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.
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.
David McCormack isn’t the only Kansas big man enjoying a January resurgence. Fifth-year senior Mitch Lightfoot is coming along in tow, just in fewer minutes, as McCormack’s backup.
With the Jayhawks’ young sixth man guard, Bryce Thompson, out of the mix recently due to an injury, Lightfoot’s minutes have become more consistent as head coach Bill Self has played larger lineups instead of mixing in more five guard combinations. In November and December, Lightfoot never played double digit minutes in consecutive games. His 15 minutes in a home win over Oklahoma on Saturday, though, made it three in a row where he gave KU 14 or more minutes off the bench.
The regular opportunities to contribute are allowing Lightfoot to make an impact. In the aftermath of a bad home loss to Texas on Jan. 2, both McCormack and Lightfoot bounced back with a big week at TCU and versus Oklahoma.
“I think Mitch has played equally well,” Self said after noting how McCormack has come along, “in the minutes that he’s had. And I just think that’s been our best lineup, to go that route.”
Lightfoot’s numbers rarely are eye-catching. The 6-foot-8 forward had four points, five rebounds and one block in 17 minutes at TCU. He followed it up with seven points and two blocks in 15 minutes against OU.
As Self said on Monday, ahead of the No. 6 Jayhawks’ trip to Oklahoma State, it’s been rare this season for KU’s bench players to sub in and produce at the level of a starter. But that’s what Lightfoot did against the Sooners. In the 14:56 that he was on the floor, KU outscored OU, 27-21. The Sooners edged KU, 38-36, when Lightfoot sat.
“Energy’s the biggest thing with Mitch,” senior guard Marcus Garrett said of Lightfoot’s contributions. “And Mitch just knows everything. He’s been here for awhile. He knows how we want to guard, he knows how we run our offense. He basically comes in and just does everything we kind of need.”
After Lightfoot’s minutes fluctuated throughout KU’s first nine games — he only played 10 or more minutes against Gonzaga, Washburn and Omaha — it will be interesting to monitor his involvement once Thompson returns. Having the entire rotation healthy and available could lead to more five guard lineups, depending on the opponent.
Will Lightfoot’s minutes fall off when there are games where it makes sense to deploy five perimeter players for stretches? Or will McCormack and Lightfoot split the traditional big man minutes more evenly in those games?
Lightfoot showed against OU especially he can comfortably set up on the perimeter offensively when KU wants to space the floor. He can screen and roll or slip a screen and read the defense to make himself available for an easy feed inside. Many times, his activity on offense forced the Sooners’ defense to help in the paint — Lightfoot simply playing hard and making OU react created angles for other passes and/or drives, resulting in a more fluid offense.
McCormack had a perfect way to describe Lightfoot’s outing: “Mitch was Mitch.”
You want some vivacity out of any reserve in the lineup, and Lightfoot brings that on both ends of the floor when he’s at his best. Even though he’s not a rim protector in the traditional sense, Lightfoot is KU’s best shot blocking help defender, which is why he leads the Jayhawks with an 11.6% block percentage, per sports-reference.com.
If there’s one area where he can be even better, it’s on the glass. Somewhat surprisingly, Lightfoot’s output against OU didn’t include a single rebound. It happened to be a problem for McCormack (one rebound), as well. Lightfoot in most of those situations, Self said, wasn’t guilty of poor effort. His energy typically goes into boxing out when an opponent’s shot goes up.
“I think a lot of times they’re more worried about blocking their man off,” Self said of Lightfoot and McCormack, “and keeping their man from getting the ball and allowing somebody else to get it, which in times is OK.”
KU didn’t get burned on that front versus OU, because the Sooners only sent one man to the offensive glass. Obviously not every team will take that approach, though. And that’s why Self would like to see an adjustment.
“So I think hitting and going and getting,” Self said of the proper approach following a box out, “and not relying on someone else to get it I think is something that we can improve on.”
