Wrapping up KU's trip to Italy with a few awards and a quick look back
SOMEWHERE OVER THE ATLANTIC — While flying home from KU’s eight-day exhibition trip to Italy, I've discovered I have a handful of options at my disposal.
Option 1: Try to sleep as much as possible so I won’t be worthless when I get home, more than 17 hours after leaving the hotel in Milan before dawn on Tuesday morning.
Option 2: Clown around with United Airlines’ entertainment options and see how far that’ll get me toward eating up the time during the eight-hour flight from Brussels to Washington D.C. There are a couple of good movies on there and a few television series and games that give me a fighting chance.
Option 3: Work. Even though the games are over, there’s still plenty to write and lots of reason to react to what we learned from the Jayhawks’ four wins in five days in Rome and Milan.
I might get to the others later, but I chose Option 3 to start and that brings us to right here and right now.
Although it would have been cool to see KU play tougher competition in Italy, there still was a lot to be learned from what we did see, from the individual Jayhawks themselves, the newcomers and how the whole thing meshed together.
With that in mind, and now that the chasing these guys around from tour to tour and venue to venue part of the trip is over, I figured I’d spend the next 700 miles or so looking back at the tour in a big picture sort of manner.
Some of it might surprise you. A lot of it won’t. But either way it seems like a good idea to take another look back at the week that was in Kansas basketball and try to shine a little light on what we may have learned about the 2017-18 Jayhawks from their trip abroad.
Most enjoyable game
For my money, it was the finale and it wasn’t just because Malik Newman went nuts. That helped, though, especially in the first half, when Newman was flat-out unconscious and poured in 25 points. Equally entertaining, however, were the strong second halves by Svi Mykhailiuk (26 points) and Lagerald Vick (20 points), who both knocked down jumpers and were relentless in pushing the pace and driving to the rim. The whole game had the feel to me that the Jayhawks were there to put on a show and reaching 118 points before going home certainly qualified as such. After that, I’d rank the games like this: 2. Game 1 – Udoka Azubuike’s dunk fest and assault on the rims was something to see; 3. Game 2 – As I’ve written already, I’m becoming a big fan of Marcus Garrett’s and he was sensational in this game; 4. Game 3 – The hottest night of the week and the second game against the same team.
This one was up in the air until the final game, but then sophomore guard Malik Newman stepped up and grabbed ahold of it. His 32-point outburst in the finale was big time, but he also reached double digits in the three other games and averaged 19.3 points per game for the trip. His ability to step up as a high-volume scorer (a) made Kansas coach Bill Self and his staff look good for telling us this was coming, and (b) allowed senior Devonte’ Graham to play with a free mind and less pressure knowing that he did not have to be the guy who handled the scoring load all by himself. It was a great week for Newman — on and off the floor — and should send him into the season with a ton of confidence.
This honor goes to Craig Jonas, the man at Basketball Travelers Inc. and Global University Sports Properties (as well as a former Colorado State assistant coach) who put the whole trip together and then orchestrated everything to perfection for the last eight days. When the final game was over and Kansas had completed its 118-74 pasting of Dream Team Italy, Jonas let out a huge sigh of relief and sat back as a calm washed over his body. Having watched it happen, I talked to Jonas about the moment and he said there are so many moving parts and so many things you can’t control with a trip of this magnitude — weather, transportation issues, unexpected needs of players and donors, etc. — that you’re kind of holding your breath the whole way until everything is in the books. Since it was at that moment, Jonas, like everyone, was able to relax and enjoy the cruise of Lake Como the following day, his 18th trip out to the fabulous lake. Jonas, who now lives in Denver, earned his Ph.D from KU in 2002 so being around a bunch of Jayhawks wasn’t exactly a new experience for him and seemed to bring him a great deal of joy all week. It paled in comparison to the joy he brought all of those Jayhawks.
Most Consistent Jayhawk
It’s hard to argue with a player who reached double digits in scoring all four nights, but I’m giving Devonte’ Graham the most consistent award. And not necessarily for his play — although he was pretty solid and the team’s clear leader night in and night out — but more for his approach. Graham knows he can score when he needs to and there will be times where that is needed this season. Probably a bunch of times. But the past week in Italy was not one of those times and so Graham laid low and focused on all of that other stuff that he needed to do to help the team. He was a great passer, he ran the show well, he helped the young guys gain some confidence and, perhaps most consistently, he hit shots early in each game that took the pressure off and allowed his teammates to play loose and free. Graham’s line for the trip: 10.5 points, 7.5 assists and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes. He also added 14 steals, including seven in the finale. Nothing spectacular there, but so, so solid.
Although he dropped off after leaving Rome, the strong play of freshman Marcus Garrett in the first two games of the trip still lands him the nod here. Garrett was great in both wins in Rome, stealing the show in Game 2, after which KU coach Bill Self called him the best player in the game. One thing that people need to remember about Garrett was that he nearly averaged a triple-double for the season during his final year of high school. So being multi-dimensional is nothing new to the 6-foot-5, 180-pound freshman, who looks and plays a lot bigger and tougher, without giving up speed and quickness, than those numbers suggest. Quick hands, a good feel and a genuine desire to be a defensive menace, Garrett seems to already have figured out the best way to get on the floor during his first season in Lawrence.
There’s no doubt that it was the illness that cost Udoka Azubuike the final two games of the trip and the knee tweak that encouraged Billy Preston to sit out the finale. It would’ve been great to see if Azubuike could do more than just dunk the daylights out of the ball in the final two games and watching Preston already has become a wildly entertaining adventure. Some moments he looks unstoppable and so strong. Others, he’s jogging down the floor on D or taking an inexplicable shot on offense. Both are still young players and both will be fairly key to just how good the Jayhawks will be this season. So seeing them play a combined five of eight games was at least mildly disappointing but certainly nobody’s fault. Just bad luck.
Biggest area of need
It sure seems like it’s rebounding. Obviously the Jayhawks need to stay healthy, but so does every team in America. So you can’t use that for one team like it doesn’t matter for all of the others. There were good moments and bad in the rebounding department during this trip, particularly from the KU big men. Self seems to think they’ll be fine and he’s probably right. Azubuike alone could be all the rebounding the team needs and Mitch Lightfoot’s a warrior down low. But whether it’s Azubuike, Lightfoot, Preston or even Garrett, it’s imperative that the Jayhawks handle their business on the boards so those guards can get out and go. When they do, this because an awfully difficult team to guard.
This team is going to play small a ton this year and won’t mind doing it one bit. Self is big on playing guys he trusts and eliminating questions and putting Graham, Newman, Mykhailiuk and Vick out there together as much as possible accomplishes both things. All four are veterans — in one way or another — and each has talent, toughness and can either shoot the heck out of it, create for others or both. It would not surprise me one bit if that quartet, along with Azubuike, winds up being the starting five for the Jayhawks. Going that route accomplishes two things: 1. It gets the best players on the floor, and, 2. It helps create some big man depth that might not be there otherwise, just as playing Josh Jackson at the 4 did last season. There’s still, of course, a long way to go before we know the answer to that. And a lot can change between now and then. Frankly, if the switch comes on for Preston, he’s going to be hard to keep out of the lineup. But if it doesn’t, Self and company have a pretty sweet alternative. KU might give up a little defensively with that small lineup, but I think what they’d gain offensively by going that way would more than make up for it.