LAWRENCE — Bill Self understood the question, but the Kansas basketball coach wasn’t sure he agreed with the premise.
Addressing reporters during a news conference Sunday morning, Self was asked how he thought the potential upcoming additions of frontcourt players Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa would affect Mitch Lightfoot — in particular, how might the sophomore forward react to a reduced role?
Not so fast.
“I’m not sure Mitch’s minutes will go down,” Self said. “I think it will be the perimeter minutes that go down as much as anything.”
Self’s answer reinforced what he has believed for weeks, if not longer: The No. 11-ranked Jayhawks (11-2, 1-0 Big 12), the Hall of Fame coach contends, would be best served by increasing the number of minutes it deploys a two-big lineup, which at this point is zero.
While he’s hinted at that desire recently, Self on Sunday put a number on the exact split he’d like to see between big and small if the Preston and De Sousa situations unfold as hopes.
“We can play small,” Self said, “but you go back and even look at last year, we played small a lot last year but when we played small it was primarily with Josh (Jackson) in the game. That’s not small like this year’s small. We’re doing 40 minutes of small ball every game right now, and it’d be nice if that could go down to 20. With two additional players I think it can.”
The statuses of De Sousa and Preston remain to-be-determined, now in the hands of the NCAA.
De Sousa joined the team last week and is awaiting amateurism clearance to appear in games, while Preston has yet to make his collegiate debut as KU indefinitely withheld the freshman as it looked into the financial details of a vehicle he was driving on campus. KU has forwarded its Preston findings to the NCAA, which reconvenes Tuesday following a holiday break.
Even if De Sousa and Preston are both cleared for in-game action, it will take a while until they are comfortable in their roles and until Self is comfortable deploying them in the time needed for the Jayhawks to reach 20 minutes of two bigs per game.
“It’s going to take ’til February for Silvio to have a clue on what we’re really trying to do, even though he can play before that, obviously, but to be totally comfortable,” Self said. “And Billy, I’m going to be real honest: Billy’s talented but Billy’s focus I don’t think throughout all of this has been (there). I mean, he’s hung in there, but you can imagine the frustration has set in. It’ll be interesting to see how quick he can really help us win a game as opposed to just being out there, too. It won’t happen overnight.”
Despite the obvious perks of the small-ball lineup — KU hit 17 3s in Friday’s conference-opening 92-86 victory at Texas — it’s easy to understand why the inside-out-minded Self would want to go big.
Through 13 games, the Jayhawks rank fifth among Big 12 teams in both rebounding margin (plus-4.8 per game) and blocked shots (4.6 per game) and are seventh in offensive rebounding percentage (30.3 percent). KU’s guards, meanwhile, have powered the team to a conference-best 11.2 made 3-pointers per contest, but the Jayhawks have attempted only 157 free throws — a number smaller than the number of made free throws for each of the other nine Big 12 squads.
“Our team, I think we’re going to be really good by the end,” Self said, “but I don’t think that we’re going to be close to what we can be until February — I really don’t — and that’s with everybody getting favorable outcomes.”
Lightfoot, one of only two bigs in KU’s active rotation, seems to be taking the frontcourt additions in stride — potential role change included.
“Obviously I’m happy for the reinforcement,” Lightfoot said. “It’s kind of hard to play when you only have seven guys out there. We were getting it done, but now that we have Silvio coming in and Sam (Cunliffe) came and who knows what happens in the future, but I’m just excited for us to have the squad out there.”
That diplomatic response is very much in line with who Lightfoot is, Self indicated.
“Mitch will handle whatever we throw at him,” Self said. “Mitch is a great kid and he loves this place and he wants to win more than he wants to play, and not everybody’s like that. He’s a quality person and I’m so glad we have him. He frustrates me sometimes because I want him to do more in some areas, but it’s not for a lack of effort. I think some of it’s just from a lack of experience and having opportunities.”
AZUBUIKE, NEWMAN ON MEND — Sophomores Udoka Azubuike and Malik Newman didn’t practice Sunday but are expected to play in the Jayhawks’ next contest, an 8 p.m. Tuesday game against No. 22 Texas Tech (12-1, 1-0) at Allen Fieldhouse.
Azubuike played through severe back pain in Friday’s victory over Mo Bamba and the Longhorns, while the guard Newman has been dealing with a lingering foot issue. Freshman guard Marcus Garrett started in place of Newman against Texas and, barring an unforeseen development, will assume the same role against the Red Raiders, Self said.