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Posts tagged with Carlton Bragg

Jayhawks associate Tom Izzo with toughness, success

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo gets angry with his defense during the second half on Friday, March 17, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo gets angry with his defense during the second half on Friday, March 17, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. by Nick Krug

Tulsa, Okla. — Tom Izzo’s intense sideline demeanor and the success that accompanies it this time of year has become synonymous with the NCAA Tournament.

The 22-year Michigan State head coach has navigated the Spartans to seven Final Four appearances and a national championship, so anyone who follows college basketball recognizes him and MSU as a distinct brand.

Before Kansas (29-4) attempts to send Izzo’s Spartans (20-14) home earlier than the young bunch from the Big Ten planned, several of the Jayhawks gave their impressions of the hall of fame coach and his history of March Madness victories (47-18 all-time).

“He’s a great coach,” said KU freshman Josh Jackson, who was heavily recruited by Izzo before he opted to play for Bill Self at Kansas. “He’s always gonna coach his guys to be tough. That’s why I think he’s always got a tough team year in and year out — and this year he does. And I feel like he really knows what he’s doing. He’s had a lot of guys come through his program, and I feel like just off of his coaching ability, any team that you give him he’s gonna find success and, you know, make the best of what he’s got.”

Jackson said he felt starstruck when he first met Izzo, as a young high school standout in the state of Michigan, around the age of 14. The legendary coach attended one of Jackson’s games.

“I’d been watching him for my whole life, basically,” Jackson shared.

A Portland, Ore., native, Kansas senior center Landen Lucas didn’t necessarily grow up in awe of Izzo. But the old school big man certainly enjoyed the tough style displayed by MSU’s many successful teams through the years. The idea of bruising in the paint versus the Spartans on Sunday night at BOK Center has Lucas fired up.

“It’s cool,” Lucas said. “I feel like it’s a school I would’ve enjoyed playing at, because of the way they play and their style. Their known for that kind of stuff — getting extra possessions.

“It’ll be fun for me to play against them. It usually is,” added Lucas, who also went up against Sparty in 2014 and 2015. “And I’m looking forward to it.”

A Cleveland prep who grew up in Big Ten country, KU forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, is fully aware of Izzo’s impressive résumé.

“He has a great program, great legacy behind him,” said Bragg, a KU sophomore who at one point was offered a scholarship to MSU. “He develops his players really good, just like Coach Self, as well.”

MSU big men are associated with toughness in the paint, and Bragg expects nothing different this March, even if, like Self, Izzo hasn’t had his traditional lineup. Freshman Miles Bridges plays much the same role as his friend Jackson does at KU, in a four-guard starting lineup.

“They’re pretty aggressive,” Bragg said, adding the Jayhawks expect the Spartans to give KU their best shot. “Nick Ward (6-foot-8 freshman forward), he’s playing great basketball right now, coming off a big game versus Miami. He’s gonna be a challenge down low, and we’ve got to just keep him off the glass.”

The name Izzo, Kansas freshman Mitch Lightfoot added, conjures up images of grit and offensive rebounding.

“Doing all the little things, working their butt off,” Lightfood responded when asked to characterize Izzo’s Spartans. “You think of Draymond Green, stuff like that, players like that. Really athletic players. You know, Miles (Bridges) is super-athletic. But overall, really hard-working teams.”

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Jayhawks’ loose approach to NCAA Tournament opener paid off

Kansas guard Josh Jackson, left, and Kansas forward Landen Lucas have a laugh while waiting to check in during the second half on Friday, March 17, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Kansas guard Josh Jackson, left, and Kansas forward Landen Lucas have a laugh while waiting to check in during the second half on Friday, March 17, 2017 at BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. by Nick Krug

Tulsa, Okla. — For weeks, Kansas coach Bill Self has referenced his hope that the Jayhawks would play loose, worry-free basketball this March, as they try to land the program in the Final Four for the first time in five seasons.

Once KU built a 20-point lead in the first half Friday night against UC-Davis, the players got to spend the remainder of a 100-62 rout living in the moment and enjoying the stage. This time of year can quickly become a stressful time for players and coaches, so opening the NCAA Tournament with laughs and chemistry-bolstering endorphins seemed ideal.

Senior center Landen Lucas definitely takes his job seriously, and doing so led to a 13-point, 11-rebound double-double for the KU veteran versus the Aggies (23-13). The 6-foot-10 big got to feel like a kid again, too, posting up on the blocks and showing off post moves that led to high-percentage buckets in the paint.

“Yeah, it was fun,” a smiling Lucas said in the locker room. “I don’t get a whole lot of chances to do that, so it was nice to do a couple. And then also it’s good moving forward because it gives me a little confidence to go to that if needed or if I see an opportunity for it.”

No one in a KU uniform enjoyed any play more than often subdued junior Svi Mykhailiuk, who coaxed a near-impossible 3-pointer through the net in the second half. With the shot clock clicking toward zero and his defender all over him, Mykhailiuk took a step-back, fading prayer from behind the arc that looked like it had no chance of dropping. But it did, the KU lead ballooned to 34 with more than 11 minutes to play and Svi cheesed harder than he seemed capable of as his buddy Devonte’ Graham ran toward him, screaming over the wild, highlight-level heave and make.

You would have sworn the Jayhawks (29-4) were just celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on the floor based on the looks on their faces. Mykhailiuk, who scored 16 points on 5-for-10 shooting, said having a good time in the midst of executing should benefit Kansas.

