This year’s NCAA Tournament will be remembered for years to come by those who live and die with March Madness outcomes. And around Lawrence, where the absence of brackets and a potential national championship run in 2020 still stings for some, it will be impossible to look back on the 2021 tourney without thinking of Jalen Wilson.
An essential member of KU’s lineup in his first full season of competing at the college level, Wilson contracted COVID-19 just as the postseason got underway. And when the Jayhawks had to withdraw from the Big 12 tournament as a result, no one was immediately sure how long the redshirt freshman would be away from the team or whether he would be able to return and rejoin his teammates at all in their pursuit of a memorable March run.
Remarkably, similar to what the Jayhawks experienced with David McCormack in the first round, Wilson not only reunited with his teammates in Indianapolis following a bout with COVID, the 6-foot-8 wing from Denton, Texas, actually was able to play and contribute, too.
Wilson didn’t need to play like he was in midseason form on Monday night against USC to give KU valuable minutes. No one anticipated the young wing to be able to totally change the game against the Trojans the way McCormack did two days earlier versus a lesser foe, Eastern Washington.
As head coach Bill Self said during a pregame radio interview, all the Jayhawks wanted from their typical starter was for Wilson to come off the bench and play solid defense and compete on the boards.
Self finally called upon Wilson nearly nine minutes into the first half against the Trojans, as the team’s best rebounder and one of its most reliable 3-point shooters took the floor for the first time in 11 days, dating back to when KU beat Oklahoma in Kansas City, Mo.
It didn’t take long for Wilson to at least give the Jayhawks some needed energy. After watching his teammates struggle to score over the length of USC’s defense, Wilson put his head down and got inside to try and give the team a lift on the scoreboard. His well defended layup wouldn’t drop, but his willingness to go make something happen instead of playing with hesitancy was welcome, given how things were going for KU offensively.
He kept it up, too, with a steal and a much needed assist on a rare successful KU 3-pointer in the first half. But a couple of quick whistles on Wilson made his first stint a quick one, even for a player on a minutes restriction.
And while Wilson is a lot of things for KU, he isn’t a miracle worker. He played eight minutes and scored two points via free throws in an 85-51 USC rout.
Again, no one expected for Wilson to be some kind of one man conqueror. As much as KU struggled against Evan and Isaiah Mobley and the wiry, long-armed men of Troy, the Jayhawks would’ve been even worse off without Wilson.
His presence was nothing but a bonus after spending more than a week in isolation, away from his teammates and undoubtedly wishing he could change what transpired over the past couple of weeks.
Wilson is a competitor, and was going to give KU everything he had. And because of that, just having him available to defend USC’s tall frontcourt players and put a body on the Trojans when a shot went up made him effective.
Regardless of Monday’s outcome and the what-ifs that inevitably come from KU diehards when they reminisce — or commiserate — about Marches past, Wilson and McCormack deserve credit for their efforts to make the most of an awful situation.
Imagine you’ve worked most of your life to become a Division I basketball player, and you were so successful in those endeavors that you landed a scholarship to one of college basketball’s most renowned programs, Kansas.
You watched March Madness when you were a kid, dreaming about what it would be like to get out on that court with the nation watching. You wondered what it would feel like to lead your team to a Final Four.
For Wilson, McCormack and Tristan Enaruna — who wasn’t able to return to the team as quickly — to go through quarantine in March had to be mentally exhausting.
It’s hard not to feel bad for these players who had the virus impact such a massive aspect of their lives at a time of the year that comes with such anticipation and excitement.
While neither Wilson nor McCormack were available for postgame comments after the loss, Self shed a little light on what it’s been like for two of KU’s most important players. Self said the Jayhawks got “lucky” in the first round to win when they weren’t at full strength.
“We tried to put a Band-Aid on it. But this team, down a starter or down a couple of starters,” Self said, “even if guys are actually playing in the game, but don’t have rhythm and certainly haven’t practiced and those sorts of things, that puts us in a situation where our margin of error is even smaller.”
So when you look back on the 2021 NCAA Tournament months or years from now, it’s all right to think about what might have been — the way many surely do when Joel Embiid’s injury-shortened 2013-14 season is on their minds. Just be sure to remember how incredibly hard the COVID pauses and unexpected breaks from basketball — during the height of March Madness — must have been for Wilson, McCormack and Enaruna.
They will remember this March much more than any observers will. And both McCormack and Wilson did as best they could for KU when they weren’t at 100%.
“It’s been difficult,” Self said. “I’m proud of our guys that we made it to the tournament. I’m proud of the guys that we were a three seed. I’m proud of the guys that we won a game in the tournament. I’m just not leaving out of here, nor are they, remotely proud about how we performed or prepared or how we got them ready tonight.”
With a long and athletic USC defense standing in between Kansas and a trip to the Sweet 16, the Jayhawks are going to have to knock down some 3-pointers Monday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse to get out of the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
Anyone who has kept up with KU (21-8) knows that junior Ochai Agbaji (76-for-199, 38.2%) has been the team’s best and most consistent 3-point shooter over the course of the season’s 29 games to date.
