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.
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.
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.”
To wrap things up with our media day blog, here are a couple of final thoughts on KU's Friday opponent, Eastern Kentucky.
The Colonels make 8.9 three-pointers a game (eighth in the nation).
This season, Kansas has allowed opponents to make 35.9% of their three-pointers (257th in the nation).
Jayhawks opponents have made 6.3 three-pointers a game (185th in the nation).
A reporter asked Kansas sophomore forward Jamari Traylor about the challenge of defending EKU.
"They have a lot of guys that can stretch the floor and guys that will be their 4-man and can be 3-men," Traylor said. "So everybody can stretch the floor, and everybody can shoot it."
Without giving up any secrets, Traylor said KU has a good game plan in place, and the Jayhawks should be able to go out and do their jobs.
... On a totally unrelated note, you won't want to miss our video from Mike Yoder of Frank Mason showing off his athleticism during KU's open practice.
The 5-foot-11 freshman guard followed a few backflips with a dunk — a real crowd pleaser.
Update: 4:40 p.m.
KUsports.com's Matt Tait caught up with KU sophomore guard Evan Manning Thursday afternoon.
Throughout his basketball life, Evan spent postseasons with his father, Danny. But now that his dad's Tulsa team is playing in the NCAA tournament, March has a slightly different feel for the younger Manning.
The good news: a couple of victories by KU and Tulsa, and the father and son would be reunited in Memphis, one of the Sweet 16 sites.
Update: 4:20 p.m.
Kansas freshmen guards Frank Mason and Brannen Greene took a couple of minutes Thursday afternoon to provide a scouting report on Eastern Kentucky.
They know the Colonels are fast, and Friday's game figures to be played at a pace players from both teams will enjoy. The question is whether both sides will be able to thrive.
Update: 4:05 p.m.
One thing that really shines through on a day like this at the NCAA tournament is how much fun it is for the players to be here. They're excited for the postseason and they do actually have some down moments in which they don't have to be uptight or worried about the stresses that come with playing on this stage.
You can really see that in the above Nick Krug photo form inside the KU locker room.
Getting back to tomorrow afternoon's game, KU sophomore forward Perry Ellis said Eastern Kentucky could test KU's ability to get up and down the floor.
"They're a real quick team. Real fast," Ellis said. "A lot of back cuts. We just have to be fundamentally sound defensively, real disciplined and come out with a lot of energy defensively."
Ellis said playing with energy will be the key to the game, because if KU does that good things will follow.
— Check back in later at KUsports.com for more from St. Louis.
Update: 3:40 p.m.
(This entry comes from Matt Tait, who has bounced all around Scottrade Center today, gathering quotes.)
Learned a few interesting things in the Eastern Kentucky locker room this afternoon, mostly about their style of play.
There were a few laughs and colorful moments from big man Eric Stutz, who said people always tell him he looks like Jesus, Fabio and Ashton Kutcher, and added that he would like to own a waste disposal company after college.
"There's always gonna be trash," Stutz said. "…If I can get a degree in accounting along with the business aspect of it, all you gotta do is learn how to pick up trash.”
As for what they'll throw at the Jayhawks in about 24 hours, the Colonels, as you surely know by now, rely heavily on the three-point shot and pressure defense.
From the sound of things, they get a lot of open looks off of penetration, so if the Jayhawks' on-ball defense — or help and recovery on the back end — is not on point, EKU may very well get some open looks tomorrow.
Although they shot as many three-pointers as nearly any other team in the country, it's not like they just jack 'em up and don't have a conscience out there. A good chunk of their looks come from running offense and making extra passes, and they really try to take good looks. They do own the philosophy, though, that after one pass, if they've got a good look they can take it.
Senior guard Glenn Cosey made 110-of-259 threes for EKU this season and his teammates said he's the guy they'd want with the ball with the game on the line.
As for that pressure defense. It sounds like it's mostly in the half court and it's mostly a product of just wanting to out-work their opponents. A lot of times, as may be the case with Andrew Wiggins, one of their best defensive plays is to deny the catch. Stutz said Wiggins will get his touches and points and they know that, but they're still going to try to deny him the ball as much as possible.
From what I was told, there's not a lot of full-court pressure with the EKU 'D.' The point guard will usually pick up his man the length of the floor and that effort generally is what fuels the rest of the guys on the floor to get up on their guys.
“That's where our defense starts,” said senior Orlando Williams. “The point guard picking up his man and everybody else is in the passing lanes denying their man.”
It's an interesting match-up and one KU could quickly find difficult if the Jayhawks are careless with the ball and lazy. If they come out sharp, though, and match EKU's effort, they should be fine.
More to come….
Update: 3:20 p.m.