Lightfoot’s not a player Self ever has to worry about in the effort and energy departments. And this uptick from the dependable veteran looks like a crucial development for the Jayhawks (10-2 overall, 4-1 Big 12).
With the Jayhawks only six games into their schedule, head coach Bill Self admits it’s sometimes hard for him to know from one matchup to another how he will deploy the players on this Kansas basketball roster.
No. 5 KU’s 73-72 home win over No. 8 Creighton on Tuesday at Allen Fieldhouse provided the latest example of Self’s flexibility. Not only did the Jayhawks’ crunch time lineup include backup freshman guard Bryce Thompson instead of veteran starter Ochai Agbaji, but a different combination featuring reserves earlier in the second half provided a crucial push in a tight game.
The Bluejays (3-1) were far too talented for the Jayhawks (5-1) to ever pull away from the visitors from the Big East, and KU’s largest cushion of the first half — just six points with less than four minutes to go — had completely disappeared a few minutes into the second half.
As Creighton went up three points with 14:38 left, Self didn’t go to a five-guard lineup like he had in recent games. Instead, he replaced David McCormack down low with Mitch Lightfoot, while also bringing in Thompson for Agbaji. The lineup of Marcus Garrett, Christian Braun, Thompson, Jalen Wilson and Lightfoot proceeded to turn a 48-45 deficit into a 58-50 lead — KU’s largest of the game — in a little more than three minutes.
Lightfoot, who had played five or fewer minutes in three of KU’s first five games, logged just 6:20 of court time against Creighton, and only scored two points to go with his three rebounds. But the energy the senior forward brought to the floor at that juncture couldn’t be ignored. Self said the 6-foot-8 fifth-year senior gave KU “some great minutes” in the second half.
Right off the bat offensively, a screen and roll Lightfoot ran with Garrett forced Creighton’s defense to collapse into the paint to prevent a Lightoot layup, leaving Thompson wide open for a 3-pointer. A couple trips down the court later, Lightfoot tipped out a rebound on the offensive glass, his first of two offensive boards that extended possessions. The veteran big got his two points at the foul line after slipping a screen quickly to get a feed from Thompson just a couple feet from the rim and drawing a foul.
Even when he wasn’t directly involved in actions that led to baskets, the offense just had a better flow and spacing to it, with Lightfoot as the big, playing with Wilson, Braun, Thompson and Garrett — a lineup that, surprisingly, was the best of any Self used, outscoring Creighton 13-4 in the 4:55 that it played.
Conversely, the lineup KU played most versus Creighton — Garrett, Agbaji, Bruan, Wilson and McCormack — got outscored 29-24 in 13:50 of playing time. Creighton bested that KU lineup, 13-6, in a stretch that covered the final 51 seconds of the first half and the first 5:22 of the second.
Self admitted after the narrow win it has seemed strange to him that some KU lineups look good against certain teams and then don’t against other opponents.
“I’m not settled in on anything,” Self said of his feeling out process for lineups from game to game.
In other KU wins it has been Wilson or freshman point guard Dajuan Harris — or both — who have keyed an important run with a non-starting five lineup. Just three days before the Creighton game, junior college transfer Tyon Grant-Foster pushed the Jayhawks past North Dakota State. But on this particular day Self found another lineup — one that included backup big Lightfoot, who is only averaging 6.2 minutes a game — to give KU some bounce before Creighton could build on an early second half lead.
Junior big man McCormack, who played a season-high 27 minutes in the win over Creighton, and was “really good early,” as Self put it, said the Jayhawks could keep finding different players to lead them for stretches in different situations.
“I think we have so many pieces that it could be anybody’s game any night,” McCormack said, “and I think that’s one of the hardest things about us as far as scouting, because anybody can have their game. And that’s the best part of it.”
Self’s flexibility with lineups came in handy in a matchup of top 10 teams, and he found some combinations that helped offset a scoreless outing for junior Agabji (0-for-6 shooting and three turnovers in 24 minutes).
