The undersized, predominantly four-guard Kansas basketball lineup, as it has become so adept at doing this season, gathered enough rebounds inside and even blocked shots here and there Saturday while defeating Oklahoma State, 87-80. A plus-nine margin on the glass and five swats: the types of things the Jayhawks will have to continue doing to win while only playing two bigs — senior Landen Lucas and sophomore Carlton Bragg.
However, KU had less success stopping the Cowboys from getting to the paint for easy buckets. OSU converted eight layups and a tip-in while maintaining a first-half lead, then converted four more layups, two put-backs and a dunk in the final 20 minutes. All of those added up to give the visitors a 44-38 advantage in points in the paint.
It marked the fourth time in five Big 12 victories the Jayhawks (16-1 overall, 5-0 conference) were out-scored inside.
KU’s lack of an interior defensive enforcer — 6-foot-8 wing Josh Jackson leads the team with 24 blocks in 17 games — has been well documented, and head coach Bill Self referenced that as a concern even before freshman center Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending wrist injury. So the Jayhawks know opponents want to get to the lane via drive or post-ups for high-percentage shots. Self’s players just haven’t yet totally mastered the strategies they’ll need to employ to best defend that coveted real estate near the basket.
Much like Nebraska, TCU, Kansas State and Oklahoma, the other teams to put up more points in the paint than KU head-to-head this season, Oklahoma State (10-7, 0-5) did so without the help of a go-to post player. Kansas keeps winning, but it has issues containing both penetration and pick-and-roll actions initiated by opposing guards.
Junior KU guard Devonte’ Graham acknowledged giving up so many interior baskets was an issue.
“The offense that they run was kind of tough to guard with the back cuts and having to guard the shooters out there,” Graham said, referencing the 3-point abilities of Phil Forte and Jeffrey Carroll when dynamic play-maker Jawun Evans had the ball in his hands. “So the bigs was kind of getting open on the back-screen ball screen, because it was hard to guard a back screen from the big and then come up and hedge the ball screen. So that’s where they was getting us a lot on.”
Big 12 Opponents’ Points in Paint vs. KU Points in Paint
TCU 38, KU 32
K-State 46, KU 44
Texas Tech 18, KU 30
Oklahoma 38, KU 28
Okla. St. 44, KU 38
Of late, Graham added, the Jayhawks see more teams finding ways to effectively attack their guards from the perimeter.
“There’s a lot of teams since TCU really killed us and exploited us with it, they’ve been trying to run a lot of side ball screens and have their big guys just roll,” Graham noted of ways opposing guards make things easier for their post players, too.
Six-foot-nine OSU junior forward Mitchell Solomon entered Allen Fieldhouse averaging just 4.2 points a game this season. During one second-half stretch against KU, though, Solomon scored five straight baskets for the Cowboys, all in the paint. Before he fouled out late, Solomon went 6-for-6 from the floor and put up 16 points.
“I thought he killed us on the glass,” Self said, “but he only got four rebounds and three were offensive, and two of them were back-to-back putbacks.”
It didn’t take Self long to figure out how the OSU reserve easily topped his previous career-high for points (10, versus Rogers State): “Now granted he played very well, but Evans forced help, and then our rotations were slow. So even though he benefited from some plays, I think Evans deserves half the credit on those plays.”
Evans wasn’t the first guard hellbent on attacking KU and he won’t be the last. So when Solomon talks about his teammate’s expertise, picture other KU opponents to come mimicking the sentiment and replacing the name Evans with Monte’ Morris or Jevon Carter or whomever serves as that team’s ball-dominant guard.
“If Jawun’s aggressive, there’s really not anybody, I believe, who can stop him. So if he’s doing downhill he’s gonna attract a lot of attention,” Solomon said when asked if the Cowboys thought their ability to score inside versus Kansas would be a factor. “That leaves room for offensive rebounds if he doesn’t finish, which he does often.”
First-year Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood game-planned for KU expecting the Cowboys’ 3-point shooting and the actions they run offensively to give them their best looks.
“We thought we could take them away from the rim. We felt like in our offense, there’s a lot of cutters, there’s a lot of movement, there’s a lot of weak-side opportunities,” Underwood said. “You put Landen in ball screens, force him to guard, that opens things up in the paint.”
The opposition has taken note of one of KU’s weaknesses, so the Jayhawks should expect more of the same in the weeks ahead, around the Big 12 and at Kentucky (Jan. 28).
Self identified quicker defensive rotations and recognition from his guard-heavy lineup as one way to better defend the paint.
“Whenever there’s a ball screen, or pinch-post action or handoff that occurs, everybody’s gotta jump to it. And if you go back and watch the tape, Evans made some great plays to get the ball to Solomon. But our rotations were slow,” Self said.
“Whenever you go help somebody, the natural tendency is throw the ball in the direction that the help came from,” the coach continued. “So if you’re an alert defensive player, the tendency is that, ‘Well, if I know that they’re gonna throw it here, I should be able to put myself in a position not to allow that to happen.’ And we were slow doing that.”