“We were just playing ball,” the junior from Ukraine said, “and just enjoying the game.”

Lucas said Mykhailiuk’s crazy 3 and a late-game drain from senior walk-on Tyler Self highlighted a happy-go-lucky night.

“It’s always fun when Tyler gets in,” Lucas said. “But, you know, it’s fun. You try to have fun with these games, especially once you have a comfortable lead, because we know as soon as it’s over this time, you’ve got to get serious again to move forward to the next one.”

Indeed, a more than formidable Michigan State team awaits the Jayhawks in the Round of 32 on Sunday at the BOK Center.

After contributing six points and five rebounds in the victory, backup forward Carlton Bragg Jr. emphasized the importance of opening the team’s tournament run on a mellow note.

“Coach said in the locker room, just go out there and have fun,” Bragg shared of the pre-game message. “Just play hard. This is fun to play in March. So just go out there and have fun. Just let it go.”

An enjoyable Friday night could make a Sunday battle a little easier on the legs and minds of the Jayhawks, as they try to get back to Kansas City, Mo., for the Sweet 16

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Jayhawks worried loss to TCU could keep them from returning to K.C.

Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) is hounded by TCU guard Brandon Parrish, left, and TCU forward Karviar Shepherd (32) during the second half, Thursday, March 9, 2017 at Sprint Center.

Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) is hounded by TCU guard Brandon Parrish, left, and TCU forward Karviar Shepherd (32) during the second half, Thursday, March 9, 2017 at Sprint Center. by Nick Krug

In the moment’s following their unexpected early exit from the Big 12 tournament, Kansas basketball players sulked inside their temporary Sprint Center locker room Thursday, as they pondered a quarterfinal loss to TCU.

The Jayhawks lamented what they and head coach Bill Self deemed a lackluster defensive stretch with star freshman Josh Jackson serving a one-game suspension, but also tried to begin moving past the team’s fourth loss of the season. Looking ahead to The Big Dance, though, came with questions, and a feeling they could have blown a chance to control their path in the NCAA Tournament.

Senior all-everything point guard Frank Mason III wondered aloud about how KU’s loss to TCU might impact the team’s hierarchy among No. 1 seeds.

“And I think that, you know, if we would’ve done a good job in this tournament we probably would’ve been in the Midwest,” Mason said, implying the Jayhawks (28-4) could have cemented their chances to return to Kansas City, Mo., for games in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, “so we would’ve had home advantage.”

Kansas definitely hasn’t been eliminated from the running for a No. 1 seed and a spot in the Kansas City regional. But the players felt disappointed following the defeat, because they essentially left that decision in the selection committee’s hands, instead of winning three more games and forcing those in charge of the bracket to put the Jayhawks in the most favorable situation.

“We’re not really sure what’s gonna happen now,” Mason added.

Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr., too, said KU’s potential travel plans seemed up in the air due to its conference tournament setback.

“But it’s the tournament,” Bragg added of the upcoming NCAAs. “No matter where we play, we’re just gonna come to compete.”

Although KU’s most recent Sprint Center experience didn’t live up to the team’s expectations, the program is 34-7 all-time in the K.C. arena and 3-1 there this season. So the Jayhawks still hope to play two more games there March 23 and 25.

“For sure,” Bragg said. “Why not just play at home?”

As Matt Tait detailed, KU likely has no reason to worry about dropping to a No. 2 seed when the brackets are unveiled on Sunday, and it’s nearly a foregone conclusion the regular-season Big 12 champions will open March Madness in Tulsa, Okla. But the Jayhawks’ anxiety regarding where they will be sent for regional semifinals and finals — should they handle their business in the rounds of 64 and 32 — has some merit.

A year ago, Villanova ended up in the Louisville regional instead of its hometown of Philadelphia, after losing to Seton Hall in the Big East title game. The Wildcats, who overcame that more difficult road to win the national championship, entered the NCAA Tournament 29-5, but lost their potential No. 1 seed in the East to North Carolina, the ACC’s regular-season and postseason champion.

Could KU end up in the West (San Jose, Calif.), South (Memphis, Tenn.) or East (New York) regional now? When teams don’t make the selection committee’s job easy, one never knows how the road to the Final Four will look.

Senior big man Landen Lucas said the unpredictability the Jayhawks brought upon themselves made them feel worse.

“I think even today we saw how much a Kansas City crowd can help us at times,” Lucas said. “And we knew that, and we came out here and now nothing’s guaranteed. We’ve just gotta hope that our résumé up to this point does us enough to get the seed and the region that we want and go from there.”

Once the Jayhawks learn their bracket fate, Lucas isn’t worried about how they will respond.

“I think either way we’re looking at it just fine,” he said. “I mean, we’ve faced adversity throughout the whole year, so a challenge isn’t too big of a deal. But obviously playing here in front of this crowd would be helpful.”

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Reinforcements: Bragg and Coleby capable of fortifying KU’s bench with Vick

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) and Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) pressure Oklahoma guard Darrion Strong-Moore (0) during the first half, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) and Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) pressure Oklahoma guard Darrion Strong-Moore (0) during the first half, Monday, Feb. 27, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

When discussing the strengths of the top-ranked Kansas basketball team, one of the last facets likely to come up is the Jayhawks’ bench.

KU’s substitutes definitely haven’t derailed the team’s efforts — Kansas enters its regular-season finale Saturday at Oklahoma State at 27-3 overall and 15-2 in the Big 12. It’s just the backups haven’t blown anyone away, either.