Listen to everything KU coach Bill Self had to say at his press conference:
Update: 2:50 p.m.
Eastern Kentucky's players know they have a style that fits March Madness well.
Here are a couple of the Colonels, Orlando Williams and Marcus Lewis, explaining the EKU approach in the locker room Thursday afternoon.
— Check back throughout the afternoon for more from St. Louis.
Update: 2:40 p.m.
Reporters basically tripped all over themselves to get interviews with Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins in a very crowded Jayhawks locker room Thursday afternoon.
While Wiggins and some of his teammates dealt with the swarm, senior center Tarik Black and sophomore forward Jamari Traylor took the stage in the press conference room.
Black said he has seen some crazy things happen in the NCAA tournament, and had crazy things happen to teams on which he has played at Memphis. The main thing to do this time of year, he stressed, is stay composed.
People try to make predictions about the tournament, Black added, but they're more like assumptions.
Bill Self took the stage next, and said the Jayhawks were pleased to be playing relatively close to home. Here are some of the highlights from his session:
• Eastern Kentucky does a lot of things that concern him. The Colonels don't turn the ball over, they have eight players who can shoot 3-pointers, and they defend higher on the floor than anybody KU has faced this season.
• All three Division I Kansas programs are here in St. Louis. As a state, each fan base should be proud about that.
• When teams pressure (EKU does) they do so to play to their strengths and skill sets. When KU sees that pressure, the Jayhawks need to not forget to play through their bigs. Hopefully Kansas is prepared for that.
• KU freshman center Joel Embiid has made progress in rehab, but they're taking it slow. The staff is optimistic they can get him to practice next week, if KU is still alive in the tournament. … Without Embiid on the floor, defensive mistakes turn into layups. In his absence, Kansas has to be much more sound defensively.
• Andrew Wiggins has a flair for the moment. That gives Self confidence in what the freshman phenom can make happen in the postseason. Wiggins needs to assert himself offensively and impact more possessions. If that happens, he will score more points.
• Kansas and Missouri, at this point, would have to meet up in the NCAA tournament to renew their rivalry. A scheduled regular-season game probably won't happen as long as Self is coaching at Kansas.
• Andrew Wigins and his brother, Nick, a senior guard at Wichita State, are both playing in St. Louis. Nick was great through the recruiting of Andrew by the KU staff. That played a minor role in Andrew picking KU, as did the fact parents Mitchell and Marita could make one trip to Kansas and see both of their sons play. … The fact that WSU and KU aren't playing each other here in St. Louis is probably better for the family.
• Wiggins will have an opportunity in the postseason to prove any of his critics wrong, but it will take Kansas advancing to make that happen.
Wouldn't you know it, as soon as Self left the press conference, he had a throng of other reporters waiting for him in the hallway.
Update: 1:00 p.m.
We just got back from the Eastern Kentucky locker room and coach Jeff Neubauer's press conference.
The Colonels (24-9), out of the Ohio Valley Conference, seem to be taking a laid back approach to their potential role as giant-killers against No. 2-seeded Kansas (24-9) on Friday.
Credit for the upbeat vibe in the locker room goes to ninth-year coach Jeff Neubauer. He has seen up close what it takes to bust a bracket. Neubauer served as an assistant coach at Richmond when the No. 14 seed knocked out No. 3 seed South Carolina in 1998.
Neubauer also worked at West Virginia, when the Mountaineers reached the Elite Eight in 2005.
The coach fielded plenty of questions — about Kansas, coming out of the OVC and March Madness in general. Here are some of the highlights:
• It's so hard in a league like the OVC to get to this point. And it will be a big challenge Friday against Kansas.
• The Colonels have talked all season about embracing challenges. They don't use the word underdog.
• He coached EKU as a No. 16 seed against North Carolina in 2007. The Colonels didn't do a good job out of the gate and ended up in a huge hole and lost by 21 points.
• Keeping that rough performance from 2007 in mind, Neubauer has been practicing his players hard in preparation for Kansas.
• EKU played three tournament teams this season: Wisconsin, North Carolina State and VCU. The Colonels, who went 0-3 in those matchups, played really well at N.C. State for 34 minutes. The game they will try to draw upon against KU is the overtime loss at VCU.
• Kansas has committed a lot of dead-ball turnovers/travels this season. EKU needs steals, not dead-ball mistakes, because steals turn into layups and dunks.
• The biggest problem/issue facing EKU's defense is junior Jayhawks point guard Naadir Tharpe. Neubauer said Tharpe takes care of the ball and that makes it difficult for opponents to score easy points through defense.
• EKU won't try to make Kansas play small. If the Jayhawks played small, they would still be significantly bigger than the Colonels.
Original post: 11:00 a.m.
