LAWRENCE — Bill Self isn’t one to pass up an opportunity to see a former player, and Saturday afternoon, some of his most well-known Kansas basketball protégés came to him.
Well, with one notable exception.
“Frank (Mason) had to go to the Bahamas. I guess he needed a break from the action,” Self deadpanned, referring to the Sacramento Kings guard and former consensus national player of the year. “But everyone else wanted a vacation in Lawrence.”
Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman were only the most recent of the former KU standouts who took advantage of the NBA’s All-Star weekend to visit Allen Fieldhouse for the No. 14-ranked Jayhawks’ 78-53 drubbing of West Virginia. That group also included notable program alumni Nick Collison, Jacque Vaughn and Scot Pollard, among others, with a total of 16 recognized during a halftime ceremony.
While Self didn’t coach them all, he called the group “huge allies” for the program.
“It’s so good to see those guys, and they love this place so much,” Self said. “They have been through all the crap that our young players are going through now. These (current) guys, I get on them and then they play. Those guys, when they were young, I got on them and they didn’t play because we had enough guys. ...
“Those guys have given their heart and soul to this place, they’ve given their heart and soul to me, and certainly it’s always cool to see them.”
These Jayhawks (20-6, 9-4 Big 12) have begun their own break from in-game action, though labeling it a vacation may be a tad generous.
KU has a week between games, with its next contest a high-stakes 7 p.m. Saturday showdown at No. 15 Texas Tech (21-5, 9-4) in Lubbock. That contest is the first of two in a 48-hour stretch that, depending on outcomes, could either put the Jayhawks in the Big 12 driver’s seat or virtually eliminate the 14-time defending league champion — No. 18 Kansas State, which leads both KU and Texas Tech by a half-game, travels to Allen Fieldhouse for an 8 p.m. Feb. 25 edition of the Sunflower Showdown.
With KU riding a three-game winning streak and arguably playing its most spirited basketball of the season, it’s fair to wonder whether this is an ideal time for the team to step away.
For Self, the answer isn’t up for debate.
“I think it’s a good time because I think Dedric (Lawson)’s tired and getting him some days I think would be good this week,” Self said. “And Marcus (Garrett) needs some more time. He’s not ready.”
Garrett, the team’s defensive specialist, has missed the Jayhawks’ last five games with an ankle sprain and is questionable for Saturday’s tilt, though Self said the sophomore guard is scheduled to give practice a go on Thursday and Friday and, provided there are no setbacks, the hope is he’ll be set for the back-to-back top-25 clashes.
Outside of Garrett, junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said there are other players who have gotten “nicked up” in Big 12 play. Self simply stated: “We need to get healthy.”
Recovery isn’t the only goal for Jayhawks, still tinkering without Garrett, senior guard Lagerald Vick (indefinite absence), junior center Udoka Azubuike (season-ending hand injury) and sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa (ineligible).
“I don’t think we’re anywhere close,” Self said. “Like, we had 12 turnovers in the second half (against West Virginia). That was awful. But I think there are some things we can do to still execute better in certain situations that will give us a chance to improve. And certainly I do think Dedric’s tired, so getting him some rest I think will be nothing but a bonus for him and us.”
Lawson, the Jayhawks’ leading scorer (19.2 points per game) and rebounder (10.3), agreed the week between games will be good for everyone involved despite the possibility it could disrupt rhythm.
“I just think it’s all come together,” Lawson said of the team’s recent run. “Guys (are) playing more with a free mind, just playing not to lose but to win — just going out there and having fun, guys enjoying guys and carrying it over from practice. It carries over. I think that’s been real big. From practice to the game, we’ve been more locked in, more focused and more understanding, and I think this team has grown a lot in that way.”
Lawson isn’t alone in that thinking.
“I’m not going to lie to you: I think we’re pretty wired,” Lightfoot said. “I think there’s a lot of energy that goes on in practice. We all understand what it takes and we’re fightin’. This team’s built on that ability to fight. We see our goal, and we’re doing whatever it takes to get there.”