And just like that, as quick as one can click “Tweet” on their phone, February 16 has become a monster day for the Kansas men’s basketball program.
That’s the day that Class of 2017 point guard Trae Young has pegged to make his decision on where he will play his college basketball.
Young announced the date Friday on Twitter, calling it "Commitment Day" and setting a noon, central, time for the announcement.
Young, one of the top remaining point guard targets in the class who has been at or near the top of KU’s wish list for months, is a 6-foot-2, 170-pound, five-star prospect from Norman (Okla.) North High, who is the son of former Texas Tech standout Rayford Young.
Recruiting analysts have believed for weeks that Young is down to Kansas and Oklahoma as his final two, and, if that is, in fact, the case, his decision will come down to choosing his hometown program or a blue blood to the north.
It’s not unlike the dilemma faced by four-star Lawrence High football prospect Amani Bledsoe, who juggled the decision to stay home and help the rebuilding Kansas program reach new heights or head to Oklahoma, where he was sure to play for a perennial contender in the national spotlight.
Young, who made an official visit to Kansas in the fall, was slated to make one final unofficial visit to campus during the past couple of weeks, but bad weather and bad luck — a rescheduled game eliminated the possibility of him visiting this weekend — took those opportunities away.
Because Kansas plays just one more home game before Feb. 16 — Monday, Feb. 13 vs. West Virginia — it could be tough for Young to get to Lawrence again before decision day. One thing of note about that WVU game: It comes on the anniversary of Young's father scoring 41 points against Kansas for Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas.
Asked what he thought KU’s chances were of landing Young, recruiting analyst Matt Scott, of TheShiver.com, said:
“Led by Kansas coach Bill Self and assistant coach Norm Roberts, the Jayhawks have done a great job in the recruitment of Trae Young,” Scott said. “Kansas has been recruiting Young for about three years and the Jayhawks have remained one of the schools to beat. The Sooners have also done a great job in recruiting Young. I believe it’s a two-school race and I also believe that the race is as close to dead even as you can get.
“Having Young on campus again would certainly help the Jayhawks, especially since he recently met with the OU coaching staff and went to the OU-OSU game. This one will likely go down to the wire.”
It's been a long process, but now it's time...🙏🏽💯 pic.twitter.com/7KCZKtC7Q3— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) February 3, 2017
As sports writers tend to do, Tom Keegan and I recently found ourselves talking sports on a road trip to Ames, Iowa, in mid-January.
A good chunk of the KU topics we cover during these moments find their way into our work somewhere along the way, be it a column, a blog, a podcast or even coverage from an actual game.
But the topic of choice that day had yet to find a home.
To help kill time on the 4-hour drive and prepare for the Big Monday showdown with the Cyclones, which Kansas won 76-72, we were discussing this Kansas basketball season and trying, for the lives of us, to identify Kansas’ second best victory of the season.
The Champions Classic win over then-No. 1 Duke in New York City in November was the team’s obvious best victory (Duke playing severely shorthanded then the way KU is now notwithstanding) but after that things got tough.
At that point in the season, there weren’t many road games to look at, which, for my money, is always the best place to start when you’re looking for a team’s best wins. At the time, KU had true road wins over just three teams — UNLV, TCU and Oklahoma — and those were not the kind of victories that you write home about.
After that KU had a couple of wins at Sprint Center over decent teams — Davidson and Georgia — that were worthy of discussion, but neither of those victories got more than 15-20 seconds of consideration. And, of course, with winning at Allen Fieldhouse nearly automatic, KU’s nine home wins to date were barely worth mentioning.
There was actual thought given to KU’s win over K-State, which ended in controversial fashion, being KU’s second best win of the season to that point.
Boy, how things have changed today.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still tough to identify KU’s second best win of the season. But it’s no longer because there aren’t options.
In the last 6 days alone, Kansas has notched victories over No. 4 Kentucky at their place and No. 2 Baylor at Allen Fieldhouse. Both were terrific games against terrific teams. Both required some serious soul-searching and 100-percent effort and intensity. Both were sealed when KU closed better down the stretch.