Even so, coach Bill Self has to feel more positive than negative about the state of his bench with the postseason approaching, due to the recent resurgence of sophomore Lagerald Vick. The 6-foot-5 guard from Memphis has established himself as the clear sixth man.

Reserve bigs Carlton Bragg and Dwight Coleby, though, have not left the same kind of impression on their coach. Asked earlier this week what he likes about what the Jayhawks are getting from Vick, Bragg and Coleby, KU’s coach mentioned his big men only to acknowledge each had one memorable performance over the past few weeks.

“Dwight was great against Texas, Carlton was great against TCU. But it's been inconsistent,” Self said, prior to speaking at length about Vick’s qualities.

A 6-10 sophomore from Cleveland, Bragg turned in his best performance of the season against TCU, going for 15 points and 7 rebounds. The very next game, at Texas, 6-9 junior transfer Coleby had his foremost showing in a KU uniform, posting 12 points and 4 boards in 13 minutes.

Still, Self wants more from them, and he doesn’t even worry that much about how many points Bragg or Coleby — or even Vick — add to the Kansas mission. KU’s coach, who has navigated the program to 13 consecutive Big 12 titles, referred to bench scoring as a statistic that is “way, way, way, way overrated.” So he couldn’t care less that the Jayhawks’ bench players out-scored their counterparts in six straight games before losing that battle by 2 against Oklahoma earlier this week.

Vick’s scoring and shooting aren’t always there, but Self mentions him as the vital component of the bench unit because the springy sophomore can inject the lineup with energy.

Obviously, Bragg and Coleby can’t fly around the court the way Vick does. But they could win their coach’s favor by emulating the least showy player on the roster, starting center Landen Lucas.

Kansas forward Dwight Coleby (22) wrestles for a ball with UNLV forward Cheickna Dembele (11) during the first half, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Kansas forward Dwight Coleby (22) wrestles for a ball with UNLV forward Cheickna Dembele (11) during the first half, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2016 at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. by Nick Krug

So much of a glue guy it wouldn’t be surprising to see his face on a bottle of Elmer’s, Lucas provided an easy guide for Bragg and Coleby. According to the starter, here’s what KU needs out of either relief big when the fifth-year senior is on the bench:

- “Just to come in and defensively be in the right positions, making sure that it’s tough for the other team’s bigs to score,” Lucas began.

- “You know, use your fouls wisely — if you’re gonna foul, foul somebody. Make sure there’s not and-ones.”

- “Making sure that you just make the people that surround you better. That’s what I try to do and hopefully when I come out the game they can come in and continue to make the other guys better.”

- “And that really starts with the defensive end … and also rebounds and doing the small things.”

There you have it, straight from an expert on the subject. Bragg and Coleby can impact KU victories by taking the Lucas approach. When big men do that type of dirty work, the more enjoyable rewards, such as dunks and blocked shots, tend to follow, as well.

Vick might be the most reliable member of the Kansas bench right now, but there’s no reason Bragg and Coleby can’t try to catch up. Self knows Vick can make winning plays even without scoring. Now it’s time for the backup big men to do the same.

Said Self: “You know, we talk about people a lot of times as a team saying, you know, you can breathe life into the room or you can suck all the energy out of the room. And a guy off the bench needs to breathe life, breathe life into his team.”

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Jayhawks playing faster this season to maximize offensive punch

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) charges up the court with a steal during the first half, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III (0) charges up the court with a steal during the first half, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

Finding talented players with which to work never has been an issue for Bill Self in his 14 seasons as the head coach of the Kansas basketball program. Some of Self’s teams have featured dominant big men, others dynamic guards, but every season he knows what will work for the Jayhawks and what won’t.

Often times, Self’s squads are known for their toughness and defense, and this year’s group might get closer to embodying those qualities in the weeks ahead, but there is no questioning the strength of the 2016-17 Jayhawks. It’s their offense.

Led by the high-octane backcourt of senior Frank Mason III, junior Devonte’ Graham and freshman Josh Jackson, KU is averaging 85.8 points per game and shooting 50.4% from the floor (eighth in the nation) entering Saturday’s matchup with Texas. With that trio acting as the team’s lynchpin, and Kansas lacking its typical depth in the post, Self had the savvy to long ago implement an uncharacteristic four-guard lineup and accept that the Jayhawks could maximize their impact by playing faster than his other teams.

Mason, in particular, can push the ball at a breakneck pace in the open court. But it’s not as if the veteran point guard is the only player capable of taking an outlet pass and sprinting up the floor. Any Jayhawk who secures a defensive board can look to Mason, Graham, Jackson, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk or Lagerald Vick and know each one is able to attack the retreating defense.

“What we have, we have four good players that you can pitch ahead and they can all go make plays,” Self said.

Other backcourts in the coach’s time at KU have played fast, but this specific group might end up turbocharging its way past its predecessors. Over the past several years, no Kansas team has played at a pace — defined as possessions per 40 minutes — higher than 69.8. Sports-reference.com only has statistics on pace dating back to 2009-10, but when comparing this year’s number to those the difference is distinct. Eighteen games into the season, KU’s pace is at 72.2.

That’s a great sign the Jayhawks are playing to their strengths, because the more possessions they have the more chances they get to burn opponents with their proficient scoring. KU’s offensive rating — points scored per 100 possessions — currently sits at 118.0, the 10th-best number in the nation.

