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Saturday’s 2nd half was all about pride, but the season-ending loss was still devastating for Kansas

Kansas guard K.J. Lawson (13), Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) and Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) leave the court as the buzzer sounds the end of the game on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Kansas guard K.J. Lawson (13), Kansas forward Dedric Lawson (1) and Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) leave the court as the buzzer sounds the end of the game on Saturday, March 23, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. by Nick Krug

Salt Lake City — It was not words that were the currency of choice in the Kansas locker room following Saturday’s 89-75 loss to 5th-seeded Auburn in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but sounds and sniffles and pauses and sighs.

That was all that was needed to describe the devastation and disappointing pulsing its way through KU’s small corner of Vivint Smart Home Arena that will forever be known as the place that the challenging 2018-19 season went to die.

Devon Dotson sat with a towel on his head and did his best to answer questions from reporters about what went wrong and what comes next.

Mitch Lightfoot stayed strong early but eventually let the tears go as more time passed. And then there was Dedric Lawson, KU’s All-American forward who recorded yet another double-double but finished the season sobbing into a towel on his lap and painfully preaching about how this was his fault, he let his team down, he didn’t do enough.

“It hurts. It hurts bad,” Dotson said in a muted tone. “The season’s over. It just hurts. Really, it just hurts.”

The end always hurts. That’s nothing new. But there was something different about this ending, for this team, during this particular season.

After months of adversity, ups and downs, disappointing moments and even a few high hopes, the Jayhawks finally fell for the last time. And this wasn’t one of those of can’t-get-over-the-hump falls. This was a tumble-from-the-tree-house-with-no-time-to-free-your-hands-to-break-your-fall loss.

And those are the kinds of losses that leave you gasping to catch your breath and wondering what you could’ve done different for hours and days on end.

Down 10 before they could blink, 17 a few minutes later and 26 by halftime, the Jayhawks, if they were being honest, knew in the locker room after the first 20 minutes that a comeback was probably not in the cards.

Sure, their hearts wanted it. And, yeah, even parts of their brains might have believed it was possible. But they also knew what kind of animal was on the opposing bench and even if the Jayhawks had played their absolute best for the entire 20-minute second half, they knew they probably still would not have found enough good fortune to deliver what would have been the largest comeback in school history.

So at that point, their minds shifted to the one thing they could still control — playing with pride and going out with their heads held high.

“That’s what it’s about,” Dotson said. “I mean, we were down by like 20 and we just wanted to give them something to guard.”

Added Lightfoot, who said Saturday’s feeling was the worst of the three NCAA Tournament losses he has experienced while at Kansas: “So many guys care so much about it and it’s more about the pride and the place you play at and the people who back you and each other and coaches. We were fighting for everything.”

Doing so allowed the Jayhawks to keep the final score respectable. The 89-75 margin on the scoreboard certainly was not reflective of the way Auburn dominated the game. But it was fair in that it showed that Kansas never laid down.

Sophomore guard K.J. Lawson, who just wrapped up his first season as a Jayhawk, said that aspect of Saturday’s setback was incredibly important to everyone in the Kansas locker room.

The program means too much to too many people for this group of guys — a crew that has been ridiculed and criticized, cussed and consoled, that will always be remembered as the team that didn’t win the Big 12 regular season title — to let what happened in the first half be the lasting memory of a season gone wrong.

So they scrapped. And fought. And somehow played well enough to outscore Auburn by a dozen in the second half. And this was no pity party either. This was a real effort against an Auburn squad that had its starters on the floor into the final few minutes. So that was at least something.

K.J. Lawson drew a comparison to a boxing match in which the challenger was being thoroughly beaten and out-boxed by the champ.

“You’re just playing for pride, playing for those guys that came before us,” Lawson said. “At that point, you just have to make it respectable. You know, this is the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t really help any, but you still have to do it. That’s like a moral victory, trying to get to the 12th round. I know I’m about to get knocked out, but it just shows we didn’t give up and just let them crack us in our dome.”

Had the halves been flipped, it might have been Kansas that left Utah moving on to the Sweet 16 with its dreams of playing for a national championship still in tact.

After all, KU out-shot Auburn 59.4 percent to 48 percent in the second half, including 55.6 to 30.8 from 3-point range.

