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.
When the Kansas basketball program announced last week it was adding Thursday’s nonconference game against UTEP to the schedule to bridge the gap between a much anticipated rematch with Baylor and next week’s Big 12 tournament, the news might as well have come attached with a Star Wars GIF of Admiral Ackbar warning, “It’s a trap!”
The Jayhawks crashed beaks first into it, though, coming off their best win of the year and seemingly approaching the regular season finale at Allen Fieldhouse as an afterthought of a pitstop on the way to the postseason.
The ultimate trap game nearly did them in, too. The Jayhawks were great five days earlier against previously unbeaten Baylor, one of the best teams in America. But a contrasting performance for much of the night against unheralded UTEP meant KU made its March debut in unspectacular fashion, escaping with a 67-62 win after trailing by as many as 15.
It was human nature for the Jayhawks to overlook a Conference USA opponent that came to Lawrence just two games above .500 on the season and 8-8 in its league. However, their inconsistencies throughout this albeit strange year should’ve had the Jayhawks prepared to play with an edge. Eventually they did. It just took too long for them to get there.
“It definitely started out as a trap game, just not having the right mentality,” KU junior forward David McCormack said afterward, adding the Jayhawks needed to be more aggressive early in the contest, when UTEP was in control. “But we were smart enough to realize that and flip the switch and make sure not to have the result of a trap game. We still walked out of here with a win and that was the main point.”
Ochai Agbaji (19 points, six rebounds, two steals) often made the types of plays that indicated he wanted to finish the regular season with a win. Similar instances of energy from other Jayhawks were much harder to find during the first 30 minutes of the game, though, before they collectively generated some momentum by making defensive stops and cutting UTEP’s margin to single digits.
McCormack, who scored 16 of his 18 points after halftime, became the go-to post scorer down the stretch that he should’ve been in the first half, keying KU’s rally as all the Jayhawks finally started playing with some purpose and fire.
“The first half,” KU coach Bill Self said during his postgame video press conference, “I didn’t think our energy was very good. I don’t think we respected them like we probably should’ve, even (though) after watching tape you could see how athletic they were.”
Self thinks UTEP’s two best players, Souley Boum (16 points) and Bryson Williams (23 points and 13 rebounds), are good enough to play for any team in the Big 12. There will be similar under the radar players awaiting KU in the weeks ahead.
If the Jayhawks are fortunate enough to totally regroup from the UTEP scare, impress at the Big 12 tournament and land a No. 3 or No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament, approaching a March Madness game in similar fashion, like winning is a given and operating on autopilot will get it done, they’ll make an immediate first-round exit.
There will be much more tension in that first-round game for KU in Indiana, too, regardless of the Jayhawks’ seed. Every player and coach in the field would love to say he was involved with knocking out Kansas, and any team the Jayhawks run into in the tourney will be much more capable than UTEP.
“It’s a good lesson to learn that we are so average — at best — when we don’t play a certain way,” Self said. “And when we play a certain way we can get pretty good. But our energy level defensively and rebounding the ball was very poor the first half and certainly very good there late.”
Perhaps the odd regular season finale, which at least prevented the Jayhawks from getting rusty, also will end up helping them in another way, serving as a wakeup call that saves them an embarrassing exit from Indy when the whole country — not just diehards with an ESPN+ subscription — will be watching.
KU isn’t good enough this year to rely on flipping a switch with the season on the line. Figuring that out now might keep the Jayhawks from falling into a more perilous trap when the real March Madness arrives.
In the business of college basketball, whether your team has been flexing all season or took a detour on the struggle bus at some point, it better be trending upward when March rolls around, because what transpires in the postseason is what everyone will remember anyway.
That’s why there is more intrigue surrounding Kansas now than at any point during this strange 2020-21 season. The Jayhawks are coming off as good a February as almost any team in the country (especially considering how poorly their January went).
“This team, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’ve kind of been up and down this year,” KU coach Bill Self joked while addressing the Allen Fieldhouse crowd after his team’s chef’s kiss of a win over previously undefeated Baylor. “I think we’re just now finding our stride. I think we’re just scratching the surface of what we can become.”