But considering this is March and the Jayhawks have now played a few games this month, I thought it might be interesting to get a quick reminder of who’s been hitting from deep of late.
Looking at the past three games specifically — all of them played in March — Agbaji has continued to be KU’s best option.
That's to be expected from Agbaji at this point. But a couple of surprising contributors have kept KU's 3-point shooting from falling off a cliff in March, as some of KU's production from others took a dip and one shooter missed a game.
KU’s 3-point shooters in March
• Ochai Agbaji — 9-for-22 (40.9%)
• Marcus Garrett — 7-for-13 (53.8%)
• Dajuan Harris — 3-for-4 (75%; all attempts vs. Eastern Washington in 1st round)
• Christian Braun — 2-for-9 (22.2%)
• Jalen Wilson — 2-for-9 (22.2%; did not play vs. EWU)
• Mitch Lightfoot — 1-for-3 (33.3%)
• Bryce Thompson — 1-for-7 (14.2%)
Obviously the most surprising development behind the arc has been the shooting of renowned non-3-point threat Marcus Garrett, who is cashing in lately, after going 15-for-51 (29.4%) in his first 25 games of the season, before March got here.
Garrett, a senior, has gotten hot in one game from time to time during his career, but he had never made two or more 3-pointers in consecutive games until knocking down two against Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament and opening up the NCAA Tournament with three 3-pointers versus Eastern Washington.
So counting on Garrett to keep burying deep shots against USC might prove to be risky.
Realistically, KU needs solid 3-point shooting from its proven deep threats: Agbaji, Christian Braun and Jalen Wilson. Braun went 2-for-5 in his first career NCAA Tournament game, after going the previous three games without a made 3-pointer.
Wilson is obviously a wild card, having just rejoined the team, leaving KU coach Bill Self uncertain about how much Wilson might even be able to play against USC, not to mention how effective he will be coming off a COVID-19 pause.
So the Jayhawks’ overall 3-point success could come down to how often Agbaji and Braun find themselves with open looks.
And the ultimate X-factor might be how USC decides to defend Dajuan Harris. Harris is 8-for-13 on the season and isn’t going to shoot unless he’s left wide open and the opportunity comes within the rhythm of the offense.
But the redshirt freshman sure looked like a capable shooter in his March Madness debut, going 3-for-4 vs. EWU.
On the season, opponents are shooting 34.4% against USC from 3-point range. KU enters the game hitting 34.6% on the year — and 25-for-67 (37.3%) in March.
If facing one set of brothers in the NCAA Tournament translated to automatic success against any pair of siblings, then No. 3 seed Kansas would be a shoo-in for the Sweet 16.
With all due respect to Eastern Washington’s Groves brothers, the Jayhawks have an entirely different type of challenge on the horizon Monday night, when they take on USC and Evan and Isaiah Mobley.
Tanner and Jacob Groves may have lit up KU for a combined nine 3-pointers and 58 points in the first round. But the Groves were also drawing some comparisons on Twitter to Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in “Superbad.” They were more unassuming than menacing.
When you look at Evan Mobley in particular, USC’s freshman 7-footer with a 7-4 wingspan doesn’t exactly conjure up images from a slapstick bro comedy. It’s more like watching Chris Bosh 2.0.
“He’s a few pounds away from being an NBA All-Star,” KU coach Bill Self said during his Sunday video press conference. “He’s that good. That’s a big challenge.”
Evan Mobley (16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game) is so impressive on both ends of the floor he has a chance to surpass Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Evan Mobley’s the exact type of multi-talented prospect that could be a matchup nightmare for KU. The kind of player who can almost singlehandedly end a team’s season in March.
But Even Mobley isn’t the only athletic Trojan the Jayhawks have to worry about. USC (23-7) has become one of the best defensive teams in the country this season (currently No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency at KenPom.com) by rolling with an athletic and long front line. Evan Mobley (34.1 minutes a game) is almost constantly on the court, and the Trojans team him with his older brother, 6-10 sophomore Isaiah Mobley, as well as either 6-8 junior Drew Peterson or 6-9 sophomore Max Agbonkpolo. A senior, 6-9 Chevez Goodwin also plays inside.
Those spry USC bigs and forwards, with wingspan for days, prompted Self to bring up the personnel of the Texas team that swept KU in the regular season.
“You think about Texas’ length and how much they bothered us with Kai Jones, (Jericho) Sims and (Greg) Brown. I see the same type of stuff,” Self said of what came to mind when he watched USC. “But I think Evan’s even longer than those guys. I think he’s even longer than Kai Jones (6-11).”
The Trojans actually play bigger than Texas. The Longhorns typically played with three guards, while USC only plays with two. And oftentimes head coach Andy Enfield has the 6-8 Peterson or 6-7 guard Isaiah White at one of the guard spots.
With all of those arms taking up so much air space defensively, the Trojans can torment foes on defense. Just ask Drake. The Bulldogs were down 40-37 at halftime to USC before they opened the second half going 2-for-23 from the field, missing seven consecutive shots at one point and 12 more in a row at another.
All of this from a Drake team ranked 32nd in adjusted offensive efficiency by KenPom (KU ranks 45th). Drake coach Darian DeVries said the zone USC utilized at times also bothered his Bulldogs.