Ideally, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self says, he would like to implement an eight-man rotation this season — something Self was able to do before freshman center Udoka Azubuike suffered a season-ending wrist injury.
On the perimeter, the coach has all the help he needs in Frank Mason III, Josh Jackson, Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick. But down low, Self would love to trust either Mitch Lightfoot or Dwight Coleby enough to have them support Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg. The coach just is not there yet.
“I would like nothing more than for those guys, for another big, to give us seven to 10 minutes a game — I think that would be very good for our team,” Self said. “Neither one of them are quite ready to do that.”
On the year, Lightfoot, a freshman forward from Gilbert, Arizona, is averaging just 4.1 minutes, 1.2 points and 1.2 rebounds. Through four Big 12 games for Kansas (15-1 overall, 4-0 conference), though, the 6-foot-8 backup has only got off the bench in two games and played four combined minutes.
Earlier this week at Oklahoma — after Bragg picked up two first-half fouls and Self wanted to protect Lucas from picking up a second foul before halftime — Lightfoot entered the game, missed a shot, and committed one foul and one turnover in one minute before Self took him out of the game and decided against putting him in again.
At that point, Self gave Coleby, who had yet to play a minute of Big 12 basketball, a shot. The 6-foot-9 junior, who transferred to Kansas from Ole Miss, grabbed a defensive rebound, got whistled for setting an illegal screen and returned to the bench for good after playing two minutes.
The coach wanted to see, on the road with his team struggling at the time, if either Lightfoot or Coleby could give the Jayhawks what they needed.
“And in that little stretch there, it was a really bad stretch,” Self said. “And it wasn't all on them, but coincidentally (the Sooners) were in the game, so they didn't get a chance to play as much.”
So what would Self like to see from either Lightfoot or Coleby (averaging 1.2 points and 2.0 rebounds in 5.6 minutes — and just 10 appearances — this season) that would inspire him to utilize one of them more?
“I would say just being able to carry out defensive assignments and play smarter. There are some things, like Mitch — I want to play Mitch — and he got in the game the other day. It's not that it's that complicated, but we're ball screen defense, in what we call 32. And, you know, he forgot to hedge a ball screen,” Self explained. “The guy just went and made a layup. And you can't have that. It's an easy play. And I think it's not that he can't do it. It's just that he gets excited right now and he's trying too hard.”
KU’s veteran big man, Lucas, knows exactly what his coach is talking about when Self references Lightfoot’s enthusiasm. The senior can’t help but laugh when he thinks about how the freshman’s exuberance manifests itself at practices, where Lightfoot is most involved on the court.
“An example of this is he says everything he’s doing. We’ll be at practice and we’ll joke with him, ‘You don’t have to say, OK, breathe now. Blink.’ Something like that,” Lucas shared. “He says ‘ball fake,’ just everything. It just shows how much he’s trying, which is good. You want guys to try.”
It appears Lightfoot is more likely than Coleby to become the eighth man Self wants, because of his activity and athleticism. Coleby, the coach says, still hasn’t fully recovered to the form he showed at Ole Miss, prior to tearing his ACL in late 2015.
“I do think that Mitch has a chance to be a really good player,” Self said. “He’s an athlete, he’s tough. But right now, he’s got to be able to take the practice and do the things that the team needs him to do in the short minutes that he’s in there. And he’s just been a little bit inconsistent with that.”
Lucas, who sees the work Lightfoot and Coleby put in behind closed doors, thinks both have the ability to make a positive impact for KU this season.
“Mitch and Dwight are great bigs. (At) most schools they’re playing a lot. I have a ton of faith in them. They’ve just gotta understand what they can come in and do well for our team during those short periods of time. It took me a while, too. It’s not easy,” said Lucas, who played just 4.9 minutes a game as a redshirt freshman during the 2013-14 season. “You kind of get out there and expect, you start thinking, ‘OK, maybe I’ve gotta make a couple shots to stay in the game for longer or prolong my time,’ but that’s not how it works, you know. If you want to go out there and stay out there, everybody else around you has to be better — the team has to be better — and you have to extend the lead or come back, whatever the case is.”
Self thinks Lightfoot will perform better once the coach can put the freshman in a game and keep him in for extended minutes — a scenario that could play out the next time Kansas builds a significant second-half lead.
Lucas envisions his young teammate improving, too, by making the best use of his feistiness.
“But the next step is, all right now, concentrate that on the right things, don’t overthink things,” Lucas said. “It’s better, I’m sure, as a coach, to pull a player’s excitement and stuff back than try to do it the other way. So he has the right mindset when he goes out there, he has the right energy. Now it’s just kind of making sure that he’s understanding and focusing in on what he needs to do and channel all that energy in the right places.”
As Bill Self directs Kansas toward what he hopes will be the basketball program’s 13th consecutive Big 12 title, it has become clear this isn’t one of his typical teams, and not just because he doesn’t have as much frontcourt depth as he would like and is forced to play four-guard lineups much of the time.