Season W-L Pace (rank) ORtg (rank) Leading scorer (PPG)
2009-10 33-3 69.4 (77th) 116.8 (2nd) Sherron Collins (15.5)
2010-11 35-3 69.7 (50th) 116 (7th) Marcus Morris (17.2)
2011-12 32-7 67.3 (118th) 108.8 (42nd) Thomas Robinson (17.7)
2012-13 31-6 67.8 (97th) 109.1 (34th) Ben McLemore (15.9)
2013-14 25-10 68.6 (85th) 114.3 (22nd) Andrew Wiggins (17.1)
2014-15 27-9 66.7 (96th) 106.3 (92nd) Perry Ellis (13.8)
2015-16 33-5 69.8 (144th) 115 (14th) Perry Ellis (16.9)
2016-17 17-1 72.2 (97th) 118 (10th) Frank Mason III (20.3)

At times, KU even pushes the ball successfully after an opponent gets a basket, putting its perimeter play-makers in position to score early in the shot clock — bringing on more possessions — as often as possible. Self said he wouldn’t have necessarily encouraged that with previous teams.

“I think playing faster is definitely more of an emphasis,” he said of this season. “No question. I think I'm giving my guys a little bit more freedom to shoot it early, which I think sometimes is good and sometimes it's not good. But the good thing is they're playing with a freer mind.”

In the past, Self would’ve been more likely to discourage his teams from quick shots, instead insisting they swing the ball and run half-court sets regularly. As an example, the coach said when he has a talented big such as Joel Embiid, he wants that man getting touches in the post.

“You know, if we had Joel, those (quick looks) would be bad shots. If you don't have Joel, those are maybe OK shots,” Self said. “So I think our personnels dictate a little bit that we're trying to score earlier.”

Although the coach said he doesn’t ask players to run a secondary break out of transition, quicker shots mean more frequent occasions to have Jackson, Landen Lucas, Carlton Bragg or anyone in position, really, to attack the offensive glass, as well. The Jayhawks average 14.7 second-chance points a game and, per sports-reference.com, gather 35.7% of available offensive boards (32nd, nationally).

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) looks to push the ball up the court during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) looks to push the ball up the court during the second half, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

This Kansas team is going to play fast, no matter which combination of five players is on the floor. But doing so when Bragg comes in as the big should be a mandate, too, in order to get the most out of the 6-foot-10 forward’s minutes off the bench. The sophomore, coming off a 10-point outing at Iowa State, identified running the floor in transition as the area where he can be the biggest problem for bigs who are guarding him.

“Just me beating my man up the court,” Bragg said of perhaps his biggest offensive strength.

There’s no guarantee KU will be able to finish the season maintaining its current pace. With 12 more Big 12 contests and the postseason ahead, odds are opponents will try to slow games down as a way to limit the Jayhawks’ effectiveness.

Then again, this group is so swift and Mason so hellbent on winning, there might not be any reliable way to slow KU down.

According to Bragg, the Jayhawks haven’t reached their potential in a number of areas — including offensively.

“I think we can play a lot faster than what we’re playing now,” he said.

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Bill Self disappointed with Kansas bigs in victory over Long Beach State

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) fights for position inside during the first half, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas center Udoka Azubuike (35) fights for position inside during the first half, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

The limited second-half contributions of Kansas post players Tuesday night against Long Beach State weren’t enough to restore head coach Bill Self’s trust in his team’s bigs.

After all, the Jayhawks already had put the 49ers away by halftime, long before starting center Udoka Azubuike or sophomore power forward Carlton Bragg put the basketball through the hoop in a 91-61 rout.

For years, Self’s teams have relied upon a low-post scoring threat to facilitate the offense — from Wayne Simien, to Thomas Robinson, to Joel Embiid. Seven games into this season, though, the coach doesn’t think that traditional approach will work for his Jayhawks (6-1).

“We scored 48 points the first half and our big guys combined for one,” Self marveled after the victory, referencing Udoka Azubuike’s single made foul shot during the first 20 minutes. “And we had to bank in that one from the free-throw line to get one. So obviously you’re not gonna win consistently against good teams relyin' on makin’ three-point shots all the time, because there’s gonna be times where you don’t make ’em.”

Self expected much more out of his big men against Long Beach State, but utilized a four-guard approach often on a night KU shot 14-for-26 from three-point range and frontcourt players accounted for just 18 of the team’s 91 points.

The coach conceded Long Beach State (1-8) played a “kind of funky” matchup zone that the Jayhawks didn’t prepare much for and that kept the offense out of rhythm. Self also said Landen Lucas (oblique strain) missing the game hampered the team’s inside play, as did Bragg picking up two fouls in the first half, when the sophomore got on the floor for all of one minute.

But when Self looked at the box score and saw the following numbers from his big men, it just translated into disappointment.

- Azubuike: 3-for-6 FGs, 2-for-6 FTs, 8 points, 7 rebounds, 0 blocks

- Bragg: 3-for-7 FGs, 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers

- Dwight Coleby: 1-for-1 FGs, 2 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block

Considering Azubuike had dunked his way to 17 points four days earlier against UNC Asheville, Self demanded more from the freshman 7-footer, calling him “no factor” against LBSU.

The coach proceeded to present his wish list for the Kansas bigs moving forward.