“That length (made it) hard for us to get in the interior and finish. We were trying to get it inside to anywhere around the rim where we could get some scores or some easy baskets,” DeVries said. “They're extremely long, and we couldn't get to the spots we wanted to and finish over them. We weren't able to get maybe as clean of looks as we would have liked on the 3’s against the zone.”
When a team is skillful enough to get into the paint against USC, the Trojans have one of the best shot blockers and alterers in college basketball waiting at the rim in Evan Mobley. Listed at 215 pounds, he doesn’t have any bulk on him yet, but that doesn’t make him any less effective at protecting the basket. Per KenPom, Evan Mobley ranks 32nd in the country with his 9.2% block percentage.
After he blocked three shots against Drake in the first round of the West region, Evan Mobley said he’s learned through the course of this season how to contest more shots without getting himself into foul trouble.
“Yeah, in college there's a lot more details that goes into defense than in high school,” the 19-year-old phenom said. “So I really just used what the coach taught me. Stay down — that was probably my biggest thing I learned, because I get jumpy sometimes. But I just try to stay down and contest the shot, if not block it.”
Evan Mobley hasn’t fouled out of a game all season, and has only picked up four personals twice, the last coming a month ago in a loss to Arizona.
Currently ranked No. 5 in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings, Evan Mobley isn’t just a defensive menace, either. At 7 feet, he can actually handle the ball and attack off the dribble, too. ESPN draft expert Mike Schmitz recently praised Mobley for having touch all over the floor.
“He has those unicorn qualities handling the ball in space,” Schmitz said.
That rare combination of length and ball handling, Self said, reminded him of the Longhorns’ Kai Jones
“He was hard to guard because his one step equalled our two,” Self said, drawing the comparison between Jones and what Evan Mobley can do. “You’ve got to do a great job of keeping him in front of us, but still yet pressure him and not let him get to his spots.”
Defending a long and nimble 7-footer on the perimeter could prove difficult for KU junior David McCormack, who is best defensively closer to the basket.
Even so, the Jayhawks’ best big man said he is looking forward to matching up with the future lottery pick. McCormack also made it clear much more will go into the outcome on Monday night than any one particular matchup.
“It’s not player against player. It’s team against team,” McCormack said. “The team is the on that wins the game, not the individual.”
And it might take KU tinkering with defensive assignments to find the right defender for Evan Mobley, the Pac-12’s freshman of the year, defensive player of the year and player of the year. Marcus Garrett might be better equipped than anyone else on the roster to defend the versatile USC star outside. Plus, if KU took that route, McCormack and/or Mitch Lightfoot could defend the 6-10 Isaiah Mobley (9.2 points, 7.3 rebounds).
Evan Mobley, as the saying goes, is a problem.
“He’s unbelievably talented,” Self said. “He’s extremely skilled. He can play behind the arc and certainly play within it, and he can put the ball down.”
And even if the Jayhawks can limit him offensively, his impact defensively appears inevitable, particularly with his brother and a slew of other long defenders at his side.
Seth and Evan from “Superbad” aren’t running out of the tunnel Monday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse. More like Jules and Vincent from “Pulp Fiction.”
“Certainly we’ll try to compensate with the Mobleys’ length and athletic ability and skill set,” Self said, “by trying to do things a little bit different than what we did with the Groves brothers.”
The way Dajuan Harris played against Eastern Washington on Saturday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, he may never come off the bench again for Kansas.
March Madness has a way of creating college basketball stars. Those who emerge unexpectedly and embrace the stage end up making winning look easy, bringing the best out the players around them and, most importantly, propelling their team on to the next round.
While David McCormack turned in a folk hero level performance in his return at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, in Indianapolis, and senior Marcus Garrett played like a senior not interested in seeing his career end, the Jayhawks’ run in this year’s tournament might already be over and done with if not for the play of the smallest man in the Kansas basketball rotation, redshirt freshman Harris.
In just his 29th career game, KU’s backup point guard, listed at 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, had his new career scoring high before halftime, which wasn’t hard to do considering the low-usage reserve’s previous best was seven points.
But Harris did much more than score 13 points and shock the Eagles with his 3-for-4 3-point accuracy. He played with the poise of a senior, making it possible for the Jayhawks (21-8) not to panic when No. 14 seed Eastern Washington (16-8) had an upset brewing.
“We were in real trouble,” KU coach Bill Self said afterward, “if it wasn’t for Dajuan.”
The Eagles, who led by as many as 10, gave KU more than a scare. The Big Sky’s lone representative in the field went up 9-0 on the Big 12’s premier basketball program in less than two minutes. But the deficit wouldn’t become more disastrous, because as soon as the margin hit nine, Self abandoned his starting five to bring in Harris and McCormack.
This wasn’t the case, earlier in the season, when Harris was still learning the ropes, but the Jayhawks in March are simply a better team when he’s on the floor. It proved to be true yet again during his first taste of the NCAA Tournament, when the young point guard from Columbia, Mo., gave KU 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, to go with his four assists, two steals, one block and no turnovers in 35 minutes.