The hope inside the KU locker room is that the Jayhawks can launch into the final stretch of the calendar — and the NCAA Tournament, when the first round begins on March 19 — still flying high on the momentum of a 7-2 February and an eye-catching win over Baylor, arguably the best win on any team’s résumé at this juncture.
Looking around at the national landscape, the Jayhawks have to feel better about their current level of play than many teams. Among the consensus top teams in the country, only No. 1 Gonzaga (7-0), the overwhelming favorite to win it all, and Michigan (5-0) got through February unscathed.
To get a better sense of how KU’s past month stacks up with other programs, have a look at how each team ranked in the top 20 at KenPom.com entering March fared (see full list below).
The Jayhawks are one of a handful of under the radar teams that appear to be surging right on time. In February, Loyola Chicago went 7-1, West Virginia went 6-1 (and easily beat KU on Feb. 6), and both Arkansas and San Diego State posted a perfect 6-0 mark for the month.
To be fair, the Jayhawks can’t yet be in the same discussion as Gonzaga, Baylor, Michigan, Iowa and other Final Four contenders. Their inconsistent season makes it impossible to blindly overlook the issues that led to their stock plummeting in January, when they went 3-5. For observers, those seeds of doubt can not be forgotten.
For the players, though, KU’s resurgence in the win column is just what they needed to elevate their confidence and complement their vastly improved team defense.
“We’re not done,” senior guard Marcus Garrett said during his Senior Night speech, after the Jayhawks beat Baylor, 71-58. “We’re not done at all. We want a long season here.”
The Jayhawks’ successful reboot during February sure makes an extended stay in Indiana later this month seem a lot more realistic.
How KenPom’s top 20 teams fared in February
No. 1 Gonzaga — 7-0
Best wins: at BYU, at Pacific, at San Francisco, Saint Mary’s
No. 2 Michigan — 5-0
Best wins: at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, at Indiana, Rutgers, Iowa
No. 3 Baylor — 2-1
Best win: at Texas
Loss: at Kansas
No. 4 Houston — 5-2
Best win: at South Florida
Losses: at East Carolina, at Wichita State
No. 5 Iowa — 6-3
Best wins: at Michigan State, at Wisconsin, at Ohio State, Michigan State, Rutgers, Penn State
Losses: Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan
No. 6 Illinois — 7-1
Best wins: at Indiana (OT), at Nebraska (OT), at Minnesota, at Wisconsin
Loss: Michigan State
No. 7 Ohio State — 4-3
Best wins: at Iowa, at Maryland, at Penn State, Indiana
Losses: Michigan, at Michigan State, Iowa
No. 8 Alabama — 5-2
Best wins: at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, LSU
Losses: at Missouri, at Arkansas
No. 9 Florida State — 4-1
Best wins: Virginia, at Pittsburgh
Loss: at North Carolina
No. 10 Villanova — 4-3
Best wins: Marquette, Connecticut, St. John’s
Losses: at St. John’s, at Creighton, at Butler
No. 11 Loyola Chicago — 7-1
Best wins: at Missouri State, Drake
Loss: at Drake (OT)
No. 12 Wisconsin — 3-4
Best wins: at Nebraska, at Northwestern, Penn State
Losses: at Illinois, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois
No. 13 Virginia — 4-3
Best wins: at North Carolina State, at Georgia Tech, North Carolina
Losses: at Florida State, at Duke, North Carolina State
No. 14 Purdue — 4-2
Best wins: at Nebraska, at Penn State, Northwestern, Michigan State
Losses: at Maryland, at Minnesota
No. 15 Creighton — 4-2
Best wins: at Marquette, at Georgetown, Villanova
Losses: Georgetown, at Xavier
No. 16 Colorado — 6-2
Best wins: at Stanford, at Oregon State, Arizona, USC, UCLA
Losses: at Cal, at Oregon
No. 17 West Virginia — 6-1
Best wins: at Texas Tech, at Texas, at TCU, Kansas
Loss: Oklahoma (2OT)
No. 18 Arkansas — 6-0
Best wins: at Kentucky, at Missouri (OT), Mississippi State, Florida, Alabama, LSU
No. 19 Kansas — 7-2
Best wins: Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Baylor
Losses: at West Virginia, at Texas (OT)
No. 20 San Diego State — 6-0
Best wins: Boise State (OT), Boise State
It took a lot of heroes in some fire red throwback Kansas uniforms for the No. 17 Jayhawks to knock off No. 2 Baylor inside Allen Fieldhouse Saturday night. So of course KU’s signature 71-58 victory needed a blockbuster level plot twist.