“At least a big can block a shot. We get no blocked shots tonight. I think the bigs can rebound better and I think that we can score with angles better, and certainly we can shoot our free throws better,” Self said. “But we’re not gonna be a team that scores 20 points out of the post this year. I don’t think that’s gonna be the case.”

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) and Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) battle for a rebound with Long Beach State forward Roschon Prince (23) during the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) and Kansas guard Josh Jackson (11) battle for a rebound with Long Beach State forward Roschon Prince (23) during the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse. by Nick Krug

KU veteran Devonté Graham understands his coach’s frustrations. But the junior guard said this Self team, even when it has four guards on the floor, won’t completely abandon its interior players as an offensive option.

“We still got that same mentality, though. Coach always tellin' us to play inside-out,” Graham said. “But I just think tonight we shot the ball real well, so we was just trying to be aggressive — kept attacking, kept shooting and making shots.”

Plus, Graham pointed out, LBSU set up its defense to pack in and try to take away points in the paint (though KU still scored 36 of those), almost inviting Kansas to shoot 3-pointers instead.

Obviously KU won’t see the same kind of defense every night if its guards keep burying open looks from downtown. And then the burden to score will increase for the team’s bigs. What’s more, Graham doesn’t think the Kansas post players will let their woes persist, even after a disappointing night.

“They’re doin’ real well with it,” Graham said. “They’ve been goin’ hard at each other in practice. So they’re gettin' better. They havin' that little slump, but I think definitely Carlton and Landen and ’Dok are doin’ a great job of gettin' through it.”

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Confident Carlton Bragg a potential X-factor for Kansas

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) and guard Devonte' Graham (4) box out Austin Peay guard Khalil Davis (11) during the first half of a first-round NCAA Tournament game, Thursday, March 17, 2016 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) and guard Devonte' Graham (4) box out Austin Peay guard Khalil Davis (11) during the first half of a first-round NCAA Tournament game, Thursday, March 17, 2016 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa. by Nick Krug

Freshman forward Carlton Bragg Jr. knows he isn’t suddenly going to become a focal point of the Kansas offense in the postseason. The long, lean Cleveland native with a silky jumper, after all, shares front-court minutes with veterans Perry Ellis, Landen Lucas and Jamari Traylor in coach Bill Self’s shortened-for-March rotation.

Still, even in limited bursts, the 6-foot-9 Bragg feels more capable now than ever before to contribute, as the Jayhawks remain in the hunt for the Final Four.

The young big man’s burgeoning assuredness made its first public appearance in Kansas City, Mo., at the Big 12 Tournament. Bragg, who had one double-digits scoring outing in his first 31 games in a KU uniform, put up 12 points against Kansas State in the quarterfinals, and 10 the next night versus Baylor in the semifinals — 22 total points in 21 combined minutes, off the bench.

The stage gets bigger and the pressure more intense every time Kansas (32-4) wins. But Bragg’s performances in his first conference tournament indicate the first-year forward is capable of delivering from here on out, even in a South regional semifinal Thursday against Maryland (27-8).

Bragg admitted he might not have been able to so readily contribute against high-level competition earlier in the season.

“I’m more confident now. I got more comfortable with the system, and coach puts more trust in me,” Bragg said.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) dives for a loose ball in the Jayhawks win against the Austin Peay Governors Thursday, March 17, 2016 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, IA.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) dives for a loose ball in the Jayhawks win against the Austin Peay Governors Thursday, March 17, 2016 at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, IA. by Mike Yoder

In the first two NCAA Tournament games of his career, Bragg only saw limited action off the bench — 9 minutes against Austin Peay, and 4 minutes against Connecticut — as Kansas advanced to the Sweet 16. But he took an active approach and showed he could make an impact on the offensive glass, with 3 rebounds of KU misses in his 13 total minutes in Des Moines. Bragg shot 2-for-3 in the first round (4 points) and 1-for-2 in the second (2 points).

Between put-backs, working on the baseline, jumpers from the elbows and even an occasional 3-pointer, Bragg’s offensive game has slowly grown throughout his freshman season, as he’s added wrinkles along the way. At the Big 12 Tournament, he even went by a defender after catching a pass at the free-throw line, and took the ball in for a layup.

KU sophomore point guard Devonté Graham and the rest of the Jayhawks couldn’t be happier to see Bragg (4.0 points, 2.4 rebounds in 8.9 minutes a game this season) make so many improvements.

“This is definitely the time for him to start doing stuff like that, because we’re gonna need a spark off the bench,” Graham said. “You know, one game maybe guys get in foul trouble or somebody’s not playing well. We’re gonna need that spark off the bench where he can come in. But he’s gotta stay out of foul trouble,” Graham added, with a chuckle.

Indeed, for all the enthusiasm and potential Bragg shows, fouls have been an issue lately. He fouled out after scoring his career high against K-State, and then got whistled for 4 fouls in both the Big 12 semis and championship game. Bragg had 3 more fouls against Austin Peay, then managed to avoid a penalty in 4 minutes against UConn.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) wags his tongue next to Kansas State guard Justin Edwards (14) after hitting a three from the corner during the second half, Thursday, March 10, 2016 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) wags his tongue next to Kansas State guard Justin Edwards (14) after hitting a three from the corner during the second half, Thursday, March 10, 2016 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo. by Nick Krug

Still, Bragg’s potential and growth make him an intriguing X-factor every time Kansas plays. Particularly with his ability to stretch the floor with his shooting touch. Against K-State to open the Big 12 Tournament, Bragg hit a pair of 3-pointers, making him 4-for-7 from long range this season.

