Restoring healthy Dickinson and McCullar might be enough for Jayhawks to ‘get a swag back’

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Kansas' Dajuan Harris Jr., left, Elmarko Jackson, center, and K.J. Adams Jr. watch the final moment from the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Cincinnati won 72-52.

Kansas City, Mo. — Kansas coach Bill Self has taken great pains to stress in recent weeks that his team just needs to become whole, to get healthy again, and then it can compete with anyone.

After the injury-depleted Jayhawks, missing center Hunter Dickinson and guard Kevin McCullar Jr., lost by 20 points to Cincinnati in the Big 12 Conference tournament, Self added another qualifier, suggesting that his team’s recent struggles had affected its confidence.

“We got to get a swag back,” he said.

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Kansas forward K.J. Adams Jr. walks past head coach Bill Self as he comes out of the game during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Cincinnati Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Cincinnati won 72-52.

Becoming whole and regaining “swag,” though, are certainly interlinked.

“Guys that are in there need to obviously deliver when they’re in there,” Self said Wednesday, “but the guys that are in there haven’t been in positions like they were tonight to deliver.”

That won’t necessarily be the case any longer. After the resounding loss, one in which he, as one of those guys, attempted a career-high 11 shots (and didn’t make many of them), freshman guard Elmarko Jackson still said of the coming week ahead of the NCAA Tournament that his team could “approach it with optimism” — because of his veteran teammates’ impending return.

“We get two All-Americans back full speed by Monday,” Jackson told the Journal-World, echoing the timeline that Self had previously detailed on his “Hawk Talk” radio show. “(We’re) going to have about a week to prepare and get everybody back healthy, get back to playing the ball that we do, and shock everybody. There’s a lot of doubters doubting us so it’s a more of a reason for us to go hard.”

As backup center Parker Braun, who was himself limited by injury, put it, “We tried not to think about it — we tried to just kind of all play our games tonight.” But those peripheral players’ games have so often this year depended on wearing down a defense with repeated post entry passes to Dickinson, or — as Dickinson himself has put it — using McCullar as a “pressure release” to generate a viable shot at the end of the shot clock. Those players are inevitably the focal point of the Jayhawks’ offense. Even with the games McCullar has missed in recent weeks, they combine to account for 42% of their team’s overall shots.

Case in point: This is how Jackson describes the best possible means of transferring the positive aspects of his performance in the Cincinnati loss (he smashed a career high with nine rebounds): “If I could make their job easier with getting easy boards, and setting them up in (the) right spots, and when I’m open, knocking down a shot that they give to me that I have within the offense, or driving and drawing a person … to get easier shots for them, just anything like that.”

photo by: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Cincinnati guard Simas Lukosius, left, tries to steal the ball from Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, March 13, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Cincinnati won 72-52.

Not to mention that those two are among the team’s key emotional leaders. (Another, KJ Adams, deserves loads of credit for doing his part to drag KU through the Cincinnati game, as he matched a career high with 22 points while no one else on his team could shoot.) For better or worse, who can furnish a team with heaps of confidence more so than Dickinson, a man who has variously referred to himself as a “clutch player” and a “sniper” this year and has also branded himself as one of the villains of major college basketball? And “confidence” and “aggressiveness” were the buzzwords for McCullar all summer and fall as he looked to mold himself into a go-to player in the vein of Ochai Agbaji and Jalen Wilson, a pursuit in which he has been quite successful when healthy.

Now, the Jayhawks had both players participating as recently as last weekend, and they lost a game then by 30. But Dickinson was handling that game as well as any KU player before he dislocated his shoulder. And as for McCullar, as Self has pointed out, McCullar’s ability to practice has been extremely limited while he’s dealt with a knee bruise — “three times in the last four or five weeks,” Self said Wednesday — and he really didn’t practice much at all prior to that loss at Houston. Getting him back in the fold for good for a longer period of time beginning early next week could make all the difference, and help him shake off any possible rust.

The mental boon to Dickinson and McCullar’s teammates could be almost as valuable as their actually on-court production.

“We lean on those guys a lot,” Braun said. “They’re first-team All-Americans for a reason.”

Injured players Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. and Kansas center Hunter Dickinson watch the second half from the sidelines on Wednesday, March 13, 2024 at T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, Mo. Photo by Nick Krug

Kansas guard Kevin McCullar Jr. (15) celebrates a 3 against Kansas State during the first half on Tuesday, March 5, 2024 at Allen Fieldhouse. Photo by Nick Krug

photo by: Mike Gunnoe/Special to the Journal-World

Kansas center Hunter Dickinson yells out in celebration after teammate scored a basket while being fouled against Texas Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024, in Allen Fieldhouse.


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