“We had some guys off the bench play pretty well, even though it was kind of somewhat limited,” Self said. “To win the game without Och having an effective game I think does speak well for us. For the most part our guys competed their butts off the whole game. (Creighton is) good. They’re really good.”
Wise beyond his years, Mitch Lightfoot is ready to severely rein in his 3-point firing tendencies.
What’s that? You don’t recall the Kansas forward taking copious amounts of jumpers from beyond the arc?
Well, that’s because Lightfoot’s 3-point binge transpired behind closed doors, during KU practices throughout his redshirt season. Joining forces with walk-ons and end of the bench players on KU’s red team, Lightfoot let it fly from long range. Teammate Chris Teahan estimated the 6-foot-8 veteran big man attempted somewhere between 15 to 20 3-pointers a practice when there were no consequences.
But these days, as the No. 6 Jayhawks prepare for their Thanksgiving season opener versus No. 1 Gonzaga, Lightfoot is a fifth-year senior who, you know, wants to play. So when he subs in for David McCormack on the blue team, Lightfoot is inclined to carry out the type of decisions his head coach Bill Self wants to see.
How often does Lightfoot shoot 3-pointers during practices?
“Umm… wooh!” the senior began, wearing a grin.
“Coach Self would like me to roll to the basket more,” he said. “I’ve been working on that.”
During his first three seasons with the Jayhawks, Lightfoot scored 101 baskets and only 10 of them were 3-pointers. He’s a career 33.3% shooter from downtown (10-for-30) entering his year-off-delayed senior season.
In 97 career appearances for KU, he’s never attempted more than three 3-pointers in one game, and he only did that once, going 1-for-3 versus Texas Southern in November of 2017, when he was a sophomore. That came 11 days after the only time Lightfoot has made two 3-pointers in a game, when he went 2-for-2 against Tennessee State.
When Self and his staff decided to redshirt Lightfoot for the 2019-20 season, though, he took on a completely different basketball persona, jacking 3-pointers whenever he saw an opportunity.
“I think there’s a big difference from playing on the red team to playing on the blue team,” a chuckling Lightfoot explained. “On the red team you’ve got a little bit more freedom. And last year, yeah, I was definitely — I was giving us a good look, because we were playing against some big guys that could shoot. So I was definitely getting it up.”
Unfortunately for fans of small-ball modern basketball, though, it doesn’t sound like Lightfoot will be the stretch-5 off the bench that spaces the floor even more and unlocks some superior version of KU’s offense.
If Self, who saw Lightfoot take all those 3-pointers a year ago, wasn’t impressed enough to want his backup big firing away, it’s not going to happen. That’s not to say Lightfoot will be reduced to playing exclusively in the paint. It just seems all those practice reps from deep didn’t convince the right people that he should incorporate the long shot so much that it becomes a major part of his game.
“He probably put up close to 1,000 to 2,000 3’s last year with us,” Teahan estimated. “And I’m not saying I was any better, and I’m not saying anybody else on the red team was better, but he definitely put up a ton of 3’s. And those numbers have dropped dramatically, that’s for sure.”
Teahan guessed Lightfoot takes “maybe two or three” 3-pointers per practice now that he’s back in the rotation. Taking a stab at how well Lightfoot shot the ball last year, Teahan approximated the big man’s redshirt flirtation with the 3-ball resulted in Lightfoot converting somewhere in the mid- to high-30s, percentage wise, if not 40%.
“He would get hot some days and have some pretty good days,” Teahan shared, adding Lightfoot can shoot the 3 if needed, but the volume will take a hit this year because now he has to play within the flow of an offense.
On occasion, though, Lightfoot should get to relive his glory days as a pseudo 3-point specialist — at least briefly.
“I think me and (McCormack) definitely shoot our 3’s whenever we’re left open,” Lightfoot said. “That’s for sure.”