Those perimeter-oriented combinations Self puts on the floor work so well because every guard and wing isn’t one-dimensional when the ball reaches his hands. The Jayhawks have drivers and shooters outside, and wouldn’t be ranked No. 2 in the country or riding a 15-game winning streak without the power of the 3-pointer.
Down nine at the half on the road Tuesday night at Oklahoma, KU recovered for an 81-70 victory by harnessing one of its biggest offensive strengths. A 3-for-11 first-half display from behind the arc influenced a putrid showing early against the worst team in the Big 12. But the Jayhawks and senior leader Frank Mason III proved, on most nights, opponents just aren’t going to be able to stop them from creating high-percentage 3-pointers and cashing in on the best of those looks.
Mason couldn’t miss from long range during the second-half KU rally, knocking in all four of his 3-point tries. When Mason takes over, his teammates follow. With juniors Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham joining the barrage, Kansas shot 9-for-16 from long range in the final 20 minutes.
Mykhailiuk, whose 3 just after intermission helped ignite a 54-point second half, said Mason, per usual, made everything easier for his teammates on offense.
“Oh, yeah, because he is a really good driver,” said Mykhailiuk, who scored all nine of his points on 3’s in the closing half. “I think nobody can guard him. He’s just beating his guy and the other guy gotta help, and that’s what (creates) open (shots).”
During his 28-point outing, the 5-foot-11 Mason only missed one of six 3-point attempts, bringing his percentage on the year to an astounding 54.9%. Mason, following his ninth game of 20-plus points this season, said it was just his night.
“The first shot I missed even felt good, but you know I was just in rhythm on every shot and I think all them 3’s I made were pretty good shot selections,” Mason said after knocking down at least five from deep for the third time in his spectacular senior season. “So I hope that continue to happen movin' forward.”
Before the Jayhawks (15-1 overall, 4-0 Big 12) get too excited about ranking fourth in the nation in 3-point accuracy (42.2%), though, their coach will remind them not all of their looks from downtown have been ideal.
“I thought they came pretty out of rhythm and I thought a lot of them came in transition and in the open court,” Self said on the subject of KU’s nine successful 3-pointers in the second half at OU (6-9, 0-4).
“You know, there was a really big play where Frank makes a terrible play, late clock, and they steal it and the kid (one of the Sooners) tries to throw it from his back, I think, up the court and we steal it back and make a 3,” Self gave as an example. “Plays like that, that could’ve been a five-point swing right there. So we were pretty fortunate on some plays like that.”
Even though Self previously has been a noted skeptic of trusting the 3-pointer, know that he says these types of things as a way to keep his players from settling, instead of working for a better shot. He knows this Kansas team has the shooters to capitalize from long range, but he wants them to do so on open looks off of ball movement or drive-and-kick situations whenever possible.
“But I thought we took pretty good looks,” Self admitted of a decisive second-half run when KU assisted on six of its nine 3’s.
Sixteen games into the season, Mason (39-for-71 from deep) has proven to be KU’s best from distance, but he also has help. Graham is shooting 38% (38 of 100), while both Mykhailiuk (36-for-81) and sophomore sub Lagerald Vick (20-for-45) are connecting on 44% of their 3’s. Among the guards, only freshman Jackson (9-for-35) has struggled, at 26%.
“When (Mason) and Devonte’ and Svi are shootin’ the ball,” Self said, “and Lagerald, too, although Lagerald didn’t (at OU, 1-for-2 on 3’s, 1-for-6 from the floor) — but when those guys are shootin' the ball well from the perimeter it makes it pretty hard to guard.”
KU has shot 40% or better from 3-point range in nine games now, and while an off night or a slump could come at some point, the Jayhawks won’t abandon the weapon they’ll need to get this team where it wants to go.
Said Mykhailiuk: “We’re shooting pretty good. You know, everybody can shoot on our team: Frank, Devonte’, me, Josh, Lagerald. So we’re just driving the ball real aggressive and when the defense sucks in we just throw it to the 3-point line. It’s an open shot.”
Josh Jackson won’t play college basketball for long, but while he’s doing so at the University of Kansas, part of his on-court education involves learning how to best carry himself when things don’t go his way.
Back in November, during just his second game with the Jayhawks, Jackson picked up his first technical foul as a collegian on a national stage, with KU facing Duke at Madison Square Garden. Jackson slapped the ball away from one of the Blue Devils during a dead ball, earning a “T” that ultimately kept him off the floor in the closing minutes of a tight game, because it counted as one of his five personal fouls.
Jackson, while not always thrilled with officials’ calls in the weeks that followed, avoided another technical foul until Big 12 play began a little more than a week ago. Then the 6-foot-8 wing did enough to inspire officials to whistle at him on a technicality in back-to-back games.
Publicly, KU coach Bill Self defended Jackson for the “T’s” at TCU and against Kansas State, but Self also worried his star freshman might have developed a reputation for needing to get in the final word with referees.
Now that he has played 15 games for KU (14-1 overall, 3-0 Big 12), Jackson was asked following a tech-free outing against Texas Tech whether he thought he has become a marked man with officials and if he thought he needed to change anything about his on-court persona.