But those numbers only show indirectly how utterly different the first half was. After all, even though KU caught fire and made Auburn work, the Tigers still did shoot nearly 50 percent in the second half. That came in stark contrast to the 29.6 percent shooting the Jayhawks delivered in the first half.

“I’m proud of our kids,” KU coach Bill Self said with complete sincerity. “We hung in there (in the) second half and didn’t get a lot of stops.”

The tears will flow for a while still. The pain will last. And some of these guys will never fully get over the disappointment they felt on Saturday night. But at least that second half will help. At least they have that. At least they didn’t lay down and lose by 52, even if it might have felt like it.

“Definitely better effort,” Dotson said of the second half. “We showed signs. But, you know, a loss is a loss. And this one hurts. I don’t know. I’m just sad, heartbroken from this loss.”

Reply 5 comments from West_virginia_hawk Layne Pierce Cassadys Dale Rogers

KU Sports Extra - A KU-Auburn Primer

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Devon Dotson’s tweaked ankle a non-issue for Kansas entering Friday’s practice

Kansas guard Devon Dotson (11) gets under the Northeastern defense for a bucket during the first half, Thursday, March 21, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Kansas guard Devon Dotson (11) gets under the Northeastern defense for a bucket during the first half, Thursday, March 21, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. by Nick Krug

Kansas point guard Devon Dotson said Friday that his left ankle was a little sore when he woke up on Friday morning, following KU’s 87-53 victory over No. 13 seed Northeastern on Thursday night.

But neither Dotson nor KU coach Bill Self seemed at all worried that the ankle tweak, which Dotson endured while battling for a rebound in the second half of Thursday’s victory, would have a negative impact on his ability to be ready for Saturday’s second round game against 5th-seeded Auburn in Salt Lake City.

“A turned ankle isn’t going to keep a guy from playing,” Self said.

When asked about the communication he’s had with his point guard about the injury, Self said the two have treated it as if it’s a non-issue.

“I haven’t even asked him how he felt,” Self explained. “Because he may tell me doesn’t feel well. So I’d rather not know that and just imagine he’s going to be 100 percent, which I’m sure he will be.”

As for Dotson’s take on the ankle, he, too, was optimistic that he would be just fine by game time Saturday night. The fact that he was able to re-enter Thursday’s game and play down the stretch while testing it out, gave him some confidence that the injury was minor.

“It feels all right,” Dotson said. “Kind of sore waking up (Friday) morning and I’ll try to really test it at practice, but it’s feeling all right. I’m not really worried about it.”

Another Jayhawk battling an ailment on Friday was sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who was not present at any of KU’s media activities and instead stayed back at the team hotel trying to fight off some kind of illness.

“We’re hoping it’s not the flu,” Self said Friday. “But he’s being treated like it is. He was running a fever and certainly had some of those symptoms. But we think, hey, with a good day’s rest and a lot of fluids, he’ll be ready to go tomorrow. He better be.”

Self said Garrett started feeling bad before Thursday’s game and got worse as the night went on. But, like with Dotson, Self seemed supremely confident that the team’s best defender would be doing his thing on Saturday night.

“He’s sick,” Self said. “(He) didn’t have a good night (Thursday). But he’ll be ready to go.”

Reply 1 comment from Dirk Medema

2nd Round matchup between KU and Auburn set to tip around 8:40 p.m. Saturday

Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) shoots a free throw against New Mexico State during the first half, Thursday, March 21, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Auburn guard Bryce Brown (2) shoots a free throw against New Mexico State during the first half, Thursday, March 21, 2019 at Vivint Smart Homes Arena in Salt Lake City, Utah. by Nick Krug

Salt Lake City — For just the second time in the history of the two programs, Kansas and Auburn will square off on the basketball court on Saturday night, with the winner earning a trip to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, Mo.

And we now know that that game will tip off around 8:40 p.m., roughly 30 minutes following the 6:10 tipoff between top-seeded Gonzaga and No. 9 seed Baylor in the first of two games in Salt Lake on Saturday.

That much was made official on Thursday afternoon, when Kansas, the No. 4 seed, and 5th-seeded Auburn won first-round games at Vivint Smart Home Arena over Northeastern (87-53) and New Mexico State (78-77) respectively.