Salt Lake City — Thursday afternoon inside the Kansas locker room, shortly after the Jayhawks opened their path through the NCAA Tournament with a first-round victory over Northeastern, head coach Bill Self had a question for his players.
“Good job. Hey, guys. One down and how many to go?” Self asked.
A mixture of responses followed, with “five” being the overriding reply.
“One,” Self quickly corrected them, as seen in a video posted on KU’s social media accounts. “One down. One to go. Hey, hey. One down and one to go, OK? All right, good job.”
When it comes to March Madness, Self always prompts his teams to look at each stop along the way as its own, four-team, two-game tournament. If the Jayhawks win the first two-game tournament, they get to go somewhere else and try to win another.
Apparently at least a few players who grew up watching The Big Dance and came to KU with dreams of chasing a national championship got caught up in the moment, knowing six wins is what it takes to cut down the nets at the Final Four.
“That tells you the impact I’ve had on their lives, as far as them paying attention,” Self would joke after the fact.
So who was to blame? Who said five?
“I think I said five,” a smiling Dedric Lawson admitted Friday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, ahead of KU’s second-round matchup with Auburn. “I forgot it was a two-game tournament.”
And with that response, Lawson didn’t hesitate to use the conversation as an opportunity to mess with nearby teammate Charlie Moore, teasingly throwing him under the bus.
“It was really Charlie’s fault. Charlie, he play too much. He’s the one that made me say five,” a grinning Lawson continued. “But we all know it’s a two-game tournament, one game at a time and things like that, so we can’t get ahead of ourselves.
Why was Moore at fault? What did he do?
“He play too much, man,” Lawson replied. “I ain’t even gonna say what he did.”
Learning that Lawson had just placed the blame on him, Moore provided his version of the story.
“That was definitely Dedric. I wasn’t gonna say nothing. But Dedric said five. If you’re listening closely to the video you’ll hear Dedric say it,” the smiling Moore insisted.
With Moore and Lawson cracking themselves up with their accusations, Moore’s assertion continued.
“Everybody said one. Dedric yelled five,” Moore argued. “He over-yelled everybody, ’cause he thought he was right. But he really wasn’t.”
Why did Lawson say it was Moore then?
“I was next to him. I don’t know why he said that,” Moore retorted.
As the allegations flew back and forth, the reactions from David McCormack, sitting in the locker stall between Lawson and Moore, indicated he knew something.
Asked for some insight, McCormack provided his opinion.
“I mean, you can never tell with these two. Between them, Marcus (Garrett), all of them, they all like to joke around,” McCormack said. “Maybe Charlie might have tapped Dedric … I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. He probably told him the right answer was five and everybody else said one.”
What was McCormack’s response to Self’s question?
“I took the smart route and I didn’t say anything. I just whispered to myself,” the freshman big explained, “and said one after the fact. So right or wrong, I just didn’t get called out.”
Whomever was to blame, McCormack said Lawson was “by far” the loudest to give the incorrect answer. But he wasn’t sure if there were others on Team Five.
“I just know I was standing next to Dedric, so he definitely said five,” McCormack said.
Surely veteran Mitch Lightfoot didn’t fail Self’s postgame locker room test, right?
“I don’t know what I said, to be honest,” Lightfoot claimed. “I’m not gonna self-incriminate, either. The next time he asks, we’ll be locked in on one.”
Of course, in order to do that the Jayhawks will have to get past Auburn on Saturday night.
“We’ve got to lock in for our second game of this one,” Lightfoot said, “and hopefully get to the next one.”
You can’t knock any of KU’s players for having large scale goals this time of year. The vibe the Jayhawks gave off in their locker room was one of confidence. They believe in themselves and their ability to make a deep run.
The incorrect “five” response that popped to the front of some players’ minds allowed them to have some fun along the way, too. But they all understand the crux of Self’s one down, one to go message.
“You can’t win five games if you don’t win one game,” Lightfoot said. “Slight issue.”