“I honestly don’t think so,” said Jackson, known for his affable nature off the court. “I think I have three technical fouls this year and I can honestly say I deserved one (against Duke). But just trying to move on to the next play a little bit — I think I did a good job of that (versus the Red Raiders).”
In fact, early in the first half of the Tech game, Jackson was called for an offensive foul on a drive to the paint, and though his face showed he didn’t agree with the assessment, he didn’t initiate a conversation with an official to sound off on the matter. What’s more, during the next stoppage in play, Jackson calmly approached a referee for an explanation on the charge call.
“Some refs are different. Some give you a technical foul for a lot less than others will,” Jackson said of his early lessons in navigating conversations with college officiating crews. “You’ve just gotta move on to the next play no matter what, because after they make the call you can’t change it anyway.”
There are bound to be far more intense games than KU-TT on the horizon, so there are no guarantees Jackson will finish his one-and-done season without picking up another technical. Still, he appears to be processing the positives and negatives that come with displaying his fiery side during competition.
Jackson certainly won’t let his past indiscretions — perceived or real — change who he is on the court. But, as his coach also pointed out, he’s too massive a talent to allow technical fouls to become a recurring issue.
More lessons for the freshman
It didn’t take Jackson long to find out Big 12 games take on a different level of passion than some of those non-conference undercards KU played in December. An NBA prospect expected to be taken in the first few picks of the draft this coming June, Jackson fouled out of the Jayhawks’ win at TCU, playing just 12 minutes and contributing only four points and two rebounds (both season-lows).
“Guys come out and play a lot harder, especially with Kansas winning the league so many years in a row,” said Jackson, who bounced back with 22 points against K-State and 17 versus Tech, making him the Big 12 Newcomer of the Week. “… There’s a target on our back. Everybody would love to beat us. If you asked any team in this league if they could beat one team, just win one game, I guarantee you they would say us.”
Tuesday night at Oklahoma, the Sooners (6-8, 0-3) will fall into that category. Playing with Kansas on the front of their jerseys and figurative bull’s eyes on their backs might be difficult, but Jackson said he and his teammates don’t mind.
“I think all of us really love a challenge,” he said. “We welcome it and it just really shows us, gives us a chance to see how tough we are and what we really can do.”
For a freshman who Kansas basketball coach Bill Self asks to do, well, just about everything, Josh Jackson never becomes overwhelmed with his job responsibilities.
The 6-foot-8 wing from Detroit flashed his abundant strengths at various points of the Jayhawks’ 85-68 win over Texas Tech Saturday night at Allen Fieldhouse, where he scored 17 points, secured a game-high 10 rebounds, blocked three shots, took away two steals, dished one assist, hit a 3-pointer and played a starring role in his team’s overall improved defensive intensity.
The future NBA lottery pick supplied the home crowd with his standard supply of savage highlight dunks, too, but it was another area on offense where his endless potential glowed. Half of Jackson’s rebounds came on Kansas misses, and when he attacked the glass and came away with the ball, the Red Raiders didn’t have much success in stopping him.
His five offensive rebounds directly led to eight of KU’s 23 second-chance points. Jackson shot 7-for-15 on the night, and in the first half when he badly missed a fadeaway jumper from the left elbow, he was the first to meet the ball on the right side of the backboard when it clanged off the rim.
The do-it-all freshman said Self has emphasized his need to take an active role on the offensive glass.
“Definitely another one of my jobs,” Jackson said, with a grin.
How many jobs does he have exactly? It seems like a pretty long list.
“Not really that long,” Jackson claimed. “Probably got about four or five key ones.”
That statement’s hard to believe when it comes from a 19-year-old phenom who is KU’s second-leading scorer (15.3 points a game, behind Frank Mason III’s 19.9), second-best rebounder (6.6, barely trailing Landen Lucas’ 6.9), leading shot-blocker (22), tied for the team lead in steals (23, same as Devonte’ Graham), third in assists (3.2 a game) and No. 1 in offensive rebounding (38).
So just realize there actually is no shortlist for Jackson, when it comes to where he needs to impact the game for the Jayhawks (14-1 overall, 3-0 Big 12).
If you ask Self where his latest one-and-done talent needs to make his mark most, he’ll refute Jackson’s claims, explaining the wing’s list of responsibilities actually is quite lengthy.
“You play hard, you defend, you rebound and you let the game come to you and you do what the game dictates,” Self said of his general demands for the star freshman. “But he should be a guy that I think should impact every area of the game — which he actually is doing a good job. He’s a good passer, he’s a good shot-blocker, he got his hands on balls for steals, he should be our best offensive rebounder — I think he got five tonight. I mean, there’s a lot of things that I think he did really well tonight.”
Jackson’s latest loaded stat output gave him his third double-double of the season, and, naturally, he said collecting rebounds is just part of his job.
“Everybody, every last guy, has a job that they’re supposed to do,” Jackson said. “Behind Landen I think I’m the guy who’s supposed to be down there bangin' and trying to grab a couple of rebounds and block shots, especially after, you know, losing Udoka (Azubuike to a season-ending wrist injury), who’s a pretty big piece of our team. We definitely all gotta step up in that category.”