And both likely kicked the win over Duke down to No. 3 on the list.
Regardless of how you rank them, consider this one fact for just a brief second: Kansas now boasts victories over No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 this season. How many teams have been able to say that throughout the years? (And if you’re going to bother looking, start in the ACC and go from there).
These two most recent victories — which easily could have gone the other way and left Kansas on the wrong end of a three-game losing streak — more than erased the pain that came from dropping a game in Morgantown. In fact, even though that loss was never considered a bad one in the first place, given the talent possessed by WVU, a case could be made that even the loss played to KU’s advantage, refocusing them and forcing them to realize what type of effort will be required moving forward.
With a one-game lead in the Big 12 race and just nine games remaining in the regular season, Kansas is well on its way to achieving everything it hoped to achieve this season — Big 12 champs, No. 1 seed, becoming a national title contender.
The resume is in place.
The biggest question now is can this group of Jayhawks, which head coach Bill Self said as recently as Monday was still searching for its identity, continue to deliver night after night, with a short bench, limited front court depth and little to no margin for error?
A couple of weeks ago, when KU’s second-best win of the season may actually have been a Sprint-Center victory over Davidson at the Jayhawks’ home away from home, the answer to that question might have been tough to spit out.
Today? You won’t find me betting against them.
Quick grades for five aspects of No. 3 KU’s 73-68 victory over No. 2 Baylor Wednesday night at Allen Fieldhouse.
Putting 73 points on the board is only going to win games if your defense is good enough to allow that to happen. It was in this one and KU’s 45 percent shooting from 3-point range and four players in double figures provided just enough offense.
This very well might have been KU’s best defensive game of the season and it certainly was the Jayhawks’ most impressive close to a game on the defensive end. Kansas was tough, intense, scrappy and turned up. You could tell that getting stops meant something to these guys tonight.
Landen Lucas was not great early, but delivered late and also came away with a game-high 11 rebounds, four on the offensive end. Add to that the fact that the 11 minutes that Kansas got from the combo of Dwight Coleby and Mitch Lightfoot delivered 2 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks and you’re looking at a group that, though still not ideal, is starting to show small signs of improvement.
Frank Mason III was clutch, Josh Jackson was spectacular and Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk combined to make 6 of 11 3-pointers. All four also played 34 minutes or more and, yet, still delivered time and time again.
Lagerald Vick gave the Jayhawks very little and continues to struggle, but Coleby and Lightfoot may be starting to find where they fit on this team. Take the good with the bad, I suppose.
Any time two of the Top 5 teams in college basketball get together in February or later, you start to hear people talk about potential national championship runs and how either or both teams could be Final Four contenders.
That certainly holds true for tonight's 2 vs. 3 clash between Baylor and Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse, where sole-possession of first place in the Big 12 Conference at the midway point of the Big 12 schedule will be on the line.
Kansas comes into the game at 19-2 overall and 7-1 in Big 12 play and on the heels of arguably the best win by any team in college basketball this season. KU went down to Kentucky last weekend and knocked off the fourth-ranked Wildcats in their gym in one of the most hyped games of the season.
Baylor, meanwhile, sits at 20-1 overall and 7-1 in Big 12 play, with its only loss of the season coming in blowout fashion at West Virginia, the same place Kansas suffered its lone Big 12 setback thus far.
Both teams have parts that make it easy to envision a run to a Final Four and beyond, but, according to oddsmakers at Bovada.lv, neither team, despite its lofty ranking, is the current favorite to win the 2017 national title.
That distinction belongs, believe it or not, to the very Kentucky team that the Jayhawks just beat.
KU's odds of winning it all have improved since the last time Bovada sent out the updated odds on Jan. 6, as the Jayhawks are now 8-1 favorites as opposed to the 11-1 shot they had back in early January.
