Entries from blogs tagged with “college football”
The offensive lifeblood of a four-guard lineup, 3-pointers — sometimes just the mere threat of them — space the floor for Kansas, give 7-footer Udoka Azubuike space to dominate on touches in the paint and have helped make a third consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 possible.
Of their 81.4 points per game this year, the Jayhawks average 30.1 from behind the arc (22nd in Division I). In other words, their opponents know KU’s guards would like nothing more than to drown them in a deluge of 3-pointers.
With foes doing everything within their powers to limit one of this Kansas team’s most effective weapons, timing and precision are vital for getting the best look at the basket possible while rising up from long range. Within an offense that revolves around ball screens, dribble hand-offs and drive-and-kicks it sure helps to have senior point guard Devonte’ Graham penetrating and distributing.
Among the 16 teams still alive in the NCAA Tournament, Graham’s 7.5 assists per game on the season lead all players. While plenty of those dimes come on fast breaks or alley-oops for KU bigs, the guards who play alongside Graham are thankful his kick-out passes allow them to consistently catch and shoot in one fluid motion.
So what percentage of Graham’s deliveries to 3-point shooters are perfect?
Junior Lagerald Vick briefly paused to calculate before responding, with a grin: “I would say about 99.7 of those are right on the money. I definitely think he’s a good passer, especially off penetration and kick.”
A more generous grader, senior Svi Mykhailiuk went ahead and gave Graham a 100.
“I think every time,” Mykhailiuk said. “He knows where I’m going to be and he just passes to me and I’m gonna make a shot.”
In KU’s second-round victory over Seton Hall, Graham didn’t have his typical shooting touch, but he assisted on 4 of his team’s 9 successful 3-pointers.
Two days earlier, the Jayhawks only made 7 from deep while defeating Penn. Graham assisted on three and made two 3-pointers.
Per Synergy Sports, Kansas has averaged 17.76 points in its first two NCAA Tournament victories off Graham assists alone — 2.4 points for every dish that sets up a basket.
Playing to his roster’s strengths, coach Bill Self has the Jayhawks (29-7) run a lot of ball-screen offense. While Graham is a strong 3-point shooter (his 40.4% accuracy ranks 60th in the country), it often falls on the lead guard to make sure senior Mykhailiuk (45.5%, 10th nationally), sophomore Malik Newman (40.9%) and Vick (37.8%) get the ball in advantageous situations once he begins attacking off the dribble.
“You’ve got to make the defense commit to you and I’ve got to find my guys for open shots,” Graham said.
Occasionally, every step of the process comes easily. On one possession against Penn, Graham turned the corner off a Mitch Lightfoot ball screen, drove to the paint and hit Vick, spotting up nearby in the right corner, for a perfect look.
Other times, Graham has to get more crafty.
In one second-half sequence versus Seton Hall, Graham dribbled left off a pick from Azubuike, drawing the attention of four Pirates defenders as he made his way into the paint. Their resulting rotation accounted for Vick in the right corner, which is where his opponents assumed Graham would look.
Instead he bounced a pass through a gap in the defense, all the way out to the right wing for a wide-open Newman 3-pointer.
Of course, Graham knows how to set up teammates for 3-pointers in every way imaginable.
While facing Penn, Graham misfired on a floater he released in the paint. When the ball rimmed out and found its way back to his hands for an offensive rebound, a little court awareness and quick improvisation paid off.
Graham knew where Vick was when he released his shot, so he easily kicked the ball out to his teammate near the left corner upon securing the rebound. Making the best of his circumstances, the point guard’s hustle set up an easy 3-pointer.
“He’s been a pretty good passer since I’ve known him, even when I came my freshman year when he was at the 2,” Vick said, referring to Graham’s days playing with Frank Mason III. “He’s a good passer.”
Graham’s recognition and vision prove valuable in transition, as well. Off a defensive rebound against Seton Hall, with nine players in front of him on the court, Graham knew KU had the spacing on the break for Newman to get an open 3-pointer on the left wing.
The senior point guard also trusted the shot would drop, raising his hands into the air to signal a successful 3 as Newman went into his shooting motion.
Graham’s familiarity with his fellow guards leads to such trust — as well as to so many accurate passes.
“Just playing with them, game experience, knowing where they like the ball at,” Graham said of how his passes so often generate 3-pointers, “and just tying to get it to them where they can just catch and shoot it before the defense goes out.”
Ahead of Friday’s Sweet 16 showdown with Clemson, in Omaha, Neb. (6:07 p.m., CBS), Vick, Mykhailiuk and Newman have combined to make 13 of 26 3-pointers in the tournament. Vick said their confidence as shooters is growing as a result, “especially with the big fella (Azubuike) back.”
Although Graham missed all four of his 3-point tries against Seton Hall after making 3 of 8 in the first round, his fellow guards have him to thank for much of their offensive impact.
“I would just say he knows how to play,” Mykhailiuk said, “and knows how to pass. He’s been doing this his whole life, so I guess he’s pretty good at it.”
Not even Naismith Award finalists can do it all every single night.
When Kansas star guard Devonte’ Graham’s shots weren’t falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks knew they could look elsewhere and find the scoring they needed to survive.
After Graham knocked down a jumper in the opening minutes Saturday night versus Seton Hall, not one of the six field-goal attempts that followed would drop for KU’s leading scorer.
No big deal. The other three guards in the starting lineup had their floor general’s back. Graham may have only provided eight points, but sophomore Malik Newman, senior Svi Mykhailiuk and junior Lagerald Vick combined for 57 as Kansas advanced to the Sweet 16.
“That’s what we do,” Graham, who averages 17.4 points a game, said matter-of-factly following the fourth single-digit scoring outing of his senior season. “If somebody’s having an off night, somebody’s got to step up, and they did a good job of knocking down shots and being aggressive.”
During a nine-assist night for Graham, he liked the way fellow senior Mykhailiuk (7-for-16 shooting, 2 of 5 on 3-pointers, 16 points, three assists) kept getting to the paint and making plays.
In the final four minutes of the victory that moved top-seeded Kansas on to the Midwest regional semifinals, it was Newman (8-of-14 shooting, 4 of 8 from 3-point range, 28 points, two assists) hitting a must-have 3-pointer, going 8 of 8 at the foul line and finding Mykhailiuk for a clutch 3-pointer that stretched the lead to eight with 1:20 to go.
“Everybody was just being aggressive and being a threat,” Graham said proudly.
Following his fifth straight double-digit scoring game, Vick (5-for-9 shooting, 3 of 4 on 3-pointers, 13 points) echoed the point guard’s reference to an assertive backcourt approach. The 6-foot-5 junior from Memphis scored eight points in a row for Kansas during a 2:09 stretch of the second half.
“We just, all us guards had a talk. We’re the head of the team so we knew everybody had to step up and make plays for each other,” Vick said. “We all just played off each other and were bringing energy.”
Even though Graham went from the 7:57 mark of the first half until the 7:52 mark in the second half without scoring a point for Kansas (29-7), Mykhailiuk said his four-year teammate’s floor game kept Graham as an essential component of KU’s success.
“If he’s on the court he just gives us confidence. He just controls the tempo of the game. He’s a point guard, so he doesn’t need to score, he doesn’t need to get assists,” Mykhailiuk added. “He just needs to do what he does and tell us what to do.”
During the regular season, a low-scoring game from Graham only cost KU a victory once — Dec. 6, when he shot 1 of 8 and scored three points against Washington’s 2-3 zone in a 74-65 defeat. The Jayhawks rolled against South Dakota State in November, when Graham finished with eight points, and they won an SEC-Big 12 Challenge encounter at Allen Fieldhouse with Texas A&M, when Graham’s 2-for-11 shooting left him with eight points.
Every aspect of the regular season prepares college basketball teams for the madness that awaits in March — even if those lessons don’t seem helpful at the time.
As Kansas moves on to Omaha, Neb., for a Friday matchup with Clemson (25-9), Graham’s teammates aren’t exactly worried about his scoring output moving forward. And if they need to pick up the slack in the points column, they won’t have any reason to panic.
“He still did good,” Mykhailiuk said of the team leader’s uncharacteristic showing in the second round. “He did all he could, and sometimes shots are just not falling down. So it’s a part of the game. I bet he’s gonna play better next time.”
Graham followed his three regular-season single-digit scoring games with 17 points against Texas Southern in a home win, 19 points versus Arizona State in a home loss and 16 points in a road victory at Kansas State.
Wichita — The hot shooting hand of guard Malik Newman and a resurgent Udoka Azubuike helped No. 1 seed Kansas get past feisty No. 8 Seton Hall, 83-79, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
But plenty more went into the Jayhawks’ survive-and-advance victory at Intrust Bank Arena.
Here are five statistics that helped send KU on to Omaha, Neb., and a spot in the 2018 Sweet 16.
No offensive missteps in final minute
The Jayhawks’ season could have ended ahead of schedule had they not handled their business at the foul line in crunch time, when their lead shrank to as little as three points.
As Seton Hall senior guard Khadeen Carrington did everything within his power to will the Pirates to an improbable comeback, scoring 13 points in the final 1:06 — no, that’s not a typo — KU guards Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman combined to make all 10 of their free-throw attempts in the game’s final 53 seconds.
Add a press-break out of a timeout that concluded with Graham finding Mitch Lightfoot for a two-handed slam and KU had just enough to move on.
Seton Hall outscored Kansas 16-12 in the final 1:06 thanks to Carrington’s heroics and a last-second Myles Powell 3-pointer. Had the Jayhawks turned the ball over or missed free throws, the game could have flipped.
Vick in rhythm in March
Lagerald Vick continued trending upward in the postseason in KU’s second-round victory.
For the fifth consecutive game — a stretch that began with the Jayhawks’ Big 12 quarterfinal victory over Oklahoma State — the junior guard provided double-digit scoring to the Kansas attack.
Against Seton Hall, Vick scored 13 points and, as he has in every Big 12 and NCAA tournament game this March, made at least 50% of his shot attempts, going 5 of 9.
Vick also made more than two 3-pointers for the first time since KU’s home romp over Oklahoma, knocking in 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
Shutting down Rodriguez
Two nights after Seton Hall’s leading scorer, senior Desi Rodriguez, went for 20 points in a first-round win over North Carolina State, the 6-foot-6 senior never got rolling against the Big 12 champions.
KU stymied Rodriguez, who entered averaging 17.9 points per game, limiting him to 2-for-10 shooting and 6 points in 35 minutes.
Vick spent portions of the game defending Seton Hall’s typical double-digit scorer, but other Jayhawks checked him at times, too, as switches occurred within the half court.