Salt Lake City — On Thursday afternoon at Vivint Smart Home Arena, seven members of the Kansas basketball team’s rotation will experience the NCAA Tournament — and all the nerves and pressure and highs and lows that accompany it — for the first time.
It was two years ago, in Tulsa, Okla., that Mitch Lightfoot found out exactly what that entails.
“It was UC-Davis,” Lightfoot recalled on Wednesday afternoon inside the Jayhawks’ locker room, stretching his 6-foot-8 frame backward and looking up at the ceiling as he focused to access the portion of his memory bank where that information lives.
“My freshman year. I was guarding their best player. I remember it was Christian something? I think,” Lightfoot guessed, taking an unsuccessful stab at the exact name of his defensive assignment two years and 72 career games later.
Lightfoot was less cloudy on other details surrounding what proved to be some unsuccessful initial moments for him against Chima Moneke. (Don’t pretend like you remembered the name of UC-Davis’ best big from 2017, either.)
“And we won, obviously. And he got a dunk. And that’s all I remember, because I was really pissed off, because I gave up a dunk in the NCAA Tournament,” Lightfoot said of his introduction to college basketball’s grand March stage.
Back then, Lightfoot played sparingly as a reserve for a deep KU team seeded No.1 in the Midwest Region. Sure, his breakdown while hedging on a ball screen in his first minute of March Madness action led to a dunk. But it also came in the second half of a game that KU already led by 40.
That group of Jayhawks had senior and National Player of the Year Frank Mason III on which to lean. The following March, when Mason was a rookie in the NBA, KU’s less seasoned players still had All-American Devonte’ Graham to carry them.
Lightfoot came up as a role player on those KU teams that had dominant star senior guards. Now, as a junior and a backup, he’s the savvy veteran of the locker room. The wise, old man of the bunch who should have all the answers.
“It’s a little different going from feeling like you’re just the youngin’, soaking it all in, to being the guy that helps all the other guys out, getting used to the tournament, what it’s like to play in it, being around this environment,” said Lightfoot, who enters KU’s first-round encounter against Northeastern with seven games of NCAA Tournament experience and two starts.
With Udoka Azubuike sidelined and Lagerald Vick no longer being a part of the team, the role was somewhat thrust upon Lightfoot. But that hasn’t made it any less rewarding for him.
“You get to bide your time and now you get to impart a little bit of what you learned onto the other guys,” Lightfoot said.
While the backup big who averaged 13.4 minutes a game during Big 12 play is known most for his defense in the paint and the energy he provides with his blocked shots (32) and team-leading 14 charges drawn, Lightfoot is just as valuable off the court for this roster, with seven of its top eight scorers — Dedric Lawson, Devon Dotson, Ochai Agbaji, Quentin Grimes, David McCormack, Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson — about to play in their first NCAA Tournament game.
Lightfoot has done his best to mentally prepare them for what’s to come before the ball is tipped and there they are, to steal a line from the tournament’s theme song.
“I’ve tried to do it on my own initiative, just because that’s what I would’ve wanted in their position,” Lightfoot said. “You come to this level of basketball, this is what you want to play in — this is the stage you want to be on. Obviously, you want to win at this stage, so I was just giving them some tips and pointers on what we’ve done in the past and what has helped us to win at this level. I’m just excited to be able to get out there and play with these guys and see what we’re capable of doing.”
At some point during Thursday afternoon’s first-round matchup, some tournament newbie from No. 4 seed Kansas (25-9) inevitably will make a mistake, maybe even one that leads to a dunk, like Lightfoot did a couple years ago. And with No. 14 seed Northeastern (23-10) looking to pounce and win over a neutral crowd in such instances, the way KU’s players react when something goes awry could end up playing a large role in the outcome of this game.
In Lightfoot and sophomore guard Marcus Garrett, who played in all five of KU’s 2018 postseason games, the Jayhawks have a couple of players who can prepare their less experienced teammates. Lightfoot said there are ways to convey some know-how on what it feels like to make a mistake, as well as the need to find a proper response.