As the number of games Jackson has left in a Kansas uniform diminishes, Self doesn’t mind asking him to expand his on-court obligations to the Jayhawks’ cause.
“But to me that should be the same thing every game,” Self added. “You may look at an opponent and say, ‘You know what, they’re gonna put a big guy on him, so this could be a team that he could drive more (against).’ Or ‘They may put a little guy on him, so this could maybe be a team that we could post him more,’ you know, things like that. But for the most part it doesn’t change game to game on what we expect him to do.”
— See what people were saying about the game during KUsports.com's live coverage.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Texas Tech
- Extra Emphasis: Defensive intensity sparks Jayhawks in win over Texas Tech
- Tom Keegan: A floater is the newest weapon in Mason’s repertoire
- Notebook: Jayhawks notch milestone win; Rush’s number to be retired
- Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe picks Kansas
- Matt Tait's postgame Report Card
- Mason, Graham lead Jayhawks past Texas Tech, 85-68
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self and veteran Jayhawks such as Frank Mason III, who have been through more conference encounters than they can count off the top of their heads, will tell you there is nothing easy about winning the Big 12 — even if the Jayhawks have done so 12 years in a row.
The first couple of stops on what many imagined would be an uneventful journey to KU’s 13th consecutive league crown, though, back up the case made by those responsible for the conference dominance some observers have taken as a foregone conclusion.
The No. 3-ranked Jayhawks couldn’t ever completely bury TCU on the road in their Big 12 opener, and it took a controversial buzzer-beater at the end of regulation for them to defeat rival Kansas State inside Allen Fieldhouse.
Victories, of course, often are considered more important than the minutia that made them possible. But Self said opening league play with back-to-back taxing outings should give his players something to think about as they prepare for a Saturday home game against Texas Tech (12-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) and the next couple of months in front of them.
“But I think there’s been a lot of nice reminders for our guys on just how hard it is to win,” the 14th-year KU coach said, “and especially in a league where — I mean, this is no disrespect to anybody — but I think most, in fans’ minds, think if you go to TCU, based on the past few years, that that should be a game that you should for sure win. And as coaches, we know that we're gonna have to play to win, because they’re so much improved.”
This week, the Big 12 has three teams — No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 KU and No. 7 West Virginia — ranked among the top seven in the country in the AP poll. Even the unranked teams have generated some buzz just two games into the conference schedule. The Red Raiders knocked off WVU on Tuesday, in Lubbock, Texas, on the same night K-State had a chance to take the lead in the final seconds at Kansas. The next day, Iowa State lost by two at Baylor. Eight of the league’s 10 teams have at least one Big 12 victory already, and only Kansas and Baylor enter the weekend without a conference loss.
KenPom.com ranks the Big 12’s eight best teams among the top 40 in the country: No. 2 WVU, No. 6 BU, No. 7 KU, No. 27 ISU, No. 28 Tech, No. 30 K-State, No. 38 TCU and No. 39 Oklahoma State. And even the Cowboys lost at No. 79 Texas, which has struggled to a 7-7 start in Shaka Smart’s second season.
“Well, I think there's no question that our league is underrated,” Self said, “and it's rated very high, and it's still underrated. I think you could say, you could make a strong case, that the ACC has more good teams in their league than anybody else. But that's also in large part the numbers are so much bigger. They've got five more teams … to pick from.
“But I think our league is a monster,” Self continued. “And you know, coaches after games sometimes can be emotional and mad or happy, and there's been a time or two I've been that way, as well. But the TCU win was a good win. They're gonna beat a lot of people at TCU.”
An even stronger argument along those lines could be made for K-State (12-2, 1-1), and Self said the Jayhawks (13-1, 2-0) don’t have to apologize for eking out a win against the Wildcats — even if KU avoided overtime because the officials didn’t whistle Svi Mykhailiuk for traveling.
“Although I didn't think we played well, I think Kansas State's a really good team. I think they did some things that didn't allow us to play well,” Self explained. “So I think winning at home is going to be a premium again. But I don't think the home wins are gonna come as easy as a lot of people perceive them to be as they have in year's past, because there’s just more good teams in our league.”
To his point, the latest NCAA Tournament projections from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi place six Big 12 teams in the field: Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and TCU. Plus, Lunardi lists Texas Tech among the “first four out” and K-State in the “next four out” — so eight league teams, at least in early January, are in the mix for March Madness.
Mason, KU’s senior point guard who is averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 assists in Big 12 action, said there are easy lessons to take away from his team’s two narrow conference wins.
“Even when we’re not playing good we still have to rebound the ball and make the other team play as bad as we are,” Mason began. “You know, we have to stay coachable, keep ptichin' the ball ahead, execute on the offensive end. And we have to make free throws, and just make the right play, make the extra pass.”
Quickly this season, the Jayhawks have been reminded it’s not easy to win in the Big 12. Their coach, as one might expect, plans on hammering that message home, and letting the players know there are no certainties in league play.