Rodriguez went 2 of 7 in the first half and barely even found opportunities to take shots in the second, despite playing 18 minutes.
Surviving Seton Hall’s offensive rebounding
The Jayhawks have run into their fair share of strong offensive rebounding teams this season and they continued to escape the wrath of devastating second-chance points in their matchup with Seton Hall.
Although the Pirates grabbed 15 of their missed shots against Kansas, they only cashed in on 14 second-chance points in a tight, loser-goes-home game.
Senior center Angel Delgado often operated as he pleased within the paint, en route to 24 points and a career-best 23 rebounds (9 on the offensive glass). But the key for Kansas was handling the Pirates when someone other than the skilled 6-foot-10 big controlled the offensive boards.
When Delgado snatched Pirates misses, the ball found its way through the net on those possessions — either by immediate putback, eventual basket or free throws — on six of eight occasions.
However, when a different Pirate came down with an offensive rebound, Kansas repeatedly found its way to a stop. On six possessions, one of Delgado’s teammates got credited with an offensive rebound. The Pirates scored just one basket as a result.
More second-chance points could have swung the game in Seton Hall’s favor, but KU found a way to move on, despite finishing with only 23 defensive rebounds on 38 opportunities.
Graham in set-up role
KU star guard Graham wasn’t himself versus the Pirates, going 1 of 7 from the floor, missing all four of his 3-pointers and finishing with 8 points.
As the senior has shown in the past, though, an off shooting night didn’t get him down. Kansas needed Graham running the show and making plays that led to his teammates scoring. Throughout the second half Graham did just that.
KU’s leader assisted on 7 of his team’s 15 field goals in the second half to finish with 9 assists in the victory.
The Jayhawks built a double-digit lead in the second half, not only because of Udoka Azubuike’s presence, but also through Graham’s distributions.
His passes led to a Svi Mykhailiuk layup, an Azubuike slam, a Newman lay-in, a Vick 3-pointer, a Mykhailiuk 3-pointer, a 3 from Newman and the aforementioned Lightfoot jam.
And, after a 4-turnover first half by Graham, he only coughed the ball up once while playing the entirety of the second half.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Seton Hall
- Dominant Dok: Azubuike plays big role to lift Jayhawks past Seton Hall
- Tom Keegan: Nudge in right direction awakens Malik Newman
- Graham survives injury scare, breaks program record for minutes in a season
- Angel Delgado’s historic performance not enough to beat Kansas
- The Keegan Ratings: Malik Newman shoots Kansas into Sweet 16, tops ratings
- KU’s supporting cast pushes Jayhawks past Seton Hall and into Sweet 16
Wichita — In order to get past Seton Hall and reach the Sweet 16, top-seeded Kansas will have to either thwart or survive one of the Pirates’ best offensive sources: rebounding their own misses.
Averaging 12.2 offensive rebounds per game (37th nationally), Seton Hall thrives at securing second chances due in large part to the presence of 6-foot-10 senior center Angel Delgado, who accounts for 3.7 offensive rebounds an outing.
“I always say it’s like he’s got a magnet in his hands,” Pirates senior Desi Rodriguez said. “The ball’s just attached to his hands when he’s rebounding the ball.”
Delgado, of course, has caught KU’s attention, sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot said.
“Obviously he’s a great offensive rebounder, knows how to wedge, and box out really well. We’ve got to figure out how to keep him off the glass,” Lightfoot began, before saying the guards around Delgado benefit from his presence, too, crashing and finding angles to track down misses. “They’re a load to box out.”
Player after player in the KU locker room at Intrust Bank Arena mentioned how much Seton Hall (22-11) reminds them of West Virginia, with their physical style of play and tendency to thrive on the offensive glass. WVU averages 14.0 offensive boards and rebounds 34.6% of its misfires. The Pirates’ offensive rebounding percentage of 32.2% ranks 36th in the country.
When KU senior point guard Devonte’ Graham watched video of Seton Hall, though, he saw a style similar to another Big 12 foe in the Pirates’ game.
“That’s a little bit of the physicality that we had to talk about, going ahead and rebounding. They go to the glass just as good as anybody in the country — kind of like Oklahoma State,” Graham said, “in how physical their guards can be and how big they are.”
The Cowboys, who beat Kansas twice during the regular season, average 12.6 offensive rebounds and come away with 32.5% of their missed shots.
The Jayhawks (28-7) have enough experience facing teams that make a living on the offensive glass to know how costly opponents’ second-chance points can be.
Senior Svi Mykhailiuk noted KU will have to play tough and put a body on someone on every defensive trip down the floor.
“And like the guards gotta help Mitch and Silvio (De Sousa) and just to box out, because I don't think everybody's on the glass like the point guards,” Mykhailiuk said, “so they just gotta come inside and just help him to rebound.”
With Udoka Azubuike on a minutes restriction, KU won’t have its most consistent defensive rebounder much of the game. But sophomore guard Malik Newman, who has come away with 5 or more rebounds 20 times this season, is more than capable of pitching in and making things easier on Azubuike, De Sousa and Lightfoot.
“I come into every game thinking that if I can get out and rebound then it will help the team,” Newman said, “because now we can start our break and we can play fast. That’s coach’s biggest emphasis. He always wants us to have fun, play with confidence and play fast.”
Throughout the season, Bill Self’s team has faced seven opponents that are similar to Seton Hall from an offensive rebounding standpoint.
KU went 1-2 against Oklahoma State, 3-0 versus West Virginia, 2-0 in matchups with TCU, 1-1 in meetings with Baylor and picked up non-conference victories over Kentucky, Syracuse and Texas A&M. That’s a 10-3 mark overall versus strong offensive rebounding teams.
7 (at OSU)
|19 (at TCU)
9 (at BU)
|14 (at WVU)
|2nd Chance Points
10 (at OSU)
|14 (at TCU)
14 (at BU)
|14 (at WVU)
|KU result||84-79 L
|79-68 W||76-60 W||65-61 W||70-67 W
Lightfoot said Delgado reminds him a little bit of both Sagaba Konate and Kenrich Williams in his pursuit of missed shots. So can the Jayhawks reference the success they’ve had in those matchups and others as they prepare to take on Seton Hall and Delgado?
“Yes and no,” Lightfoot said. “It’s kind of hard to say, ‘I played well against this guy, so I’m going to play well against this guy.’ I think that we’ve just got to learn from those games and just come out and play hard. If we play hard then we will be hard to stop.”
Wichita — The top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks knew entering their NCAA Tournament opener against Penn that getting past the Ivy League champions would be no easy task.
With senior point guard Devonte’ Graham leading the way, the Jayhawks moved on to the second round of The Madness for the 12th March in a row.
Here are five statistics that fueled the Jayhawks (28-7) against the Quakers.
Penn entered the NCAA Tournament as a team built more on defense than offense. For Kansas it was imperative the Quakers didn’t get hot and gain confidence offensively.
Although the Quakers jumped out to a 21-11 lead early in the first half, the Jayhawks’ defenders settled in and limited Penn to 35.7-percent shooting in the first 20 minutes as the underdogs missed 11 of their final 15 shot attempts leading into the halftime break.
Kansas kept Penn leading scorer Ryan Betley in check (3-for-9 shooting, 8 points) and limited A.J. Brodeur, a 54.2-percent shooter entering the game, to 6-of-16 success from the field.
The Quakers only converted on 39.3 percent of the shot attempts. They were the first KU opponent to shoot under 40 percent since the Jayhawks won at Kansas State (though West Virginia shot exactly 40 percent in the Big 12 title game).
KU’s defense might be trending the right direction ahead of a Saturday matchup with Seton Hall, which scored 94 points against North Carolina State.
Lightfoot’s 2nd half
With Udoka Azubuike limited while recovering from a sprained MCL in his left knee, Kansas needed some interior contributions from either Silvio De Sousa, the unexpected breakout performer of the Big 12 tournament, of sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot.
Against Penn, the slightly more experienced Lightfoot came through after Azubuike played 3 relatively ineffective minutes in the first half.
Before halftime, Lightfoot played 10 minutes. He missed a baseline jumper, grabbed 2 defensive rebounds and blocked a shot.
In the second half, though, Lightfoot gave KU far more, scoring all 9 of his points and, even more importantly, putting in work on the glass, with 2 offensive boards and 7 more rebounds on the defensive end of the floor.
His 11 boards gave the 6-foot-8 fill-in starter a new career high. And Lightfoot played solid defense, finishing with 3 blocked shots.
Vick’s efficient offensive outing
In one of his more effective scoring outings of his junior season, Lagerald Vick only needed 7 shot attempts to provide KU with 14 points.
Vick nailed 2 of his 4 3-point tries and both of his free-throw attempts to help his cause. But he also found low-risk, high-reward looks.
The springy guard got open for one score at the rim in each half and put in another easy basket in the paint.
The productive NCAA Tournament opener gave Vick his fourth consecutive game in double figures for the first time this season. Even when he was routinely hitting the 20-point mark in November and December, Vick never scored 10 or more points in more than three consecutive outings.
His 14 points were the most since he went for 17 in KU’s home win over Oklahoma.
The upperclassmen from Memphis didn’t force many bad shots and Kansas handled a pesky Penn team as a result. Moving forward, Vick can make an even larger imprint on the game with offensive rebounds or an assists — he finished with 0 in both categories.
Points off turnovers
Penn was by no means sloppy with the basketball, committing 11 turnovers, right around its season average. But when the Quakers gave the ball away, the Jayhawks often pounced.
In a 16-point victory, Kansas scored 15 points off Penn’s 11 miscues.
The Jayhawks turned the ball over only 8 times (1 away from their season low) and Penn only forged 4 points off of those slip-ups.
KU’s 11-point advantage in points off turnovers was the most since a plus-17 margin at Iowa State.
A postseason victory on the glass
Benefiting from a more athletic lineup, KU oftentimes looked faster than Penn. But the Jayhawks also utilized their advantage on the glass.
Lightfoot obviously made the biggest impact, with his 11 rebounds, but he got plenty of help as Kansas won the battle of the boards, 41-33. It marked KU’s fifth rebounding victory in the past eight games.
Starting guards Graham and Malik Newman each chipped in 6 rebounds. Freshman Marcus Garrett came in off the bench to add 5 more, and backup big De Sousa delivered 4 rebounds in just 10 minutes.
On 34 misses, Penn only came away with 5 offensive rebounds and 3 second chance points.
Kansas scored 14 points as a result of its 8 offensive boards.