None of it means much, of course, with half a conference season to play and March Madness still ahead. But it is at least interesting to take a look at how things stand heading into February, and, perhaps more importantly, heading into tonight's Big 12 showdown at Allen Fieldhouse.
Below is a list of the 15 teams that currently have better than 50-1 odds of winning it all, along with a look at the four other Big 12 teams that join Kansas, West Virginia and Baylor on the list.
Texas, Texas Tech and TCU were all left off Bovada's latest update.
|| Team |||| Odds as of Jan. 6 |||| Odds as of Feb. 1 ||
|Kansas State||300-1||Off the board|
|Oklahoma||300-1||Off the board|
Eight minutes is not even enough time to get from one side of Lawrence to the other, but for Kansas freshman Mitch Lightfoot, it proved to be the continuation of a long journey.
Enjoying his most court time since playing a career-high 14 minutes in a December win over UMKC, the freshman forward who has become KU’s seldom-used eighth man played five important minutes at the end of the first half during Tuesday’s 85-69 loss at West Virginia and held his own.
Within seconds of checking into the game, Lightfoot picked up a blocked shot and an offensive rebound while helping keep Kansas above water with senior Landen Lucas and sophomore Carlton Bragg Jr., both sitting with two first-half fouls.
Lightfoot’s final stat line did not include much more than those early contributions — 0-for-1 from the floor, 0-for-2 from the free throw line, one foul, eight minutes — but the chance to play meaningful minutes aided his ongoing quest to prove he can play.
“It (felt) better,” Lightfoot said of playing extended minutes. “Like coach says, reps are gonna help me get better and I believe him. He’s been here and done this before and he knows way more about it than I do. So I’m just gonna trust him. He knows best. And when I’m out there I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got for us to win — rebounding, defending, whatever he needs.”
Like any young player, Lightfoot would love to play more and be a bigger factor for his team. But the young forward who has shown an abundance of both poise and confidence in limited time said he finds ways to make an impact even while sitting.
“I gotta be ready all the time now and (that) helps me because I’ve gotta be engaged,” he said, noting KU’s lack of depth. “Even in the games I don’t play in I’m still engaged, trying to figure out ways to help Carlton or Lando, saying, ‘Hey, great help on that play,’ or, ‘You gotta get the roll man,’ and stuff like that. I’m just gonna try to do whatever I can when I’m off the court or on the court so when I go in I’m ready.”
Lightfoot was far from discouraged following KU’s loss to the Mountaineers on Tuesday night. Sure, he would’ve preferred a different outcome, but he did not project a vibe of self-pity or overwhelming frustration. That’s a testament, mostly, to the faith he has in KU’s upperclassmen, but also speaks volumes about his development and maturity.
“We’ve gotta be tougher down the stretch and we’ve gotta come together as a team.... It’s gonna help refocus us. We kind of got a reality check, but we’ll be OK.”
As for his first taste of the WVU Coliseum, Lightfoot tipped his cap to the Mountaineers’ environment but said that had little to do with the outcome.
“I mean, it’s crazy and all,” Lightfoot began. “But we play in Allen Fieldhouse so we know what crazy is like.”
Already with a game scheduled for Feb. 11 — 1 p.m. at Texas Tech — the Kansas men’s basketball program and its fans now have another reason to circle that date on their calendars.
Are you ready for more madness?
You better be, because starting this year, the NCAA is going to start cranking up the hype on arguably the greatest sporting event on the planet a few weeks earlier.
Using the model put forth by college football, the NCAA will look to capitalize on the excitement of a little extra buzz and a lot of good, old-fashioned debate, when they unveil the tournament’s Top 16 seeds, as they stand that day, during what’s being dubbed a Bracket Preview Show at 11:30 a.m. Feb. 11 on CBS.
NCAA men’s basketball chairman Mark Hollis will join Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg and Seth Davis in studio to discuss the top 16 seeds as well as the reason for creating this show that will air 29 days before Selection Sunday.
