Devonté Graham answered the questions with a smile … and also a breadstick.
In the minutes after Kansas’ 83-78 victory over Iowa State on Tuesday, the Kansas guard talked to reporters between nibbles on a snack. The pregame media meal had been left on a nearby table, and after Graham played 37 minutes, a quick bite seemed appropriate.
This game actually qualified as a breather. It was the least Graham had played in KU’s first four Big 12 games, and also the third-fewest minutes he’d had in the team’s last 10.
“I try to do a good job taking care of my body, getting massages and iced up, stuff like that,” Graham said.
It’s been just enough for KU. But it can’t be sustainable moving forward.
This qualifies as one of the strangest stretches in the Bill Self era at KU. Night after night, the Kansas coach keeps pushing his rotation guys to their limits while trying to keep the Jayhawks’ head above water in the league race before reinforcements come.
But there’s a problem: KU is trying to gut its way to a finish line that keeps moving further into the distance.
Will freshmen Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa be cleared by the NCAA this week? Next week? Or at all?
“I hope so, man,” Graham said. “It’d be clutch for us.”
Let’s be honest: The fact that KU is 3-1 in the conference is a small miracle. It’s taken a school-record number of threes one game, (marbles) from Graham in a second and a career performance from Malik Newman in a third to simply keep pace with others in a ridiculously competitive Big 12. KU also has won three of four contests while outscoring league opponents by a combined three points.
Self wasn’t going to apologize for Tuesday’s win, and he shouldn’t. He was happy to label it as a “grind-it-out” victory, though each one lately seems to be qualifying as that with the way KU is having to play.
The Jayhawks need help. Lagerald Vick played 36 minutes Tuesday, as did Svi Mykhailiuk. Newman was in for 34, with KU continuing to rank in the bottom 10 nationally in bench minutes.
And though each player will say he’s fine with the extra playing time, the stats scream something different.
It’s easiest to spot when breaking KU’s defense down into splits.
▪ Texas: 1.00 points per possession first half vs. KU, 1.33 PPP second half
▪ Texas Tech 1.19 PPP first half, 1.20 PPP second half
▪ TCU 0.92 PPP first half, 1.39 PPP second half
▪ Iowa State 0.97 PPP first half, 1.05 PPP second half
This team can play defense when it’s fresh. It just can’t keep up the same intensity through fatigue in the second half.
KU’s players are doing their best to work through a predicament that they didn’t create. In the offseason, the coaching staff took three transfers that weren’t eligible until next year, unexpectedly lost Jack Whitman and also let Dwight Coleby leave as a graduate transfer while believing he likely wouldn’t see much playing time.
It’s led to this following Preston’s de-facto suspension: a few Jayhawks out of position, some others stretching themselves to the max in early January and KU attempting to survive while hoping the NCAA delivers good news soon.
The predicament might have been best summarized midway through the second half. KU extended its lead to seven, so Self tried to steal some rest for Graham, taking him out with 10:31 left.
Twelve seconds later, Iowa State’s Donovan Jackson hit a three. After a steal, he hit another.
Self called a timeout 49 seconds after Graham first sat on the bench.
“Coach just looked at me and said I had to get back in there,” Graham said.
There aren’t any other options, at least not yet. The Big 12 streak, and perhaps the fate of the season, seems to rest on an unknown response coming at an unidentified date.
Until then, the Jayhawks — and especially Graham — will have to keep scrapping the best way they know how:
One massage, one ice pack and one breadstick at a time.