LEXINGTON, Ky. — Bill Self made himself chuckle.
Yes, given the circumstances — Kansas basketball’s 71-63 defeat at Kentucky — it was a scene one might not have expected to witness at the Jayhawk coach’s postgame news conference. When a reporter inquired about the difficult assignment facing junior forward and lone frontcourt starter Dedric Lawson both Saturday and moving forward, however, Self used a phrase only the Hall of Famer could pull off.
“Yeah, we’re obviously very light in the butt,” Self said with a slight laugh, “to put it mildly.”
Lawson finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds to notch his third consecutive double-double and 14th overall this season, the second-highest mark in the nation. However, the 6-foot-9, 235-pounder hit just 7 of 18 field goal attempts, bullied in the paint by Wildcat senior Reid Travis (18 points, 12 rebounds) and sophomore P.J. Washington (20 points, 12 rebounds), both 6-8 forwards with enough length to cause foes fits.
It was always going to be a tough matchup for KU — 7-foot starting center Udoka Azubuike is out for the season, and the Jayhawks deployed only one other frontcourt player in the contest in 6-10 freshman forward David McCormack, who played just eight minutes — but Self couldn’t help but feel for Lawson, a player the coach last week remarked has “thighs ... about as thick as his calves.”
“It’s tough. Dedric played well tonight. He played well. He didn’t make a lot of shots, but there’s a reason he didn’t,” Self said. ”... Going against big, heavy bodies, and men — you’re going against a fifth-year guy (Reid), and P.J. is beyond his years physically, and Nick (Richards, 6-11 sophomore forward) is as well, and of course E.J. (Montgomery, 6-10 freshman forward) is going to be terrific — but basically we’ve got one guy really ready to go against that, and that’s an awful lot to ask from one guy. ...
“But yeah, I think we just wore our guy out a bit.”
But as Self mentioned, there was a reason for that, and the Jayhawks weren’t entirely to blame for the situation.
At one point in Saturday’s contest, Travis bowled through Lawson for a layup, giving the Wildcats a six-point lead with just over 10 minutes to play. Lawson crashed to the hardwood and was there for several seconds, but he remained in the game, fighting for an offensive rebound and converting a layup through traffic in his team’s ensuing possession.
Kentucky coach John Calipari later labeled Lawson the Jayhawks’ “gateway.”
“I’ll tell you what Dedric is, and I’ve known him and his brother (K.J.) for a long time: He’s a relentless player,” Calipari said. “How many rebounds did he get on the second and third bounce where everybody else stops and he just keeps going? He has an unbelievable feel to get the ball in the basket.
“They’re playing him around the goal based on they have to, but that kid can shoot 3s, he can beat you on the bounce. He’s a really, really good player. We did throw different guys at him. We tried to throw some length at him.”
Lawson himself acknowledged the obvious: His bruising, tiring and demanding 39-minute stint against the Wildcats proved one of his most challenging assignments of the season.
“Definitely tough playing against two bigs like that,” Lawson said. “We play a small-ball lineup and things like that, so ultimately guarding P.J., Reid and sometimes Nick, it’s something (where) you’ve got to step up to the plate. You can’t make any excuses.”
The Jayhawks (16-4, 5-2 Big 12) will seek more balance in their return to league play, a 6 p.m. Tuesday contest at Texas (11-9, 3-4).
“From Ochai (Agbaji) to me to Marcus (Garrett), we’ve definitely got to get in there and start banging more with the bigger guys and get rebounds to take some of the load off of (Lawson) because he’s having to expend so much energy out there on the court,” said freshman guard Quentin Grimes. “We’re definitely going to need him for 35, maybe 40 minutes a game, so we’ve got to take some pressure off of him and learn from it going into Texas. They kind of have some bigger players, so we’ve just got to get in there and get some boards to take some pressure off of him a little bit.”
Despite often playing the role of one-man show, Lawson didn’t take issue with his teammates’ competitiveness in Saturday’s high-profile defeat.
“Some things you can’t teach are length and athleticism, and those guys are very athletic and they went to the glass very hard,” Lawson said. “At the end of the day I’m proud of our team. The outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but (we’ll go) back to the drawing board and get ready for Texas.”