“We are excited about giving the fans a glimpse to what the men’s basketball committee is thinking at this point of the season, and creating a buzz as we look toward Selection Sunday,” Hollis said in a press release. “It’s important to recognize after this list has been released there is still a significant portion of the regular season to be played and every league must stage its conference tournament. There’s potential for quite a bit of movement until we do it for real March 12, but this early peek will give everyone insight as to where the committee stands as we hit the stretch run of the regular season.”
In many ways, this concept is nothing new. Various bracketologists, including ESPN’s Joe Lundardi, have been tracking the tournament’s entire field for years, generating hype and excitement about which teams will be sent where, who’s in, who’s out and which teams are on the bubble.
This new concept will be an extension of that, but also will come with some added credibility in that the selection committee chairman will be both leading the way and discussing things as they stand that day.
There have been a lot of discussions, questions and inquiries during the past couple of weeks centered around the strategy for playing against West Virginia’s press.
But now that the deck has been cleared and the second-ranked Kansas men’s basketball team (18-1 overall, 7-0 Big 12) has made it, unscathed in conference play, to its first meeting with Bob Huggins and his Press Viriginia bunch, it’s time to take a look at what the Jayhawks have learned.
By far the most interesting thing I heard about how teams strive to attack the WVU press came from KU coach Bill Self — go figure! — who provided a rather matter-of-fact look at how turnovers happen against West Virginia.
There are, Self said, basically two types of turnovers that the WVU press can create. The first, live ball turnovers, are those that lead directly to points for the Mountaineers and inspire the home crowd to get fired up.
The second, dead ball turnovers, are the type that WVU opponents prefer to see.
“You're going to turn it over against West Virginia,” said Self, whose Kansas teams have averaged 16 turnovers per game in the last nine meetings with the Mountaineers, six wins and three losses. “We talk about that, but they can't be live ball turnovers. You'd rather throw it out of bounds so your defense can get set rather than having numbers coming back at you.”
The timing of the Jayhawks’ next meeting with the Mountaineers — 6 p.m. Tuesday at WVU — leaves a little to be desired from a Kansas perspective. For one, the Mountaineers (15-4, 4-3) are returning home on the heels of back-to-back losses, including last weekend at Kansas State, and, for two, the Jayhawks have struggled to take care of the ball during the past couple of games, committing 18 turnovers at Iowa State and 16 in a home win against Texas.
It wasn’t the number as much as the type of turnover that left Self frustrated.
“That’s two games in a row where we, for no reason, just turned it over,” Self said of his team’s unforced errors. “I don’t think you can look that good when you turn it over that much.”
In the most recent game, however, Kansas was at least able to get most of those turnovers back, swiping a season-high 14 steals from Texas in the 12-point win. That defensive intensity and mindset was a breath of fresh air for a Kansas team that has faced plenty of defensive challenges so far this season.
And KU senior Frank Mason III said the high number of steals that resulted from them turning up the pressure proved Self right in one area.
“Coach tells us all the time you don’t even have to play good defense, sometimes if you’re in the right spot the other team will just throw you the ball,” Mason emphasized.
That concept, attacking the attacker, figures to be a point of emphasis for the Jayhawks against the Mountaineers in Morgantown and their success in that department could go a long way toward determining the outcome of the game.
History has shown that teams who play tentative against the WVU press tend to get eaten alive and those who attack it with poise and purpose stand a much better chance of getting out alive.
The Jayhawks have lost three straight in Morgantown, but this veteran group seems poised to change that this week.
“It’s not on my bucket list or whatever,” said Mason, referencing teammate Devonte’ Graham’s claim that beating WVU in Morgantown was on his ultimate wish list. “But, you know, I just want to win there. I want to win every game I play in, so that’s just another goal. Hopefully everyone will be healthy and ready to go and we can play a good game, and hopefully we can get the win.”
Added Self: “It’s OK to struggle there. They’ve been a Top 10 team every time we’ve played them there, I think. What we have to do is attack their pressure to score and then, obviously, take care of the basketball so we don’t have live-ball turnovers. And then we’ve gotta rebound. We need to steal some possessions on the glass because that’s what they make a living on, stealing extra possessions off the glass.”