Wichita — In the days leading up to the NCAA Tournament it seemed that not one discussion of Kansas versus Penn could go by without someone referencing the success of the Quakers’ second-ranked 3-point defense.
Penn opponents, anybody who follows either team closely could surely recite, only made 29.2 percent of their shots from behind the arc before Thursday’s first-round game at Intrust Bank Arena.
The Jayhawks didn’t rely upon 3-pointers in defeating Penn, 76-60, but they did prove more effective with their long-range looks than most foes of the Ivy League champs.
In knocking down 7 of 17 from 3-point distance, Kansas (28-7) moved on to the second round having converted more 3s than 17 previous Penn opponents. Only six Quakers foes all season shot more accurately than the Jayhawks (41.2 percent).
KU’s first successful 3 came on its first attempt, off the fingertips of junior Lagerald Vick, less than three minutes in. But seven consecutive Kansas 3-point misses — from Malik Newman, Devonte’ Graham (3), Vick (2) and Svi Mykhailiuk — followed over the course of the next 10-plus minutes, contributing to a 21-11 Penn advantage on the scoreboard.
Nerves might have contributed to the 1-for-8 start, but senior Mykhailiuk credited the Quakers (24-9) for executing their game plan, as well.
“They wanted to run us off the 3-point line, and they did a pretty good job of that today,” Mykhailiuk said after hitting 2 of 3 3-pointers. “Sometimes when Devonte’s going downhill, or Malik or Lagerald or me, they’ve definitely got to help. And then if they help we’re just trying to find the open man.”
Amid KU’s string of misfires, Graham (29 points) told his teammates to keep the 3-pointers coming.
“We can't keep missing,” he figured.
A Mykhailiuk 3-pointer from the right corner 3:51 before halftime, when he baited Caleb Wood into the air and then took a hard step to his left to rise up and fire, seemed to put KU’s shooters back on track. Including that open make, the No. 1 seed made 6 of its final 9 from downtown.
Penn’s relative success in defending the arc came in not allowing KU guards to attempt as many 3-pointers as they’re used to. In Big 12 play, the Jayhawks averaged 9.4 makes a game on 24.7 tries, and hit 38.2 percent.
KU coach Bill Self said his team bailed Penn out early by taking too many contested shots.
“Defensively, they don't pressure, but they make it hard to get all the way to the basket, and then they do do a good job of contesting the 3-point line,” Self said.
Only Mykhailiuk, Graham (3 of 8) and Vick (2 of 4) made 3-pointers against Penn. Newman missed both of his looks. Considering KU entered the tournament with a 40.3 percent 3-point shooting mark and averaging 10.1 makes a game, Quakers coach Steve Donahue actually applauded his players’ perimeter defense in defeat — pointing to the fact KU only led by eight with less than seven minutes to play in a pro-Kansas building.
“Defense was awesome,” Donahue said. “Got them to shoot 18 hard 2s, something we preach. Got seven 3s for a team that makes 10.”
Kansas connected on just 1 of 5 2-point jumpers outside of the paint in each half but found 28 points off layups and dunks in the victory.
“They pack it in so well,” Graham said, “it’s hard to actually get into the paint. And the bigs, they switch up how they guarded off the ball screens, so they keep you thinking and keep you on your toes. We was just trying to keep getting downhill and make plays.”
It took some effort, but the Jayhawks drove with persistence and eventually found the open looks — sometimes inside, sometimes outside — they needed to advance.
KU will face No. 8 seed Seton Hall on Saturday. The Pirates held North Carolina State to 11-for-30 3-point shooting in a 94-83 win. Seton Hall entered the tournament with a 33.4 percent 3-point defense (98th nationally).
Whenever Udoka Azubuike returns to the Kansas basketball rotation — whether it’s Thursday against Penn, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, or in the days that follow — the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region will essentially roll out an updated version of itself, with noticeable upgrades both in the paint and on the perimeter.
The Jayhawks that won the regular-season Big 12 championship barely used freshman big man Silvio De Sousa.
The KU team that captured the league’s postseason tournament crown in Kansas City, Mo., didn’t benefit from one second of Azubuike.
The Kansas team trying to navigate its way to the 2018 Final Four should be able to throw Azubuike, De Sousa and a suddenly-high-scoring Malik Newman at opponents, possibly as soon as the first round.
Senior point guard Devonte’ Graham said De Sousa, who went for 16 points and 10 rebounds in KU’s Big 12 title game win over West Virginia, and Newman, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, broke through at just the right time.
“Now on the scouting report it’s not just going to be me, Svi (Mykhailiuk) and Udoka (Azubuike), Malik,” Graham said. “It’s going to be Silvio — they’re going to have to guard everybody. When you’ve got five guys out there that can be in attack mode it’s hard to guard that. It’s perfect timing and the perfect time for them to get hot.”
Newman, a sophomore guard who transferred from Mississippi State, enters his NCAA Tournament debut (1 p.m. Thursday, on TBS) having just averaged 24 points per game on 15-for-22 3-point shooting at the Big 12 tournament.
His explosive three-day-long performance followed back-to-back single-digit scoring games to close the regular season. Now those ineffective outings seem as if they transpired months ago, instead of occurring in the previous two-plus weeks.
“I feel like I’m playing at a very high level,” Newman said. “That’s just thanks to my teammates and the coaching staff. Those guys had confidence in me throughout the year, no matter if I was at my lowest or at my highs. They’ve just always said, ‘Be aggressive and things are going to be fine.’ So credit to those guys for rallying around me and keeping me high.”
Similarly, De Sousa’s teammates always trusted he eventually would bloom and begin playing to the potential of a five-star prep prospect — even though he arrived in Lawrence during the middle of the campaign, in late December, as an early high school graduate.
“He’s been working so hard in practice,” Graham said of the 6-foot-9 backup forward, who played sparingly for KU in January and February, “and going through ups and downs. Learning all the plays in two months is extreme for him. He’s just been battling and it’s starting to pay off.”
Graham could see it coming. It just so happened everything began clicking for De Sousa when KU needed him most, with Azubuike out of the lineup in Kansas City, due to a left-knee injury. Even before De Sousa averaged 10 points and 9.7 rebounds at the Big 12 tournament, KU’s team leader witnessed the young big “grinding” at practices, arriving early and spending extra time studying video with assistant coach Norm Roberts.
“At any point in time we knew he was going to have a breakout game, and it was the perfect time with Dok being out,” Graham added, “so his confidence should be high. Sky high.”
Newman left K.C. this past weekend impressed with De Sousa the player and the man, praising the freshman’s character and speaking of the way he seemed to respond to any and all adversity with a smile and positive attitude.
“Each day he just tried to learn. Whenever he messed up he would just go ask coach. ‘Coach, what do I need to be doing? Did I do this right?’ Things like that. We knew sooner or later he was gonna turn the corner,” Newman shared. “Not too long ago in the regular season I remember saying that Silvio, he was on the porch, but he’s not in the house yet, as far as him just being comfortable. But I think this tournament, I think it really helped him and let him know that we’ve got confidence in him to go out and play.”
De Sousa brought energy to KU’s frontcourt in the Big 12 championship game, and made impactful plays to help the Jayhawks win without their starting 7-footer, Azubuike. In doing so De Sousa looked completely different from the freshman whom coach Bill Self hesitated to keep checked into games for more than a minute or two as recently as a month ago.
“I’m not gonna lie, when I came here out of high school I knew it was going to be hard,” De Sousa said. “And I just believed in myself and just tried hard during practices. Now, months later, I’ve actually got my confidence up. Today I finally can play a lot better than I used to.”
When Azubuike returns to the floor, Graham thinks Kansas (27-7) will have an even more dynamic team to unleash in the NCAA Tournament, now that De Sousa has proven he can produce and play with confidence.
Whether March brought out the best in De Sousa and Newman or the emerging Jayhawks just have impeccable timing, Newman isn’t ruling out the idea of another KU player stepping to the forefront soon.
“Svi could’ve stepped up, Lagerald (Vick) could’ve stepped up and did what I did,” Newman said of carrying the offensive load this past weekend. “Or instead of Silvio playing how he played, Mitch (Lightfoot) could’ve played like that. I don’t think it’s just me and him. It was one man goes down, one man step up.”
Kansas City, Mo. — Just as West Virginia learned twice during the regular season against eventual Big 12 champion Kansas, the Jayhawks can be a difficult team to put away.
The Mountaineers didn’t establish a double-digit lead against KU like they did in their previous two meetings, but WVU once again couldn’t shut down a hot Kansas offense late in the second half of Saturday’s Big 12 title game.
The Jayhawks, who trailed by as many as eight in the second half, beat West Virginia, 81-70, to capture KU’s 15th conference tournament championship overall and 11th in the Big 12.
Here are five statistics that drove a victory that almost certainly cemented Kansas as a No. 1 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
De Sousa key to 1st-half stretch run
Silvio De Sousa — the same player coach Bill Self didn’t trust enough to put on the court the last time Kansas squared off with West Virginia — was the only Jayhawk in uniform who could score inside most of the first half.
As West Virginia spent more than 11 minutes before halftime with the lead, the Jayhawks weren’t finding many chances for quality looks at the basket unless they came on 3-pointers.
Enter suddenly-super sub De Sousa.
When the 6-foot-9 freshman from Angola checked in with 14:49 to go until halftime, KU had 2 points in the paint. It turned out De Sousa was the only Jayhawk who could get the job done, as he proceeded to score 10 of KU’s 12 points in the paint before the break.
De Sousa shot 5 for 5 in 13 first-half minutes with two tip-ins, two slam dunks and a layup. His teammates combined to make 4 of 10 attempts at the rim.
By the end of De Sousa’s perfect 8-for-8 shooting night he accounted for 16 of KU’s 24 points in the paint.
Red-hot second half
It seemed as if every shot KU put up at Sprint Center in the second half was going to end up dropping through the net.
The Jayhawks made their first three shot attempts out of halftime, including a 3-pointer each for Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick. And even though the next few minutes featured a 1-for-4 stretch with two missed layups, the Kansas offense exploded soon after.
KU connected on 14 of its final 18 field-goal attempts en route to 72-percent shooting in the final 20 minutes. It was the fourth time this season the Jayhawks shot 70 percent or better in a half, and what a half in which to pull it off again, with the Big 12’s postseason championship up for grabs.
Senior leader Devonte’ Graham put on quite a show, hitting 6 of 7 shots in the decisive stretch. But his supporting cast was nearly as effective. De Sousa (3 of 3) didn’t miss, and both Newman and Vick shot 3 for 4.