Harris, just like starters Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun, played all 20 minutes of the second half, because KU needed him impacting the game during every second possible. The Jayhawks were noticeably worse off when either Harris or McCormack weren’t on the floor versus EWU.
In the middle of praising Harris during his postgame video press conference, Garrett didn’t reference his fellow guard’s points or assists or 3-pointers. Garrett instead brought up Harris’ eye-catching plus/minus of +22.
“I feel like he played a great game,” Garrett said. “He gave us the boost we needed.”
In fact, the Jayhawks blew out the Eagles when Harris was on the floor, 91-69. During the roughly five minutes in which Harris sat in KU’s first-round win, the Eagles outscored the Jayhawks, 15-2.
Said Garrett: “He came out there, he did what Dajuan does — he took the shots that were open and he knocked them down.”
When the Eagles invited Harris to put up 3-pointers, the young guard showed no fear, and made them pay for doubting him. Even though Harris only attempted nine 3-pointers (and made five) total in his first 28 college games, he didn’t have a reluctant approach, negating EWU’s strategy. The Eagles undoubtedly expected a freshman known for not shooting to tense up and hoist bricks or drive into a defense that was waiting for him.
Harris was too unflappable for that to work.
“I feel like he has confidence shooting the ball,” Garrett said of Harris’ surprising output from 3-point range. “He just doesn’t take them all the time, because that’s kind of not what he does for the team. But when he does take them he has a chance to knock them down.”
It turns out EWU didn’t know what KU had in Harris, who only averaged 1.9 points and 1.8 assists in 13.7 minutes a game during Big 12 play.
Those days of being a non-factor are behind Harris now, though.
“Juan was probably the best player we had from start to finish,” Self said following the young point guard’s March Madness debut.
Harris has not only proven himself now, he’s also earned his coach’s trust. The spotlight will get hotter and the competition more athletic and imposing from here, but Harris has shown he belongs in the staring lineup.
The Jayhawks opened their NCAA Tournament run with a lineup of Garrett, Braun, Agbaji, Bryce Thompson and Mitch Lightfoot. But the five who got them out of the first round — Harris, McCormack, Garrett, Agbaji and Braun — should be the starting five for round two.
How Jalen Wilson handles his return from COVID-19 — and whether he can play on Monday against USC and be impactful, like McCormack was vs. EWU — will go a long way in determining whether the Jayhawks can reach the Sweet 16 and extend their stay in Indianapolis. Regardless of how many more games remain for KU in the West region, Harris has demonstrated as a floor general who plays with confidence, vision and defensive energy — and let’s not forget he’s also a 3-point shooting threat (8-for-13 on the season) — that he deserves a promotion to the starting five from here on out.
As his Kansas basketball team geared up this week for an inherently pressure-packed situation, playing in the win-or-your-season’s-over NCAA Tournament, head coach Bill Self pondered the importance of the moment — not just for his program, but the entire athletic department. From Self’s point of view, the current state of affairs aren’t accompanied by any additional stress.
KU is currently without an athletic director, as the aftermath of a buried sexual harassment scandal at LSU led to the departures of both KU football coach Les Miles and the man who hired him, Jeff Long.
More bad news hit Jayhawk land over the past couple of weeks, as positive COVID-19 tests on the basketball team led to the department’s flagship program withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament. It turned out only three players caught the virus, so KU was able to head to Indianapolis, just not at full strength.
All the while, players have been holed up in hotel rooms, first in Kansas City, Mo., and now in Indianapolis, isolating much of the time, when they’re not practicing, getting tested for the virus or having a socially distanced team meal or meeting.
And though this didn’t come up with Self during his video conference call with reporters, the Jayhawks still don’t know what the ultimate ramifications of the looming NCAA’s infractions case against the program will be. Will KU even be eligible for March Madness a year from now?
Self, in his 18th season at KU, will no doubt compartmentalize all the factors that don’t immediately impact his team this weekend and leave them in the background to focus on the task at hand.
After all, the last thing his Jayhawks need right now is more pressure.
When asked about the importance of this tournament, given some of the news in the athletic department, Self said his team’s March Madness run “does mean more in that context.” He just doesn’t view that as an extra burden.
“I look at it as it’s an opportunity to gain,” Self said. “Not a situation where you can lose.”
Self’s been a fountain of positivity throughout this challenging season, and he isn’t changing his tone at this stage. The good vibes (and some defensive buy-in) helped the Jayhawks (20-8) survive a five-loss January and come out on the other side of it not as a defeated team, but an improved one. It was back then, Self said, that the Jayhawks had pressure on them.
Not only did they pull through a genuine longterm mental test to stake their claim as one of the best teams in the Big 12, the Jayhawks head into Saturday’s matchup with underdog Eastern Washington (16-7) having gone 8-1 down the stretch, undoubtedly contributing to Self’s upbeat outlook.
“This team has far exceeded what a lot of people thought,” he said. “We weren’t very good at all for a good period of time. And these guys have flipped it and really committed.”
Self and KU haven’t lost in the opening round of the tournament in 15 years, dating back to when in back to back postseasons No. 14 seed Bucknell busted KU’s bracket in 2005 and No. 13 seed Bradley did the same in 2006.
