Tom Keegan: Bragg’s big day a hint of bigger things ahead?

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) pulls up for a jumper over TCU forward Vladimir Brodziansky (10) during the first half, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016 at Allen Fieldhouse

The roars from the crowd weren’t as loud and the big plays not as big, but in some ways the contributions Carlton Bragg made to Kansas University’s 70-63 victory Saturday against TCU in Allen Fieldhouse were even more encouraging for the team’s outlook than those of classmate Cheick Diallo.

On an afternoon Diallo showed a glimpse of why his basketball ceiling is considered so high, Bragg, a more advanced basketball player, showed why coach Bill Self’s confidence putting him into games seems to be on the upswing.

Bragg had a couple of moments where he spaced out instead of blocked out, but generally looked more comfortable, less in a hurry than usual. That comfort resulted in better play.

When Perry Ellis went to the bench with two fouls in the first half, Bragg filled in impressively, producing all but two of his career-high 10 points and all of his four rebounds before intermission.

Bragg hit mid-range jumpers and didn’t panic his way to missing bank shots close to the hoop. He made 4 of 6 field goals, both free throws, and corralled three offensive rebounds.

A defensive rebound he didn’t snag resulted in TCU a point at the free-throw line with a second left in the first half when Diallo was whistled for his second foul. Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t let that one bad play cloud the positive contributions Bragg made and put the freshman from Cleveland in the starting lineup for the second half.

“He said I have to ‘play more aggressive, be smart, that can cost us late in a game’ ” Bragg said of the final play of the half. He then explained what he thought earned him the second-half start. “I was playing my role, helping the team out with my defense and just rebounding.”

Other than Perry Ellis, Bragg is the best scorer of KU’s big men. Despite playing single-digit minutes in five games, Bragg has been held scoreless just once, in a nine-minute effort vs. UC Irvine. He’s a better offensive rebounder than defensive and is improving defensively. Effort never is an issue.

Bragg always wears a smile, but it sometimes masks what’s in his head.

“At times I can get down, but I try not to let people see it,” Bragg said.

He said that while he was lifting weights Saturday, strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy offered some simple, general advice.

“She just said, ‘Play with an open mind, focus on the right thing, and everything will fall into place.’ She came to me and said, ‘Calm down, focus in and play with a free mind.’ I took that and today I came out and showed it,” Bragg said.

Asked why he thought Hudy gave him that advice, Bragg said, “I think she sees something in me I don’t.”

Such as?

“A great guy, confident, I can be a great player,” Bragg answered.

Freshmen typically arrive to college basketball believing they are more ready than they actually are. Coming to realize that can shock their systems to the point their confidence takes a hit. Strong game performances can restore what has been lost temporarily.

Sophomore guard Devonte Graham said that Bragg and Diallo have improved “every day, every week,” in practice.

For both freshmen to show that improvement in a game was the best thing to come out of an otherwise so-so day for Kansas.

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