“Lately, especially in practice, he’s been knockin' them down,” Graham said of Bragg’s 3-point attempts, “and his confidence has gone up by showing it. I feel like, as a freshman, and playing his position, he got spot minutes, so he’d be kind of hesitant on taking that shot — thinking about maybe coming out and stuff like that. But lately he’s been knocking it down in practice, so coach has been giving him confidence and we’ve been giving him confidence and telling him to shoot the ball.”

Bragg said, much like in games, he doesn’t try to take a lot of 3-point shots at practices. Sure, he’ll let it fly when he’s open, but normally he just swings the ball on a perimeter touch and goes to set a screen.

That’s the perfect approach for a role player, and Bragg’s ability to embrace that also leads to his role expanding. Coaches and teammates now trust the energetic freshman to make smart choices within the offense.

For all of KU’s strengths, consistent front-court scoring off the bench hasn’t been one. Bragg would like to do his part in changing that, if possible.

“I think we could be really good and we could do a lot of damage and go deep into the tournament,” Bragg said. “You know, just in the couple minutes I play, just giving energy off the bench, it can come a long way.”

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Failure to finish around rim has cost KU in losses

Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) heads to the bucket past Oklahoma State forward Chris Olivier (31) during the second half, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016 at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.

Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) heads to the bucket past Oklahoma State forward Chris Olivier (31) during the second half, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016 at Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla. by Nick Krug

Missing high-percentage shots will cost you in college basketball, and perhaps no team understands that more than Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks.

While KU (15-3 overall, 4-2 Big 12) hasn’t lost an overwhelming amount of games, unsuccessful shots inside have stood out as one of the bigger issues when the Jayhawks have come up short, as was the case Tuesday night at Oklahoma State.

The website hoop-math.com tracks, among other things, the success of college hoops players and teams on shot attempts around the rim. On the season, KU has taken 39.7% of its shots at the rim and converted 60.5% of the time.

However, in their 3 losses, the Jayhawks — ranked No. 3 in the nation (for now) in the AP Top 25 — have shot between 10% to 20% worse than their season average on point-blank attempts.

JAYHAWKS AROUND
THE RIM
IN LOSSES
KU
LAYUPS/DUNKS
MADE
KU
LAYUPS/DUNKS
MISSED
KU
FG% AT RIM
VS MICHIGAN ST 13 20 39.4%
AT WEST VIRGINIA 6 9 40%
AT OKLAHOMA ST. 11 11 50%
ALL OTHER GAMES
— COMBINED (WINS)
236
(15.7 a game)
133
(8.9 a game)
64%

Looking first at KU’s most recent loss (and second in three games), the Jayhawks made 11 of 22 shots at the rim in Stillwater. A lack of easy scores in the second half, along with some other issues, killed the Jayhawks’ chances of surviving Gallagher-Iba Arena. They shot 3-for-8 on layup attempts in the final 20 minutes, as OSU ran away.

Here are KU’s finishers and non-finishers vs. the Cowboys:

- Carlton Bragg Jr. 3 for 3

- Wayne Selden Jr. 2 for 3

- Landen Lucas 2 for 3

- Cheick Diallo 1 for 2

- Devonté Graham 1 for 2

- Frank Mason III 1 for 3

- Perry Ellis 1 for 4

- Svi Mykhailiuk 0 for 2

Kansas guard Frank Mason III, drives beneath West Virginia forward Elijah Macon (45) and is fouled by West Virginia guard Jaysean Paige (5), right, in the Jayhawks 74-63 loss to the Mountaineers at the WVU Colliseum in Morgantown, W.V. Tuesday.

Kansas guard Frank Mason III, drives beneath West Virginia forward Elijah Macon (45) and is fouled by West Virginia guard Jaysean Paige (5), right, in the Jayhawks 74-63 loss to the Mountaineers at the WVU Colliseum in Morgantown, W.V. Tuesday. by Mike Yoder

At West Virginia a week earlier, Kansas had far less success in both getting inside to take shots and making layups. The Jayhawks, who turned the ball over 22 times, shot 6-for-15 at the rim against the Mountaineers:

- Ellis 5 for 7

- Mason 1 for 4

- Bragg 0 for 1

- Mykhailiuk 0 for 1

- Graham 0 for 2

Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) tries to put up a shot with seconds remaining over Michigan State forward Matt Costello  and guard Denzel Valentine (45) during the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 at United Center in Chicago.

Kansas guard Wayne Selden Jr. (1) tries to put up a shot with seconds remaining over Michigan State forward Matt Costello and guard Denzel Valentine (45) during the second half, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015 at United Center in Chicago. by Nick Krug

The Jayhawks’ finishing issues first plagued them back in November, when they lost to Michigan State, in Chicago. Kansas made 13 layups/dunks in that one, but missed a whopping 20 shots around the rim.

The Spartans are the best rim-protection team Kansas has faced this season. Sparty’s opponents have only made 48.9% of their tries at the rim.

To jog your memory, here’s how the Jayhawks fared inside in that one:

- Ellis 6 of 11

- Mason 4 of 9

- Mykhailiuk 1 of 1

- Traylor 1 of 1

- Lucas 1 of 4

- Graham 0 of 3

- Selden 0 of 4

At this point, it shouldn’t really surprise you to learn that KU also struggled to finish shots inside at San Diego State: 8 of 24 in a 70-57 win. Generally, it’s more difficult for Kansas to get foul calls and finish inside away from Allen Fieldhouse.