“I was talking to a couple of the younger guys. It’s amplified,” Lightfoot explained. “It’s like everything you’ve done times five. And you get a complete — I wouldn’t say it’s a different feeling — but it’s that feeling times five. There’s a lot of joy and there’s a lot of heartache in this tournament. You can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Just trying to keep everybody on the same page.”
Both Lightfoot and Garrett have helped the rest of the rotation get as ready as possible for the brand new and potentially stressful situation before the tournament has a chance to smack the four freshmen and three transfers over the head.
“They do a good job of coming to practice, having energy, talking, helping guys out,” Dedric Lawson said of Lightfoot and Garrett, adding he watched Lightfoot spend a portion of Wednesday helping McCormack out with details of the scouting report for Northeastern. “They definitely put their imprint upon the game.”
Of course, Lightfoot is always in his teammate’s ears about something that will end up helping them, either that very day or down the line.
“Mitch tells me before every game, ‘Go out there and do your thing.’ It goes along with you, your teammate having your back,” Lawson said. “I think (Lightfoot and Garrett) are definitely important. I’m looking for them to have their impact on this tournament just as much as me.”
Admittedly, Lightfoot called it “crazy” that he and Garrett were the only two active Jayhawks in the locker room with NCAA Tournament experience. But according to his veteran eyes, this relatively inexperienced KU team is “extremely locked in” and peaking at the right time.
The junior forward who grew up cheering for the Jayhawks from afar each postseason will continue doing all he can to educate his teammates on all things March. Part of Lightfoot’s message has echoed that of his coach, Bill Self, in terms of playing without any distractions.
Just as important, though, Lightfoot offered, will be playing loose.
“This is the most fun you’re ever going to have playing basketball. There’s nothing better than this,” Lightfoot said. “Your state championship, your state tournament in high school doesn’t match up with this. The AAU doesn’t match up with this. This is truly unique. And I think everyone’s excited to get out there and play in it. And I think they’re ready to have a good time.”
In spite of the Kansas basketball team’s undefeated home record and the necessity for a Jayhawks victory against Baylor, what with Selection Sunday coming up in just more than a week, this season’s Allen Fieldhouse finale figures to lack the buzz and fervor of recent regular season closers.
Many KU students will already be hundreds of miles away basking in all the diversions spring break has to offer. There is no beloved senior to celebrate. No nets to cut. Nor a shiny new Big 12 championship trophy to wheel out and add to the collection.
And the relative lack of interest, at least compared to the full-blown zeal that typically accompanies the last KU basketball home game on a given year’s schedule, has everything to do with the Jayhawks’ shortcomings this season.
Bill Self has coached more than enough Big 12 title-winning teams at KU to notice some characteristics that this particular team lacked, the types of limitations that paved the way for either Kansas State or Texas Tech — or both — to dethrone the 14-time reigning champions in 2019.
“I think there's some reasons,” Self began. “I think maturity is one. I think distractions is another and, you know, those are things that you don't really change.”
The disturbances Self referenced may have been too unpredictable for the Jayhawks to avoid feeling at least somewhat blindsided by them.
“Now, if it was distractions on judgment and things like that, then that's another thing — you can eliminate (those). These are distractions, whether it be health, whether it be a decision is made by a third party, whether it be obviously some personal things, those things are hard to navigate and deal with,” Self said. “I think those are probably reasons why, as much as anything.”
Of course, losing 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury, the NCAA ruling Silvio De Sousa ineligible and Lagerald Vick presumably leaving the team for good four months into the season all played a factor in KU coming up short of a 15th straight conference title. But the Jayhawks also possess on-court imperfections that have kept them from overcoming those aforementioned obstructions.