But the current state of KU’s roster will make this weekend uniquely challenging for even Self, who has been to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach every March (except for 2020, of course — RIP to one of KU’s best chances to win it all again) since he took Tulsa dancing in 1999.
The Jayhawks are without their best rebounder, starting forward Jalen Wilson, and even though David McCormack, after being cleared to rejoin the team, is expected to play, the big man’s minutes might be minimal.
They call it March Madness for a reason — see: No. 2 seed Ohio State falling to Oral Roberts (where Self began his career as a head coach) in the first round on Friday. Crazy outcomes are a staple of the format. The consensus best team in the country often fails to cut down the nets. Teams with brand recognition like KU go home at the hands of Who’s That U underdogs every March.
And now Self will try to stave off an upset with a shorthanded rotation and what is likely to be a lot of small ball lineups.
“We can’t control what our roster looks like and everything. We expect to play well. We expect to advance,” Self said. “But I don’t feel the weight of the world on my shoulders that we’re carrying around more of a burden than what we would’ve carried if wasn’t such a strange year.”
If KU can get through EWU, the roster might start looking closer to normal in the days ahead.
That’s one of Self’s hopes at least. He also aims to lead the players on a run, extending their stay in Indianapolis.
“I want it for them. And I also want some good things to happen for our school and our athletic department,” Self said. “I know this would be a way to do that. But it’s not an extra weight. It’s not anything that I feel a pressure that we have to do something.”
Entering the NCAA Tournament without their best rebounder, Jalen Wilson, and not expecting a whole lot from their top big man, David McCormack, the Jayhawks have a rebounding problem on their hands at quite an inconvenient time.
At full strength, No. 3 seed Kansas wouldn’t have to devote an inordinate amount of attention to the battle of the boards against No. 14 Eastern Washington. But with Bill Self expecting his team to have to play “extremely, extremely small” during Saturday’s first-round game in Indianapolis, how the shorthanded Jayhawks handle themselves on the glass could determine their postseason fate.
Throughout his redshirt freshman season, Wilson has easily been the Jayhawks’ strongest rebounder, averaging 8.2 boards a game. In KU’s past 10 games, the 6-foot-8 guard (also the team’s small-ball 5-man) was even better, pulling down 10.4 rebounds a game. Wilson had 14 rebounds at West Virginia and against Baylor during that stretch and 13 at Texas.
According to sports-reference.com, Wilson’s total rebound percentage — an estimate of the percentage of available rebounds a player secured when he was in the game — was 15.7%, the highest of any rotation player for KU.
As you’d expect, McCormack ranks second in total rebound percentage at 14.7%. The problem facing KU is that not even Self knows what McCormack will be able to give the team versus Eastern Washington.
The Jayhawks (20-8) are actually preparing most of their game plan around playing without their 6-foot-10 junior post player. McCormack isn’t expected to join the team in Indianapolis until Friday, roughly 24 hours before the matchup with Eastern Washington (16-7) at Indiana Farmers Coliseum (Saturday, 12:15 p.m., TBS). The expectation is that he will practice Friday for the first time in more than a week, dating back to when he tested positive for COVID-19.
Whatever McCormack can give KU on Saturday, Self said, will be considered “a bonus.”
That leaves most of the rebounding duties to senior forward Mitch Lightfoot, as well as KU’s best rebounding guards, Christian Braun and Marcus Garrett. Lightfoot is a likely starter, considering that Eastern Washington’s best player is 6-foot-9 forward Tanner Groves, the Big Sky’s regular-season and tournament MVP.
The wild card on the KU roster will be reserve guard Tyon Grant-Foster. An athletic 6-foot-7 junior college transfer in his first year with the Jayhawks, Grant-Foster hasn’t played in a game since Feb. 17 — not because of injuries or ailments, but because he just wasn’t a part of the rotation.
If Grant-Foster can manage to not look rusty or out of place and generally avoid the types of mistakes that would lead Self to keep him on the bench, the numbers say he could make an impact on the glass. The seldom-used guard actually has a higher total rebound percentage (14.5%) than Lightfoot (13.3%), Braun (9.5%) and Garrett (7.4%), as well as Tristan Enaruna (9.7%), who will miss the Eastern Washington game after testing positive for COVID-19.
Can Grant-Foster rebound in the NCAA Tournament like he did in his most productive games of the regular season? The Jayhawks certainly need him to replicate those outings — six rebounds against Washburn, eight against North Dakota State, seven against Omaha and five vs. TCU.
It’s been nearly two months since someone other than Wilson or McCormack was KU’s leading rebounder in a game — that happened when Garrett led the Jayhawks on Jan. 28 with seven boards. But the run of 12 consecutive games in which Wilson or McCormack led the way is about to end, unless McCormack is able to play far more than expected.
It will likely take a total team effort, rather than one herculean performance from Lightfoot, Braun or Garrett, for KU to make sure the Eagles don’t dominate on the glass. The Jayhawks will have their work cut out for them, too, especially when they’re dealing with Eastern Washington’s junior glass cleaners, Groves (8.1 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-7 wing Kim Aiken Jr. (8.5 per game).
