The equation is complicated, a version of basketball calculus with moving parts and different factors, and even Kansas coach Bill Self is confounded at times.
On his current basketball team, Self has six frontcourt players, including one All-Big 12 forward, two McDonald’s All-American freshman, and three veterans with various skills and strengths. In most seasons, Self holds to a similar structure, preferring a post rotation with four players. So for now, the question hangs in the air: Other than senior forward Perry Ellis, who should Self be playing?
“It is a puzzle,” Self said on Tuesday.
The puzzle was under the microscope Saturday, when freshman forward Cheick Diallo and Carlton Bragg were limited to just 16 total minutes in a 75-69 victory over Harvard, a close call that altered Self’s goal of playing his young bigs more minutes. The puzzle will continue on Wednesday, when the second-ranked Jayhawks, 6-1, play host to Holy Cross, 3-5, at 7 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse.
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On Tuesday, Self said he planned to give senior Hunter Mickelson, an early casualty of the crowded frontcourt, an extended look against Holy Cross. He would also like to offer more minutes to Bragg and Diallo, who still finding comfort in the system after missing the season’s first five games. For now, though, Self says he is still very much in evaluation mode.
“What I was hoping,” Self said, “is we’d use the games until Christmas to decide on: ‘OK, who’s our best players?’ But we haven’t got there yet. We’re not going to be able to play six guys equal minutes in conference play. We know that. But it would be nice to see some separation.”
The makeup of this frontcourt and Self’s inclination to bring freshmen along slowly has added to the intrigue. Diallo, a 6-foot-9 big man, and Bragg, a more traditional power forward, are the Jayhawks’ top NBA prospects — and when projecting ahead, the best version of Kansas will likely include both players in the rotation. But Self is clear that projection and potential should not always equal playing time.
Against Harvard, Self preferred a lineup with junior forward Landen Lucas, citing his defense and rebounding. Lucas played 19 minutes in the second half, while Diallo played just two minutes and Bragg logged zero.
"I don't care what anybody says,” Self said Tuesday. “The (big) guys we played the other night gave us the best chance to win the Harvard game."
The question, of course, is whether this strategy will change as Diallo and Bragg continue their development. In six games, Bragg is averaging just 11.6 minutes per game, while Diallo has averaged just 11.5 minutes in his two games. Some of this, of course, was expected. After Diallo missed the first month of the season while in NCAA limbo, Self stressed that his game remained raw. So while Self would like to throw Diallo into the mix to expedite his growth, his playing time — for a while, at least — could be dictated by game situations.
“We don’t want to lose games at the expense of guys getting playing time,” Self said.
Moving forward, though, the glut of post players could lead to some important decisions. Jamari Traylor, a fifth-year senior who played 20 minutes per game last season, is averaging 17.6 minutes this season. His defensive rebounding numbers are improved, and Self praises his toughness and energy, but at a smallish 6-feet-8, he can be an awkward complement for Ellis, who also stands 6 feet 8.
Take for instance, Self’s response to a question about the Jayhawks’ rebounding issues.
“I thought we’d be a better rebounding team,” Self said. “But you know, if (Jamari) is starting, he’s not a big guy. And Perry is not a go-out-and-get-you-10-boards-a-game guy, so some of our better rebounders are on the bench. So we got to do a better job of doing that.”
If rebounding is a priority, that would seem to favor Lucas, who is the Jayhawks’ best defensive rebounder, according to advance metrics. But for the moment, Lucas is averaging just 6.0 points per game and his athleticism pales in comparison to Diallo or Bragg. Then there is Mickelson, who is averaging just 8.4 minutes after a strong showing at the World University Games last summer.
“It’s hard to see separation when some guys haven’t got as many opportunities as others,” Self said. “Just to be real candid with you, Hunter is one of those guys. It’s not that anybody else has done anything bad. But why would we want to go into conference play without seeing what he can do?”
For the moment, Mickelson will get his opportunity. With Traylor nursing a sore ankle, he may even earn a spot start against Holy Cross on Wednesday. But as Self gazes into the future, he admits the frontcourt equation is still up in the air. Eventually, Self would like to whittle the frontcourt rotation down to four or five players. It seems likely that Diallo will be a fixture by January or February — at least, that is Self’s hope — but the timeline remains fluid. It may also be impossible to ignore Bragg’s talent.
In some ways, it’s an OK problem to have. But there is a finite number of minutes — 80 total for two frontcourt positions. There is a crowded frontcourt. And there are veterans who could be squeezed. For Self, though, there is also a goal: Find the best combinations and best options before the Jayhawks enter conference play.
“We need to make a conscience effort to try to get those other guys as many minutes (as possible),” Self said, speaking of Mickelson, Diallo and Bragg. “So that way, we have a true understanding of what our team is.”