As a result, KU poured in 48 second-half points and finished the victory with a 56.4 field-goal percentage. The Jayhawks are 13-0 this year when reaching the 50-percent mark.
Power of the 3-ball (again)
As important as their 3-pointers were against Kansas State the night before at the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks inflicted far more damage on WVU in the championship game from long distance.
KU’s four starting guards combined to bury 15 of 26 3-pointers, meaning the regular-season and postseason Big 12 champions scored 56% of their points from beyond the arc against West Virginia.
In three days at the league tournament, Kansas made 34 shots from long range — the most 3-pointers by a team that only played three games in Big 12 tournament history. (Oklahoma State made 35 over four games in 1999.)
KU improved to 15-2 this season when making at least 10 shots from 3-point range.
Although West Virginia hurt Kansas much of the night with its offensive rebounding, gathering 17 of its own misses for 14 second-chance points, the Jayhawks proved much more diligent on the glass when it mattered most.
When Sagaba Konate scored a second-chance bucket with 9:37 to play, it pushed the WVU lead to 63-56. However, the Jayhawks only allowed the Mountaineers to secure one more offensive rebound on 11 missed shots the rest of the way.
De Sousa (3 defensive boards in the final 9:00), Newman (3), Vick (2) and Mykhailiuk (1), cleaned the glass in crunch time, as West Virginia failed to score another second-chance point.
Graham smooth under pressure
Although, as usual, Graham played 40 minutes and owned far more ball-handling responsibilities than any of his teammates, the senior point guard only committed two turnovers against the always-assertive WVU defense, while also supplying a career-high 13 assists.
In 120 minutes this season versus the Mountaineers and two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jevon Carter, Graham turned the ball over 7 times and assisted on 26 of his teammate’s baskets.
The Jayhawks’ senior point guard set a new Big 12 title game record with his 13 assists against WVU, as well.
Kansas City, Mo. — Perennial league champion Kansas improved to 13-6 all-time in the Big 12 tournament semifinals on Friday, with an 83-67 victory over rival Kansas State at Sprint Center.
The Jayhawks only shot 44% from the floor and allowed the Wildcats to hit 53.6% of their shots in the second half, but advanced to the conference championship game for the sixth time in nine seasons.
Here are five stats that stood out — four good for Kansas, one not — in the Jayhawks’ semifinal victory over K-State.
Offense recovers in crunch time
A better opening to the second half would’ve helped the Jayhawks avoid putting the game’s outcome in danger, but they did manage to close the game appropriately.
A key Marcus Garrett steal and layup made sure of that. The freshman’s timely bucket ignited the Jayhawks, who converted 8 of their final 13 shot attempts over the course of the final 10 minutes. Up to that point, Kansas had made just 3 of 12 from the floor in the final half.
Suddenly energized after a lethargic stretch, especially for postseason basketball, KU’s players finished off the win by following Garrett’s lay-in with more high-percentage looks:
- 2 putbacks by Silvio De Sousa
- 2 Malik Newman 3-pointers
- A Lagerald Vick dunk
- Another Vick bucket
- A Mitch Lightfoot jam
Those baskets turned a 2-point Kansas lead into 12 before the Jayhawks spent most of the game’s final 2:00 at the foul line, going 8 for 10.
Controlling the glass
For the fourth time in the past six games, Kansas out-rebounded its opponent. Not bad for a team that did the opposite in 15 of 16 games before that.
The Jayhawks won the battle of the boards, 37-30. Even more impressive, though, they only let K-State gather 5 offensive rebounds on 32 missed field goals. The Wildcats only managed 2 second-chance points.
Big 12 opponents averaged 14.3 second-chance points a game against Kansas in the regular season and each of KU’s past eight foes scored at least 10 points in that category.
De Sousa’s 8 defensive boards led the team, and Newman secured 5 on that end. Both Devonte’ Graham and Garrett added 4 defensive rebounds.
Power of the 3-ball
For the 16th time this season, KU made 10 or more 3-pointers.
By knocking down 11 of 28 (39%) versus K-State, the Jayhawks improved to 14-2 when scoring at least 30 points from beyond the arc. K-State, meanwhile, made just 2 of 13 from 3-point range (15%) — the fewest makes and worst percentage by a KU opponent this season.
Both Newman (5 of 8) and Svi Mykhailiuk (4 of 8) routinely exploited the Wildcats for leaving them open.
Bench (and former sub) scoring
Between KU’s four regular members of the starting five, each contributed double-digit points in Friday’s win.
But Kansas nearly had three more players join Newman (22), Graham (15), Mykhailiuk (12) and Vick (10) in double figures.
A starter in just 4 games this season, Lightfoot added 8 points for the Jayhawks, who also picked up 8 points apiece from backups Garrett and De Sousa.
Newman carried the load offensively, but every other member of the rotation found opportunities to score, too, giving Kansas some balance in its distribution, making the attack less predictable.
No resistance in the paint
KU typically fares well inside or at least goes toe to toe with opponents in terms of making baskets around the hoop.
The Jayhawks averaged a +7.5 points in the paint margin during the regular season (+2.2 vs. Big 12 foes) and even outscored Oklahoma State by 10 inside without Udoka Azubuike in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
However, the Jayhawks lost the battle for the paint against K-State. The Wildcats scored 42 points inside, matching the most by any KU opponent this season.
Confident in taking their chances against Kansas bigs Lightfoot and De Sousa, the Wildcats finished with a 42-28 advantage in points in the paint, stimulated by Makol Mawien’s 29-point explosion, 16 of which came at the rim.
You know West Virginia will try to inflict even more damage against KU’s interior defense in Saturday night’s Big 12 title game.
Kansas City, Mo. — When Kansas lost starting center Udoka Azubuike for the Big 12 tournament due to a left knee injury, senior point guard Devonte’ Graham knew the top-seeded Jayhawks would need Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa to produce in the 7-footer’s absence.
What Graham didn’t realize before Thursday’s quarterfinal against Oklahoma State, though, was KU would even lean a little bit on basketball walk-on and football scholarship player James Sosinski — in the first half no less.
Two fouls apiece on fill-in starter Lightfoot and backup big De Sousa before intermission forced Bill Self to turn to Sosinski for just the fourth time this season.
“I was surprised when he got in,” Graham said. “It’s funny, because coach did tell him, ‘James, you better be ready.’ I thought he was just joking.”
It was at that point in the discussion that Graham, enjoying the team’s 82-68 victory over the Cowboys, spotted Lightfoot walking nearby in KU’s locker room and let it be known Sosinski had the Jayhawks’ sophomore big man to thank for his unexpected role.
“But numbnuts over here, when he’s fouling, when Mitch’s fouling and Silvio comes in and fouls, you’ve got to put somebody in,” Graham said toward Lightfoot, who grinned in response. “We might as well get James to come in and get a foul off. He used to playing football, so he just hacked him when he got in.”
Indeed, the Cowboys’ Yankuba Sima drew a foul on Sosinski, put in two free throws, and scored another basket inside during the 6-foot-7 KU reserve’s 1:25 of playing time.
“He fouled as soon as he got in,” Self said afterward, before joking a yellow flag might have landed on the Sprint Center court in response to the KU tight end’s aggressive play. “It should’ve been 10 yards.”
Before De Sousa got comfortable, finishing with 6 points and 8 rebounds in 15 minutes, Self didn’t think the freshman played very well in his first opportunity off the bench. KU’s coach even thought about turning to Sosinski earlier than he did in the first half. The next time Self needed to sub out Lightfoot, he wanted to insert Sosinski, before his assistants talked him out of it.
“I’m probably glad I made the decision I did,” Self said. “It’s nice to have James, but I never thought going into this season, when you’ve got Udoka and you’ve got Billy Preston, that James Sosinski may be important in the postseason,” he added with a chuckle.
In truth, Sosinski's presence didn’t make or break KU. The only statistic he recorded in his minute-plus was a personal foul. In the final seconds of the half, Sosinski looked to be positioned for an offensive rebound on a missed Marcus Garrett 3-pointer. However, senior Svi Mykhailiuk came crashing in from the weak side, soaring above the low-to-the-floor football/basketball player. Mykhailiuk scored a buzzer-beating layup for a 43-42 halftime lead.
“I was thinking I was gonna get it and Svi got it,” Sosinski said. “I just kind of let him shoot it, that’s his go-to. It was a big momentum swing going into the second half.”
Just a bad-luck situation for the seldom-used backup to KU’s backup bigs? Not according to Graham.
“No, that was a good-luck situation,” a smiling Graham countered. “I’m glad Svi got it and scored. No telling what James would’ve done with it.”
It’s not that the Jayhawks don’t appreciate Sosinski and his contributions. De Sousa said he never looks forward to his encounters with the scout team big during Kansas practices. When they match up, De Sousa thinks to himself, “Man, why you gotta guard me right now?”
“He’s really hard to score on,” De Sousa added. “He just plays hard. He goes after every single ball. That’s how he is.”
“He always plays great in practice. If he gets in I’m pretty confident he’s not going to let his guy score easily, and if he had to foul he’s gonna foul really hard,” Mykhailiuk said. “He’s a good player, and he definitely helped us today.”
The two-sport athlete from Chandler, Ariz., has played sparingly, with two similarly brief appearances, since getting four minutes of playing time Dec. 18 versus Omaha and scoring 4 points in mop-up duty.
Sosinski left the arena Friday feeling grateful for his short cameo and a rare chance to chip in.
“Even though it was a minute and a half, every minute’s important in games like this,” Sosinski said. “Since I know I’m not going to play any minutes, I’ve just got to play as hard as I can.”
Kansas City, Mo. — This season’s Kansas basketball team is no stranger to getting beat on the glass. So the top-seeded Jayhawks should feel right at home this week at Sprint Center, where they will try and navigate the Big 12 tournament without injured 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike.
Without question, KU’s offense will miss the high-percentage shots Azubuike, out with a medial collateral ligament sprain, provides with regularity. But the Jayhawks also will look like a lesser version of themselves on the boards, because the sophomore big is the best rebounder on a team that oftentimes struggles to finish stops by securing an opponent’s missed shot.
A massive presence in the paint, Azubuike started every game for Kansas (24-7) this season up to this point, and led the team in rebounding 18 times.
KU won the rebound margin in three of its final four regular-season games — +13 versus Oklahoma, +7 vs. Texas and +7 at Oklahoma State. But the Jayhawks lost that battle in 15 of the 16 games that preceded their more successful stretch.
Against Power 5 competition this season (25 games), KU out-rebounded its opponent five times — the other two came against Arizona State and Kansas State.
