The more you watch the video the more the 20-year-old Ukrainian looks a little like a bird. Svi Mykhailiuk was chasing down Xavier Sneed, who might be Kansas State’s best athlete, with no humans between him and the basket.
This was a breakaway, at home, this building as loud and angry and hopeful and alive as it gets in any 365-day period. Fans packed three sections of bleachers 90 minutes before tipoff, the first instant they were allowed in, simply to heckle Kansas star Udoka Azubuike’s practice free throws.
So, yes, you can imagine what would happen were Sneed allowed to do what most in this building expected, which was a one-handed tomahawk, perhaps a stare into the camera underneath the basket, and then arms pumping in the air, primal screams toward the crowd in the kind of pure moment of joy that college games like this provide so well.
Except, here comes Mykhailiuk, pacing his steps even with Sneed’s, a slight stutter at the end, taking off on his right foot — the awkward foot for a right-handed player — his left arm swooping over Sneed’s right shoulder and then knocking the ball loose a half second before it would’ve slammed through the net … and that had to be a foul, right?
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But no, if you didn’t see it live, the first look at a replay confirms Mykhailiuk hit the ball, and perhaps because this is how things always seem to go for Kansas in Big 12 games the ball bounces off the bottom of the backboard and then Sneed’s arm out of bounds.
“Yeah,” Mykhailiuk said. “I thought I could get it.”
A K-State breakaway, a clean block from behind, and KU’s ball. You could do a heck of a lot worse to illustrate how the Jayhawks silenced the rowdiest crowd they will face this season with a 70-56 win here on Monday night.
These things are never best said in the moment, but if that’s not the defensive play of the year then some young lad is going to have the highlight of a lifetime.
That Mykhailiuk was the one to do it is more than a little fitting, too, both for how his team’s season and his own career are going.
KU is now two wins clear of the field in the Big 12 with most of its toughest games done. They’ve won four times on the road, and as it stands right now the only game remaining where they don’t figure to be at least a three- or four-point favorite would be at Texas Tech.
This was supposed to be the toughest league title in quite some time for Kansas. They are thin, particularly inside, and lack the lottery pick talent or first-team All-America-caliber player of so many of the last 13 league champions. Another loaded recruiting class and three transfers will make Kansas a heavy favorite next year.
But they could end up winning this year’s title by a few games, despite not having the league’s best player, or either of its projected lottery picks, and three other teams good enough to spend time in the top 10.
And Mykhailiuk could be the single biggest reason.
This was always going to be Devonté Graham’s team, and Azubuike is a rare talent for a college team, and Malik Newman has provided the type of attacking presence so many figured him for as the nation’s top high school guard three years ago.
But, particularly in recent weeks, Mykhailiuk has often been KU’s most effective scorer. Including a game-high 22 against K-State, he’s scored 20 or more in six of 10 conference games. He is an aggravating matchup for most college teams, a 48-percent three-point shooter on nearly eight attempts per game. At 6-feet-8 he can shoot over many guards, and physically he’s now explosive enough to go by them, too.
He was effective enough as a spot-up shooter to generate some NBA interest a year ago, but the transformation in his body and game have made him a possible first-round pick.
He projects as a classic “3 and D” guy, effective on both ends, particularly in the corners on offense and able to guard at least two positions with athleticism, length, and effort on defense.
Graham and Azubuike are so often the focus, but K-State coach Bruce Weber told his team Mykhailiuk would be KU’s MVP.
“Graham’s really good, and I take nothing away from him,” Weber said. “But (Mykhailiuk is) poised, he’s got size, his improvement from freshman year where he just shot it. Now he can put it on the floor, his athleticism, finishing. He knows where he can get shots. he’s playing at a high level.”
Kansas basketball has created absurd expectations, to the point that this group could win the county’s No. 1 RPI league by two games and receive a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and some would call it a down year and do it with a straight face.
That’s an objectively silly thing to say, obviously, because at some point what does “down year” even mean?
But context matters, and in the context of KU basketball, this group will have relatively low expectations in the postseason. A Final Four run would be a nice bonus, instead of the minimum expectation.
For a while, it was hard to see how that would be possible. The Jayhawks lack depth, they have to play small so much, and they are extremely reliant on hitting jump shots and avoiding foul trouble. The margins are smaller than usual, in other words.
But maybe those margins are growing, even slightly. Maybe Mykhailiuk’s transformation from shooter to star is exactly the thing to push them forward.