This is not all Quentin Grimes’ fault. Maybe it’s best to start there.
There are some circumstances working against the freshman as KU has barreled to a 9-0 start and No. 1 ranking, and some of that has nothing to do with Grimes himself.
It still doesn’t change the reality: The projected lottery pick was a non-factor again for Kansas in Saturday’s 74-71 home victory over Villanova, remaining as the team’s biggest enigma in a one-point, three-turnover, 14-minute performance.
“We’ve got to get him going,” KU coach Bill Self said.
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That hasn’t been especially easy, though, because of a few things out of Grimes’ control.
For one, KU has an ultra-competitive schedule — or perhaps more accurately, a top-heavy slate. Some seasons offer a reprieve or two with a “Directional State Tech” happily accepting an Allen Fieldhouse paycheck to get blown out, with those games serving the important role of allowing Self to let struggling guys play through mistakes without the threat of a loss.
This year? There have been none of those. KU has trailed by at least five points in seven of its nine victories, with even the weakest teams (Louisiana and Vermont) having solid chances at NCAA Tournament berths.
Grimes did get to play with Self over the summer in the FIBA America U18 Championships, but that wouldn’t have been as beneficial as an overseas trip with his KU teammates, which the Jayhawks took in 2017. Because of that, Grimes isn’t quite as comfortable as he could be, and seems to still be learning what this particular group needs from him most.
Realize that Self’s own personal philosophy is worth mentioning here as well. The coach’s absurd KU record (456-96, in case you were wondering) comes because of a win-at-all-costs mentality in every single contest. Those of us around the program know that, but Grimes might be more unfamiliar.
To put it simply: Grimes was not KU’s best option to win in the second half against Villanova, so Self benched him.
Dedric Lawson said Self made sure to say something to Grimes in the postgame locker room.
“He just told guys just stay with it. Like Quen, ‘Don’t worry about the game. Don’t even get discouraged. It’s a big win for the team,’” Lawson said. “And Quen’s going to play better as time goes on.”
That’s where teammates have tried to focus Grimes’ thoughts. Sophomore Marcus Garrett, in particular, says he’s gone out of his way to keep communicating with his teammate.
“I know how he feels, just coming from a city where you were like ‘The man’ and everything was revolved around you, to you coming here, some games you play a lot and some games you don’t,” Garrett said. “I just keep telling him he has to stay focused, because he’s still got to remember, we brought him here for a reason.”
It can be tough. KU-Villanova on national TV seems like a huge game, especially to a player like Grimes who might not be in Lawrence past this season.
Still ... perspective is needed. Kelly Oubre went through some of the same issues in December during a one-and-done campaign, and even last year, Malik Newman labored early before developing into KU’s most valuable player during a Final Four run.
Garrett’s message has remained consistent to Grimes. You’re one of the best players in the country. That doesn’t change with a bad game or two.
“I keep telling him it’s too early in the season,” Garrett said, “to panic or think anything’s going bad.”
Perhaps the fresh start comes Tuesday. KU faces South Dakota then, a team that is likely to be a 20-plus-point underdog. After a trip to Arizona State, the Jayhawks then get Eastern Michigan at home in a contest that also has rout potential.
“He’s better than what he’s played, and we all know that,” Self said. “He’ll get that. I’m not discouraged at all. If anything it’s encouraging to know you can have a guy have a bad night and still it doesn’t affect your winning percentage.”
Self approaches every individual game like it’s the national championship. That’s why Grimes didn’t play much Saturday.
For KU to make the national championship, though, it needs Grimes to be more effective than he was against Villanova.
That’s the balancing act Self faces with this team, which highlights the importance of the next two weeks.
It’s not too late for Grimes to get this figured out. But it sure would help everyone involved if he’s able to make progress before a rough Big 12 slate begins.