“And the other thing is, guys, our margin for error isn't what it used to be,” Self would add Thursday, during his weekly press conference. “I mean, going to win on the road is a huge win. Like going to Morgantown, up six (points) with two (minutes) left, that's what we’re going to look back on — or that’s what I’ll look back on.”
The road wrecked KU’s chances at living up to the program’s absurd conference-championship-every-season standards this year. The Jayhawks went 3-6 in the arenas occupied by other Big 12 programs this season, blowing a late lead at WVU, not putting up much of a fight in defeats at Iowa State, Texas and Oklahoma, losing late at K-State and showing no ability to match Texas Tech’s intensity or level of play in Lubbock, Texas.
As Self said of the nail-in-the-coffin defeat at OU earlier this week, the Jayhawks (22-8 overall, 11-6 Big 12) needed to play “great” to beat the Sooners that night. But winning on the road usually requires a gutty defensive effort.
“We couldn’t be great. We had to make them play poorly. That's what this team has not done,” Self said. “It's not so much how we play, it's how we make other teams play. That’s probably the reason why we didn't have a better opportunity to win the league this year, to be quite candid."
Defending the 3-point line proved to be an issue for KU in Big 12 road losses. Iowa State went 13 for 25, Texas 10 for 28, K-State 10 for 24, Tech 16 for 26 and Oklahoma 9 for 24.
Through 30 games, KU’s 34.3% 3-point field goal percentage defense ranks 177th in the nation. To make matters worse, per TeamRankings.com, KU is allowing opponents to attempt, on average, 25.6 3-pointers a game, which ranks 317th.
Junior Mitch Lightfoot, a part of two Big 12 title-winning teams during his first two years at KU, didn’t have to think long to point to a primary reason this season hasn’t been as successful.
“Like coach has always said, you’ve got to win on the road,” Lightfoot replied, when asked if there was a specific characteristic he saw KU lacking. “We haven’t done that too spectacularly with this team in particular. That is the reason that it happened (KU didn’t win the Big 12). We have to address that, because throughout the tournament, throughout the rest of all of our careers here, we’re going to have to win on the road. We’re going to have to win in opposing environments and we’ve got to figure that out.”
The clock is ticking on this KU basketball season, and its expiration date will come sooner than usual if the Jayhawks don’t find ways to demand defensive responses from themselves when facing an offense that’s clicking. Whether that’s denying shooters behind the 3-point arc or impeding driving and passing lanes on the perimeter, the Jayhawks will have to make their opponents more uncomfortable from here on out.
Otherwise they’ll be setting themselves up for the type of finish to a season that is viewed as intolerable among KU’s rabid fan base.
Grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 64-49 win over Kansas State on Big Monday at Allen Fieldhouse.
Considering that K-State has one of the better defenses in the nation, the Jayhawks were highly unlikely to blow out their rivals in this Sunflower Showdown.
KU shot 39.6% from the floor overall and only made 8 of 24 3-pointers.
But the ball security (see: 10 Kansas turnovers) kept the Wildcats from feasting off takeaways.
Freshman David McCormack accounted for 2 of those mistakes, while the rest of KU’s rotations players combined for just 8. That may be the most important thing accomplished offensively for Kansas in this one.
KU’s ability to switch defensively, Barry Brown said after shooting 1 for 8, turned the Wildcats’ offense stagnant.
Mitch Lightfoot (credited 3 blocks) defended the paint well, too, and with Dedric Lawson competing inside as well, the Wildcats couldn’t manage any more than 8 points in the paint.
K-State only connected on 31.6% of its shots in the loss and the Big 12’s first-place team hit 8 of 24 3-pointers.
Lawson was back to his double-double ways, putting up 18 points and 14 rebounds. But he shot 6 for 20 from the floor and missed all 4 of his 3-point tries.
The big man’s passing proved useful, though, as Lawson dished 5 of KU’s 14 assists.
While McCormack started once again, he made little to no impact.
