By Rustin Dodd
Tribune News Service
LAWRENCE -- They climbed a metallic ladder and took turns snipping at a nylon net. They donned championship hats and T-shirts. They lined up 11 Big 12 title trophies in the middle of the Allen Fieldhouse floor.
On Tuesday night, Kansas celebrated another Big 12 championship after beating West Virginia 76-69 in overtime, and when the merriment had shifted to the Jayhawks' palatial locker room, Kansas coach Bill Self searched for little-used junior forward Hunter Mickelson.
"You did good," Self said, "But you always knew you would."
"Of course," Mickelson answered.
It was an unscripted moment between Self and a transfer who has played fewer minutes than he ever anticipated -- but had just helped the Jayhawks clinch the outright Big 12 title with a perfectly timed performance.
With freshman forward Cliff Alexander missing his second straight game because of an NCAA issue -- and leading scorer Perry Ellis sitting the second half because of a knee injury -- Mickelson finished with eight points and two rebounds in 13 minutes. With the Jayhawks facing the prospect of a stunning home loss, Mickelson blocked two shots and recorded three steals while generally playing like a player who had not played a minute in 11 previous Big 12 games.
"We kind of needed to lock down," Mickelson said on Thursday. "We were down for most of the game. That was kind of the deal. Defense leads to offense."
It has, of course, been a trying season for Mickelson, a redshirt junior who began his career at Arkansas.
Mickelson chose Kansas after falling out of favor in the up-tempo system installed by Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson. And the thing about transferring is that you usually do it to find an opportunity to play more minutes. For Mickelson, that hasn't happened. After sitting out last season, Mickelson has averaged just 6.4 minutes per game while playing behind Ellis, Alexander, Jamari Traylor and Landen Lucas.
"It's a little different not really playing as much as maybe I'd want to," Mickelson said. "But (it's just about) being able to help the team and doing what I need to do."
For the moment, it could mean an expanded role. Alexander's status is still in limbo while the NCAA investigates a potential violation -- Self had no update on Thursday -- and Ellis will miss Saturday's game at Oklahoma while recovering from a right knee sprain.
"I hope both those situations get better," Mickelson said. "I hope Perry comes back and I hope Cliff gets the chance to come back, too. I'm just going to keep the same attitude. If I have opportunities like I've been getting, then hopefully I'll be able to use them to my advantage."
Mickelson's case for more playing time is nuanced. He is not overly athletic, nor will his 6-foot-10, 245-pound frame impress anybody walking off the bus. His offensive game is somewhat based on finesse, and he does not possess a plethora of back-to-the-basket moves. But Mickelson can employ a pair of long arms that can help protect the rim, and Self is complimentary of his ability to help on ball screens.
"He's not physically strong like Cliff," Self said. "But hey, I thought he moved his feet great. ... I thought he busted his butt."
Moving forward, Mickelson's playing time will likely hinge on Alexander's status and Ellis' health. But he should have an opportunity to prove his worth on Saturday, when the Jayhawks face Oklahoma with what will likely be just three available players in the frontcourt.
"We've seen (Hunter) for almost two years and he's a very good player," said Lucas, who could also see extended playing time on Saturday. "And I think that the time at Arkansas definitely showed that he's capable of playing at a very high level. So it's great to have somebody like that."
For the moment, Mickelson says he's still happy with his decision to come to Kansas. A Liberal Arts major, Mickelson said he's on track to graduate next year, which means he'll have one more season to earn a larger role.
"I'm happy here," Mickelson said. "Like I say, I've kept a great attitude. The guys have been great, and everyone I've been surrounded by is good people. I'm definitely happy."
No update on Alexander
When a reporter on Wednesday asked if there was an update on the status of Cliff Alexander, Self answered with an emphatic no.
"Nothing," Self said. "Zero; status quo."
On Thursday, it had been five days since Kansas officials first held Alexander out of competition after being alerted by the NCAA of a potential NCAA violation. Earlier this week, Self was hopeful the situation could be resolved by Saturday. It appears that will no longer be the case.
"The chances of him playing on Saturday from our estimation, based on the little bit of information that we have, would be very slim right now," Self said.
Alexander, a 6-foot-8 freshman, is averaging 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds while playing 17.6 minutes per game.