Given all those missed bunnies in the past two losses — both on the road — does that kill momentum and make it that much harder to win on another team’s home court?

“Yeah, I think so,” Self said. “We missed some against Oklahoma State. That's not the reason why we lost, but we did miss some.”

Of course, in most cases, a laundry list of issues contribute to the kind of double-digit defeats Kansas has suffered the past couple of weeks.

For example, Self pointed out KU shot “horribly” at the free-throw line at both WVU (13 of 21) and OSU (13 of 25).

“It’s deflating when you're behind six or eight points and you go to the line and come up empty,” Self said of the Jayhawks’ inability to cut into the Cowboys’ lead Tuesday night.

When looking at KU’s losses, the Jayhawks’ defense around the rim shouldn’t be ignored, either. Whether Kansas got beat off the dribble, played poor help defense or failed to secure a defensive rebound, the Cowboys, Mountaineers and Spartans all had their chances for easy baskets inside.

Oklahoma State scored on 55% of its shots at the rim — a tad below its 56.4% mark for the season. West Virginia converted on 56.5% of its attempts inside — below its 62.5% success rate. MSU only converted on 53.3% vs. Kansas in the early-season matchup, but has finished much better most of the year (62.9%).

KU DEFENSE
AROUND THE RIM
IN LOSSES
OPPONENT
LAYUPS/DUNKS
MADE
OPPONENT
LAYUPS/DUNKS
MISSED
OPPONENT
FG% AT RIM
MICHIGAN ST 8 7 53.3%
WEST VIRGINIA 13 10 56.5%
OKLAHOMA ST. 11 9 55%

In each of its 3 losses, Kansas got out-played inside, with its opponents doing a better job of finishing at the rim — even though OSU made the same amount of point-blank shots as KU, the Cowboys didn’t blow as many.

A lot of factors play into missed shots inside. Sometimes those attempts can be more difficult than anywhere else on the floor. If interior defenders are physical, have solid footwork, get their long arms in the sight line of a potential scorer and get another defender sliding over to throw an offensive player off, the degree of difficulty grows. An agitated potential scorer might rush his shot or try to do too much on his way to the rim.

At the other extreme, some players don’t get nearly as much attention and have easier paths to the rim.

Here are the shots at the rim stats for each of the Jayhawks, from most layups/dunks attempted to least:

- Perry Ellis: 58 of 103 (56.3%)

- Frank Mason III: 35 of 78 (44.9%)

- Wayne Selden Jr. 35 of 53 (66%)

- Devonté Graham: 21 of 41 (51.2%)

- Landen Lucas: 26 of 39 (66.7%)

- Carlton Bragg Jr.: 27 of 36 (75%)

- Hunter Mickelson: 15 of 22 (68.2%)

- Svi Mykhailiuk: 14 of 21 (66.7%)

- Cheick Diallo: 13 of 18 (72.2%)

- Jamari Traylor: 12 of 17 (70.6%)

- Brannen Greene: 5 of 7 (71.4%)

- Lagerald Vick: 4 of 4 (100%)

- Clay Young: 1 of 1 (100%)

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) pulls up for a bucket over Vanderbilt guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (5) during the second half, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 at Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) pulls up for a bucket over Vanderbilt guard Matthew Fisher-Davis (5) during the second half, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2015 at Lahaina Civic Center in Lahaina, Hawaii. by Nick Krug

Selden and Bragg stand out as KU’s best finishers on the season. Selden’s finishing percentage is the highest among Kansas starters, and nearly 10% better than Ellis’ 56.3%. Bragg, at 75%, has the best mark of anyone in the rotation, and he’s only averaged 11.2 minutes a game so far.

The deeper into the season Bragg gets, the less anxious he looks when catching the ball inside. The 6-foot-9 freshman might be KU’s answer to more efficient paint scoring in the months ahead, especially if he’s on the floor with Ellis, who will continue to draw the attention of opposing defenses.

The importance of finishing isn’t lost on Self — whether that be inside, at the foul line or on open 3-pointers out of an offensive set.

“And the team that makes the shots, you know, people talk about that: Which team has the advantage in the NCAA Tournament? The team that makes shots. That's kind of how it works. The team that gets hot and makes shots,” the coach said.

“We've got to get better at that,” Self added, noting better ball movement would help facilitate that, too.

Reply 11 comments from Barry Weiss Colby Hebert John Geissal Robert  Brock Joe Ross Cassadys Adam Gerval Ashwingrao

So many bigs: KU’s front court could be crowded this season

Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) and forward Perry Ellis (34) smother a shot by Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews (0) during the first half on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014 at the HP Field House in Kissimmee, Florida.

Kansas forward Landen Lucas (33) and forward Perry Ellis (34) smother a shot by Rhode Island guard E.C. Matthews (0) during the first half on Thursday, Nov. 27, 2014 at the HP Field House in Kissimmee, Florida. by Nick Krug

When Kansas University junior forward Landen Lucas contemplates the quantity and quality of big men in KU’s basketball program right now, he almost can’t believe it.

The Jayhawks rarely lack in the depth department down low. Now entering his fourth season in Lawrence, Lucas (who red-shirted his first year) has played alongside or practiced with interior contributors such as Tarik Black, Joel Embiid, Kevin Young and Jeff Withey in the past. Still, the 6-foot-10 Lucas said the 2015-16 KU roster is more crowded in the front court than any he has seen.