“And I think that's the one thing that we really need to sell to all our players, and I think that other coaches will sell to their respective players is that, hey, everybody's better than they were last year — for the most part,” Self said. “Everybody's better. So don't look at an opponent based on what happened last year. Everybody's improved. Everybody's added some nice pieces.”
Since his arrival at Kansas, uber-talented freshman Josh Jackson routinely has shown he can do anything coach Bill Self or his teammates ask of him — and even some things they haven’t.
At no point would Self consider attempting to mold his 6-foot-8 perimeter star into a rim protector for the Jayhawks. But Jackson proved in KU’s most recent victory, over Nebraska, he could probably do that, too.
Sure, No. 3 Kansas (9-1) needs Jackson to score (14.3 points per game, 53.3-percent shooting from the floor), rebound (6.1 boards a game) and distribute (3.4 assists) while complimenting veteran guards Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham. Still, the do-it-all wing swatted away five shots against the Cornhuskers in the midst of all his typical contributions.
“He’s our best shot-blocker, obviously,” Self said after Jackson added that denial-filled performance to a 17-point, six-rebound outing.
The thing is, the head coach doesn’t want to bestow that designation upon his star freshman, even though Jackson has led KU in blocks four times already. Self would prefer one of his traditional big men emerge as the top rejecting defender in a KU uniform. He said 7-foot freshman Udoka Azubuike “should be” the best shot-blocker and 6-10 Landen Lucas, a fifth-year senior, should rank second.
“But I think Josh probably goes after the ball as well as anybody,” Self added.
Per usual, the 14th-year KU coach knows exactly what he’s talking about. When Jackson is in help position, he’s ready and willing to thwart drives to the paint, just as Nebraska found out in its trip to Allen Fieldhouse. There are going to be times when even tough-minded Mason can’t keep in front of his man. Jackson showed not only can he slide over to divert a path to the rim, he knows how to jump straight up and utilize that 6-foot-9 wingspan to his advantage.
Jackson thrives on jumping passing lanes on the perimeter and creating either deflections or steals to ignite a fast break, but he also makes sure to not just occupy space as a weak-side defender. His instincts help him on the interior, too — as does his crazy athleticism. In two quick steps, the 19-year-old NBA-lottery-pick-to-be can come from the opposite block to alter or knock away a layup.
As intuitive an all-around basketball player as a coach could ever hope to recruit, one would think Self would embrace the concept of Jackson as an option as the last line of defense in the paint. Kansas could benefit from a fast, long perimeter talent roaming the floor and chipping in as an interior stopper when necessary, the same way Kevin Durant does for Golden State. Self certainly isn’t opposed to Jackson playing that type of role, but when asked if Jackson could serve as a rim protector in KU’s four-guard lineups, the coach knocked that concept into the student section.
“But you say rim protector, no. Rim protector to me is when there’s mistakes made on the perimeter and you’ve got that guy that can cover up for him. He’s not Jeff Withey by any stretch,” Self said of Jackson, while referencing the program’s all-time leading redirector of shots. “But he is a guy that can make a lot of blocks and a lot of his blocks kind of come from transition and things like that where he can run guys down.”
Reality on this subject lies somewhere in between. The fact is KU will utilize a lot of smaller lineup combinations this season, dissimilar from Self teams of the past. When Jackson is essentially the so-called power forward on the floor, the Jayhawks will benefit from him making smart defensive stops inside as a helper.
Self’s hesitance to label his stud freshman as a rim protector has as much to do with his desire for Azubuike and Lucas to step up and take on that task. While Azubuike’s 1.8 blocks per game lead Kansas, Jackson is right behind him at 1.5. The coach needs Azubuike, his 280-pound pivot, to be more of an intimidator. Lucas showed during his junior year his smarts and positioning can make him a stopper in the paint, but his injury issues have slowed him so far this season, leading to his 0.9 blocks per game average.
Truthfully, as Self admitted, Jackson just prevents would-be buckets around the rim better than any other player on the roster. His competitive nature plays a part in that, too. On one play against Nebraska, Jackson left his man in the left corner in order to help in the paint against a big. When that defensive response prompted a kick out to Jackson’s man, who was cutting baseline, Jackson immediately returned his attention where it needed to be and rose up to smack away the layup attempt.
Self might not consider Jackson a rim protector in the half-court in the traditional sense, simply because he doesn’t occupy as much of an area in the paint as Azubuike or Lucas or Withey. But Jackson can control the air space in front of the backboard with ease as the 4-man in KU’s four-guard lineups.
When Jackson is the last line of defense instead of Lucas or Azubuike or Carlton Bragg or Dwight Coleby, the Jayhawks have no need to worry. Their outstanding freshman is as likely as anyone to thwart a layup or dunk and provide Kansas with those defensive stops Self values so greatly.
Sure, when the name Svi Mykhailiuk comes up, the first thing that comes to mind might be his long-distance shooting — after all, his shortened first name conveniently rhymes with “three.” But the junior wing from Ukraine wants more out of his basketball life at Kansas than hanging out behind the arc waiting to fire.
Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, Mykhailiuk’s 2-for-4 shooting from long range in an 89-72 victory over Nebraska enhanced his numbers to 22-for-51 (43.1 percent) through 10 games. Still, the 6-foot-8 backup showed he’s capable of so much more in the midst of tying his season high with 15 points.
For one, Mykhailiuk looked assertive with the ball in his hands, whether that came off a turnover, in transition or as a driver in the half court.
“People just know me for shooting those three-point shots,” he said after Kansas improved to 9-1, “but I don’t think they expect me to drive the ball as much. So now I’m working on driving more.”
On his way to 13 first-half points, Mykhailiuk put in two layups and scored another basket from just outside the paint, near the left baseline while making five of his first eight shots before intermission. Even when it appeared he might be dribbling himself into trouble, the ever-improving 19-year old turned a dead end into a basket. His confidence seemingly improving by the week, Mykhailiuk transformed a one-on-three fast break into a layup by evading his defender with a Euro-step at the free-throw line, followed by a strong finish.
His final stat line included two assists, two steals, no turnovers and one block, as well. What’s more, Mykhailiuk didn’t get credit for another swat. In the second half, he slid over to help defensively from the weak side of the floor and smacked a layup attempt off the backboard before being whistled for goaltending. Replays proved Mykhailiuk thwarted the shot cleanly and legally.
Never one to praise himself or leave a game feeling like he did everything perfectly, though, Mykhailiuk downplayed improved defense as one of his qualities this season.
“I try to help more and we’ve been working in practices, but I’m not good in there now,” he said when asked about the goaltend (read as: block), which he met at the rim. “I think I’m gonna get better.”
To his credit, Mykhailiuk remembers his mistakes in floor positioning on defense as much as his highlight-reel buckets.
“That’s why at times I’m running to a long pass and I’ve got to close out (and not get beat),” Mykhailiuk said. “So I’ve gotta get better taking the right position.”
When those stops (that coach Bill Self agonizes over) come, offensively, KU’s four-guard lineups allow Mykhailiuk more freedom to make plays, especially in the open floor.
“Everybody can bring up the ball,” the junior guard said, “and whoever can get a rebound can bring it down and push ahead.”
All of the Jayhawks’ perimeter players appear to be appreciating their chances to play a less traditional form of offense. Plus, Mykhailiuk, who said the players are improving in those situations, added using some four-player combination of himself, Frank Mason III, Devonté Graham, Josh Jackson and Lagerald Vick should make KU more versatile defensively, too.
“We are faster and we can switch with four guards,” Mykhailiuk explained. “We can trap the bigs. I think we feel pretty comfortable.”
Even so, he was the last Jayhawk who would claim everything is humming along euphorically. Mykhailiuk cost himself a third assist and drew the ire of his coach when on one second-half fast break against the Huskers (5-5), he lobbed a pass off the backboard for Jackson and the electric freshman missed a dunk off the back of the rim.
“Ah, Svi, come on,” Jackson said in the postgame press conference with a smile, when asked about the mishap. “You see, originally the plan was to just throw me the ball. I didn’t know it was goin’ off the backboard.”
Added Mykhailiuk: “I should’ve just thrown it to him. Regular pass.”
The junior won’t soon forget that mistake, nor will he attempt an unnecessarily difficult alley-oop feed under Self’s watch again. Mykhailiuk learns too well from his mistakes as he continues to grow as a player.
“I just try to help my team win and do whatever — if it’s drive the ball, shoot the ball, play defense,” he said, before turning to another self-critique which surely also qualifies as a Self-critique of his game. “I’ve gotta rebound the ball more,” Mykhailiuk added after a two-board effort, with both of his coming on the offensive end, “because I’m not really good at rebounding now. I need to be more aggressive on the boards.”
When’s the last time you heard a three-point specialist talk about boosting his toughness on the glass? “Svi for a rebound” isn’t as catchy as “Svi for three,” but the junior remains determined to do more.
On a night when Kansas thrived with the three-ball, the most talented basketball prospect on the floor found it more beneficial to score inside.
While Josh Jackson’s teammates combined to convert 15 of their 26 shots from downtown, the freshman wing from Detroit missed his lone attempt taken outside of the arc, with the Jayhawks leading UMKC by 26 points in the second half.
Kansas didn’t need its 6-foot-8 NBA lottery pick-to-be bombing away in a 105-62 drubbing anyhow. Jackson, who shot 8-for-12 overall, scored two of his five first-half baskets on layups, and put in two more from near the left block. His only jumper from outside prior to intermission came on a successful Andrew Wiggins-esque long two-pointer from just inside the three-point line near the top of the key.
In the second half, Jackson scored all three of his baskets at the rim — two layups and one monster one-handed jam.
When he wasn’t taking efficiency-friendly shots on his way to 19 points, Jackson flew to the glass for a career-best 12 rebounds and even dished five assists.
Even though his freakish athleticism makes it easy for him to drive and create or score, that doesn’t mean Jackson has any wild ideas about abandoning his jumper or taking a more passive approach on future looks from downtown.