Auburn is led by head coach Bruce Pearl and features a team of ultra-athletic guards that, like Northeastern, can shoot the daylights out of it. Auburn, which finished tied for fourth in the SEC at 11-7 (26-9 overall) and won the SEC tournament by beating Tennessee by 20 in the title game, ranked second in the SEC in 3-point shooting, at 37.6 percent, third in scoring offense (79.6 ppg) and fourth in scoring defense (68.1 ppg).

Said Pearl in a self-assessment of his team after Thursday’s victory: “We play 10 guys and we fly around and we turn you over and we shoot a lot of 3s.”

Auburn and Kansas have met just once, with the Tigers winning a 1985 NCAA Tournament game in South Bend, Ind., 66-64.

Stay in touch with KUsports.com throughout the day Friday for much more on this matchup, including a breakdown of the game from both locker rooms.

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A look at the 2019 NCAA Tournament seedings, 1 through 68

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) celebrates a bucket and an Iowa State foul on Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) during the first half, Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) celebrates a bucket and an Iowa State foul on Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) during the first half, Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

While Selection Sunday is one of the best days of the year for college basketball fans, it also marks the end of months worth of speculation and prediction about which teams would be headed where in the NCAA Tournament.

Beyond that, the unveiling of the bracket brings with it disappointment for some teams, heavy scrutiny from the media and the reality that not every team can be pleased with whether it got in or its draw.

Still, most years the committee does a more-than-admirable job with an almost-impossible task and puts together an intriguing and interesting field that promises to entertain.

One of the more fun things to do before the games begin — the First Four tips off in Dayton on Tuesday and the rest of the action begins Thursday, with No. 4 seed Kansas opening NCAA Tournament play at 3 p.m. in Salt Lake City against No. 13 seed Northeastern — is to take a look at just how close we were to having a different bracket altogether.

How were the 1 seeds stacked? Who almost got a 3 seed instead of a 4. How close were the 8s and the 9s from avoiding that potential second-round matchup with a 1 seed?

All of those questions, and many more, can be answered easily by taking a look at the final overall rankings for the field, released Sunday night not long after the bracket came out.

As you can see below, Kansas, at No. 13 overall, was that close to being a 3 seed and likely was edged out of that spot by Texas Tech, which won the Big 12 regular season title and split with the Jayhawks this season.

But remember, seed isn’t everything. Had Kansas been a 3 seed instead of a 4, it’s all but guaranteed that the Jayhawks would have been a 3 in some region other than the Midwest.

So while 3 is certainly higher than 4, in this case, being the 4 might wind up benefiting the Jayhawks because, if they’re able to survive two rounds in Salt Lake — neither of which will be anywhere close to easy — KU will be coming home to play the Sweet 16 and possible Elite Eight games in Kansas City, Mo., 40 miles from campus.

That’s not a bad fate for a team that lost 9 games and fell lower than the 2 line for the first time since 2009.

There’s a long way to go before we get to that point, and we may never get there, but it’s always interesting to look at how closely things came to producing a completely different bracket than the one that is now being feverishly filled out by the rest of the college basketball world.

One other thing that jumped out to me regarding the overall rankings is where the committee put Michigan and Michigan State. The Spartans beat their in-state rivals three times this season, including one final time in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game. Their reward? Being the No. 8 overall seed and landing in the same region with top overall seed Duke while the Wolverines got the No. 6 spot and avoided that fate.

There’s no telling why that happened, but given the conference affiliation, geographic location and head-to-head results between the two, it seems like Michigan State got a raw deal there.

They’re just one of 20 or so teams out there that probably feels they got a raw deal — hello No. 1 seed North Carolina coming to KC to potentially play KU or Iowa State — and this look at the overall rankings gives you a real feel how some of those things could have been avoided.

That said, I’m always impressed by the Selection Committee’s work and there’s little doubt that the hours upon hours they spend creating this thing are done in the interest of releasing the best, fairest, most competitive bracket they can put together.

The bottom line is simple: Regardless of where you’re seeded, who you play, where you should’ve been seeded or what road you think would have been easier, the only thing that matters is whether you win the game against the teams thrown in your way.

Let the games begin. And while you continue to fill out your brackets, be sure to register for our KUsports.com bracket for a chance to win cash money. The Top 3 finishers win $500, $250 and $100 cash, thanks to our sponsor, Truity Credit Union.

Enjoy the tournament, everybody!

