Before Kansas prevailed against Michigan State 61-56 on Sunday afternoon, before the Jayhawks secured the Orlando Classic title with a performance heavy on toughness and rebounding, Bill Self found himself at the Final Four last April.
For the second straight year, Self’s KU program had failed to advance to college basketball’s final weekend. But as Self shuffled through the usual Final Four routine in Dallas, he stumbled upon a rather monumental discovery while discussing basketball with an old colleague and contact.
“I know the best young player in Europe,” the friend said.
Self was immediately curious.
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Nearly eight months later, in front of 4,842 fans in a small venue called the HP Fieldhouse, the 11th-ranked Jayhawks notched a early-season signature victory over Michigan State and head coach Tom Izzo. They did so because sophomore guard Frank Mason is steadily becoming a standout, and junior Perry Ellis continues to score with ease, and forward Jamari Traylor made two clutch free throws with 30 seconds left after Self considered subbing him out for a better shooter in sophomore Brannen Greene.
“No,” Self said, changing his mind and looking at Traylor. “You’re going to make them.”
But the Jayhawks also celebrated with a trophy on Sunday because Self followed up on that tip from the Final Four. The player’s name was Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. He was a soon-to-be 17-year-old from the Ukraine. And in the Orlando Classic title game, he drained three timely three-pointers and scored a career-high 11 points as Kansas scrounged up enough offense in an early-season slugfest.
“We got to have somebody to step up and make some shots,” Self said. “Those were the only shots we made from the perimeter the whole day.”
The Jayhawks, 5-1, won their fourth straight game after a humbling, 32-point loss to Kentucky at the Champions Classic. Mason finished with 10 points, a career-high 10 rebounds and five assists while turning in another sterling performance. And Ellis wrapped up MVP honors for the tournament by delivering 17 points and nine rebounds.
But as the Jayhawks leave the month of November behind, the most intriguing story on the roster continues to be Mykhailiuk, the “best young player in Europe.” When Mykhailiuk signed his letter of intent in mid May, the prevailing perception was that he would be something of a project — a 17-year-old who would need time to earn minutes in the rotation.
Back in the summer, his future KU teammates took to YouTube to scout the Ukrainian mystery kid. (“I knew he was a shooter,” Mason said.) And as Self continually points out, Mykhailiuk could still be a junior in high school. How could he really be ready now?
But there was Mykhailiuk on Sunday afternoon, standing near the Jayhawks’ bus after the victory, a noticeable batch of teenage peach fuzz on his face. During the Jayhawks’ four-game winning streak, Mykhailiuk has started every game and averaged seven points in 21.5 minutes per game.
“Every time he shoots it,” Traylor said, “I think it’s going to go in.”
When Mykhailiuk is asked if he expected this — to be playing and starting during his first month at Kansas — he remains slightly coy. Part of this might be the language barrier, but in truth, he exudes a quiet type of confidence.
“I don’t know,” Mykhailiuk said. “I was hoping for this.”
On Sunday, Mykhailiuk and Kansas were tasked with handling a Michigan State team that thrives on defense, rebounding and three-point shooting — the core tenets of a Tom Izzo team. The Jayhawks answered the bell on defense, holding the Spartans to 32.2 percent shooting. They also outrebounded Michigan State 44-36. But when sophomore guard Wayne Selden went zero for 10 from the floor, Self needed someone to provide an outside threat.
It came in the form of Svi, who drilled a three-pointer before the halftime buzzer that cut Michigan State’s lead to 36-35. Mykhailiuk added two more three-pointers, giving the Jayhawks their only scoring from three-point range. The rest of the team combined to go zero for eight.
“He’s been reliable, and he hasn’t shot the ball well yet,” Self said. “He can really shoot the basketball. … But he’s really become a really good defender, and he understands what we’re trying to do for the most part.”
After hitting three of six from three-point range against Michigan State, Mykhailiuk is still just seven of 22 on three-pointers this season. But the early slump has not stopped him from firing away with a shooter’s courage.
“I’m trying to keep shooting because it’s one of my best weapons on a court,” Mykhailiuk said.
For the moment, Mykhailiuk is still soaking up knowledge during his first months in the United States. And Kansas is still growing as a basketball team. The shrapnel from the blowout loss to Kentucky is almost gone now, and the Jayhawks now have four days off before another marquee matchup against No. 18 Florida at Allen Fieldhouse.
“Winning the tournament is OK, but beating a quality team is more important to me than winning the tournament,” Self said. “Because we needed to beat a quality team, based on a couple of weeks ago.”
For Kansas: Mission accomplished on that front. For Mykhailiuk, who just enjoyed his first trip to Disney World: The real ride is just beginning.
“He’s at that phase where a lot is thrown at him in a short amount of time,” Self said. “But he’s going to continue to get better. He obviously has a very bright future.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.