LAWRENCE — Mitch Lightfoot didn’t wait to see how Kansas basketball’s first fall practice unfolded Wednesday before offering one telling assessment of what’s different for these new-look Jayhawks.
No, the junior forward saw everything he needed in the team’s offseason program.
“There’s, like, no layups,” said Lightfoot, one of five frontcourt players on suddenly towering KU roster. “You go to the lane and there’s ... five other guys that can block a shot — you have athletic guards who can and then obviously you’ve got the big guys.
“It’s just, you go into the trees and it takes (that saying) to a whole new, different meaning.”
Depth-starved in the frontcourt over the past two seasons, the Jayhawks now boast 7-foot, 270-pound junior center Udoka Azubuike; 6-10, 265-pound freshman forward David McCormack; 6-9, 235-pound junior forward Dedric Lawson; 6-9, 245-pound sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa and 6-8, 224-pound Lightfoot, who is up 15 pounds from his weight at the end of last season.
The difference has already been noticeable for a KU squad that last season finished ninth in Big 12 play in rebounding margin (minus-2.9) and sixth in blocked shots per game (4.1).
“It’s been great for us because it gives us an opportunity in practice to really go hard and play against other bigs that are going to make us get better,” Lightfoot said. “I feel like our unit of bigs is going to be one of the top frontcourts in the nation, so we’re going to have a great opportunity upon us.”
KU coach Bill Self agreed with Lightfoot’s takeaway from the team’s limited offseason practices, though he isn’t ready to take a glass-half-full interpretation of the change just yet.
“He’s right, we’re not making many (layups),” Self said. “I don’t know if it’s because of shot blocking or presence or maybe we don’t shoot as good as we did in the past. But yeah, there doesn’t seem to be as many easy baskets.”
Personnel shortages over the last two years forced Self to tweak his style to a more 3-point-oriented attack, and with sharpshooters like Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk in the fold, the approach paid off big time — the Jayhawks rode a 40.1-percent shooting mark from beyond the arc to last season’s Final Four berth.
With those weapons gone and the frontcourt restocked, Self called an improved 2-point defense is a must. A quick glance at the team’s 2017-18 numbers reinforces that point.
According to KenPom.com, last year’s Jayhawks allowed opponents to make 48.6 percent of their 2-point attempts, ranking 121st nationally. Prior to that, no Self-led KU squad had ever finished outside of the top 50 in 2-point defensive percentage, though the 2016-17 group allowed opponents to make 45.3 percent of their 2s.
“I would say the last two years we haven’t taken a step sideways, we’ve probably taken a step backwards when it comes to our field goal percentage defense and just how good we were defensively,” Self said. “So I would be very disappointed if we aren’t much better in that area, including rebounding also. But I will say this: We better be better in that area because I don’t think we’re going to shoot the ball quite as well as those other teams.
“Usually when you have good teams they’re able to offset some weaknesses by being strong in other areas, and yeah, we should be a pretty strong half-court team — should be.”
The early returns on KU’s frontcourt have been promising, including Lightfoot and McCormack.
Lightfoot’s physical transformation — highlighted Tuesday morning in a post-workout locker room team photo posted to social media by Lagerald Vick — was undertaken out of necessity, he said.
“I think when I realized it was during the tournament last year when we were playing against some of the bigger guys like Seton Hall with (Angel) Delgado and guys like that,” said Lightfoot, who played four combined minutes in the Jayhawks’ final three NCAA Tournament contests. “I kind of realized at that point of time that where I was at wasn’t going to get me where I wanted to be, and so I just needed to eat a lot and continue to get after it in the weight room.”
McCormack, a former four-star recruit out of Norfolk, Va., is already making teammates better, Self said, a “terrific leader” who deserves credit for pushing teammates through his effort level.
“Works his butt off. He has a great motor,” Lightfoot said of McCormack. “He’s just gotten so much better since he’s been here too, which is kind of freaky because he was already pretty good when he got here. I feel like he’s going to have a great year and you guys are going to be really pleasantly surprised with him.”
As for Azubuike, the load under the basket who last season made a nation-best 77 percent of his field goal attempts? There was perhaps no more surprising sight this offseason than the 7-footer’s abs in the aforementioned Vick photo.
Self, who hasn’t seen the picture, expressed some skepticism when the subject was brought up.
“What do you call it when you doctor up a picture? Maybe it’s been Photoshopped a little bit, I don’t know,” Self joked. “Doke does look good through. He does look good.”
2 CHAINZ SET FOR LATE NIGHT — Grammy Award-winning rapper 2 Chainz will perform Friday at KU basketball’s annual Late Night in the Phog event, the program announced Wednesday.
Self seemed eager to familiarize himself with the artist, who played college hoops for Alabama State in the mid-90s.
“Basically at this point in time, they’re all tied for first and probably all tied for last in my book,” Self joked of his favorite 2 Chainz songs. “I bet you by (Thursday) I’ll have a favorite. If you ask me (Thursday), I’ll be able to sing a lyric or two — no, rap a lyric or two.”