Both Groves (17.3%) and Aiken (15.9%) enter the tournament with better total rebound percentages than anyone in KU’s rotation. In particular, it could be extremely difficult for the Jayhawks to come up with many offensive rebounds. According to KenPom.com, Groves’ defensive rebounding percentage of 26.8% ranks 27th among all Division I players, and Aiken ranks 87th at 23.4%.
For some perspective, Wilson, at 22.5%, ranks 128th. McCormack’s defensive rebound percentage is 16.5%, Lightfoot’s is 14.7%, Braun’s is 14.5% and Garrett is at 13%. Again, Grant-Foster could be an X-factor at 19.1%.
Regardless of how they make it happen when a shot comes off the rim, the Jayhawks need to give Eastern Washington a battle on the glass. Winning on the boards could clear a path to the second round. KU is 15-2 this year when outrebounding its opponent, and just 5-6 when the other team wins the rebound margin.
What’s more, when the Jayhawks got significantly outmuscled or outworked on the glass, they went 0-5 — Gonzaga had a +9 advantage in rebounds, Texas went +9 in Lawrence and +12 in Austin, Oklahoma was +10 in Norman, and Tennessee (+15) destroyed KU on the glass in one of the Jayhawks’ worst games of the season.
Earlier this week, Braun downplayed any concerns about the Jayhawks’ ability to compete for rebounds in Wilson’s absence.
“We don’t think it will take a hit,” Braun said. “That’s something we’ve been focusing on. Everybody’s just got to step up. Everybody’s got to crash the boards and help everybody.”
So much has transpired since Kansas last played a basketball game that it’s almost easy to forget the Jayhawks are entering the NCAA Tournament with a newfound super-sub in point guard Dajuan Harris.
As recently as mid-February, the redshirt freshman played a limited role at best, and on the season Harris logged single-digit minutes in nine of KU’s games. But just as the Jayhawks began laying the groundwork for the most important stretch of the calendar, Harris emerged as an influential member of the rotation.
KU at least got in one Big 12 tournament game in Kansas City, Mo., last week before its COVID scare forced the No. 2 seed to withdraw. And while it would’ve been even better for Harris to experience more March pressure in a conference semifinal and final, too, the 6-foot-1 backup, listed at 160 pounds, didn’t look intimidated by the postseason stage against Oklahoma.
In fact, Harris proved to be one of the best players on the floor in KU’s most recent game. And he didn’t just do it with his intuitive passing and ability to set up teammates. For a stretch of the first half, Harris’ defense stole the show as he kept picking OU’s pockets.
“Dude, he’s everywhere,” KU senior Mitch Lightfoot marveled after Harris came away with four steals and proved to be a pesky defender. “He impacts everything.”
Harris only played nine minutes in KU’s win over Baylor. But in the two games since then the Jayhawks have taken off with Harris on the floor. In KU’s regular season finale versus UTEP, the Jayhawks outscored the Miners, 51-33, during Harris’ 24 minutes of playing time. And UTEP held a 29-16 advantage during the 16 minutes that Harris sat.
Against a much tougher team in their postseason opener, the Jayhawks again benefited from his presence in a Big 12 quarterfinal win over Oklahoma. During Harris’ 29 minutes, KU outscored the Sooners, 56-43. When Harris was on the bench, though, OU held the upper hand, 19-13.
Lightfoot praised Harris for his defensive activity, and pointed to one post-up by OU forward Brady Manek as an example. Lightfoot was defending Manek and didn’t even know in the moment that Harris was on his way to help Lightfoot trap one of OU’s top offensive threats.
“We got a steal and it led to a bucket,” Lightfoot said of Harris’ instinctive decision. “The guy played his butt off and I’m really happy for him.”
As KU (20-8) enjoyed one of its best halves of the season during the first 20 minutes against OU, the Jayhawks had Harris in large part to thank for their 35-15 halftime lead.
KU head coach Bill Self said Harris “was everywhere,” and disrupting OU’s offense with his hands and defensive awareness.
“He was arguably the best player in the game in the first half,” Self said.
Harris’ final stat line read: four points, five assists, four steals, two rebounds and thee turnovers, with 2-for-2 shooting. But his impact was much larger. Self loved how Harris moved the ball on offense and took an active approach to everything he did.
“I guess the little guy, you always want to see the little guy do well,” Self said. “I really love watching Juan play when he’s aggressive. And to me, he’s not that much fun to watch when he’s not. So I love his activity level when he gets those hands going. He’s probably the best on our team as far as hands go.”
With Jalen Wilson out for KU’s NCAA Tournament opener versus Eastern Washington on Saturday and David McCormack and Tristan Enaruna returning to the team just ahead of the first-round game in Indianapolis, the Jayhawks will likely need to lean on role players such as Harris, Lightfoot and Bryce Thompson even more.
Harris, never a player to worry about how many shots he’s taking, not only fits in perfectly, but also set himself up to succeed when KU will need him by heading into The Big Dance on an upswing.
Ochai Agbaji has known Harris dating back to before their time as KU teammates, as both came up through the MOKAN AAU program. So Agbaji wasn’t surprised to see the redshirt freshman begin to take on an important role just in time for March Madness.