“It’s weird to say that,” Lucas admitted earlier this summer, “because I feel like the last couple years we’ve had that kind of depth. But this year there will be an insane amount of people who have either started here, started at other schools — Hunter (Mickelson) started at Arkansas — mixed in with (high school) All-Americans.”

Indeed, KU seniors Perry Ellis (71 career starts), Jamari Traylor (19 starts) and Mickelson (25 starts in two seasons at Arkansas), like Lucas (14 starts), know what it’s like to be one of the first five on the court. Even 6-9 junior Dwight Coleby, who will sit out this season after transferring from Ole Miss, has seven career starts.

Our Savior New American's Cheick Diallo #13 dunks against Linden during a high school basketball game on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, in Kean, NJ. Our Savior won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Our Savior New American's Cheick Diallo #13 dunks against Linden during a high school basketball game on Friday, Feb. 13, 2015, in Kean, NJ. Our Savior won the game. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

Plus, Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff brought in highly touted freshman big men Cheick Diallo (Rivals.com’s No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2015) and Carlton Bragg (ranked No. 21 by Rivals).

If the NCAA Eligibility Center clears Diallo to play, upon completing its review of his academic records from Our Savior New American High, in Centereach, New York, the Jayhawks will have six players available to use at power forward and center.

Lucas said just four big men in a rotation allows for aggressive play in the paint. He thinks the collective assertiveness of the front court should only improve with more options.

“Hopefully it will get people to go out there and play hard,” Lucas said. “If you go out there and you don’t, there’s somebody who’s ready to come in and do that.”

Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) puts up a shot in Team USA's 78-68 semifinal victory against Russia on Sunday, July 12, 2015, at the World University Games in South Korea.

Kansas forward Perry Ellis (34) puts up a shot in Team USA's 78-68 semifinal victory against Russia on Sunday, July 12, 2015, at the World University Games in South Korea. by Mike Yoder

Each available big figures to bring something a little different to the floor.

The 6-foot-8 Ellis can score in a variety of ways.

Also 6-8, Traylor is quicker than most big men and has shown the ability to use that to his advantage.

Thus far a backup at KU, 6-10 Mickelson looked like a steady rim protector, as well as an effective scorer and passer as the Jayhawks won gold medals at the World University Games this summer.

And Lucas might be the best defensive rebounder among the veterans.

Without Bragg and Diallo making an immediate impact, though, the Jayhawks will only have a comparable version of last season’s front court. If the two rookies prove game-ready, KU could drive opposing teams mad inside.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg (15) drives to the basket for two of his 9 points in a Team USA 96-57 win over Switzerland Thursday, July 9, at the World University Games in South Korea.

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg (15) drives to the basket for two of his 9 points in a Team USA 96-57 win over Switzerland Thursday, July 9, at the World University Games in South Korea. by Mike Yoder

While playing in South Korea this summer, the 6-9 Bragg showed he can run the floor, play with toughness and knock down open jumpers.

Diallo, meanwhile, might be the exact kind of player KU lacked this past season. The 6-9 big man is expected to play with manic energy on the defensive and offensive glass, protect the rim and compliment Ellis’s scoring inside.

Mickelson said transitioning from the high school ranks to high-major college basketball is different for every player, and although getting acclimated can be difficult, Bragg and Diallo shouldn’t have too much trouble. Freshmen, Mickelson added, usually can pick up drills and plays quickly enough, but KU’s veterans will be sure to remind them about other aspects of the game, such as body language or how to approach different situations.

Kansas center Hunter Mickelson (42) makes a hustle play on a loose ball in a Team USA 96-57 win over Switzerland Thursday, July 9, at the World University Games in South Korea.

Kansas center Hunter Mickelson (42) makes a hustle play on a loose ball in a Team USA 96-57 win over Switzerland Thursday, July 9, at the World University Games in South Korea. by Mike Yoder

“There’s just little tweaks and stuff like that that you can point out to help them,” Mickelson said.

In June, before playing in the World University Games, when asked what his weaknesses were, Bragg replied “everything.” The humble freshman’s point: he wanted to improve as much as possible every day. Bragg said KU’s veterans help him stay positive and let him know what to expect.

“They’re getting me ready, mentally,” the young big from Cleveland said. “Going through what they went through their freshmen, sophomore years, how coach was getting on you.”

Traylor already seems convinced Bragg will fit right in at KU, noting Self has said as much in complimenting Bragg’s feel for the game.

“But as far as natural stuff and natural athletic ability and instinct,” Traylor added, “he’s gonna be great for us.”

Kansas forward Jamari Traylor (31) delivers a tomahawk dunk against Team Canada forward Chris McLaughlin (12) during the third quarter of Friday's World University Games exhibition at Sprint Center.

Kansas forward Jamari Traylor (31) delivers a tomahawk dunk against Team Canada forward Chris McLaughlin (12) during the third quarter of Friday's World University Games exhibition at Sprint Center. by Nick Krug

Because KU only has two newcomers inside, Traylor said it will be easy for the veteran Jayhawks to take Bragg and Diallo under their wings. It won’t be like the past couple seasons, when KU had first- and second-year players all over the floor — inside and out.

“We’re pretty much an old team now, so things are pretty much going quick,” Traylor said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.

Reply 3 comments from Rodney Crain John Randall Jim Stauffer