KU basketball notebook: Self bullish on Jackson’s future prospects

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) comes in for a dunk against Cincinnati during the first half on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo. Photo by Nick Krug

Elmarko Jackson came into Kansas as a McDonald’s All-American and potential one-and-done NBA Draft pick. He finished his freshman year coming off the bench and averaging 4.2 points per game.

But head coach Bill Self frequently pointed out throughout the year that Jackson hadn’t been playing basketball in earnest all that long (in fact, he grew up playing mostly lacrosse). Self capped off the year Thursday night by referring to Jackson as “probably right on schedule” — and alluding to a possible sophomore breakout.

“You wouldn’t want to bet against this kid at all in Year 2,” he said as he brought Jackson up on stage at the team banquet.

Later, he expanded on how he’d hope to see his young guard improve in the offseason ahead of an expected return to KU.

“I think obviously he’s just so young in the game,” Self said “He’s got to improve his shot, but also I think … just by playing, his feel will improve as he plays more. He’s a good prospect, he’s a good player, probably didn’t have the year that he had hoped, but also he hadn’t played enough ball to probably be ready.”

Jackson remained in the starting lineup throughout nonconference play before fellow freshman Johnny Furphy (who eventually built his own NBA Draft hype) replaced him early in the Big 12 Conference slate. Jackson saw his minutes dip lower and lower in February but had a strong run of play late in the season, including in the NCAA Tournament, where he made a massive hustle play to win the Jayhawks a possession late in their victory over Samford.

If he chooses to return to KU, Jackson could see transfers Riley Kugel and Zeke Mayo infringe on his possible playing time. But his coach seems to think a second-year leap is well within reach.

Not a Big 12 Mexico fan

The Big 12 announced on April 2 that it was delaying the start of its Big 12 Mexico initiative by a year; the project would have had KU face Houston in Mexico City on Dec. 14, in a game between conference foes that would not count toward conference standings.

The Houston Chronicle reported that the Cougars’ head coach Kelvin Sampson said he was “ecstatic” the game was off, and also reported that future editions of the game may not necessarily feature KU or Houston.

Self’s reaction was not far off Sampson’s.

“I’m glad,” he said. “Our schedule’s loaded up. I should say I’m excited about it, period, but that would probably be an overstatement. That’s a long way to go for one game.”

He said his program was willing to “be team players to try to help the league” but reiterated that he was happy not to make the trip this season.

One other Big 12 scheduling matter that drew Self’s ire is the prospect of playing 20 league games in the new 16-team conference, which Commissioner Brett Yormark said back in October was the plan for 2024-25.

“We don’t want that,” Self said, given how many commitments KU already has in its nonconference schedule. Next year’s slate includes games such as Michigan State, Missouri, North Carolina and a Big East Conference opponent.

“Your schedule’s basically done and you don’t even think about a buy game or anything,” he added. “One of our problems this year with our young kids was we didn’t play a schedule that allowed those guys to play through mistakes. Going to 20 league games, it would be that on steroids.”

Dickinson’s health

During the banquet, Self revealed that center Hunter Dickinson played hurt for a significant chunk of the conference schedule, even before he dislocated his shoulder at Houston. The period coincided with when Kevin McCullar Jr.’s knee bruise started to hamper the Jayhawks.

“Hunter didn’t tell anybody, Hunter wasn’t healthy for six weeks in late January up until the first of March,” Self said. “But he had to play because Kevin couldn’t play.”

The time frame lines up with some comments Dickinson made in that domain, as after beating Oklahoma on the road on Feb. 17, he said, “That’s probably the best I’ve felt in about two months, with all the injuries I was dealing with.”

He had previously dealt with a bruised knee of his own, which had hampered him around the time of the UCF loss in early January.

Self, in recounting the arc of the season, described the losses at UCF and West Virginia as “the two worst games of the year” given that he felt the Jayhawks should have secured those road wins if they performed well.

Thoughts on Calipari

One of the winningest active college basketball coaches commented on another Thursday when Self addressed the news of former Kentucky coach John Calipari’s departure for Arkansas.

He said he was impressed by Calipari’s longevity with the Wildcats.

“For him to be in a pressure cooker like that for 15 years, I’m actually happy for him,” Self said after the banquet. “I hope he does well, just not at our expense, and I’m sure Kentucky’ll hire a great guy also.”

The following day, UK went on to announce the hire of Mark Pope, the BYU head coach and former national champion with the Wildcats. His Cougars came into Allen Fieldhouse and beat KU on Feb. 27. Self said that night of Pope’s 3-pointer-heavy approach, “I think his style is great. I think it’s very sustainable.”

KU finished the season trailing Kentucky by five wins for the title of all-time winningest program, a title it had lost when the Independent Accountability Resolution Process required the Jayhawks to vacate 15 victories from the second half of the 2017-18 season.


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