Dajuan Harris’ breakout performance in NCAA Tournament shows he belongs in KU’s starting 5

photo by: Associated Press

Kansas guard Dajuan Harris (3) battles Eastern Washington guard Kim Aiken Jr. (24) battle for the ball during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament at Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis, Saturday, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

The way Dajuan Harris played against Eastern Washington on Saturday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, he might never come off the bench again for Kansas.

March Madness has a way of creating college basketball stars. Those who emerge unexpectedly and embrace the stage end up making winning look easy, bringing the best out of the players around them and, most importantly, propelling their team to the next round.

While David McCormack turned in a folk-hero performance in his return at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis, and senior Marcus Garrett played like a senior not interested in seeing his career end, the Jayhawks’ run in this year’s tournament might already have been over and done with if not for the play of the smallest man in the rotation, redshirt freshman Harris.

In just his 29th career game, KU’s backup point guard, listed at 6-foot-1 and 160 pounds, had his new career scoring high before halftime, which wasn’t hard to do considering the low-usage reserve’s previous best was 7 points.

But Harris did much more than score 13 points and shock the Eagles with his 3-for-4 3-point accuracy. He played with the poise of a senior, making it possible for the Jayhawks (21-8) not to panic when No. 14 seed Eastern Washington (16-8) had an upset brewing.

“We were in real trouble if it wasn’t for Dajuan,” KU coach Bill Self said afterward.

The Eagles, who led by as many as 10, gave KU more than a scare. The Big Sky’s lone representative in the field went up 9-0 on the Big 12’s premier basketball program in less than two minutes. But the deficit wouldn’t become more disastrous, because as soon as the margin hit nine, Self abandoned his starting five to bring in Harris and McCormack.

This wasn’t the case earlier in the season, when Harris was still learning the ropes, but the Jayhawks in March are simply a better team when he’s on the floor. It proved true yet again during his first taste of the NCAA Tournament, when the young point guard from Columbia, Mo., gave KU 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting, to go with his four assists, two steals, one block and no turnovers in 35 minutes.

Harris, just like starters Garrett, Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun, played all 20 minutes of the second half, because KU needed him in the game for as long as possible. The Jayhawks were noticeably worse off when either Harris or McCormack wasn’t on the floor.

When praising Harris during his postgame video press conference, Garrett didn’t reference his fellow guard’s points, assists or 3-pointers. Garrett instead brought up Harris’ eye-catching plus/minus of +22.

“I feel like he played a great game,” Garrett said. “He gave us the boost we needed.”

In fact, the Jayhawks blew out the Eagles when Harris was on the floor, 91-69. During the roughly five minutes in which Harris sat in KU’s first-round win, the Eagles outscored the Jayhawks, 15-2.

“He came out there (and) he did what Dajuan does,” Garrett said. “He took the shots that were open and he knocked them down.”

When the Eagles invited Harris to put up 3-pointers, the young guard showed no fear and made them pay for doubting him. Even though Harris only attempted nine 3-pointers (and made five) total in his first 28 college games, he didn’t have a reluctant approach. The Eagles undoubtedly expected a freshman known for not shooting to tense up and hoist bricks or drive into a defense that was waiting for him.

Harris was too unflappable for that to work.

“I feel like he has confidence shooting the ball,” Garrett said. “He just doesn’t take them all the time, because that’s kind of not what he does for the team. But when he does take them, he has a chance to knock them down.”

It turns out EWU didn’t know what KU had in Harris, who only averaged 1.9 points and 1.8 assists in 13.7 minutes a game during Big 12 play.

Those days of being a nonfactor are behind Harris now, though.

“‘Juan was probably the best player we had from start to finish,” Self said following the young point guard’s March Madness debut.

Harris has not only proven himself now, he’s also earned his coach’s trust. The spotlight will get hotter and the competition more athletic and imposing from here, but Harris has shown he belongs in the staring lineup.

The Jayhawks opened their NCAA Tournament run with a lineup of Garrett, Braun, Agbaji, Bryce Thompson and Mitch Lightfoot. But the five who got them out of the first round — Harris, McCormack, Garrett, Agbaji and Braun — should be the starting five for round two.

How Jalen Wilson handles his return from COVID-19 — and whether he can play on Monday and be impactful, like McCormack — will go a long way in determining whether the Jayhawks can reach the Sweet 16 and extend their stay in Indianapolis. Regardless of how many more games remain for KU in the West region, Harris has proved himself as a floor general who plays with confidence, vision and defensive energy — and let’s not forget he’s also a 3-point shooting threat (8-for-13 on the season). He deserves a promotion to the starting five from here on out.

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