  1. Duke (29 – 5)
  2. Virginia (29 - 3)
  3. North Carolina (27 - 6)
  4. Gonzaga (30 - 3)
  5. Tennessee (29 - 4)
  6. Michigan St. (28 - 6)
  7. Kentucky (27 - 6)
  8. Michigan (28 - 6)
  9. Houston (31 - 3)
  10. Texas Tech (26 - 6)
  11. LSU(26-6)
  12. Purdue (23 - 9)
  13. Kansas (25 - 9)
  14. Florida St. (27 - 7)
  15. Kansas St. (25 - 8)
  16. Virginia Tech (24 - 8)
  17. Marquette (24 - 9)
  18. Auburn (25 - 9)
  19. Wisconsin (23 - 10)
  20. Mississippi St. (23 - 10)
  21. Villanova (25 - 9)
  22. Maryland (22 - 10)
  23. Buffalo (31 - 3)
  24. Iowa St. (23 - 11)
  25. Louisville (20 - 13)
  26. Nevada (29 - 4)
  27. Cincinnati (28 - 6)
  28. Wofford (29 - 4)
  29. VCU(25-7)
  30. Syracuse (20 - 13)
  31. Ole Miss (20 - 12)
  32. Utah St. (28 - 6)
  33. Washington (26 - 8)
  34. UCF(23-8)
  35. Baylor (19 - 13)
  36. Oklahoma (19 - 13)
  37. Iowa (22 - 11)
  38. Seton Hall (20 - 13)
  39. Minnesota (21 - 13)
  40. Florida (19 - 15)
  41. Ohio St. (19 - 14)
  42. Belmont (26 - 5)
  43. Temple (23 - 9)
  44. Saint Mary's (CA) (22 - 11)
  45. Arizona St. (22 - 10)
  46. Murray St. (27 - 4)
  47. St. John's (NY) (21 - 12)
  48. Oregon (23 - 12)
  49. New Mexico St. (30 - 4)
  50. Liberty (28 - 6)
  51. UC Irvine (30 - 5)
  52. Vermont (27 - 6)
  53. Saint Louis (22 - 12)
  54. Northeastern (23 - 10)
  55. Yale (21 - 7)
  56. Old Dominion (26 - 8)
  57. Georgia St. (23 - 9)
  58. Northern Ky. (26 - 8)
  59. Montana (26 - 8)
  60. Colgate (24 - 10)
  61. Bradley (20 - 14)
  62. Abilene Christian (27 - 6)
  63. Gardner-Webb (23 - 11)
  64. Iona (17 - 15)
  65. Prairie View (22 - 12)
  66. Fairleigh Dickinson (20 - 13)
  67. North Dakota St. (18 - 15)
  68. N.C. Central (18 - 15)
Reply 1 comment from Greg Ledom

Quentin Grimes just fine after cramps took him out of KU’s semifinal win over West Virginia

Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) is visited by trainers as he lies on the floor with a cramp during the second half, Friday, March 15, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas guard Quentin Grimes (5) is visited by trainers as he lies on the floor with a cramp during the second half, Friday, March 15, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

Kansas City, Mo. — Kansas freshman Quentin Grimes, who carried the Jayhawks to a halftime lead and 88-74 victory over West Virginia in the Big 12 tournament semifinals on Friday night at Sprint Center knew a couple of things right away when he went down with a leg injury with 6 minutes to play in the victory.

First, he knew exactly what was wrong with him. Second, he knew he needed to be anywhere but on the floor.

“Right when I shot it, the cramp came in right when I was releasing the ball,” Grimes recalled after his 18-point, 5 3-pointer night helped pace KU to victory. “I went to pass it but nobody was open so I just had to shoot it and then the cramp was pretty bad when I came down. … My whole leg cramped up and I was like, ‘Dang, I need to get up out the game now.’ I got some fluids in me and I should be good for tomorrow. I’m feeling better now.”

Helped off the floor by KU trainers, Grimes limped his way to the bench, where he quickly took in some Gatorade and electrolyte pills to get the fluids flowing through his body.

Before that, though, Grimes stayed down on the floor for a few minutes, writhing in pain and struggling to regain his feet.

Grimes was not the only one who was unafraid of the severity of the injury that had fans in the stands craning their necks the rest of the night to see if they could catch a glimpse of what was going on with Grimes.