So what does the team that finished 9th in the Big 12 in rebound margin (-2.9 a game) look like without its best rebounder? To try and get a sense of what to expect at the conference tournament, let’s look at a few of Azubuike’s less impactful games this season on the glass.
Occasionally, Azubuike, who averaged 7.1 boards on the year and 6.6 a game in league action, finished with 4 or fewer rebounds. That occurred four times during Big 12 play:
at TCU: 1 rebound in 13 minutes (fouled out); TCU scored 14 second-chance points — KU won 88-84
at Kansas State: 3 rebounds in 18 minutes; K-State scored 9 second-chance points — KU won 70-56
at Baylor: 4 rebounds in 19 minutes; BU scored 14 second-chance points — KU lost 80-64
at Iowa State: 3 rebounds in 22 minutes; ISU scored 10 second-chance points — KU won 83-77
At TCU, Mitch Lightfoot (7 rebounds) and Marcus Garrett (6 boards) helped carry the load. At K-State, Malik Newman came through with 10 rebounds and Svi Mykhailiuk grabbed 7 more. At ISU, Newman and Devonte’ Graham tied for the team lead (6 apiece).
The Jayhawks lost at Baylor when no one stepped up to fill the void. Mykhailiuk, Newman and Lagerald Vick each finished with 4 boards.
KU’s rebounding numbers — and chances of advancing in the Big 12 tournament — will look a lot worse unless Azubuike’s teammates use his absence as incentive to really attack the glass.
“We’ve been a poor rebounding team by good rebounding team standards all year long,” KU coach Bill Self said Wednesday at Sprint Center.
It doesn’t sound as if Self is expecting Lightfoot and De Sousa to suddenly start rebounding like Cole Aldrich and Thomas Robinson.
“So we’re just going to have to have our guards rebound more,” Self said. “You know, Malik’s done a good job. Svi and Lagerald have got to become better rebounders probably as much as anyone.”
The numbers indicate Kansas should be able to count on Newman to get inside and clear some defensive rebounds. The 6-3 guard, per sports-reference.com, is KU’s second-most consistent rebounder on that end, gathering an estimated 15.6% of available defensive rebounds (Azubuike leads the team with a 20.2% defensive rebound percentage.)
Newman can look for some help on that end from Garrett (15.6%). Lightfoot enters the postseason with a 12.4% mark, while De Sousa, with far fewer minutes to give a better sense of his ceiling, owns a 12.3% defensive rebound percentage.
It’s unrealistic to expect any Jayhawks to match Azubuike’s offensive impact. But, chipping in as a committee of rebounders at Sprint Center will be necessary for them to get by without their game-changing center.
— Udoka Azubuike 2017-18 season game log —
Less than two weeks ago Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, while discussing a recent uptick in Malik Newman’s play, stated how proud he was of the starting guard’s progress.
The sophomore transfer from Mississippi State was coming off one of his best offensive showings as a Jayhawk, going for 20 points and 5 assists in a rout of Oklahoma. It was Newman’s third time posting at least 20 points and ninth time in double figures over a stretch of 10 games.
Even more encouraging, the 6-foot-3 guard from Jackson, Miss., looked better handling the ball. Newman had shown he could be more than a spot-up 3-point shooter by driving to the paint to either draw contact, score or set up teammates. In a five-game span that concluded with the OU game on Feb. 19, Newman averaged 4.2 assists and 0.6 turnovers — far better than his current season averages of 2.1 assists and 1.5 turnovers.
While Self appreciates the headway Newman has made to become a more complete player than what he showed back in the non-conference portion of the schedule and Self is happy the shooting guard won the Big 12’s Newcomer of the Year award, KU’s coach is hoping for a Newman resurgence with the postseason’s arrival.
In the Jayhawks’ final three games of the regular season, Newman, who is supposed to complement Big 12 Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham in the backcourt, didn’t always deliver on his potential, and his numbers began trending in the wrong direction.
At Texas Tech, Newman was solid, with 12 points and 5 defensive rebounds, but he made just 1 assist (in the first half) — his lowest ball distribution total in three weeks — and committed 1 turnover. Against Texas in KU’s home finale, Newman provided 9 points, 4 defensive boards and 1 assist, with 1 turnover. He bottomed out in the Jayhawks’ loss at Oklahoma State, with 7 points, 3 defensive rebounds, 0 assists and 3 cough-ups.
After averaging 4.2 free-throw attempts a game in the previous 12 contests, Newman didn’t get to the foul line once in his final two games of the regular season.
“I think he's shown flashes of being, of showing a lot of progress,” Self said of Newman, who averaged 12.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in Big 12 play, while shooting 43.4% from the field and making 33 of 88 3-pointers (37.5%). “And then I honestly think he's shown flashes of not. I would like more consistency.”
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Newman needs to revive the versatility that made him so valuable in late January and most of February now that it’s March. Newman has stated a number of times how important it is for he and other Jayhawks to help take some of the burden off Graham’s shoulders.
If Newman wants to make that happen on a regular basis in the weeks ahead, he can just recall some of Graham’s advice. The senior point guard said when Newman was at his best recently it was all about taking an assertive approach on offense and trying to reach the paint off the bounce.
“I keep telling him that,” Graham related. “Just look to score. Don’t worry about nothing else. Because once you start thinking you just get all messed up. So just look to score, be aggressive on the offensive end and it just takes care of itself.”
Just more than half of Newman’s shot attempts this season have come from behind the arc. A 36.9% 3-point shooter on the year (37.5% in Big 12 action), spotting up isn’t always Newman’s best play. When he is more diverse with the ball in his hands, it tends to benefit both him and his teammates.
Plus, Self wants Newman contributing in less trackable manners. As you might expect, those areas where the coach would like to see more consistency directly tie to relieving Graham of some of his duties. KU’s 15th-year coach finds himself examining what Newman does on a game-by-game basis to help Graham.
“I’d love to see Malik be able to say, ‘I want to guard the other team's best perimeter player.’ I would love to see us be able to initiate offense with Malik, so Devonte' doesn't have to,” Self said. “And those don't have anything to do with stats, but those are things that would help our team a tremendous amount. He's shown he can do that, but I think he can be more consistent with that.”
Newman’s first crack at a late-season renaissance comes Thursday in Kansas City, Mo., when the top-seeded Jayhawks face either Oklahoma or Oklahoma State.
The words March and madness so easily roll off the tongue because postseason college basketball so often delivers the upsets and wild finishes fans crave.
Those searching for such chaos in the days ahead need look no further than this week’s Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, Mo.
The conference’s depth means more intriguing matchups, for sure. But the atmosphere Wednesday through Saturday at Sprint Center figures to benefit even more from the fact so many of the league’s teams need a win (or wins) to cement their invitations to the Big Dance.
Entering the week, eight of the Big 12’s 10 teams project as NCAA Tournament worthy, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, with a ninth painfully close to joining the fray.
What’s more, half of the Big 12 field is comprised of bubble teams, so the results will directly impact their postseason livelihoods.
Solidly in the field
Kansas (24-7): No. 1 seed, West
Texas Tech (23-8): No. 4 seed, South
West Virginia (22-9): No. 4 seed, East
TCU (22-10): No. 6 seed, East
Some work left to do
Oklahoma (18-12): No. 10 seed, Midwest
Kansas State (21-10): No 10 seed, South — 1 of ESPN’s Last 4 Byes
Baylor (18-13): No. 11 seed, South — 1 of ESPN’s Last 4 Byes
Texas (18-13): No. 11 seed, West — 1 of ESPN’s Last 4 In
Oklahoma State (18-13): 1 of ESPN’s Last 4 Out
Kansas coach Bill Self wouldn’t go as far Monday as to say the Big 12 tournament will be unpredictable, but he wasn’t about to rule it out, either.
“I will tell you this. I think it’s going to be predictable in this sense, that you will have teams playing harder this weekend than they’ve played all year long,” Self said, “and this is a very hard-playing league.”
While Self’s Jayhawks, Texas Tech, West Virginia and TCU all will use the Big 12 stage to try and improve their seeding for the national tournament, players from Oklahoma, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State all enter with sufficient incentive to show the NCAA selection committee they deserve invites to the 68-team field.
Saturday in Stillwater, Okla., the Jayhawks experienced firsthand what a team playing for its postseason life looks like. The Cowboys had to complete a regular-season sweep of Kansas just to get into the NCAA Tournament conversation.
KU, the 14-time defending league champion, will face either OSU or Oklahoma on Friday, in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
“They’re going to play harder — whoever we play — than Oklahoma State did against us on Saturday,” Self predicted.
Such intensity should show up in every Big 12 tournament game this week, particularly when considering how evenly teams match up.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, who square off Wednesday in the first round, split their regular-season series. Same for Kansas State and TCU, who meet up Thursday.
KU split with OU and was swept by Oklahoma State. Texas Tech, which will take on either Texas or Iowa State in the quarterfinals, went 1-1 against both.
The outcomes are uncertain, but it’s safe to expect heated games and at least a little mayhem.
“There’s something about getting groups together and playing amongst your peers in one setting like that that drives the competitive spirit of everyone,” Self added. “I certainly think it’s going to be off-the-charts good.”
Over the course of the past couple of months every coach in the Big 12 spoke about the quality and depth of the league this year. Yet as the postseason begins this week, some college basketball observers might hesitate to pick any of the Big 12’s best teams to make a deep run in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
On Monday’s coaches conference call, Bill Self addressed the notion that the Big 12 lacks a nationally elite team this season.
“Usually the appearance of the best leagues are the ones that are top-heavy and bottom-heavy, because you have guaranteed — not guaranteed — but you have W’s built in supposedly if you’re not good. In our league, if you play poorly you lose,” Self explained.
In his 15 seasons coaching KU, Self certainly has fielded more complete and/or deeper teams, as well as faced some Big 12 opponents better suited for longterm March success.
“I don’t know that the teams at the top are maybe as talented as some of the teams that we’ve had in the past at the top,” Self admitted. “But all the other teams (this season) are more talented.”
That is what has made the Big 12 so unique and intriguing this season. The worst team in the conference turned out to be Iowa State, and the Cyclones defeated both West Virginia and Texas Tech in Ames, and even gave the Jayhawks a scare in Lawrence.
One could argue that speaks to the teams atop the conference lacking dominance this season. But when Self observes the national landscape, he notices more parity than supremacy.
“So I think you could say, on paper, there may not be a (Big 12) team that stands out that could make a Final Four run. You could say that, but I don’t believe that’s absolutely true at all either, because I think all leagues across America are somewhat similar,” Self said. “There’s a lot of really, really, really good teams, but there’s few dominant teams like there have been in the past years.”
