Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonté Graham contacted former University of Kansas teammate Dedric Lawson last weekend after the Jayhawks’ uninspiring 63-60 victory over New Mexico State.
“He was like, ‘Don’t worry about that, just win Saturday for me.’ I was like, ‘I got you,’’’ Lawson said Thursday.
Saturday is the long-awaited rematch of last year’s Final Four semifinal game between No. 1 seeds KU and Villanova — a game won by the Wildcats 95-79 in San Antonio, Texas.
Tipoff is 11 a.m. at Allen Fieldhouse with a live telecast on ESPN.
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“This is a thing people dream about, especially me when I was a kid (wanting to play) on the highest stage of collegiate sports — go out and play for Kansas against Villanova on a Saturday morning when everyone is going to be watching,” added Lawson, a 6-foot-9 junior forward from Memphis.
He practiced with the Jayhawks a season ago, but did not play in games in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
Thus he was one of those who watched helplessly as the Wildcats cruised past the Jayhawks, who were led by Graham’s 23 points.
“They are so well-coached, the way they play with so much toughness and physicality,” Lawson said, adding, “they don’t have the same players they had last year. They are still going to be Villanova.”
No. 17-ranked Villanova (8-3) returns three players who played significant minutes versus KU a year ago: Senior forward Eric Paschall (24 points on 10-of-11 shooting), senior guard Phil Booth (10 points, six assists), sophomore guard Collin Gillespie (three points) and sophomore forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree (no points).
Returning Jayhawks who played in that game: senior guard Lagerald Vick (eight points), sophomore guard Marcus Garrett (no points) and junior forward Mitch Lightfoot (no points). Udoka Azubuike (sprained ankle) and Silvio De Sousa (NCAA eligibility review) played extensive minutes in the Final Four game last season but will not play Saturday.
“Nobody played particularly well for us,” KU coach Bill Self said Thursday.
However, he’s discovered in film sessions this week that the Jayhawks may have been better than the score indicated. He normally doesn’t watch replays of season-ending losses, but made an exception this week with Villanova on the schedule Saturday.
“To be honest with you, I hadn’t watched it until the scout. We’ve had a week,” Self, coach of the country’s No. 1-ranked team, said of preparation time since the New Mexico State game. “I tinkered with it, watched it enough until I got sick and put it away. I watched it in its entirety, every possession again this morning.
“You look at it from a critical standpoint. You say, ‘Well, they just made a play or they just did this or that.’ Our ball-screen defense was good. We took away the roll man. We dove out quick (on threes). The bottom line is they had guys who can make plays. That’s what happened last year. We didn’t play great by any stretch, but it wasn’t us playing as poorly as it was them playing well,” Self added.
Self acknowledged it was difficult to watch Villanova sink 18 threes in 40 tries on film this week. KU was 7 of 21.
“I couldn’t believe how hard we played. You would think we played awful. We didn’t play awful. They played great,” Self said Thursday. “We guarded them right. They made shots. We did exactly as we game-planned for the most part. They just outperformed us in some areas.”
Self has received some help from not only Graham this week, but former KU power forward Landen Lucas.
He recently opted out of his contract with a team in Estonia and has been in Lawrence the past several days.
“He talked to the bigs, helping us out with little things what he had to go through when he was here — post defense and things like that,” Lawson said. “(He talked about) just being a man, being tough and taking it personally when a guy scores on you, not letting guys get such deep position on the offensive end.
“Just talking to him, talking basketball with him … he’s a smart player. I see why Coach Self loves him.”
Junior forward Mitch Lightfoot said Lucas has spoken to him about post defense.
“You’ve got to do your work early and often before the other guy even thinks about posting up,” Lightfoot said, “making contact when he (opposing player) is coming down the lane instead of when he gets down to the block. You have to judge where he is going to go before he goes there.
“Take it personally when you get scored on. At the end of the day you’ve got to lock down your man, whoever you are guarding. It’s great learning from him. Obviously he was a pretty good post defender. If I can do that, I’ll be in good shape.”
Lucas did not play in last season’s game, but did play in another painful loss to the Wildcats — a 64-59 KU setback in the Elite Eight on March 25, 2016, in Louisville.
“Landen (can) offer things as a ‘team thing’ as in what wins,” Self said. “That is the kind of instruction he is giving them. That kind of stuff I think is good. He has only been here for what, two days, so it is not like he has been around much, but it is certainly always nice to see those guys come back.”