LAWRENCE — College basketball’s newest superstar has a bone to pick — just not with a person.
No, Malik Newman’s grievance is with a little, blue bird.
The red-hot Kansas guard is in the midst of an electrifying postseason, averaging 22.7 points on 54.2-percent shooting and a 28-for-51 performance from 3-point range over the top-seeded Jayhawks’ seven Big 12 and NCAA tournament contests. His 32-point outburst Sunday helped KU down Duke, 85-81 in overtime, and earn a 7:49 p.m. Saturday tilt in the Final Four with fellow No. 1 seed Villanova at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
Newman’s next-level play earned him the Midwest Region’s most outstanding player honor and the nickname of “Postseason Leek” from teammate Devonte’ Graham. It hasn’t, however, earned him his coveted blue checkmark on social media outlet Twitter, a distinction that indicates a user’s account is verified.
Yes, the player having the most out-of-his-mind March is as anonymous on Twitter as a mud-slinging egg account.
“Patiently waiting,” Newman tweeted March 19, quote-tweeting a post from a fan telling Twitter a “well-deserved blue checkmark” was way overdue for the sophomore.
Newman, who has 52,700 followers, finished the tweet with a shrugging emoji.
“A lot of people think that I should be verified,” Newman said Tuesday, “so I mean, Twitter, we need to make that happen.”
Twitter isn’t the only social media outlet in Newman’s crosshairs.
“Instagram, too,” Newman continued. “Coach (Jerrance) Howard verified on Instagram, and I got more followers than coach Howard. So we need to sit down and have a meeting.”
Newman admitted he had no idea how the Twitter verification process actually works. Typically, users fill out a form embedded within the website and wait for Twitter’s approval or a vague rejection notice, but Graham (64,400 followers) and Mitch Lightfoot (11,300 followers) — both verified — said they weren’t exactly sure how they received the distinction.
That didn’t stop Lightfoot from talking a little trash.
“I think it’s kind of funny,” Lightfoot said. “I think he should definitely try to get on my level.”
Newman responded by saying it’s “not that debatable” that his Twitter is superior to Lightfoot’s, or any other teammate for that matter. If nothing else, Newman’s tweets are diverse, ranging in subject matter from public admiration for rapper Meek Mill to concern about the status of Nickelodeon programming.
“Bruh,” Newman tweeted Feb. 26, “it true they gone shut down SpongeBob March 1?”
Newman can at least hang one social media statistic over his teammates’ heads.
None of them have been tweeted at by a snack cake icon.
Little Debbie reached out to Newman on March 16, including a link to a video from The Kansas City Star in October that highlighted the guard’s infatuation with the brand’s Donut Sticks and frustration with roommates for stealing them from his stash of snacks — “We were very sad to hear about your Donut Stick plight @iammaliknewman,” the company wrote, adding a pensive face emoji.
For Newman, the shout-out was quite the treat, though he didn’t believe it at first.
“I was like, ‘Here we go,” Newman recalled. “People playin’.′ ”
Newman’s reaction changed when he clicked on the page and — of course — saw Little Debbie’s blue verification checkmark.
“I’m like, ‘Yo! This Little Debbie for real?’ ” Newman said. “I had to tweet her back. I’m like, ‘Yo, I love you guys.’ We need to sit down and talk. Like, make a Malik Newman Donut Stick or somethin’.”
The mere fact Newman is able to concern himself of late with such subjects is a testament to just how far he’s come since midseason, when he was perpetually in coach Bill Self’s dog house for his lack of activity on defense and role as a simple shooter and one-dimensional offensive option.
Over the last few months, though, Newman has emerged as that all-purpose player on all ends.
The two-guard is averaging 4.9 rebounds on the season and had seven apiece in each of the Jayhawks’ last two victories. He played suffocating defense on Duke’s Grayson Allen on the final possession of regulation, forcing an off-balance and guarded shot that went in, rolled and bounced around, then mercifully popped out of the basket.
“I’m like, ‘Lord, Lord please, just please, Lord,’ ” Newman said of his thought process as Allen’s shot rolled around the rim. ”’Cause I thought it was great defense. I made him take a contested shot. When I’m watching it roll around, I’m like, ‘I know this ball not finna go in. I know this is not going to be the one he’s going to make. It can’t be.’ We got a lucky bounce.”
The missed buzzer-beater forced the extra session, where Newman scored all 13 of the Jayhawks’ overtime points to deliver Self his first Final Four berth since 2012.
“You know, I just felt like he was forcing Devonte’ to do too much. And we made that very clear to him,” Self said Monday of Newman. “But here of late, I mean, Devonte’ has got a sidekick, or you could even say Malik has got a sidekick in Devonte’ because he’s been our best player without question the last month.”
Later in Self’s teleconference, he alluded to “personality traits” the team needed to change midseason to make the turnaround, and he said the group “100 percent flipped those.” On Tuesday, Self acknowledged Newman was one of three main culprits earlier in the season that weren’t mature enough, weren’t coachable and were too thin-skinned, had a too-cool attitude and didn’t adopt the mindset of needing to make the other team play poorly to win close games.
“So those were some things that I felt like that had to be changed, and it wasn’t just with Malik,” Self said. “But Malik was a primary one, I felt like, because I thought he was content on just being out there as opposed to being a guy that really put himself out there. So he’s really improved on that.”
For Newman, the months of rough and oftentimes public criticism has been worth it and has developed him into a better professional prospect whenever he decides to make the jump to the next level.
“I think that really helped me, just the tough love he’s been showing me,” Newman said. “Him not letting me take any shortcuts. I think that really helped me develop on and off the court. I think it just made me a better person.”
Still, there were two loose ends for Newman to tie up before making the trip to San Antonio, starting with his thoughts that Graham could potentially be the sidekick in this new dynamic.
“I’m most definitely still Robin, most definitely still Robin,” Newman said. “I mean, this Devonte’s team. We know that, he know that. I’m just trying to help as much as I can, just trying to take some pressure off him. Coach, he was right. Throughout the season, whether I have a good game, Svi (Mykhailiuk) have a good game, it was never consistent.
“For Coach to say that, I mean, I would definitely tell him thank you, but if anything, I’ll be Superman and he’ll be Batman. If not that, then I’ll just stick to my Robin role.”
Finally, Newman touched on how crazy the last few days have been since returning to Lawrence.
He was stopped at least 10 times Tuesday for pictures and autographs during a trip to Walmart, and the same thing happened while he was walking around campus. A fan even spotted him leaving the team’s dorm residence of McCarthy Hall, stopped in the middle of traffic and shouted a request for a photo and a signature.
One might think this skyrocketing popularity is a sign Newman has arrived. But that moment, he said, actually came earlier this season — when Little Debbie tweeted him.
“I was excited. I felt like I had made it,” Newman said of the exchange. “I felt like, at that time, that’s when I should’ve been verified. Like, Little Debbie? By far should’ve been verified.”
Could this be the beginning of a possible post-college career endorsement deal?
“Hey, Little Debbie, if you listenin’, I would love to do something with you guys,” Newman said. “Love to.”