Final Big 12 standings
Texas Tech, 11-7
West Virginia, 11-7
Kansas State, 10-8
Oklahoma State, 8-10
Iowa State, 4-14
Here’s a look at this week’s Big 12 Power Rankings. Each team’s best victories and its losses — good, bad and in between — are considered in this process, using KenPom.com’s ratings to classify the league’s most and least impressive squads to date. Results from all league games also are listed.
Big 12 Power Rankings — March 5, 2018
No. 1 - Kansas (24-7)
Kenpom ranking: No. 12
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +2.5
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 23 Kentucky, No. 51 Syracuse, at No. 40 Texas, at No. 20 TCU, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 33 Baylor, No. 32 Texas A&M, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 20 TCU, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 40 Texas
Losses: No. 97 Washington, No. 38 Arizona State, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 57 Oklahoma State
No. 2 - West Virginia (22-9)
Kenpom ranking: No. 13
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +5.9
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 39 Missouri, No. 1 Virginia, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 33 Baylor, No. 40 Texas, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 20 TCU, at No. 33 Baylor, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 10 Texas Tech
Losses: No. 32 Texas A&M, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 20 TCU, No. 23 Kentucky, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 40 Texas (OT)
No. 3 - Texas Tech (23-8)
Kenpom ranking: No. 10
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +3.6
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 19 Nevada (OT), No. 33 Baylor, at No. 12 Kansas, No. 44 Kansas State, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 40 Texas (OT), at No. 20 TCU, No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 20 TCU
Losses: No. 29 Seton Hall, at No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 40 Texas, at No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia
No. 4 - TCU (21-10)
Kenpom ranking: No. 20
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +2.9
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 19 Nevada, at No. 33 Baylor (OT), No. 104 Iowa State, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 40 Texas, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 33 Baylor, No. 44 Kansas State
Losses: No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 40 Texas (2OT), at No. 43 Oklahoma (OT), at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 84 Vanderbilt, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 10 Texas Tech
No. 5 - Kansas State (21-10)
Kenpom ranking: No. 44
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -0.9
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 20 TCU, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 40 Texas, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 40 Texas, No. 33 Baylor
Losses: No. 38 Arizona State, No. 102 Tulsa, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 12 Kansas, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 20 TCU
No. 6 - Baylor (18-13)
Kenpom ranking: No. 33
Average point differential in Big 12 play: +0.5
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 27 Creighton, No. 40 Texas, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 40 Texas (2OT), No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 43 Oklahoma
Losses: at No. 15 Xavier, No. 17 Wichita State, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 20 TCU (OT), at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 12 Kansas, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 21 Florida, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 20 TCU, at No. 44 Kansas State
No. 7 - Texas (18-13)
Kenpom ranking: No. 40
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -2.1
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 24 Butler, at No. 104 Iowa State (OT), No. 20 TCU (2OT), No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 104 Iowa State, No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 43 Oklahoma, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 13 West Virginia (OT)
Losses: No. 3 Duke (OT), No. 8 Gonzaga (OT), No. 9 Michigan, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 10 Texas Tech (OT), No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 20 TCU, No. 33 Baylor (2OT), at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 12 Kansas
No. 8 - Oklahoma State (18-13)
Kenpom ranking: No. 57
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -2.8
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 35 Florida State, No. 104 Iowa State (OT), No. 40 Texas, No. 43 Oklahoma (OT), at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 104 Iowa State, No. 12 Kansas
Losses: No. 32 Texas A&M, No. 17 Wichita State, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 43 Oklahoma, at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 10 Texas Tech, at No. 37 Arkansas, No. 20 TCU, No. 33 Baylor, No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 20 TCU, at No. 40 Texas
No. 9 - Oklahoma (18-12)
Kenpom ranking: No. 43
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -2.7
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 46 USC, at No. 17 Wichita State, at No. 20 TCU, No. 57 Oklahoma State, No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 20 TCU (OT), No. 12 Kansas, No. 33 Baylor, No. 44 Kansas State, No. 104 Iowa State
Losses: No. 37 Arkansas, at No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 44 Kansas State, at No. 57 Oklahoma State (OT), at No. 53 Alabama, at No. 40 Texas, No. 13 West Virginia, at No. 104 Iowa State, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 40 Texas, at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 33 Baylor
No. 10 - Iowa State (13-17)
Kenpom ranking: No. 104
Average point differential in Big 12 play: -6.8
Top-50 & Big 12 wins: No. 33 Baylor, No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 43 Oklahoma
Losses: at No. 39 Missouri, No. 207 Milwaukee, No. 44 Kansas State, No. 40 Texas (OT), at No. 57 Oklahoma State (OT), at No. 12 Kansas, at No. 20 TCU, at No. 40 Texas, No. 14 Tennessee, at No. 33 Baylor, at No. 10 Texas Tech, No. 12 Kansas, at No. 44 Kansas State, No. 20 TCU, at No. 13 West Virginia, No. 57 Oklahoma State, at No. 43 Oklahoma
The Big 12 champions didn’t strike any fear into the hearts of the Oklahoma State Cowboys Saturday at Gallagher-Iba Arena.
In an 82-64 defeat, its worst of the season, No. 6-ranked Kansas proved once again it doesn’t match up well with OSU, which became the first Big 12 team to sweep Bill Self during his 15 years leading the Jayhawks.
Here are five statistics that contributed to the Jayhawks’ troublesome dud of a regular-season finale.
Where’s the support?
Not even Devonte’ Graham, the Big 12’s Player of the Year, can be expected to do it all every single game. So it’s hard to knock the senior point guard for an off shooting performance (4 of 14) at OSU.
How about a little help for the guy? Graham led Kansas with 15 points, but not one other Jayhawk reached double figures. It was the first time this season KU didn’t benefit from multiple double-digit scorers.
When KU lost at Allen Fieldhouse to this same Oklahoma State team a month ago, four different players put up 16 or more points.
Previously, Kansas (24-7 overall, 13-5 Big 12) had three or more players contribute 10 or more points in all but two games. KU only got double-digit points from two players in losses to Washington and Baylor.
It’s not as if this is a deep rotation capable of spreading the offensive wealth. Self relies on five starters and two bench regulars, and sometimes calls upon freshman big Silvio De Sousa. The scoring has to come from not only Graham, but also Svi Mykhailiuk, Udoka Azubuike and Malik Newman, all of whom are averaging more than 12 points a game in Big 12 play.
Shooting from beyond the 3-point arc tends to be one of the Jayhawks’ best weapons, but on Saturday the Cowboys (18-13, 8-10) out-performed the Big 12 champs from long range.
Oklahoma State made more 3-pointers than Kansas and shot a higher percentage from deep. The Jayhawks finished on the wrong end of both categories in the same game for the seventh time this season.
Kansas fell to 3-4 when being out-scored and out-shot from 3-point range. Below are the totals and percentages from those outcomes.
Washington: 9 of 21, 42.9% | KU: 5 of 20, 25% (UW win)
Nebraska: 8 of 22, 36.4% | KU: 7 of 22, 31.8% (Kansas win)
Oklahoma State: 12 of 27, 44.4% | KU: 8 of 22, 36.4% (OSU win on Feb. 3)
TCU: 10 of 25, 40% | KU: 7 of 21, 33.3% (Kansas win)
Baylor: 8 of 15, 53.3% | KU: 6 of 31, 19.4% (BU win)
West Virginia: 14 of 26, 53.8% | KU: 7 of 22, 31.8% (Kansas win)
Oklahoma State: 10 of 24, 41.7% | KU: 7 of 20, 35% (OSU win on March 3)
Somewhat troubling for Kansas, five of these occurrences came in the final nine games of the regular season.
Not much of a fight
Most games swing back and forth at least a little bit in terms of momentum. The home team starts hot. The visitors respond. The home team counters. We’ve all seen it before.
Saturday’s KU-OSU matchup mostly lacked such distinct runs and comebacks — at least for the Jayhawks.
The Cowboys’ Mitchell Solomon scored the game’s first basket in the second minute of the first half and Oklahoma State led for the remaining 38:25, marking the second time this season Kansas failed to take a lead in a game. The other occasion was in KU’s Jan. 2 home loss to Texas Tech.
The Jayhawks’ largest spurt of the entire debacle came in the first half, when an Azubuike dunk, a Marcus Garrett layup and a Graham 3-pointer provided the visitors, already down 10 less than seven minutes in, with a 7-0 spark.
The Cowboys answered with a 13-0 run over the next three-plus minutes, pushing their lead to 16.
Late in the second half, OSU extended its margin to 23 points, the largest deficit Kansas has faced all season.
In Big 12 play this year, Kansas averaged 11.5 turnovers a game, the lowest mark among the league’s 10 teams.
However, Oklahoma State feasted on KU miscues. The Cowboys’ 11 steals were the most by a KU opponent in any game this season. The Jayhawks committed 17 turnovers in all, their highest total in 18 league games and most since committing 20 versus Tennessee State in the season opener.
Mykhailiuk and Azubuike hurt KU the most at OSU, with 4 turnovers apiece.
Oklahoma State scored 21 points off turnovers in a must-have victory.
OSU swat team
Kansas converted a low percentage of its shots inside — 9 of 21 on layups and 6 of 8 on dunk attempts — as a result of OSU’s active defense around the rim.
The Cowboys’ eight blocked shots tied for their best in a league game this year. Similarly, it tied for the most swats by a KU opponent this year. OSU even pulled it off without the luxury of having a soon-to-be NBA lottery pick, like Mo Bamba, who sent eight Kansas shots away in the Big 12 opener.
In the first half, Tavarius Shine blocked Newman, Cameron McGriff got a piece of a Mykhailiuk jumper and swatted a Newman layup, Yankuba Sima denied Marcus Garrett at the rim and Solomon stymied Garrett inside.
In the closing 20 minutes, Solomon rejected Graham on a layup, Thomas Dziagwa blocked De Sousa and McGriff successfully stuffed a De Sousa dunk attempt.
KU (25 of 60 from the floor, for 41.7% shooting) played so poorly offensively that Oklahoma State walked away with its first double-digit win in conference action all season.
It’s not that uncommon for a team to come out of nowhere and reach college basketball’s biggest stage, the Final Four — think No. 7 seed South Carolina a year ago, 10th-seeded Syracuse in 2016, No. 9 seed Wichita State in 2013 or 11th seed VCU in 2011
But every once in a while one of those teams actually cuts down the nets at the completion of the Big Dance as national champions.
Kansas coach Bill Self wouldn’t exactly be floored if this year’s NCAA Tournament concluded with such mayhem.
