Notebook: Timberlake starts, impacts game in McCullar’s place

Kansas guard Nicolas Timberlake (25) and Kansas guard Dajuan Harris Jr. (3) have a chat at half court during the first half at Delta Center on Thursday, March 21, 2024 in Salt Lake City. Photo by Nick Krug

Salt Lake City — Sixth-year senior guard Nick Timberlake got the start for Kansas Thursday night in place of Kevin McCullar Jr. It marked his sixth start of the season, all since McCullar began dealing with a bone bruise to his knee.

Timberlake was the standard replacement for McCullar for much of February. KU coach Bill Self said Tuesday upon arriving in Salt Lake City that freshman guard Elmarko Jackson had been practicing well of late. But he ultimately opted to stick with Timberlake instead as the Towson transfer made his first career NCAA Tournament appearance.

Timberlake didn’t make much of an impact in his first few minutes but then hit a corner 3 on his first shot and then tossed an alley-oop to Hunter Dickinson to help KU open an early lead. He committed two early fouls but managed seven points total in a fairly efficient first half.

By the end of the game, he was involved in a pair of pivotal plays: a late corner 3 and a dunk attempt aborted by a controversial foul that led to two key free throws.

Familiar face

KU and Samford had never met before Thursday’s NCAA Tournament clash, but one Bulldog player had built up three years’ worth of familiarity with the Jayhawks.

Zach Loveday, the 7-foot reserve center from Gallipolis, Ohio, played in 38 games over three seasons at Baylor before transferring to Samford this year. That stint included a few minutes in a game against KU’s national championship team in February 2022.

“They’re just a physical, really fundamentally sound team for the most part,” Loveday told the Journal-World Wednesday. “Coach Self is one of the best in the business.”

He also has NCAA Tournament experience on a roster where that is a rare commodity; Samford hadn’t made it to March Madness since 2000. Loveday called March “the most magical time of year.”

“Anybody can beat anybody, anytime, any place,” he said.

Not only that, he has a national title of his own from his freshman year with Baylor during the COVID-affected 2020-21 season.

“Being separated from everybody except about the same 30 people for a month was weird,” Loveday said. “Really weird. But it was definitely special to spend it with a group of guys like that. It feels a lot like this (Samford). Everybody here loves each other, willing to do whatever it takes.”

Loveday checked in late in the first half and added some more minutes against KU to his tally Thursday night.

Flying high

Thursday’s first-round game was played more than 4,000 feet above sea level, a departure for the Bulldogs of the Deep South and Jayhawks of the Midwest. But neither team seemed too concerned.

As Samford’s Rylan Jones pointed out, referencing his team’s transition-heavy style, “The way we play makes for us to have to be well-conditioned.”

“A lot of hydration the day before is one thing we key on a lot,” teammate Achor Achor said.

The Jayhawks were at a bit of a disadvantage from a stamina perspective, considering they only had eight available scholarship players, while the Bulldogs play double-digit athletes on a regular basis.

“It’s great because you can go in and really just give it your all and come out completely exhausted for three or four minutes and be ready to go back in,” Samford center Riley Allenspach said. “You know you’re always going to go back in the game, which is nice.”

KU’s Parker Braun, who played on the road at BYU while he was at Santa Clara, said of the altitude, “I don’t really feel it too much. Just a little tightness in your chest or whatever, but you get over it pretty fast. You get used to it.”

Fellow center Hunter Dickinson said the key to dealing with the elevation was to pay it no mind.

“I would say I feel like the more you think about it, the more it might affect you,” he said.

Last-minute team building

KU had a bit of a layoff between its early exit from the Big 12 Conference tournament (March 13) and Thursday’s NCAA Tournament debut. Self said on Sunday that he and Timberlake had had a conversation during a “team outing” the prior day in which he had suggested to Timberlake that he could not just play in the NCAA Tournament, but create a “lasting memory.”

“We rented out a theater, watched movies, (did) several motivational-type things, things like that,” Self said, “trying to dwell on what we have accomplished as opposed to what we were in the last 10 days because the last 10 days we haven’t been very good.”

Self mentioned that the team watched the recent sports movie “The Boys in the Boat” specifically on the suggestion of a sports psychologist friend of his. He said he would recommend it.

“It’s kids that have been dealt a hard hand,” he said, “and rallying out of that.”

This and that

KU walk-on Wilder Evers grew up 10 minutes away from Samford, but didn’t have much to say about the school: “Nobody in my family went there. I know it’s a smaller school, but I don’t have that many connections to it.”

Jones returned to Utah after growing up in Logan and playing college ball at Utah and Utah State. He called it a “dream come true” and a “full-circle moment.”


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