Devon Dotson attacked off the dribble, seeking out the paint whenever he could. Even when those ventures didn’t conclude with baskets or assists, his successful drives for paint touches forced the K-State defense to react, making the freshman point guard a critical cog for the offense.
Dotson produced 16 points on 5-for-12 shooting and hit 1 of his 5 3-pointers.
Fellow freshman Quentin Grimes was in catch-and-fire mode all night from beyond the arc, and shot 3 for 6 from deep on his way to 12 points.
Ochai Agbaji had a rare ineffective home game offensively, finishing scoreless in 16 minutes.
Lightfoot at points controlled the game while fueling a crucial KU victory. His energy and want-to were off the charts, making it easy for him to finish with the stat line: 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 assists in 31 minutes.
Marcus Garrett played 27 minutes in his second game back from his ankle injury and knocked in a couple of 3-pointers (one of them banked in).
KU’s bench outscored the K-State reserves 18-10.
Quick grades for five aspects of the Kansas basketball team’s 78-53 win over West Virginia on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
To the Jayhawks’ credit they rarely let up or faltered in cruising to an afternoon victory. More importantly, they didn’t play down to their competition and looked like they were playing one of the Big 12’s lesser teams throughout, rather than making the types of mistakes that would benefit the underdog Mountaineers.
Kansas shot 53 percent from the field, went 8 for 20 on 3-pointers and finished with 17 assists on 28 baskets.
Great defensive activity in the first half, both inside and out, made sure the Mountaineers didn’t get comfortable.
WVU began the game hitting just 3 of its first 15 shots, as KU’s guards and bigs opened the afternoon locked in and ready to compete.
Kansas was able to gain its first double-digit lead less than 9 minutes in as the Jayhawks contested just about every shot WVU could manage to get up early on.
The Mountaineers turned the ball over 12 times in the first half and shot 7 for 28 in the opening 20 minutes, allowing KU to hit halftime in total control, up 43-16.
WVU finished the loss shooting 34 percent from the floor, with 24 turnovers.
It wasn’t a banner day for Dedric Lawson, but the Jayhawks didn’t need him to dominate, either. A ho-hum game by Lawson’s standards, KU’s typical go-to guy went for 14 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.
Lawson was engaged, he just seemed to willingly take on a supportive role with KU rolling.
Starting for the third game in a row and for the third time in his young career, David McCormack made his presence felt on the defensive end of the floor in the first half. McCormack (10 points, 4 rebounds) swatted 2 WVU shots in the opening 5 minutes.
The big man showed some promising footwork early on, too, taking what looked to be a possible turnover on the baseline under the basket, and working his way to a tough finish and layup.
The freshman trio of Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji made a ludicrous start for Kansas possible with their efforts on the defensive end of the floor. Between ball pressure and staying assignment sound the Jayhawks’ guards kept WVU in check throughout the first half.
Dotson (15 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) picked up on Saturday right where he left off at TCU this past Monday, going for 13 points in the first half. With Dotson taking an assertive approach at point guard, it was easy for the rest of the Jayhawks to follow his lead.
Even when Agbaji (10 points, 3 rebounds) wasn’t scoring consistently in the first half, he made KU better offensively just by pushing the ball in the open floor when he could and driving hard into the paint against poor closeouts.
Grimes (4 points, 2 assists) missed all four of his 3-point attempts, but helped KU out a great deal with his perimeter defense and passing in the first half.
K.J. Lawson, like Dotson, kept his positive momentum rolling from KU’s road win in Fort Worth, Texas, earlier in the week.
K.J. (15 points, 3 rebounds) drained a 3 from the left corner on the way to 7 first-half points.
Mitch Lightfoot didn’t start but KU relied on its backup big man more than it did McCormack, and Lightfoot delivered his typical energy and hustle plays on both ends of the floor. Lightfoot (5 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks), with his activity, even if it was just coming through with a hard foul to make sure WVU didn’t get an easy basket inside, continued to be a vital part of the Jayhawks’ rotation.