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KU basketball 'a different team' when this group performs as it did against K-State

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas freshman guard Bryce Thompson puts up a shot as Kansas State's Kaosi Ezeagu defends during Wednesday's game at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan. Thompson scored six points off the bench in the No. 23-ranked Jayhawks' 59-41 victory.

It’s a luxury that hasn’t been afforded often to Kansas basketball this season, but when it has, this Jayhawk group’s ceiling arguably reaches new heights.

After witnessing that reality bear fruit Wednesday, Bill Self is well aware of its value.

“We’re a different team,” Self said, “when we can rest those starters a little bit.”

And a more dangerous one, at that.

Bryce Thompson, Dajuan Harris and Mitch Lightfoot came off the bench to contribute a combined 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals in No. 23-ranked KU’s 59-41 victory over rival Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan. All three reserves reached double-digit minutes played in what became the Jayhawks’ fourth consecutive victory and fifth in their last six contests.

“There were times that they were certainly more effective than what a couple of starters were in the minutes that they were in there,” said Self, speaking Thursday on his weekly “Hawk Talk” radio program, “and that’s something that you always want to try to see.”

Just how valuable were Thompson, Harris and Lightfoot against the Wildcats? Consider this: All three were on the court for the vast majority of a 14-3 second-half run that turned a four-point KU lead into a 15-point advantage, with the freshman guards Thompson and Harris in it for the entire four-plus-minute rally.

Self said it was “great to see” Harris and Thompson “taking it over” during that stretch, particularly because it meant there was no real pressure to rush senior guard Marcus Garrett back onto the floor. Garrett, who is averaging 34 minutes in league play, totaled 30 against K-State, including just 12 in the second half.

“Bryce and Dajuan were the key players in that game. They did some great things,” Self said. “Second half I thought that those two guys sparked us in a way that we desperately needed. I was happy. That was good stuff with Marcus on the bench.”

Appearing in just his third game since returning from a broken right index finger and only his fourth contest since Dec. 22, Thompson flashed the talent that made him a consensus five-star recruit out of Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla. The 6-foot-5, 195-pounder scored six points on 3-for-4 shooting and added 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal in 21 minutes.

Thompson contributed two buckets and threw a nifty lob to a dunking David McCormack during the Jayhawks’ game-clinching 14-3 run, all part of an overall performance Self labeled “terrific.”

“Bryce, if he hadn’t gotten hurt, worst-case scenario for him, he probably would’ve settled in as our sixth man, worst-case scenario, if he didn’t start some games or whatnot,” Self said. “I think he’s played really well. I thought he was really good (Wednesday). His hand is not 100%, so he’s probably a little hesitant shooting the ball from beyond the arc, but it’s getting there every day. You can see it every day; it looks better. I anticipate him being full-speed, maybe from this point forward.”

Harris, a 6-1, 170-pounder, notched all three of his steals during the second half, including two that led to buckets on back-to-back possessions in the 14-3 run. The Columbia, Mo., native also recorded two points on 1-for-3 shooting with two rebounds and two steals in his 10-minute outing.

While Self would like to see Harris more often look to score when left open, the 18th-year Jayhawk head coach offered a glowing review of the redshirt freshman’s outing against the Wildcats.

“Juan was great. Best Juan has been, most aggressive. He just looked different to me,” Self said. “I also think this: I think having Bryce back will make Juan a lot better player because (he) says, ‘Well, if I don’t really be aggressive and attack then I probably won’t get a chance to play much.’ ...

“He’s got to look to score. He can make a shot. He’s a good shooter if he’s wide open. He kind of has his mindset of, ‘This is how I play.’ I really like his mindset. His mindset in practice has been good too.”

Lightfoot, meanwhile, pitched in four points on 2-for-3 shooting and three rebounds in 14 minutes backing up McCormack. And, as one might’ve guessed at this point, both of the redshirt senior forward’s made field goals came during the decisive 14-3 run, with Lightfoot only returning to the bench after the Jayhawks had already built an 11-point lead.

“He took three charges; they only gave him two. He defended well. He threw a jump-hook in. ... I thought Mitch did some good things,” Self said. “If Mitch would defensive rebound the basketball, he would’ve played great.”

KU's bench has averaged 10.9 points across the team's 15 league contests, although that number has been in the single-digits in three of the Jayhawks' last five games (four points on Feb. 6 at West Virginia; two points on Feb. 8 against Oklahoma State; five points on Feb. 13 at Iowa State). Self acknowledged it would be “a little bit of a stretch” to say he’s at the point where he expects the reserves to contribute night-in and night-out the way they did against the Wildcats.

Still, he was nothing but encouraged by that group’s contributions Wednesday.

“That,” Self said, “”was a big key tonight.”

Jayhawks mull adding nonconference game

KU will next play host to No. 15 Texas Tech (14-6, 6-5), the first of three ranked matchups currently set to end the Jayhawks’ regular season. Chris Beard's squad hasn't played since Feb. 9, with its last two cancellations — a back-to-back against TCU — related to inclement weather across Texas. After that meeting will come showdowns with No. 12 Texas (8 p.m. Tuesday in Austin, Texas) and No. 2 Baylor (7 p.m. Feb. 27 in Lawrence).

“I like Beard and all, but hopefully it’s a very rusty group that comes in here on Saturday. ... They’ll be amped up, yeah, no question, but we will be too,” Self said. “I think these last three games are going to be extremely competitive and fun games. Without making predictions of who’s going to win or whatnot, I know one thing: We can, that’s for sure, if we go out and hook up and play like we’re capable of. But we can also be had, too."

The only Big 12 program on track to enter the final week of conference play with the expected 16 league matchups under its belt, KU could face the possibility of going 12 full days without a contest, the amount of time between the scheduled finale against the Bears and the team's likely postseason opener, a Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal on March 11 in Kansas City, Mo.

As the other nine programs in the Big 12 use that buffer week to make up for lost league matchups, would the Jayhawks consider adding a nonconference tilt to its schedule?

Self on Thursday acknowledged they’ve discussed that very option, though they’re “going to wait a little longer” to see how things play out with the league’s plans for the final week. Adding a 27th and final regular season contest may help his team maintain rhythm but could also represent an unnecessary COVID-19 risk, Self argued.

“I don’t know what the best thing is, but I do know this: I’d almost rather be rusty than risk (it),” Self said. “So we’ll just have to wait and see. It’s not a perfect scenario. ... It’s a great question, though. The answer is I don’t know, even though we’re prepared to do something.”

NO. 15 TEXAS TECH AT NO. 23 KANSAS

Tipoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence

Records: Texas Tech 14-6, 6-5 Big 12; Kansas 16-7, 10-5 Big 12

Line: Kansas by 3

TV/Radio: ESPN/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7)

Up next for KU: at No. 12 Texas, 8 p.m. Tuesday, Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas