Bill Self’s Backup – Notes on Kansas Jayhawks vs. Tennessee State

By: Chris O’Brien

The Kansas Jayhawks defeated Tennessee State in the season opener, 92-56. Lagerald Vick led all scorers with 23 points and Devonte’ Graham casually put together a near triple-double (10 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds).

The Jayhawks had six players score in double figures (Mykhailiuk – 16, Azubuike – 13, Newman – 12, Garrett – 10) which is an impressive feat considering they only played with seven scholarship guys.

This season, I’m launching a series called “Bill Self’s Unofficial Assistant Coach,” where I’ll put together a quick four thoughts and observations from each week. In terms of credentials, I am as unofficial as it gets. The stay-at-home fan. These are like my audition tapes to get on the Bill Self staff.

Certain games (like Kentucky next week) may get their own post, but otherwise sticking to once-a-week format so I don’t burn out.

Alright, here we go.

Devonte’ Graham looks incredibly relaxed out there

Frank Mason III never looked relaxed. Intense, focused, I’m going to blow past you and get to the rim, yes, but never relaxed. I think I saw him smile once and that was very very brief… at the Naismith award ceremony.

This year’s Kansas team will be — at least for the beginning of the year — playing a little bit in the shadow of last year’s squad. The biggest question will be, “How can this team be better than 2016-17? Last year had a Top Five pick, Josh Jackson, and National Player of the Year Frank Mason.”

And no spot will the comparisons be made more than at the point guard position. Mason vs. Graham.

Who’s better? Who’s the better leader? Who can take the Jayhawks further? 

I don’t really want to get into all of that, mainly because they have two different styles, plus we are only one game into the season.

What I noticed about Graham’s game last night was how comfortable he looked running the offense. And it’s nothing new, he’s always played with this swagger, always smiling, playing loose, pumping up the crowd, but last year he did this alongside Frank. This year, he’s the main attraction (they were referring to him as the Vice President turned President), and he definitely looks ready to run the team.

Going into this season, my assumption was “run the team” would mean that Graham had to put up 20 – 25 points per game. Last night we saw him play more of a traditional point guard role, set people up, dish out 12 assists. It was surprising to me because I knew he’d have Svi, and Doke, and Preston, and Newman to help with the scoring, what I didn’t know was…

Lagerald Vick as Josh Jackson Lite? 

I have to pump the brakes here.

Josh Jackson was the No. 4 pick in the draft.

Jackson also has three or four inches on Vick.

Jackson was an absolute game-changer, was a Lottery Pick before even stepping foot on campus, whereas Vick I had no idea was even going to start until last night.

But man did he look good! His shot looked better than a year before. He’s always been athletic, but against Tennessee State he looked more in control of his overall movement. Plus he’s locked in on defense, plays with fire and energy.

I noticed a few times when Tennessee State was running zone, Vick would play the Jackson role, go to the free throw line and be a focal point of initiating the zone offense.

If Vick can play like this, become kind of the Josh Jackson Lite option, definitely changes the ceiling for this team.

Defense first?

ESPNU showed a stat last night about how Bill Self’s Kansas teams used to have elite defenses, but that has fallen off the last three to four years. I remember that Wiggins/Embiid team was notoriously bad at defense. Last year’s wasn’t great either.

Their first game of the season looked like a return to the defense first days. They held Tennessee State to 32.8 percent field goal shooting.

The biggest revelation was the defense of Marcus Garrett. Bill Self and the announcers compare him to Travis Releford (if we get a four-year career like that out of Garrett, I will be thrilled).

Biggest concern – frontcourt defense. Tennessee State’s not a good example of a team that could expose this, we will get a much better snapshot against Kentucky. Udoka Azubuike will be fine, and his defense looked improved, but can Svi Mykhailiuk bang with a traditional power forward? What will Billy Preston look like?

Depth is a problem… until it’s not

It’s crazy to me that Kansas only has eight scholarship players, and last night only played with seven! Walk-on Clay Young, who is only 6’5”, was our third big man.

It’s definitely a problem in terms of fatigue and potential injuries, but things will be much better by January. And by March, I almost like this kind of setup better than having 10-12 guys you try to fit into a rotation.

Why?

First – Bill Self has gone small ball again this year. I like this as a blueprint for college basketball. In today’s game, there are only a few teams out there with two dominant big men. If they are really dominant, they usually have left by their sophomore or junior season. And, with the one-and-done superstar freshmen, those kids are talented, but usually skinny so they’re not killing you on the glass.

The small ball offense looked great last night, ball zipping around, tons of threes. But it also solves the depth problem. If KU starts Preston and Azubuike together, run a traditional two big offense, then they really are thin up front. The backups in that scenario legitimately are Mitch Lightfoot and Clay Young.

But run four guards, now Preston is backing up Azubuike. Lightfoot backing up Preston. Vick and Svi start and can also split time at the stretch four. Newman, and by December Cunliffe, then back up Garrett and Graham (I like Newman off the bench, gives a major boost to the second unit).

As a college coach, you need to account for 200 minutes. Five guys, forty minutes. So most of the time a rotation ends up being eight or nine guys. Kansas just happens to be forced into that scenario this year.

Come March, KU’s minute distribution will look something like:

Graham – 32

Garrett – 24

Vick – 30

Svi – 30

Doke – 28

Preston – 25

Newman – 20

Cunliffe – 6

Lightfoot – 5

The other thing that will be interesting to follow is this recruit Silvio De Sousa who was scheduled to be on the team next year but may be able to play as early as December. How that makes sense, I have no idea, but I’m crossing my fingers that it happens. More info can be found here.

This would be a major addition and end any concerns about depth. With Doke, Preston, and De Sousa they would be equipped to battle any teams built like North Carolina or Gonzaga from last year.

De Sousa is a Top 40 recruit, it’d be like adding another young big man of Preston’s caliber into the rotation. With De Sousa, KU would have three future NBA bigs and six quality perimeter players. Lightfoot would be the Number 10 guy vs. where he was last night at Number 7.

And then one last thing, because any time a writer starts talking about the value of practice matchups (we talkin’ about practice??) you know they’ve gone way too deep down the rabbit hole and need to wrap things up.

BUT I think there is a ton of value in having the Lawson brothers (transfers from Memphis) in practices guarding Preston and Azubuike. The Lawsons are starter level, physical bigs, and will help push Doke and particularly the young Preston to improve their games from November to March.

Next game – Kentucky on Tuesday, November 14th Champions Classic. Should have a Phoggy Four up on Wednesday to follow.

Chris O’Brien has no-shame admitting he’s a die-hard Kansas Jayhawks fan. If you’re looking for balance on this site, eh, not gonna happen. Or at least not from Chris. BUT we are looking for other college basketball content. If you’d like to do a weekly Four Thoughts on your favorite team, email chris@mediumraresizzle.com 

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