Quick grades for five aspects of KU’s 79-67 victory over Texas on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
They didn’t shoot it well — other than from 3-point range — and labored in the halfcourt while too often settling for bad shots. The three-point shooting and hot start was enough to carry KU to victory, but this was not one of their better offensive games.
The Jayhawks’ defense out high, guard on guard, was actually pretty good throughout the game but Texas got too many good looks off of offensive rebounds (11) and from three-point range. Beyond that, UT out-shot Kansas 46.7-41.2 in the first half.
Lucas did enough inside to grab 14 rebounds but he was a non-factor offensively and once again got little help against UT’s big bodies. Bragg was decent offensively but so many of his buckets were off of plays made by teammates.
Graham was great in the first half but quiet in the second. Mason found his touch in the second half and helped lead KU to victory but had a quiet first half. Everyone else kind of fell in line behind that, with the other three making as much noise for their turnovers as anything else.
Bragg had some decent moments but equally as many bad moments. Vick did not shoot the ball well and turned it over. And Lightfoot, though solid, was only out there for 4 minutes.
It’s no secret that the Texas men’s basketball team is struggling under second-year head coach Shaka Smart.
The 7-11 Longhorns, who will take on second-ranked Kansas at 1 p.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, got out to an up-and-down start to the season and now are riding a 1-5 Big 12 record and four-game losing streak into their meeting with the Jayhawks.
On paper, the game looks like a mismatch. Wildly talented and explosive Jayhawks against young, still-finding itself Texas team. Kansas and its 86 points-per-game average, against Texas, which is not even cracking the 70-point mark on average. Veterans named Mason, Graham, Lucas and Self against many players most of the Big 12 hasn’t even heard of yet.
You get the point.
And there’s a chance the game will turn out to be exactly that — a mismatch. After all, it will be played in Allen Fieldhouse and the Jayhawks sort of seem to be due for an easy victory.
But it's not exactly a given that the Longhorns will prove to be that. In the five losses suffered by Texas in Big 12 play so far this season, only one has come by double figures (Tuesday’s 74-64 loss at No. 6 Baylor) and three have come by three points or less.
Those tight games, though encouraging, seem to be creating mixed emotions in the Lone Star State. On one hand, Smart and company are happy their group is competing and not just using its youth and inexperience as an excuse to roll over. On the other hand, the Longhorns still are coming up short in far too many key areas to allow them to get over that hump.
Smart, who was 163-56 (.744) in six seasons at VCU before taking over at Texas, has a pretty cool philosophy on how to take his team from a group that will play you tough to a team that will compete with the best of the best in the Big 12. And it has much more to do with relationships than it does basketball.
“It’s just deposits in the bank, really,” Smart said earlier this month on the Big 12 coaches teleconference. “You’re putting a quarter in the piggy bank, but if you can keep doing that then, over time, you can build a level of connectivity and that’s really what we need to get to.... Any time you have a lot of changeover on your team, as we did from last year to this year, the more you can spend time together as a group and just get to know one another, be around each other in different settings, I think that can be a powerful thing.”
With the athletes Smart is able to attract to Texas and the system he utilizes, along with his personal track record of success, including the 2011 Final Four run, establishing this as the UT foundation could wind up going a long way in determining whether or not Smart is successful in burnt orange.
If this approach takes, and it’s far too early to predict whether it will or won't, it could be only a matter of time before Texas returns to its spot near the top of the conference standings each year and presents Kansas with a true, year-in and year-out challenger for Big 12 supremacy.
If it doesn’t, you have to wonder if Smart will last in Austin.
But regardless of which way it turns out, no one will ever be able to say Smart is attacking this job anything other than his way.