“I know my boy,” KU freshman Ochai Agbaji said after the victory. “He was cramping up (Thursday) and I saw it on the bench (on Friday) so I knew he was cramping up and I knew he’d be fine.”

Added point guard Devon Dotson: “Oh, I knew he was fine. We were kind of joking a little about it, talking about how he was cramping up last game, so I knew it wasn’t too bad. That’s how cramps can be.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Grimes spoke with reporters in the KU locker room after the game and said he planned to get some extra treatment late Friday night to ensure that he would be ready for Saturday’s Big 12 title game.

Kansas will take on Iowa State at 5 p.m. Saturday with the Big 12 tournament title on the line.

Reply 6 comments from West_virginia_hawk Kujhawk001 Dirk Medema Bville Hawk

Kansas signees, Christian Braun, Mackey McBride, earn Gatorade Player of the Year honors

Christian Braun

Christian Braun by Matt Scott

Arkansas and Kansas aren’t known for having the best basketball talent among the nation's high school ranks year in and year out. But the Kansas men’s basketball program did pull the best players from those states in its most recent recruiting class.

Class of 2019 signees Christian Braun, of Blue Valley Northwest, and Mackey McBride, of Little Rock, Ark., this weekend were named the Gatorade Boys Basketball players of the year from their respective states after turning in fantastic senior seasons.

Braun is the third player from his school to win the Gatorade Player of the Year honor.

The 6-foot-7, 190-pound guard led the Huskies to a 27-2 record and the Class 6A state championship this season, averaging 27.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals per game, including 16 points and 10 rebounds in the title-game win over Washburn Rural High.

Braun, who was 5-foot-8 as a freshman, was the MVP of the state tournament and is a two-time first team all-State selection. He concluded his prep basketball career with 1,074 points.

McBride, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound point guard led Baptist Prep Eagles to a 30-4 record and the Class 3A quarterfinals this season, averaging 28.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game, while converting 47.5 percent of his 3-point attempts.

An all-State honoree, he was selected to the All Arkansas Preps First Team and the USA TODAY’s ALL-USA Arkansas First Team as a junior. McBride has also been chosen to play in the Big Baller Brand All-American Game.

Now in its 34th year, the Gatorade Player of the Year program annually recognizes one winner in the District of Columbia and each of the 50 states that sanction high school football, girls volleyball, boys and girls cross country, boys and girls basketball, boys and girls soccer, baseball, softball, and boys and girls track & field, and awards one National Player of the Year in each sport. The selection process is administered by the Gatorade Player of the Year Selection Committee, which works with top sport-specific experts and a media advisory board of accomplished, veteran prep sports journalists to determine the state winners in each sport.

Braun joins Gatorade Kansas Boys Basketball Players of the Year Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (2017-18, Bishop Miege), Mitchell Ballock (2016-17, Eudora High), Jerrick Harding (2015-16, Wichita Southeast) and Dean Wade (2014-15, St. John) as recent winners of the Kansas honor.

Four-star Little Rock, Ark., point guard Issac "Mackey" McBride brings the ball up the floor and looks to initiate offense during a prep game last season. (Photo by Nick Wenger)

Four-star Little Rock, Ark., point guard Issac "Mackey" McBride brings the ball up the floor and looks to initiate offense during a prep game last season. (Photo by Nick Wenger)

Reply 1 comment from David Robinett

Latest NBA rumor regarding KU coach Bill Self involves the Chicago Bulls; Believe it at your own risk

Kansas head coach Bill Self rips into an official during the second half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas head coach Bill Self rips into an official during the second half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

There’s a rumor out there that Kansas coach Bill Self will be leaving KU after the 2018-19 season to coach the Chicago Bulls next season and it’s at least worth addressing.

But not because I think it’s rock solid or have heard it anywhere else. More because the way the rumor came out was so comical that I can’t get through the night without calling that out.

Brandon Lang, a gambling analyst with his own website (BrandonLang.com) and a flare for the dramatic, was on NBC Sports Radio on Thursday breaking down the lines for a few college basketball games, when he jumped in to tell host Tim Murray his big news about Self’s future.

