LAWRENCE — Malik Newman had the game of his collegiate career to this point, but the Kansas sophomore guard still took umbrage with one element of his sensational evening.
After weeks of struggling and on the heels of a rock-bottom one-point effort in his team’s last contest, Newman finally had his breakout game Tuesday night, scoring a career-high 27 points for the No. 12-ranked Jayhawks in an eke-it-out home victory over Iowa State, 83-78. With the win, KU avoided what would have been its first back-to-back defeats at Allen Fieldhouse since the 1988-89 season and the first-ever three-defeat season at the facility in coach Bill Self’s 14-plus-year tenure.
Front and center in the postgame interview room, Newman peered down at the box score, which was littered with other impressive feats — eight rebounds, two blocks and five 3-pointers among them. Moments after for the first time showing KU fans the talent that made him a McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit in high school, Newman still wasn’t wholly pleased.
“I think that’s a misprint. I don’t think I shot it 21 times,” said a smiling Newman, referring to his 10-for-21 shooting performance. “I shot it a lot, but I don’t think 21.”
It wasn’t a typo, of course, but Newman was making a point: As good as this moment felt, as sweet as it tasted to show off just one day after Self unflatteringly labeled him “a thinker” and said the guard needed to show more aggressiveness and activity, it will all be for naught if he can’t build on this.
“We can kind of consider it as a breakout,” Newman said, “but I think the only way how we can say it’s a breakout depends on what I do moving forward.”
Svi Mykhailiuk pitched in 23 points with a team-high six makes from 3-point range while Devonte’ Graham (11 points) rounded out the double-digit scorers for the Jayhawks (13-3, 3-1 Big 12) in the airtight victory over the feisty Cyclones (9-6, 0-4), who entered 16½-point underdogs.
wNewman’s biggest contribution arguably came on the defensive end, where his block of Donovan Jackson’s 3-point attempt and Newman’s driving layup on a subsequent fast break gave the Jayhawks a 77-73 edge with 2:30 to play.
“That was a big-time block,” Graham said.
“I thought the block was huge,” Self added. “… (Newman) didn’t shoot it unbelievable, but I thought he was aggressive, looked for his shot and certainly we wouldn’t have won the game unless he produced.”
Of the block, Newman said Self told him to play up on Jackson and cited an accurate scouting report that correctly revealed some of the Cyclone guard’s tendencies.
“I kind of felt it coming once he tried the step-back,” Newman said, “so I just wanted to have a high hand and contest.”
Mykhailiuk’s block on KU’s next possession set up a Graham jumper, and ISU’s leading scorer Lindell Wigginton (27 points) committed a pair of turnovers on the Cyclones’ next two possessions to squash any comeback hopes.
Still, the game didn’t do much to ease concerns about several of the Jayhawks’ recurring woes, including rebounding, getting to the free-throw line and a dependence on the 3-point shot. KU was out-rebounded 44-34, made only 5 of 13 attempts from the line and attempted 36 3-pointers in the contest, including a program-record 24 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
“Heck yeah, sure,” Self said, “I’ll take this as a grind-it-out win.”
No one grinded more in crunch time than Newman, who had 19 second-half points. Self said the sophomore did a good job playing with a free mind and finding his own shot, the latter the Jackson, Miss., native’s best attribute.
“Hopefully that’s a step in the right direction, a big step, and he’ll be much better moving forward, because we need him,” Self said. “You know, Malik is a guy that can get 15 a game, and we need him to give us 25-to-33 minutes a game and be a threat, and I thought he was really good tonight.
“I think that’ll go a long way with his confidence.”
Starting the second half, as he did against the Cyclones, might help too. After losing his starting role four games ago before the Jayhawks’ conference opener, Newman may ascend back into that position before the team’s next contest, and 11 a.m. Saturday tilt with in-state rival Kansas State.
Regardless of whether that happens, Newman said he’ll look to be the same player: The one KU fans saw for the first time Tuesday.
“At the end of the day we’ve just got to go out and perform,” Newman said, “so whether I start or I don’t start, I just think the end of the game is the most important part.”
In recent weeks, Newman has turned to his father and other close allies for advice. Former NBA player Mo Williams, often referred to as an uncle to Newman, reached out to the Jayhawk guard with an uplifting message, part of an inner circle making sure Newman’s mind is right, he said.
“(It’s been) frustrating yeah, but it’s more on you,” Newman said. “That’s not something you can put on anyone. Of course you’ll be frustrated with your play because you know you’re a better player than that, but at the end of the day you’ve just got to keep grinding and get yourself out that hole.”