Relative struggles aside, Jayhawks still winning and capable of more; Will they deliver is the question
As positive as ever and happy to tell anyone who would listen that he was born without the part of the body that allows people to give up, Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton was in no mood to hear about what a rough year it has been for the Jayhawks following last Saturday’s 84-72 Oklahoma State loss at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I know people around here have probably been freaking out because they’ve lost four games in the league,” Boynton said of Kansas and its fans during his postgame opening statement Saturday. “But they still have a Hall of Fame coach, still (have) got a really, really, good, probably first-team All-American-type player, and they still have one of the best home courts in all of America. Hats off to Kansas for finding their way after a tough loss on Tuesday.”
That coach, of course, was Bill Self. That player Boynton spoke of was junior forward Dedric Lawson. And that home-court advantage delivered by Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks are now 13-0 this season, has kept Kansas in the race despite those four Big 12 road losses.
“I’m proud of my kids,” Boynton said. “We competed. We just didn’t have enough to stave off that run that they made in the second half. That’s part of what makes this league as good as it is. That’s part of what makes this place a hard place to play, because those things can come pretty quickly.”
So, too, can a season full of struggles.
Kansas encountered this, of course, through injuries to Udoka Azubuike and Marcus Garrett, the eligibility saga of Silvio De Sousa and, most recently, its lone senior, Lagerald Vick, taking a leave of absence for an undetermined length of time.
Vick missed Saturday. He won’t be in uniform tonight. And there’s no telling when, or whether, he’ll return before the end of the season, though several Jayhawks, including Self, have said they expect to get him back.
Even with all of those unusual occurrences, the Jayhawks’ plights look somewhat minor compared to what Boynton and the Cowboys have endured.
Whether you’re talking about OSU’s rough record, the Cowboys’ depleted and injury-ridden roster or the fact that midseason adversity also hit Oklahoma State hard, when Boynton dismissed three players reportedly because of their connection to a vandalism incident in Stillwater, Okla., Boynton’s club has had it just as bad as — if not worse than — the Jayhawks during the 2018-19 season.
Yet there the Cowboys sit at 9-14 overall and 2-8 in Big 12 play, with records that reflect their struggles, while Kansas, despite all of its issues — of which there are many — is rolling along at 18-6 overall, 7-4 in Big 12 play and still in pursuit of extending its Big 12 title streak to 15.
For a half, the two looked like equals and the scoreboard indicated that, with OSU and KU tied at 36 at the break on Saturday.
But in the second half, the Hall of Famer, the All-American candidate, the handful of former McDonald’s All-Americans and, of course, that home crowd made the difference.
The Jayhawks, even in their current state, have that in them. They’ve shown that in enough games, or at least halves, to move forward believing that, when things are clicking, they can still play and win at the level they’re used to.
Passion and pride seem to be the key to that, and these guys appear to be grasping that more and more each time out.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Self began. “I think we’ve been a bunch of duds in some ways. You can’t put it on the guys who can’t play, but the guys who can’t play can have a role in bringing energy, too. Hopefully we’re getting better at that.”
There’s no time like the present to find out.
Asked after the game what his team needed to do to bring the past two Allen Fieldhouse efforts on the road with them, KU junior Mitch Lightfoot spoke of consistency.
“Carry this feeling over,” Lightfoot said. “It feels good to get a win and to do it in a good team way and we’ve got to learn from this. If we can continue that energy we have, that we’re all feeling right now, I think we’ll play some good basketball.”
Kansas sophomore Marcus Garrett will miss his third consecutive game because of the high ankle sprain he suffered in practice one week ago.
KU coach Bill Self confirmed Garrett’s status in a meeting with reporters before Friday’s practice.
“Marcus will be out tomorrow,” Self said. “So we’re going to be down, at least some men. But we’ve still got to go out and play and just step up and play better than what we played on Tuesday.”
The Jayhawks are 2-1 without Garrett in the lineup, with a win over Texas Tech and a loss to K-State this week. Garrett also missed KU’s win over Tennessee last November after suffering a concussion in the win over Marquette.
According to Self, the combo guard from Dallas who has emerged as KU’s best defender and one of the top defensive players in the Big 12 Conference returned to practice on Thursday but went about half speed and was not able to participate fully.
“We were pretty encouraged (Thursday) and then today, he didn’t take a step backwards but he was very sore,” Self said Friday. “... We’re hopeful that he can practice Sunday, maybe Monday. But the reality of it is we’re looking at next Saturday (as the) best-case scenario (for a return).”
Garrett's injury and the recent leave of absence taken by senior guard Lagerald Vick leaves the Jayhawks with just 8 healthy and eligible scholarship players for Saturday's game.
Asked if Garrett was in good spirits despite sitting out to nurse the injury, Self scoffed.
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s tough. He’s the toughest kid we’ve got. And if he could play, he’d play. There’s just no chance of that right now.”
KU hosts Oklahoma State at 11 a.m. on Saturday and will travel to TCU for a Big Monday matchup at 8 p.m. Monday night.