“I’ll throw (out) the biggest rumor mill (information) that I found out today from a very reliable source, that Bill Self will be leaving Kansas at the end of the year to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls,” Lang said. “Brandon Lang is pulling an Adam Schefter, breaking that story on every radio show right now. You heard it here first: Bill Self saying thank you Kansas. We won 14 straight Big 12 championships, it came to an end, it’s time for me to move on and go coach the Chicago Bulls. You heard that first right here. Brandon Lang, March 14, 2019.”

If you’re so inclined to listen and judge for yourself the validity of Mr. Lang’s claim, that quote, and the banter that followed, is in the embedded Tweet below, starting at the 2:54 mark.

OK. Now normally I don’t post all of these types of rumors because they can run rampant and also can create more buzz and panic than they deserve. But I chose to address this one for a couple of reasons.

One: I’ve already had a ton of people ask me about it and I always want to do my best to provide some kind of information. Self’s a little busy right now, but we can ask him about it later tonight.

Two: I could not leave it alone when I heard Mr. Lang twice mention his own name in the quote while also drawing the comparison between him and NFL Insider Adam Schefter, who has literally broken hundreds of player and coaching moves during his career.

Maybe the guy knows something the rest of us don’t. Maybe he’ll be proven right and get the last laugh.

After all, it’s not a huge reach to think of Self someday making the jump to the NBA, nor is this the first time anybody has talked about it. What’s funny, though, is the timing of it all. Self was just asked about the NBA a week or so ago by college hoops analyst Jeff Goodman on Goodman’s podcast and although he said he’d be lying if he said he had never thought about the challenge the NBA presents, he also painted a pretty clear picture that he still liked his current gig at Kansas.

Take it or leave it. Consider the source. Panic if you want. But I’d probably just kick back and enjoy the next few weeks of basketball if I were you.

None by NBC Sports Radio

Reply 5 comments from Steve Hillyer West_virginia_hawk M.E. Fisher Michael Maris

Sensing a Silvio-type emergence from KU forward David McCormack? You’re not alone

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) wrestles for a ball with Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) during the second half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. At left is Texas guard Kerwin Roach II (12).

Kansas forward David McCormack (33) wrestles for a ball with Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) during the second half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. At left is Texas guard Kerwin Roach II (12). by Nick Krug

Kansas freshman David McCormack calls it “sort of an unspoken thing” and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot says you’d have to be crazy not to see the parallels.

Regardless of how you classify it, if you find yourself wondering, dreaming or even just contemplating whether McCormack could be to this year’s KU team what Silvio De Sousa was to last year’s, you’re definitely not alone.

“Yeah, you’ve got to think about it,” Lightfoot said of the obvious comparison. “Coming on at the same time, right when we need him. He’s done a great job and if he can give us even a little bit of what Silvio gave us... (Silvio) played his butt off in March (last year) and I think Dave has all the ability to do that.”

Filling in for the injured Udoka Azubuike — sound familiar? — De Sousa staged a coming out party in last year’s Big 12 tournament, averaging 20 minutes per game while scoring 30 points on 14-of-18 shooting (78 percent) and grabbing 29 rebounds in three games while helping Kansas take the tourney title.

McCormack, after his 13-point, 9-rebound effort in 29 minutes against Texas on Thursday night, is actually slightly ahead of that pace in many areas and on track to score 39 points (on 86 percent shooting), grab 27 rebounds and play 27 more minutes than De Sousa did at last season’s Big 12 tournament.

Sure it’s just a one-game sample size. But McCormack proved Thursday night that, like De Sousa did in three Big 12 tournament games last year, that the postseason stage is not too big for him. In fact, it might bring out the best in him.

Playing more minutes is an obvious way to grab more stats, but you still have to deliver when you’re out there. And few Kansas players have delivered of late the way McCormack has during his nine-game starting stretch.

The numbers, the confidence, the presence and the joy all have transformed McCormack into an almost unrecognizable player. It’s almost as if he’s the kind of player who couldn’t stay on the floor for even a minute without making three mistakes midway through conference play and now is a critical part of KU’s postseason hopes.

Oops. Sorry. That was De Sousa last season.

McCormack said he has not yet talked much to De Sousa about the role he played late last season and hasn’t heard much advice from De Sousa either. But he doesn’t feel he needs it. That’s where the whole “unspoken” thing comes into play.

The 6-foot-10 McCormack said he has felt the 6-9 De Sousa’s strong support, in practice and from the bench, throughout his freshman season. And it’s clear that, whether they’ve talked about it or not, McCormack has at least picked up how to approach this opportunity from observing the way De Sousa has continued to battle in practice even while serving an NCAA suspension.