Currently shooting 26.3% on three-pointers (5-for-19) as a Jayhawk, Jackson remains confident in his ability to rise up and drain more difficult shots, even if his form might not be the most traditional you’ll encounter.
Jackson said through the years various basketball types have tried to help him tinker with his mechanics, but he’s not doing much tweaking right now.
“It depends on who they are,” Jackson said of how such conversations usually go, “whether I really trust you or not. But I can say I’ve received some really good tips in the past, and hopefully I’ll receive some more in the future.”
Since arriving in Lawrence, Jackson has relied on the wisdom of KU assistant Kurtis Townsend in the shooting department. A 13-year assistant of Bill Self, Townsend has suggested Jackson keep the ball up more, over his head, on his release, and shown him how spreading his fingers wider on the ball gives him more touch.
The key, of course, is avoiding reverting back to old habits.
“It’s really just muscle memory, yeah. Repeatability,” Jackson said of the key to making adjustments stick. “Being able to be comfortable and have confidence in it.”
While he tinkers with his form — Jackson has made just 26 of 45 (57.8%) free throws thus far – he can always go back to the paint to keep his production up. Nine games into his college career, Jackson is shooting 45-for-76 (59%) on two-point field goals.
— See what people were saying about the game during KUsports.com's live coverage.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. UMKC
- Milestone win: Self picks up 600th career victory against UMKC
- Tom Keegan: Not fool’s gold, KU making the most of three-point shooting
- Notebook: Jackson played ‘best game’ of year; Svi starts 2nd half
- Josh Jackson thrives on drives while working to improve jumper
- Keegan Ratings: Mason, Jackson, Graham on top again vs. UMKC
- Matt Tait's postgame Report Card
- Mason scores 30, Self clinches 600th win over UMKC
The limited second-half contributions of Kansas post players Tuesday night against Long Beach State weren’t enough to restore head coach Bill Self’s trust in his team’s bigs.
After all, the Jayhawks already had put the 49ers away by halftime, long before starting center Udoka Azubuike or sophomore power forward Carlton Bragg put the basketball through the hoop in a 91-61 rout.
For years, Self’s teams have relied upon a low-post scoring threat to facilitate the offense — from Wayne Simien, to Thomas Robinson, to Joel Embiid. Seven games into this season, though, the coach doesn’t think that traditional approach will work for his Jayhawks (6-1).
“We scored 48 points the first half and our big guys combined for one,” Self marveled after the victory, referencing Udoka Azubuike’s single made foul shot during the first 20 minutes. “And we had to bank in that one from the free-throw line to get one. So obviously you’re not gonna win consistently against good teams relyin' on makin’ three-point shots all the time, because there’s gonna be times where you don’t make ’em.”
Self expected much more out of his big men against Long Beach State, but utilized a four-guard approach often on a night KU shot 14-for-26 from three-point range and frontcourt players accounted for just 18 of the team’s 91 points.
The coach conceded Long Beach State (1-8) played a “kind of funky” matchup zone that the Jayhawks didn’t prepare much for and that kept the offense out of rhythm. Self also said Landen Lucas (oblique strain) missing the game hampered the team’s inside play, as did Bragg picking up two fouls in the first half, when the sophomore got on the floor for all of one minute.
But when Self looked at the box score and saw the following numbers from his big men, it just translated into disappointment.
- Azubuike: 3-for-6 FGs, 2-for-6 FTs, 8 points, 7 rebounds, 0 blocks
- Bragg: 3-for-7 FGs, 6 points, 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers
- Dwight Coleby: 1-for-1 FGs, 2 points, 5 rebounds, 1 block
Considering Azubuike had dunked his way to 17 points four days earlier against UNC Asheville, Self demanded more from the freshman 7-footer, calling him “no factor” against LBSU.
The coach proceeded to present his wish list for the Kansas bigs moving forward.
“At least a big can block a shot. We get no blocked shots tonight. I think the bigs can rebound better and I think that we can score with angles better, and certainly we can shoot our free throws better,” Self said. “But we’re not gonna be a team that scores 20 points out of the post this year. I don’t think that’s gonna be the case.”
KU veteran Devonté Graham understands his coach’s frustrations. But the junior guard said this Self team, even when it has four guards on the floor, won’t completely abandon its interior players as an offensive option.
“We still got that same mentality, though. Coach always tellin' us to play inside-out,” Graham said. “But I just think tonight we shot the ball real well, so we was just trying to be aggressive — kept attacking, kept shooting and making shots.”
Plus, Graham pointed out, LBSU set up its defense to pack in and try to take away points in the paint (though KU still scored 36 of those), almost inviting Kansas to shoot 3-pointers instead.
Obviously KU won’t see the same kind of defense every night if its guards keep burying open looks from downtown. And then the burden to score will increase for the team’s bigs. What’s more, Graham doesn’t think the Kansas post players will let their woes persist, even after a disappointing night.
“They’re doin’ real well with it,” Graham said. “They’ve been goin’ hard at each other in practice. So they’re gettin' better. They havin' that little slump, but I think definitely Carlton and Landen and ’Dok are doin’ a great job of gettin' through it.”