotson) Grimes (Moore, Cunliffe) Vick (K. Lawson, Cunliffe) D. Lawson (De Sousa, K. Lawson, McCormack) Azubuike (McCormack, De Sousa)

Something about Marcus Garrett says 3 year starter under HCBS to me, but with this roster he would have to be the starting PG. Not far fetched since he did play PG in high school. His lack of shooting may suit him well to handle the ball as a facilitator. Also, with Grimes being a real combo guard him and Garrett in the backcourt could work. I think that’s the only one that most people wouldn’t agree with. I think 4 starters are locked at this point.

Barry Weiss 1 year, 6 months ago

I think there will be quite a few different starting line ups clear up until conference play. Guys will get the hook pretty quick like 3-4 years ago if they make TO's or are not playing tough D. I just hope Dok can get his FT's to 60% and Garrett get his to 65% and his outside shot to 35%.

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