How many opportunities lie ahead this season for McCormack and his teammates remains to be seen and could very well depend, at least partly, on whether the freshman forward continues to be the kind of presence he has been during the past couple of weeks.

Lightfoot likes that idea and believes the Jayhawks will continue to benefit from McCormack’s play both in terms of the numbers he puts up and the example he sets for how to exhaust everything you’ve got in the tank and then keep playing.

“The kid’s playing his butt off,” Lightfoot said. “He wants it so bad and you’ve really got to respect that. He really showed us something (Thursday night) and I couldn’t be more proud of the kid.”

Added KU freshman Quentin Grimes, when asked what he liked most about McCormack’s game right now: “Just how active he is. If he misses a shot, he doesn’t care, he’s going to go for the offensive rebound. On the defensive side, he’s going to try to get every rebound. So you can’t complain when a guy plays that hard.”

Next up, another matchup with West Virginia, a team that plays big and should inspire KU coach Bill Self to put McCormack out there for more De Sousa-like minutes.

Tipoff for tonight’s Big 12 tourney semifinal with the 10th-seeded Mountaineers at Sprint Center is slated for approximately 8:30, 30 minutes following the other semifinal matchup between No. 5 seed Iowa State and top-seeded K-State.

Reply 9 comments from Surrealku Michael Maris Jhawki78 Mike Greer Dirk Medema Blake Brown Goku Brjam

KU junior Mitch Lightfoot flashes defense of a different kind to help lead Kansas past Texas

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) rejects a shot from Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) during the first half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas forward Mitch Lightfoot (44) rejects a shot from Texas forward Dylan Osetkowski (21) during the first half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

Kansas City, Mo. — Whether you’re new to Mitch Lightfoot’s world and discovered him through his “Prison Mitch” alter ego, or you’ve known about his timing on blocks, heart on rebounds and passion for the game for years, you probably feel like you have a pretty good read on Lightfoot’s game.

And then the junior from Gilbert, Ariz., goes and does something like he did on Thursday night during KU’s 65-57 Big 12 tournament quarterfinal victory over Texas and throws off everything you know about him.

Yeah Lightfoot grabbed a few key rebounds in traffic. Three of them to be exact. And, yeah, the blocks were there in this one. Three of those, as well, including one, on UT guard Royce Hamm Jr., when it looked like Hamm had nothing but clear air between him and the basket and Lightfoot crashed his air space and changed all of that.

But there were two plays Lightfoot delivered in the first half of Thursday’s victory that had nothing to do with playing the ball in the air and came far away from his more familiar work environment of the painted area near the basket.

Both forced Texas shot clock violations and both came when Lightfoot switched onto a different Texas guard and slid his feet well enough to stay in front of them and keep them from getting to the rim.

“I feel like I’d kind of gotten away from that earlier this year,” Lightfoot said of his swift sliding on Thursday night. “My feet were a little bit slow for a little bit. It was just a matter of me locking in and paying attention to the scouting report.”

For that, Lightfoot credits KU assistant Jerrance Howard, who handled the scout for KU’s Big 12 tourney battle with Texas and had Lightfoot prepared for every change of direction, every favored hand and every fancy flash that the Texas guards could throw at him.

“You have to look at it all,” Lightfoot said of scouring every inch of the scouting report for Texas. “Because, if it comes down to one or two possessions and you don’t get a stop on the switches and solids, that’s big. I would just say my teammates did a great job of getting in help (defense) and allowing (them) to feel a little bit of pressure and that allowed me to keep them in front.”

Asked if he received any feedback for the subtle plays that helped keep Kansas tied with Texas at the break and set the stage for KU’s 36-28 edge in the second half, Lightfoot said Howard was particularly fired up about both stops.

“They voice their appreciation for it,” Lightfoot said sheepishly before cleaning up his language to convey Howard’s message. “Coach Howard came up to me and gave me a good slap on the chest and said, ‘Great stuff, baby.’ He was excited about it, it was his scout and he did a great job getting us prepared for it.”

That attention to detail moved Kansas into Friday’s semifinals, where the Jayhawks will face 10th-seeded West Virginia at approximately 8:30 p.m. for a trip to the title game on Saturday.

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