The Jayhawks then will be off the rest of next week until hosting West Virginia on Feb. 16.
It’s next to impossible to tell what the ramifications of Lagerald Vick’s leave of absence from the Kansas basketball team will be without first seeing how this team responds.
But the opportunity is there for his departure to actually help the Jayhawks.
First, the bad news.
Without Vick, the Jayhawks will be a man down, which is scary in terms of depth and severely lacking in 3-point shooting. Not only is the Memphis senior the team’s best 3-point shooter statistically speaking — 45.5 percent through 23 games — but he also has experience taking (and making) big shots and has proven that he can be absolutely deadly when he catches fire.
Replacing that won’t be easy. But the burden of doing so also shouldn’t fall on one player.
Although he’s had some unconscious nights from behind the arc, Vick still averaged just 3 3-point makes per game. That means between Charlie Moore, Ochai Agbaji, Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, K.J. Lawson, Marcus Garrett and even Dedric Lawson and Mitch Lightfoot, those 8 Jayhawks need to find a way to make 3 more 3-pointers per game to pick up the slack.
None of them quite have Vick’s pure jumper and ability to make tough, guarded 3-point shots, but they won’t all have to. One game it could be Moore, Grimes and Lawson and the next it could be Agbaji, Moore and Dotson.
Either way, filling the void left by Vick’s ability to get hot from 3-point range will be as much about philosophy and mentality as it will be about guys stepping up and becoming shot-makers.
The ball needs to move. The floor needs to stay spread. And the shots need to go up with confidence, much the way former Jayhawk great Devonte’ Graham both played and pleaded with this team to do a week ago.
And that brings us to the good news.
Whatever it is that Vick is going through clearly weighed on his mind heavily. And you can’t help but feel for him in that regard.
Remember, while Kansas basketball is life for a lot of the Jayhawks’ adoring fans, these players all have lives outside of the game. None of them are immune to family struggles, relationship issues, problems with peers or in the classroom. And all of them are susceptible to all of the stress and struggles that the real world can throw at college students from all walks of life.
With that in mind, it was quite clear that Vick’s thoughts had been elsewhere, at least at times, during the past several weeks.
KU coach Bill Self said as much on his “Hawk Talk” radio show Thursday night and reminded folks that those thoughts had kept Vick from being his best for the Jayhawks during that time.
So how is any of that a good thing? Well, for one, this team belongs to those young guys now.
Rumors of a player’s only meeting on Wednesday crossed my desk and that can only be viewed as a good thing for this group, which needs to get on the same page and start operating with a different mindset if it wants to close out the final 8 games of the regular season in strong fashion.
The absence of Vick can only help that.
Part of the reason Vick was benched for the final 16-plus minutes of the first half in Tuesday’s loss to K-State was his willingness to play the blame game and bark at his teammates.
To some degree, that’s a natural part of every team and every game. Guys yell at each other, the intensity increases and things can get hot out there on the court. That typically happens in the spirit of everyone trying to do the right thing.
That may have been the deal in Vick’s case, too, but it looked as if it had an adverse effect on his teammates.
I’m certainly not going to speak for any of them here, but we’ve all been around that person — at work, at school, in social settings, wherever — who can create a tense environment and put everyone a little more on edge than they would like to be.
If Vick’s recent issues created that kind of atmosphere for this team, it’s entirely possible that these still-young Jayhawks will play with much more freedom and much looser with Vick back home in Memphis.
Who knows which players will benefit the most — or if it will benefit any of them at all — but the opportunity is there for talented players like Dotson, Garrett, Grimes and Agbaji to step up and become more assertive without having to worry about deferring to a senior or what that senior might have to say.
Self has talked a lot — both this year and throughout his career — about there coming a point in every season when a team bonds together and truly becomes a team.
It looked as if the Silvio De Sousa ruling could be the catalyst for that type of situation with this team, but then the K-State game happened and all of the gains from that big win over Texas Tech were gone.
Beyond that, this team never had Silvio. They did have Vick. And now they don’t.
That reality, far more than trying to rally around someone who never played, could wind up being the very thing that brings these guys together and gets this group firing as one unit.
The Kansas men's basketball team no longer has an unused scholarship.
KU coach Bill Self on Friday evening told the Journal-World that Lagerald Vick will return to KU for his senior season. KU later confirmed Vick's return via a news release.
Vick, a 6-foot-5 guard from Memphis, who declared for the NBA Draft in early April but pulled his name out by the deadline and without hiring an agent, will join a loaded Kansas team and become the lone senior on the KU roster.
Self, who flew to Memphis last week to meet with Vick and his mother, LaLa Vick, talked to his veteran guard again this week and laid out a list of undisclosed rules and stipulations that would need to be met in order for Vick to return.
After a couple of discussions and some time to think, both parties agreed that rejoining the Jayhawks would be the best thing for Vick.