“That’s how he’s always played, just being that pass-first (point guard),” Agbaji said. “His feel for the game has been like that.”
At a program with the college basketball pedigree of Kansas, one of the time honored traditions of Selection Sunday for coaches, players, fans and media alike is inspecting the rest of whatever region the Jayhawks ended up in and gauging just how difficult their road to the Final Four will be.
That flies most years, particularly when KU is a top seed with a legitimate chance of making a run at the national championship. But right now, mere days removed from withdrawing from the Big 12 tournament, KU has far too much else to worry about to dive headfirst into that exercise.
Forget about Gonzaga, Iowa, Virginia and the rest of the teams in the West region. The Jayhawks don’t even know with absolute certainty at this point how their shorthanded rotation will play in their NCAA Tournament debut Saturday against Eastern Washington.
Head coach Bill Self never has entered The Big Dance with KU facing so many moving pieces and question marks. Self and the Jayhawks expect (read: are hopeful) that starting big man David McCormack and reserve wing Tristan Enaruna will be able to clear COVID-19 protocols and practice with the rest of the team in Indianapolis later this week.
But as we all have learned during this pandemic, there are no guarantees. By the time No. 3 seed KU (20-8) faces No. 14 EWU (16-7), McCormack will have gone 16 days without playing in a game.
Enaruna had basically fallen out of KU’s rotation late in the season. He didn’t play at all in the regular season finale versus UTEP and last played more than two minutes in a game at Kansas State on Feb. 17.
However, the Jayhawks actually need Enaruna again. The identity of the KU player who tested positive for COVID, leading to the team’s abrupt exit from the conference tournament, is being kept private. But let’s just assume it is a rotation player who won’t be available for at least the tournament’s opening weekend due to COVID. It’s a safe assumption, because Self said Sunday evening Tyon Grant-Foster, who hasn’t played a minute in a game since Feb. 17, will get an opportunity to make an impact. Enaruna is a more trusted contributor than Grant-Foster. How will Enaruna, a 6-foot-8 sophomore, handle being thrust back into a key role?
Then there’s the matter of who will be missing when KU takes the floor on Saturday. Veterans Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji spoke with the media Sunday after the brackets came out. They’re not in quarantine. Neither are Mitch Lightfoot, Christian Braun, Bryce Thompson or Dajuan Harris, all of whom could be spotted in social media posts from KU’s official account, following the selection show.
So what if the Jayhawks have to play without Jalen Wilson, their best rebounder and ideal small-ball five? It’s possible KU will have to try to get to the second round and the Sweet 16 without him.
How the Jayhawks will handle all of this shuffling amid the pressure of playing in the NCAA Tournament remains to be seen. There are a lot of unknowns to navigate in a typical March, in pre-COVID times. What KU has on its plate is something else entirely.
It would be a blast to see the Jayhawks take on Luka Garza and Iowa in the Sweet 16. And a rematch with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight would be fascinating. But if ever there was a time to pump the brakes on such thought exercises when it comes to KU’s run it is now.
Nothing is promised during March, even when a team heads to “The Madness” with its roster completely intact.
Self’s been at this too long to ever get caught looking ahead. He said Sunday night he used to fill out a bracket, but probably hasn’t bothered in about 15 years.
He’ll have the prefect approach for this challenging week ahead.
“I care about one bracket. And to be honest I care about Eastern Washington, Drake, Wichita State and USC,” Self said, naming KU’s first round opponent and the three possible teams the Jayhawks could face if they advance.
Don’t get caught looking ahead in this loaded West region. The Jayhawks have too much going on right in front of them for that.
One of these years — one would hope — the Kansas basketball team will actually get to experience a complete weekend at the Big 12 tournament again.
The pandemic improved to 2-0 against the Jayhawks in Kansas City, Mo., with Friday’s news of a positive COVID-19 test on the KU roster, a year to the day after the pandemic canceled the 2020 conference tournament.
According to the picture head coach Bill Self painted on Friday afternoon, though, COVID isn’t expected — again, one would hope — to keep KU from competing in the NCAA Tournament. March Madness is going to actually take place in 2021, whether the Jayhawks are participating for the 31st consecutive time or not. But Self said he expects the Jayhawks (at least the ones who have been testing negative) be cleared to participate in Indiana, where first round games begin as soon as this coming Friday — seven days after KU was forced to bow out of the Big 12 tourney.
Self will no doubt make sure the Jayhawks jump through all the necessary isolating and testing hoops as the team sets up camp in Kansas City, Mo., hoping to come out of this controlled environment before it heads to Indianapolis to enter another controlled environment for the Big Dance. The lockdown in the days ahead will have to be even more intense than whatever the parameters were recently, leading to KU’s current predicament.
It’s easy to say this now, with the virus creating a whole new kind of March upset for KU, Duke and Virginia this week, but the administrators in charge of planning the conference championships and NCAA Tournament could’ve made everything run a little more smoothly by building in even more time than usual between the end of conference tournaments and the start of The Madness.
Or they could’ve opted to simply not play any conference tournaments at all. At best, these postseason showcases for leagues were risky and unnecessary. But canceling conference championship week was never going to happen with so much TV money to be made, and universities throughout the country taking catastrophic budget hits in the wake of the sports landscape getting blown up in 2020.
