Why can't KU guard Sam Cunliffe get on the floor?
In December, just before the Kansas basketball schedule turned from non-conference tune-up to Big 12 grind, the Jayhawks received help in the form of an additional body to plug into the rotation.
It came in the form of sophomore guard Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Arizona State who sat out the second semester last season and the first semester this season and, in the eyes of the KU fan base, was sure to bring a little spark to the thin KU basketball rotation.
It hasn't happened.
After playing a forgettable two minutes against Nebraska in his first game back, Cunliffe enjoyed an average of 12 minutes per game during the next four outings and appeared to be settling into some kind of reserve role.
In the three games since then, however, Cunliffe has played two minutes vs. Iowa State, four minutes vs. Kansas State and did not play at all on Tuesday night at Oklahoma.
Asked after the K-State game if Cunliffe were available, KU coach Bill Self said he was but added that the newcomer had been struggling of late.
On Thursday, Self elaborated a little on where Cunliffe currently stands.
“I think he could,” said Self when asked if Cunliffe still could carve out some kind of a role on this year's team. “Sam is a terrific athlete. He's got a lot to learn from a basketball standpoint and, when he's in the game, what his role is. I like Sam a lot. I like his athletic ability and I like his talent. But he hasn't performed very well in the limited opportunities he's had that have been big-time opportunities.”
One such example comes from the Iowa State game on Jan. 9 — an 83-78 KU victory at Allen Fieldhouse — when Cunliffe checked in midway through the first half, fouled an ISU jump shooter in the first 15 seconds he was on the floor and immediately was subbed out.
On other occasions, rapid-fire, ill-advised shots by Cunliffe, instead of moving the ball and running offense, also have inspired Self to pull Cunliffe from the game.
Consider this: In Cunliffe's 57 minutes so far this season, the career 36 percent field goal shooter has taken more shots per minute than senior point guard and leading scorer Devonte' Graham.
Sure, the minutes are weighted heavily in Graham's favor. And, yeah, Cunliffe's eight games is a small sample size. But the fact that he is shooting more times per minute than all but one player in the KU rotation is the perfect indication of that understanding his role that Self talked about.
A quick look at the shots per minute from the nine players in KU's regular rotation:
|KU player||Shots Per Minute||Makes-Attempts||Minutes Played|
|Svi Mykhailiuk||0.39||120-265 (.453)||676|
|Sam Cunliffe||0.37||9-21 (.429)||57|
|Devonte' Graham||0.35||104-253 (.411)||726|
|Lagerald Vick||0.33||110-214 (.514)||658|
|Udoka Azubuike||0.33||130-168 (.774)||507|
|Malik Newman||0.32||83-185 (.449)||584|
|Mitch Lightfoot||0.21||30-57 (.526)||267|
|Marcus Garrett||0.17||30-71 (.423)||422|
|Silvio De Sousa||0.07||1-1 (1.000)||14|
While his quick trigger has been less than ideal for the KU offense in terms of ball movement and getting the best shot possible, it also has gone against all of the things Cunliffe said he wanted to bring to the lineup when he became eligible — crashing the glass, playing great defense, giving max effort and other intangibles that can get you on the floor in a hurry for a coach like Self.
Those kinds of mistakes — not fouling a jump shooter is one of the cardinal rules of Self's defense — and other absent-minded miscues like them have led to Self feeling more comfortable with Cunliffe on the bench than on the floor.
Self understands that the belief among many KU fans is that Cunliffe might play better and make fewer mistake if he were to get an opportunity to play through a few of them. But it's clear that Self would like to see Cunliffe eliminate the mental mistakes first before giving him more minutes.
It's not crazy to consider or question what Cunliffe might be able to do with more minutes. He rarely has been given a chance to run up and down and get into the game and there's no disputing that it's difficult to come off the bench to play two or three minutes when what you want to do is get your blood flowing and compete on every possession.
But with so many KU games coming down to the wire and being tight throughout, it should come as no surprise that Self has not quite been ready to turn Cunliffe loose.
“A lot of people may think, 'Well, give him an opportunity and (he'll) play better,'” Self said. “Well, that is true. You could also say, 'Well, why was Silvio (De Sousa) in when he turned the ball over three times in a minute?' Well, he needs an opportunity, too. So there's the devil's advocate to everything that you possibly could say. But I would say that Sam has had minimal opportunities but probably hasn't made the most of those or his practice opportunities as much as what we'd like to see.”