Appearing recently on Andy Katz’s podcast, March Madness 365, Self’s conversation with Katz included some discussion of the 2014 tournament, when senior guard Shabazz Napier guided seventh-seeded Connecticut, a team that finished third in the American Athletic Conference, to six straight wins and a national title.
Katz wondered whether this might be a year when some under-the-radar team outside of the top five, or even the top 10, catches fire and surfaces as the NCAA champion.
“There’s no question that can happen,” Self replied. “And when you say may not be in the top five, you could talk about in the country or you could talk about in the seeds. There may be a six seed, or a seven, or an eight or a nine, whatever, that could challenge and get hot at the right time. That has happened in the past — it’s been rare.”
Self correctly recalled UConn faced a No. 8 seed, Kentucky, in the 2014 title game. The Wildcats, who had lost three of their last four regular-season games, recovered for a postseason run with a typically youthful-yet-talented lineup, led by freshmen Julius Randle, James Young and Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
“That could happen again. I don’t think that’s far off,” Self continued, “if the right players get hot at the right time. You would still think the percentage play would be the ones that have shown consistency throughout the year, but as we’ve all found out, you know, 1988 Kansas won it on Danny’s back. It’s just a six-game tournament. They had 11 losses that year.”
As KU’s 15th-year coach referenced, 30 years ago Naismith and Wooden award-winner Danny Manning carried the sixth-seeded Jayhawks to glory, highlighted by a regional final victory over No. 4 seed Kansas State and Final Four wins against No. 2 seed Duke and No. 1 seed Oklahoma.
“I think it’s very possible that this could be a year that somebody like that could do it,” Self said.
Among the country’s top candidates for player of the year, most are not in position to pull off something as miraculous as Manning and KU back in 1988, or even as unexpected as what Napier and UConn did four years ago.
Between the 10 Naismith Trophy semifinalists (listed below), only two of them play for teams currently projected by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi as heavy underdogs to make a lengthy March run toward San Antonio.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona — No. 4 seed
Marvin Bagley III, Duke — No. 2 seed
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State — No. 4 seed
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier — No. 1 seed
Miles Bridges, Michigan State — No. 2 seed
Jalen Brunson, Villanova — No. 1 seed
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech — No. 4 seed
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas — No. 1 seed
Jock Landale, St. Mary’s — No. 9 seed
Trae Young, Oklahoma — No. 10 seed
Assuming the Sooners make the field when it is announced in a little more than a week, it would take a string of remarkable performances by freshman point guard Trae Young as well as some vastly improved defense by OU as a team to pull off a Final Four run.
Similarly, while 6-foot-11 St. Mary’s senior center Jock Landale has overmatched opponents inside, averaging 21.5 points and 10.2 rebounds this year, the Gaels also would need to bolster their team defense to do real damage in the tournament.
Still, plenty of other Cinderella candidates for 2018 exist, including:
Nevada, a projected No. 6 seed led by junior forward Caleb Martin (19.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 43.8% 3-point shooting)
Houston, a projected No. 7 seed featuring senior guard Robert Gray Jr. (17.7 points, 4.7 assists)
Creighton, a projected No. 7 seed powered by senior guard Marcus Foster (20 points, 2.7 assists, 43.4% 3-point shooting), a transfer from Kansas State, and junior wing Khyri Thomas (15.2 points, 2.9 assists, 41.4% 3-point shooting), who is considered a first-round talent by NBA scouts
Arkansas, a projected No. 7 seed with two productive senior guards, Jaylen Barford (18.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 43.5% 3-point shooting) and Daryl Macon (17.3 points, 4 assists, 44.3% 3-point shooting), as well as a potential first-round draft pick inside with freshman Daniel Gafford (11.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks)
Butler, a projected No. 8 seed led by senior forward Kelan Martin (20.7 points, 6.4 rebounds)
Missouri, a projected No. 9 seed featuring senior guard Kassius Robertson (16.6 points, 2.4 assists, 43.2% 3-point shooting), senior forward Jordan Barnett (13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 41.1% 3-point shooting) and — possibly (?) — soon-to-be NBA lottery pick Michael Porter Jr.
Alabama, a projected No. 10 seed with the services of a likely top-10 draft pick, freshman point guard Collin Sexton (18.1 points, 3.5 assists)
Middle Tennessee, a projected No. 12 seed led by senior forward Nick King (21.3points, 8.3 rebounds)
Sometimes his athleticism makes him look like the best player on the floor. Other games he can go an entire half — or longer — mostly unnoticed.
Junior Lagerald Vick’s impact from game to game is even too erratic for 15th-year Kansas head coach Bill Self to predict.
A little over a week ago, Vick scored 17 points on 7-for-11 shooting in the Jayhawks’ home drubbing of Oklahoma, his third straight game contributing double figures.
In the two games that followed, at Texas Tech and at home versus Texas, the 6-foot-5 guard combined to make 3 of 10 shots and score 6 points in 67 minutes of playing time.
Vick at least contributed 6 rebounds and 4 assists against the Longhorns, two days after giving Kansas 1 board and 0 assists at Texas Tech.
Naturally, Self wants the best version of Vick showing up on a regular basis — the Vick who opened Big 12 play with 21 points and 4 rebounds at UT or the one who provided 16 points and 4 rebounds at Iowa State — instead of seeing that variation of the junior from Memphis once every few weeks or so.
Obviously, no player is going to perform at his peak every single game. No. 6 KU (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big 12) doesn’t need Vick to be impeccable to win, but Self would like to see Vick’s below-average games not dip so severely.
KU’s senior point guard, Devonte’ Graham is as steady as they come. Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike’s effectiveness can vary.
“With Lagerald,” Self said, “there’s a pretty big gap.”
|Lagerald Vick 2017-18 splits|
|In 24 wins||50.4%||43.2%||64.1%||12.3||5.3||2.5||1.6||32.1|
|In 6 losses||44.4%||15.4%||62.5%||12.2||3.8||2.0||2.2||34.7|
By far the most noteworthy correlation between Vick’s struggles and KU winning or losing show up in his 3-point shooting. A 37.2% shooter from beyond the arc as a junior, Vick knocks down 43.2% of his long-range shots in Kansas wins but connects on only 15.4% of 3-pointers in losses.
Self has witnessed Vick’s play energize his teammates at times this season, and that’s really what he wants out of the third-year guard more than anything for the season’s stretch run.
“I think Lagerald’s kind of like our X-factor. When he’s really good he gives us a whole different element as a team, because he can drive it, he can force help, he can shoot it, he could be as good a perimeter defender as we have,” Self said. “I don’t think he’s played poorly (of late). I just don’t think he’s played consistently well as he was earlier in the season. But hopefully he’ll get that back here at the end.”
Before Big 12 play began, Vick averaged 17.1 points on 56.1% shooting and made 46.8% of his 3-pointers, in 33.2 minutes a game. He hasn’t been able to replicate such production in conference games, averaging 9.1 points on 42% shooting, while hitting 30% from 3-point range.
His teammates know KU is at its best when Vick is locked in and reaching his potential.
“I think we’re way better,” sophomore Mitch Lightfoot said of the Jayhawks with a prime Vick at their disposal. “Lagerald's a great player and he offers several different threats. Gives you a four-guard front that’s kind of hard (to defend), four-headed dragon, because you’ve got opportunities to score from everywhere.”
Indeed, the KU offense can look pretty menacing to adversaries, with Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman and Vick playing around a 7-foot force in Azubuike.
“The hardest thing to guard is four shooters around the big,” Self said. “We're just going to play four guards that can shoot. It doesn't always work out well, but it's worked out OK so far.”
Now that it’s March, KU needs a stable Vick more than ever.
“He’s been pretty good recently,” Lightfoot said, in reference to a three-game stretch preceding Vick’s latest two games, “and he was really good at the beginning of the year, so it’s encouraging.”
Added Self: “He could really elevate our team play.”
It only took 21 minutes Monday against Texas for center Udoka Azubuike to supply Kansas with one of the most productive games of his young career.
The 7-foot sophomore yielded 20 points and often seemed invincible in his domination of the Longhorns’ front line. Defenders have looked overmatched versus Azubuike before, but the big man from Nigeria completely crushed the Longhorns, succeeding on 10 of his 11 attempts in the paint, a foray that included six dunks.
The Jayhawks’ colossus shot 90.9% from the field, the highest mark for KU since Perry Ellis made 11 of 12 (91.7%) versus Iowa State in the 2014 Big 12 Tournament. Azubuike’s 10-for-11 shooting also represented the best outing in a conference game by a Jayhawk since Julian Wright posted the same line against Baylor, in 2006.
Even better for No. 6 Kansas (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big 12), Azubuike looked lively on the defensive end of the court, as well, tying his career high with 5 blocked shots.
The commanding performance left KU’s senior point guard, Devonte’ Graham, wanting more.
“That’s exactly how he should play,” Graham said, noting assistant coach Norm Roberts went up to Azubuike at shoot-around the day of the game and conveyed the absence of Longhorns star center Mo Bamba (injured) didn’t mean KU’s center could take the day off.
“You should want to go even harder because you’ve got a mismatch now,” Graham related of Roberts’ directive. “So he played exactly how Coach Rob wanted him to play.”
After watching his 18-year-old center’s thrashing of UT bigs Jericho Sims and Dylan Osetkowski, KU coach Bill Self, of course, appreciated not just the point production, but Azubuike’s overall effort, which Self agreed is becoming more consistent late in the season.
“I think he’s playing with a lot more energy and a lot more oomph, probably, than what he was earlier,” Self appraised, calling Azubuike as active as he has seen him this season.
What’s more, the massive sophomore pulled down 8 rebounds for Kansas, the sixth time in 17 Big 12 games he gathered at least that many.
But there was one aspect where Azubuike, Self was quick to point out, seemed to regress. An 18-for-31 free-throw shooter in the nine games following his infamous 1-for-8 night at Oklahoma, in February, KU’s big man missed all four of his attempts at the foul line versus Texas.
“I hadn’t seen him shoot like that in a while,” Self said, after Azubuike even air-balled one try. “So we’ve got to get back in the gym and do a lot (of work) on that.”
In order to maximize Azubuike’s impact in March, Self indicated he and his staff might need to start more closely monitoring how long KU leaves the 285-pound center on the floor.
“He gets his second foul because he’s tired,” Self said of a defensive play on the perimeter, when Azubuike didn’t move his feet quickly enough while trying to hedge against Matt Coleman on a ball screen. The whistle kept Azubuike, a game-altering talent, on the bench the final 6:55 of the first half.
“That worries me a little bit,” Self said. “I probably need to not let him play as long of stretches.”
Azubuike had been on the floor for 5:03 worth of game clock when he showed fatigue and picked up his second foul.
He didn’t get called for any fouls while playing 12 second-half minutes, a stretch during which Azubuike made 6 of 7 shots, swatted 3 UT attempts and gathered 5 rebounds.
The mightiest presence on the KU roster played for stretches of 6:33 and 4:04 during the second half, as well as a brief 0:20 stint late in the win.
No one else in a Kansas uniform possesses the same potential as Azubuike to influence outcomes on both ends of the floor. As critical as Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk are for Kansas, a “turned-up,” as Self likes to say, Azubuike will be equally paramount in the weeks ahead in order for the Jayhawks to reach their ceiling.
Easily lost in the farewell performances inside Allen Fieldhouse by seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk, as well as the always wide-reaching shadow of center Udoka Azubuike, a freshman backup played as important a role as any of his Kansas teammates in the second half of Monday’s win over Texas.
Head coach Bill Self turned to Marcus Garrett off the bench even before the first post-halftime timeout, and the first-year guard out of Dallas immediately made an impact, setting himself up for an 11-point, 4-rebound, 3-assist showing.
On his first offensive possession of the second half, Garrett, who went scoreless in nine first-half minutes, went right to work, upon catching a pass from Graham in the right corner.
When Texas big man Jericho Sims closed out poorly, Garrett drove past him, forcing help. That left the largest man in the building, Azubuike, uncovered for a jam off a Garrett assist.
Only a few possessions had gone by before Azubuike returned the favor.
Texas finally figured out defending KU’s 7-foot sophomore one-on-one in the post was a lost cause. So the Longhorns tried double-teaming Azubuike on the left block.
Once Garrett’s man left him, he wisely positioned himself right under the basket. UT’s weak-side defender on the play, Kerwin Roach II, hesitated to leave Graham open on the opposite wing,and when Roach didn’t slide over to cover Garrett, the freshman put in a layup with zero resistance.
The basket, the freshman’s first of the night, answered a Jacob Young 3-pointer that had just narrowed the Texas deficit to 6 points. With Garrett’s timely lay-in, UT never got any closer.
Because Texas played a pair of big men, Dylan Osetkowski and Sims, much of the night, the Jayhawks knew they could find mismatches on the perimeter versus either.
A 6-foot-9 freshman, Sims got turned around on one sequence, losing sight of Garrett while stepping into the paint as a help defender.
When Lagerald Vick kicked the ball out to Garrett, Sims didn’t know the 6-5 KU freshman had relocated, and Garrett breezed past him to scoop in a layup.
Desperate for some sort of defensive solution for the Jayhawks, Texas at times implemented a 2-3 zone. When the Longhorns took that route, placing Garrett in the middle of the floor, at the free-throw line, proved to be a useful countermeasure.
The Sims-Osetkowski combo got exposed defensively within the zone when Garrett flashed to the open space above the foul line, forcing Osetkowski to step toward him. Before Sims figured out what was coming, Garrett lobbed an entry pass toward the backboard.
Predictably, Azubuike finished an alley-oop with a two-handed slam.
One quality of Garrett’s that makes him so valuable, even at this early stage of his career, is his defense. Not only does the freshman grasp his responsibilities in various situations, he often forces turnovers with his anticipation.
His second of three steals in the game materialized while guarding Roach on the perimeter. The Texas guard showed the ball while pivoting to face up, and Garrett just took it out of his hands, Kawhi Leonard style.
The KU freshman took off in the other direction for what instantly became a four-on-one fast break.
Garrett looked like a veteran leading the transition attack, swinging the ball over to Mykhailiuk on the opposite side just in time to make Roach react, allowing Garrett to receive a pass right back from Mykhailiuk for an uncontested layup.
Not always the most sure-shooting guard, Garrett (10 for 36 on 3-pointers) even knocked down his lone attempt from behind the arc to cap his 4-for-7 night from the floor.
Texas had just whittled KU’s lead to 8 with 3:39 to go, prompting Self to call timeout. The Jayhawks worked their half-court offense until Graham found a driving angle to create. The point guard spotted his freshman teammate open in the left corner and, without hesitation, Garrett stroked a 3-pointer to push the lead back to double digits.
In the past 10 games, Garrett hasn’t shot 3-pointers often, but he has connected on 5 of 9 attempts.
Garrett’s 11 points were his most since scoring a season- and career-high 13 versus Texas Southern in November, and his team-best 3 steals made him the KU leader in that category for the seventh time during his freshman season.
At the end of a night that shined the spotlight on KU’s seniors, Self identified Garrett and Azubuike as the two best Jayhawks against Texas.
“I thought defensively he was about as good as we had,” Self said of Garrett. “He had three steals, and that’s something we don’t do very well. I was really happy for him. Made a big three when they got it to single figures.”
Garrett isn’t suddenly going to become a consistent double-digit scorer for Kansas, but he operates with increasing confidence the deeper the Jayhawks get into this season. When your role players become more competent, the on-court product is bound to benefit.
Already a proficient defender, Garrett continues to progress as a driver, passer and finisher, while showing signs his shooting might be coming along, as well. With the postseason just around the corner, a player once ignored by opposing defenses now possesses the ability to stimulate the Kansas offense.
This might not be the last time this year we see Garrett emerge from the background to key a Kansas victory.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Texas
- Senior Night Special: Jayhawks cruise to win over Texas, clinch outright Big 12 title
- Tom Keegan: Jayhawks sidestep several obstacles to 14th straight Big 12 title
- Notebook: Graham, Newman earn Big 12 weekly awards; Texas guard Andrew Jones leaves hospital
- KU basketball’s red uniforms a request of “Number 4”
- The Keegan Ratings: Sophomore Udoka Azubuike tops ratings on Senior Night in victory vs. Texas
- KU seniors shut down fieldhouse for season with 80-70 win over Texas
The No. 6-ranked team in the nation, Kansas sent seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk out in style on Big Monday, with an 80-70 win over Texas in the Jayhawks’ Allen Fieldhouse finale.
KU (24-6 overall, 13-4 Big 12) at times overwhelmed the undermanned Longhorns, even out-rebounding the visitors 37-30 — just the Jayhawks’ third positive margin in that category during league play.
Here are five more statistics that stood out for Kansas, on a night the program wrapped up an 18th outright Big 12 championship and finished the home portion of the schedule with a victory for the 35th consecutive season.
So many quality shots
A game that in the first half felt as if a blowout was just a spurt or two away never got there because Kansas didn’t play particularly well down the final stretch, with 9 turnovers after halftime.
Still, the Jayhawks had little reason to feel threatened — even when Texas cut the lead to 6 early in the second half — because KU’s players kept searching for the high-percentage shots the Longhorns’ defense would allow them.
Kansas, a team that entered the night shooting a respectable 46.9% from the field in Big 12 play, made 60.6% of its shots in the first half and an even 60% in the second.
This game didn’t have the drubbing factor of KU’s win over Oklahoma a week earlier, but the Jayhawks showed the same offensive persistence.
Points in the paint
A direct result of their determination, the Jayhawks always felt comfortable because they kept finishing possessions with dunks (9) and layups (13).
The Jayhawks achieved 50 paint points for just the second time this season, putting up 52 inside against a Mo Bamba-less Texas team. Previously in conference play, KU had only reached 40 points in the category three times — twice against Oklahoma and once versus Iowa State — doing so against two of the Big 12’s worst defenses.
Udoka Azubuike proved uncontrollable for UT, shooting 10 of 11 and coming through with rim-shaking dunks six different times.
His teammates who don’t have the size and frame to slam so effortlessly settled for an array of layups, as well as a few wide-open dunks.
Freshman Marcus Garrett scored 6 of his 11 points off layups. Sophomore backup big Mitch Lightfoot scored all 6 of his points at the rim, via two dunks and a lay-in. Malik Newman, on a 4-for-9 shooting night, picked up one layup and one jam. Mykhailiuk scored two lay-ins on the way to 17 points. Graham spent most of the night distributing 11 assists but scored a layup, too. Junior Lagerald Vick made two shots all night, both in the paint. Freshman Silvio De Sousa scored his one basket on a putback.
Kansas scored 56% of its points off layups and dunks, winning points in the paint, 52-38.
Scouting report defense
At times the Jayhawks had issues with trying to stop two of the Longhorns’ most athletic finishers, big man Jericho Sims (6-for-9 shooting) and Kerwin Roach II (7 of 15).
Playing minus Bamba and Eric Davis Jr., the Longhorns only had so many options on offense.
Kansas welcomed two of UT’s least effective scorers to take a bulk of the shots and defended them appropriately to come away with stops. Longhorns big Dylan Osetkowski made just 5 of 14 shots, while Jacob Young finished 6 of 13.
Outside of Sims and Roach, the rest of the Longhorns combined to hit 16 of 44 shots (36.4%).
40 Minutes Double-Double
Look out, Azubuike. Mr. 40 Minutes is coming for your double-double crown.
For the 15th time this season, Graham played every minute for Kansas. In his fieldhouse finale, the senior point guard put up 10 points and 11 assists, his fourth double-double of the season.
Sophomore 7-footer Azubuike leads the team with five double-doubles this year.
With one game left in the regular season and the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments to follow, who would you expect to finish the season as KU’s double-double leader? It’s hard to bet against Graham.
On the season, Graham is averaging 17.7 points and 7.2 assists, while Azubuike is contributing 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds.
Mykhailiuk is making a habit of igniting KU’s offense early in games.
With 14 first-half points on 6-for-9 shooting during the first 20 minutes, the senior from Ukraine scored 13 or more points before intermission for the eighth time this season.
Whether driving in to finish inside or showing off his smooth 3-point stroke (45% accuracy as a senior), Mykhailiuk’s offense so often is just what Kansas needs to get rolling.
After making 3 of 5 from 3-point distance in the win, Mykhailiuk has drained 95 from long range this season, the fourth-most in KU history.
More news and notes from Kansas vs. Texas
- Senior Night Special: Jayhawks cruise to win over Texas, clinch outright Big 12 title
- Tom Keegan: Jayhawks sidestep several obstacles to 14th straight Big 12 title
- Notebook: Graham, Newman earn Big 12 weekly awards; Texas guard Andrew Jones leaves hospital
- KU basketball’s red uniforms a request of “Number 4”
- The Keegan Ratings: Sophomore Udoka Azubuike tops ratings on Senior Night in victory vs. Texas
- KU seniors shut down fieldhouse for season with 80-70 win over Texas