Maybe the Jayhawks weren’t as lucky as we initially thought to make it all the way to March without an interruption in a 2020-21 college basketball season marred by such instances. Because as much as the Jayhawks were happy to play a full Big 12 schedule and not encounter the headaches of rescheduling or a midseason reboot, the timing of their first COVID-related pause in competition couldn’t be much worse.
Hopefully no team that makes it to Indianapolis for the NCAA Tournament will have to do what KU, Duke and Virginia did this week and withdraw due to a positive test. But the fact that it has happened to three renowned programs at this time of the season would suggest a team dropping out of the title chase in Indy might be inevitable.
Surely the Jayhawks, gutted by having their chance of cutting down some nets this weekend taken away from them, will keep that feeling in mind and take every extra precaution imaginable to ensure they don’t have to exit an even larger stage abruptly.
Perhaps we should’ve seen this coming, given the week of turmoil surrounding Kansas Athletics that led up to the basketball team’s withdrawal from the conference tournament. The unceremonious exits of the football coach and athletic director didn’t do much for KU’s karma.
But with Selection Sunday on the horizon, so too is a new week. And perhaps some renewed focus and luck for the Jayhawks.
Kansas had to play without its best big man in its postseason debut Thursday night at the Big 12 tournament. But at least the Jayhawks had one true post player to throw at Oklahoma — and a confident one at that.
Before the Jayhawks even tipped off at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo., senior forward Mitch Lightfoot told head coach Bill Self, “Coach, I’m going to play good.”
Bold words for a backup who only played 33 combined minutes in KU’s four most recent games. Lightfoot spoke his productive night into existence, though, playing a key role in a 69-62 victory.
The 6-foot-8 senior didn’t start, as KU opened the night with a five-guard lineup, due to junior David McCormack following COVID-19 protocols and being unavailable. But once Lightfoot checked in near the midway point of the first half, he made sure to have an impact and give Self reasons to rely upon him more as the night progressed.
KU’s killer bench combo, Dajuan Harris and Lightfoot, connected for the first time seconds after Lightfoot subbed in, as the big man’s layup set the tone for his 11-point, four-rebound night.
“Obviously we’re missing David. He’s a huge piece of our team. I think I need to go out there and give us that inside presence. I wouldn’t say that I was trying to replace his shots — I don’t think we can replace him. He’s a great player,” Lightfoot said, when asked how he avoided feeling pressure while taking on more responsibilities in the tournament quarterfinal. “I’m looking forward to when (McCormack) gets back, but in the meantime I’m going to make sure we stay winning until he gets here.”
Lightfoot isn’t exactly the physical force that McCormack is defensively, but Lightfoot’s presence didn’t lead to routine opponent layups and points in the paint — which at times has been an issue with KU’s Lightfoot lineups in recent weeks.
He said he just tried to stay active on defense, especially when it was his responsibility to keep up with OU’s Brady Manek (19 points, 3-for-6 on 3-pointers).
“When Manek’s in it’s different than when their other big guys are in, because he stretches the floor so well,” Lightfoot said. “There were a couple of times he got the better of me, but great player and he can really shoot the ball. Most of the time the big guy isn’t the best shooter on the team, so there were a couple of mental errors by me.”
Even so, the Jayhawks (20-8) weren’t running into any glaring issues. In fact, KU outscored OU, 42-30, during Lightfoot’s 20 minutes on the floor, while the Sooners edged KU’s five-guard lineups, 32-27.
No doubt, Lightfoot had a longer leash than usual as KU’s sole rotation big. Good for the senior for recognizing that, and even cashing in on a 3-pointer (his second of the season) once he got into a groove.
“Mitch was great tonight,” said KU guard Ochai Agbaji, whose 3-point barrage in the second half held off an OU rally. “(Lightfoot) got a 3 in. He was great on the block. Defensively he was there, being active on Manek when Manek was in the game.”
His savvy showed up late in the first half, too. If you were wondering why Lightfoot was so quick to fire his second 3-point attempt, which wasn’t as attractive as his first, well, it was a two-for-one situation.
“Marcus (Garrett) was telling me to shoot it,” Lightfoot said of firing with 42 seconds left in the half and KU up 20. “If it goes in, great, but if it doesn’t go in we still get another possession to end the (half.)”
Eventually the game wasn’t so lopsided, as the Sooners’ offense revved up in the second half. But Lightfoot delivered in crunch time, as well. KU only had a three-point lead as the clock ticked down below 3 minutes.
But the 23-year-old Lightfoot, an old man by college basketball standards, wanted to keep winning, so he ran a side pick and roll with Harris to near perfection, pushing KU’s lead back to five with 2:40 to go. Lightfoot praised Harris (five assists) for his “great feel” in the moment.
“He fit that into a window that was about this big,” Lightfoot said, placing his hands close together in front of him. “He did a great job. Obviously I’ve got to convert on my free throw, but that’s neither here nor there.”
It only took one big man for the Jayhawks to move on to the Big 12 semifinals. The Jayhawks happened to have the right man for the job.