From the KU perspective, adding a 38 percent career 3-point shooter to a team that Self has said lacks perimeter shooting can only be viewed a good thing. But Self said bringing a high-level 3-point shooter into the fold was merely a bonus to adding a player with 94 games of experience, including 41 starts.
"Yeah, I think it helps us," Self said of Vick's 3-point shooting prowess. "But that's not why he's coming back. He's coming back because he wants to make a commitment to being a great teammate, helping his teammates improve and helping the young guys. But if Lagerald plays like he's capable of playing, we will be a better 3-point shooting team."
Vick will not wear No. 2 as a senior. That jersey number went to transfer Charlie Moore when the Jayhawks spent the past couple of months moving forward with the belief that Vick's time at Kansas was done. Self said he did not yet know what number Vick would wear.
“It was our understanding with Lagerald at the conclusion of the season that he would go pro,” Self said in the release. “After going through the process and looking at the variety of options, Lagerald felt it was in his best interest to return to Kansas for his senior year."
Although Vick has been largely a role player throughout his Kansas career, preferring to follow the lead of others and letting his play on the floor do his talking for him, Self said he thought Vick stepping into the role of upperclassman would not only help him as a basketball player but also in life.
There are no designs on Vick becoming a leader the way Devonte' Graham or Frank Mason III led before him. That's not his style nor is that who he is. But he is a competitor with crazy athleticism who knows what it takes to win at Kansas and has done it at a high level.
"It was a good talk," Self said of their interactions during the past couple of weeks. "Everything was positive. He certainly seemed to have a different mindset when I talked to him than he's had.
"From my standpoint, it will be a bonus to have an experienced player like Lagerald in the mix. He has had an opportunity to think about the direction he is going in his life, and feels confident to return and improve his status. He will join the team next week, he'll enroll like everybody else, take summer school like everybody else and we'll go from there."
After the summer session, Vick will be just 12 hours shy of graduating, Self said.
While the addition of a player of Vick's caliber certainly enhances KU's chances of returning to the Final Four and bolsters the Jayhawks' claim as the No. 1 ranked team in the preseason polls, the reality of what's ahead is still sinking in for Vick.
“I honestly thought I played my last game at Kansas after the Final Four because, with my situation and my family’s situation, I felt I needed to turn pro,” Vick said in a release. “After seeing where I stand and meeting with Coach Self, I feel it is best to return to Kansas for my senior year. Coach tells me the team is working hard and looking good. I can’t wait to get back to Lawrence and join them.”
So now that we know that Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is going to test the water and find out where he stands with NBA scouts and executives, it's time to examine Azubuike's chances of making the jump.
According to ESPN.com's Jonathan Givony, who runs ESPN's mock drafts and predraft coverage — and used to run DraftExpress.com — the competition to be one of the 60 players selected in the June draft is more intense than ever.
"There are 175 guys currently who are testing the waters according to my count, so the field is getting pretty crowded at this point," Givony told the Journal-World. "He had a good year for KU, outside of after he got injured, but the market for centers in his mold has almost completely evaporated at this stage."
Instead, the NBA has placed a premium on players like Joel Embiid, who, even at that enormous size, still can operate with guard-like skills. Embiid, obviously, is the class of that crop and on pace to become one of the young faces of the NBA's future. But even among the lesser-known big men on multiple teams, it's those skills that translate to roster spots and playing time.
"I think anyone watching the NBA playoffs can see that," Givony explained. "Guys who can't pass, shoot, block shots prolifically or reliably step outside of the paint defensively are essentially dinosaurs these days."
That, of course, does not mean that Azubuike does not have a shot at attracting attention from the powers that be in the NBA. Anyone who stands 7 feet tall and 280 pounds is immediately going to get noticed.
But the change in the game has created a different demand at the center position and the way Givony sees it, the modern game does not make a player Azubuike's size as automatic as it once was.
There was a time, not that long ago, when a man with Azubuike's measurements would have been an automatic lottery pick, with NBA teams valuing a big body to clog up the paint and create problems for opposing defenses on the other end.
But today, with the game moving faster than ever and becoming more of a shooter's game, those Greg Oden-, Spencer Hawes-, Hasheem Thabeet-type players who all were lottery picks within in the past 12 years, are no longer as attractive because they, in many ways, are viewed as one dimensional and a step slow to play today's game.
That's not to say Azubuike can't become the type of player the NBA wants. Even though it's unlikely that he ever will transform himself into an elite shooter, he moves his feet well for a man his size and certainly has the size and drive required to become a force in the paint. And there are plenty of people who believe that the easiest way to make it in the NBA is to find one thing you do well and become elite at it. For Azubuike, that could become shot blocking and/or rebounding.
But Givony, who has not had the KU center on any of his two-round, 60-pick mock drafts in the past two years, does not believe Azubuike has reached that level yet.
"He is a heck of a college player, and I do think he has a chance to develop into a NBA player eventually," Givony said. "But the appetite for taking on a project big man in his mold just isn't where it was 10-15 years ago."