While you're settling in to watch a full day's worth of NCAA tournament games — or sneaking away from work responsibilities here and there to keep up with the potential upsets — the KUsports.com staff will be busy gathering quotes, videos, stories and photos at Scottrade Center, in St. Louis.
Press conferences and open practices are the name of the game today for Kansas University's men's basketball team, as well as the other seven teams playing round of 64 games at the site: Eastern Kentucky, Stanford, New Mexico, Wichita State, Cal Poly, Kansas State and Kentucky.
Check in at this blog throughout the day for updates.
Eastern Kentucky players and coach Jeff Neubauer won't be available until early afternoon.
Kansas players and coach Bill Self will meet the media a little after 1:30 p.m.
In the meantime, check out a couple of videos from KU's arrival Wednesday night.
In the realm of college basketball, March is known for its madness.
Kansas University coach Bill Self experienced a little of that himself Sunday evening after the NCAA unveiled the 2014 national championship bracket.
Even though Self barely had time to read up on KU's Friday opponent, Eastern Kentucky — let alone scout the Colonels by watching some game video — a room full of reporters awaited him at 6 p.m. inside Allen Fieldhouse to talk about the matchup between No. 2-seeded Kansas (24-9) and the No. 15 seed, EKU (24-9), out of the Ohio Valley Conference.
Here are the highlights of the Q&A, in bullet-point form:
• Self kind of thought Kansas would get a No. 2 seed. But he still thought KU had a really good chance of getting a No. 1 seed. If things had happened differently in some of the other conference tournaments, maybe the Jayhawks would have got consideration for the most sought after seed line.
• In KU's pod, New Mexico looks better than its No. 7 seed. Self hopes KU has a chance to play UNM or Stanford in the round of 32, but the Jayhawks' focus needs to be on Eastern Kentucky and defending the 3-point line. Self has already learned that EKU has four starters who shoot 3-pointers. They're a lot like Iowa State in that aspect.
• Sometimes when you play close to home there are more distractions. KU experienced that some last year, in Kansas City, Mo., for its first two NCAA games. Friday's games in St. Louis will be some of the hottest tickets ever for the first two rounds. Kansas, Kansas State, Kentucky and Wichita State are all playing there. (All except KU are competing in the Midwest region.)
• KU has been in the same city as K-State for the NCAA tournament before. It will be interesting. You wonder if fans from both sides of the Sunflower Showdown will cheer for their rivals.
• Self couldn't believe SMU and Larry Brown didn't make the tournament. When it all played out on the selection show, Self though North Carolina would play SMU. But he forgot Providence hadn't been announced yet. … That's what Brown thought would happen (a Roy Williams and UNC vs. Brown and SMU game) when Self spoke with the former KU coach on Sunday morning.
• On the other hand… Self was really happy to see Danny Manning's Tulsa team earn a spot. Tulsa is in the same region as Kansas, as a No. 13 seed, and will face UCLA on Friday.
• Kansas needs to play with high energy all the time. When you do that you can camouflage some mistakes with this group. Iowa State might've beaten anybody the way it played Friday in the Big 12 semifinals. KU might've been better off giving the Cyclones some "dare" shots, instead of letting ISU get inside of them.
• Looking at a potential rematch with New Mexico, that first meeting (an 80-63 KU win at Sprint Center) was a long time ago, on Dec. 14. Self doesn't know how much of an advantage either team would have should each advance.
• With a young team, there is potential for some distractions at this time of year. The most focused team Self has ever had was in 2008. That was a "wild crew," but they did everything the coaches asked and trusted them. It's great to have rules, but sometimes players think rules are great for everybody else but themselves. That's when you start getting distractions.
• Andrew Wiggins has played great. He just didn't make some shots early against ISU.
• Self didn't know which regional KU would end up in. No matter what one you end up in, you always think that the committee didn't do you any favors. But the Midwest (No. 1 Wichita State, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Duke, No. 4 Louisville, No. 5 St. Louis) looks really tough.
• Not to get ahead of themselves, but the South region has the best team in the country — Florida. And a team that everyone thought was the best team in the country a month ago — No. 3 Syracuse. UCLA, the No. 4 seed, is one of the hottest teams in the country. But the focus is getting through this weekend.
• There are more good teams and less great teams this season. Florida is a great team. The bottom line: everybody in the field can be had. This year, there are more good, solid teams that can beat what are perceived as the better teams.
• Joel Embiid's status remains the same. He feels better. Self doesn't feel optimistic Embiid would be able to play this weekend. But he is optimistic about the following weekend (Sweet 16). His availability is all symptom-related and he has responded very well of late.
— Listen to the complete press conference: KU coach Bill Self reacts to NCAA Tournament bracket