“It’s always a balance because, a lot of times in today’s world, people mistake accountability for negativity,” Smart said of his approach to rebuilding with a young group. “I think it’s important to show guys where progress has been made and where they’re doing things well individually. Our guys, like most guys at the college level, they want to win and they want to do well individually.... For most college basketball players, typically you go through November and early December and (think) ‘This is a little harder than I thought,’ both on an individual basis and team-wise. We just have to help them understand we can do it, we’re making progress and, with a young group, we just gotta stay focused on growth.”
Asked what part has proven most difficult as he has limped out to a 27-24 start to his career with UT, including a .500 record (12-12) in Big 12 play and 21-7 mark at home, Smart pointed to his team’s lack of experience and leadership as the biggest obstacle.
“Just the understanding of what goes into winning and what goes into success, both as a team and also individually,” he said. “You just have a better understanding of that if you’ve played more games and we’ve got a lot of guys on our team that haven’t played many college basketball games so you have to coach them through that and try to accelerate that growth process. But when you understand what’s gonna allow you to be successful, now your talent can take over and you can go do the great things on the court that you’re capable of doing. But when that understanding is not all the way there it almost can serve as a block (that gets) in the way of you being your best.”
A few hours after returning from his team’s Monday night victory in Ames, Iowa, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self appeared on The Doug Gottlieb Show on Tuesday and discussed everything from KU’s latest win to the Svi Mykhailiuk travel heard ’round the world, Joel Embiid and the Jayhawks’ four-guard lineup.
Most of what was said and discussed was stuff you’ve heard. But at the very end, Gottlieb, the former Oklahoma State guard who pays close attention to Big 12 basketball and has great respect for the KU program, asked Self one simple question.
“I’ve got 15 seconds,” Gottlieb said, announcing the upcoming end of the segment. “Do you have a national-championship-caliber team?
“I think that we have a team that there’s less margin for error than what we’ve had,” Self said. “But I think that, when we play our best, I think we can play as well as anybody.”
The last 17 games certainly suggest that. Although the Jayhawks’ schedule has not been the murderers row of seasons past, it has included some quality teams and the Jayhawks have racked up four true road victories and four wins on neutral floors.
According to kenpom.com, the Jayhawks’ strength of schedule currently ranks 17th in the country and Kansas has contributed to the strength-of-schedule ranking of five teams in the Top 25.
A big reason for KU’s ability to navigate that schedule — made up mostly of strong challengers from mid-major programs in the non-conference — has been Self’s willingness (or is it necessity?) to abandon his traditional two-bigs lineup and play with four guards the majority of the time.
Self and Gottlieb discussed the coach’s change of pace in this department and Self pointed out that while has played small in the past, everywhere from Tulsa to Illinois and even Kansas, it often has been done by playing a shorter player at one of the forward spots.
This Kansas team is playing a taller player (freshman Josh Jackson) in the 4 spot but utilizing him as a guard as opposed to asking him to play like a big.
“It certainly is a different look and different style than we’ve ever played before,” Self told Gottlieb.
Asked how he came up with the tweaks and strategies for employing such a system, Self pointed to a pair of familiar foes as the programs he and his staff have studied extra film of to get ready for the change.
“I think we’ve stolen from other people,” Self said. “I thought Iowa State did an unbelievable job when they had Georges (Niang) doing some different things so we’ve watched quite a bit of tape on that. Jay (Wright has) played that way at Villanova for a long time and we played them last year, obviously, and I’ve watched quite a bit of tape with them.”
“It’s totally different. We’re doing more false motion type things to try to get the ball back into different guys’ hands and spreading the floor with an open ball screen. We’re doing a lot of different things but that would be kind of what we run behind what we run.”
While Jackson, Mykhailiuk and sophomore Lagerald Vick have been key in making the four-guard lineup work for the Jayhawks, the two players who make it go are senior point guard Frank Mason III and junior running mate Devonte’ Graham.
“To see what they’ve done since they’ve been here,” Self began. “Two guys that play together and understand and are tough and competitive. Those guys do it about as good as anybody does.”
And those two guys are a huge reason Self believes this team has the potential to play as well as any team in the country the rest of the way.