On a night when KU big man David McCormack annihilated the Bears inside, the Jayhawks had to go without him during a crucial stretch late in the second half, when McCormack got whistled for his fourth foul.
Enter the Jayhawks’ unexpected star: old reliable fifth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot.
KU’s five-point lead didn’t disappear when Lightfoot checked in. It doubled in the three-plus minutes that followed.
Who saw that coming? Not anyone who had witnessed Lightfoot struggle recently when it came time for him to defend the paint in McCormack’s absence.
Lightfoot is without a doubt a fan and team favorite, but he only logged five minutes in each of KU’s previous two games against ranked Big 12 teams, Texas Tech and Texas. Opponents of late had found it much easier to get to the hoop for easy baskets when Lightfoot was manning the five position instead of McCormack. A little of that was even on display in the first half against previously unbeaten Baylor.
He wasn’t about to let that happen with a victory of this magnitude on the line, though. The first thing Lightfoot did after checking in late in the prime time battle was go at one of the best post defenders in the country, Baylor’s Mark Vital. Two dribbles from the left block into the paint with Vital on his back and Lightfoot scored right over him with a jump hook like he was the Jayhawks’ go-to big man, not a blue collar, often black-eyed backup.
As Lightfoot ran back to play defense, McCormack did the celebrating for him, jumping out of his seat on the bench to flex and salute the veteran.
The 6-foot-8 big from Gilbert, Ariz., wasn’t done there, either. Lightfoot put in a layup in transition off an Ochai Agbaji pass. And what would the Mitch Lightfoot experience be without his signature move, drawing a charge? His timing was perfect as usual when Davion Mitchell tried to attack him.
Lightfoot’s line won’t wow anyone: four points and four rebounds, and one block in 13 minutes off the bench. But the game easily could’ve taken a turn for the worse when he had to fill in for KU’s dominant big man.
That fact wasn’t lost on McCormack. “I was proud of Mitch,” McCormack said after KU’s best win of the season. “Plays hard, rebounds, defends. I mean, he does it all.”
McCormack was in the midst of a masterpiece, but Lightfoot more than stepped up to keep KU’s post play at a high level when the Jayhawks couldn’t afford any type of dropoff.
Fellow KU veteran Marcus Garrett said Lightfoot gave the Jayhawks “a lot” late in the second half, despite the backup big’s slow start.
“I was talking to him the whole game. I was telling him, Mitch we need (you),” Garrett shared. “Because I know what Mitch can do for this team. And that’s what he did down the stretch. And we needed it big time.”
Bill Self almost went another direction entirely in the second half, he revealed during his postgame video press conference.
“Mitch wasn’t very good the first half,” Self said of why he hesitated initially about sending the veteran in for more against Baylor in the second half.
“We were talking to ourselves, ‘Hey, let’s just play small.’ And we decided to go with him the second half,” Self said, “and that was obviously the right choice.”
Lightfoot’s defense improved when the coach gave him a second chance, and a sub not known for his offense even provided two huge baskets at a crucial juncture, making KU’s upset possible.
“I was happy for Mitch,” Self said. “He’s such a good kid and tries hard all the time.”
Effort and pride never have been an issue for Lightfoot. And the whole roster embodied that spirit for the first time this season against Baylor.
It was a vintage Self-coached KU team Saturday night, and right on time, too, with March and the postseason right ahead. You never know who might spark a marquee win. And on this night Lightfoot deserved as much credit as anyone for the Jayhawks.