Kelly Oubre wasn’t even supposed to start until teammate Brannen Greene showed up 30 minutes late for weights on Friday afternoon. Hunter Mickelson was buried on the Kansas bench, the odd-man out in a frontcourt rotation until an eye-opening week of practice.
College basketball can be funny like this. November judgments are often cast in stone. Perceptions can become reality. But it doesn’t always work like this, of course. Sometimes players come along at their own speed. Sometimes — for a freshman like Oubre or a transfer like Mickelson — the process can take longer.
Sometimes even a coach has to be convinced.
“Sometimes you get in a routine,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “And you kind of stick with it unless somebody kind of just hits you over the head.”
On Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, the sledgehammers were wielded by Oubre and Mickelson, the two biggest surprises in No. 10 Kansas’ 96-69 victory over Lafayette.
Oubre, a 6-foot-7 wing, finished with a career-high 23 points and 10 rebounds, a breakout performance from a freshman who arrived on campus with mammoth expectations, only to rescind into the shadows for most of November. And then there was Mickelson, a 6-foot-10 forward who appeared to change perception in real-time with an eight-point, seven-rebound performance in 18 minutes off the bench.
“I look at it like it’s part of the process,” Oubre said, sitting before a microphone after the best game of his young career. “A lot of people say enjoy the process, and that’s what I’m doing.”
For Oubre, a former McDonald’s All-American and potential first-round pick, it was the right thing to say. But it was also true that Oubre scored 23 points on Saturday after scoring just 31 total points in Kansas’ first nine games. In short: It had to have felt good.
“It was a confidence booster,” Oubre said, “something that will get me started — like a platform that was built today.”
Kansas built other things, too. The Jayhawks improved to 9-1 and won their eighth straight. They shot 12 of 23 from three-point range. They received another dynamic outing from sophomore guard Frank Mason, who finished with 14 points and nine assists. And they will take the winning streak into Monday’s road trip to Temple.
But as Self joined the postgame autograph line on late Saturday afternoon, the most intriguing developments were clearly the growth of Oubre and the emergence of Mickelson, the Arkansas transfer who sat out last season.
“The lights get a little brighter when you’re out there,” Mickelson said, “so I just had a good time.”
“I think the game is slowing down for me a little bit,” Oubre added. “I can see the floor better. I just feel where I’m supposed to be at the right times, and it’s kind of helping me be one step ahead.”
This was, perhaps, the Oubre that so many expected from day one. But as the hype swelled, Self always made it clear that it would take time. Oubre was learning how to play a guard position in the Jayhawks’ system, and the process wasn’t always smooth. At times, he looked hesitant. Something as simple as guarding a ball screen would become a disaster. Oubre needed time, Self said, the KU coach responded this way: He made Oubre earn his playing time.
During a four-game stretch in late November and early December, Oubre averaged just 6.5 minutes per game. If Oubre was frustrated, he never let it show.
“When I get frustrated, I just go to the gym,” Oubre said.
Part of the problem, of course, was the schedule. Entering Saturday, the Jayhawks had won seven straight, emerging unscathed from a brutal stretch that featured games against Michigan State, Florida, Georgetown and Utah. Those four victories came by an average margin of fewer than five points per game. And there wasn’t much room to experiment with a struggling freshman or fifth big man. But after taking a six-day break for exams, the Jayhawks’ nonconference schedule was finally positioned to soften, beginning against Lafayette.
For Self, it seemed to be the perfect time to insert freshman forward Cliff Alexander into the starting lineup. On Friday, Self even announced that he would do just that. And that’s when things started to get a little weird.
Brannen Greene, who was scheduled to start again on the wing, was 30 minutes late to a workout Friday. Alexander, according to Self, simply had a bad day at practice. That opened up a starting spot for Oubre on the perimeter and some more minutes in the frontcourt. So before the game, Self approached Mickelson in the locker room.
“Be ready,” he said.
“I’ve kind of been in my head a little bit, just kind of thinking,” said Mickelson, who was averaging just 2.8 minutes per game. “But nothing bad.”
For both Oubre and Mickelson, the opportunity came on Saturday against Lafayette. The Leopards, 7-3, feature one of the best three-point shooting offenses in the country — and also one of the worst defenses. On Saturday, both numbers held true. The Leopards drilled 12 three-pointers, and even cut Kansas’ lead to 59-52 with 11:40 left in the game. But the Jayhawks finished the game with a torrid offensive stretch, pushing the lead back to 30 in the final minutes.
The Jayhawks flexed their muscles. They showcased their depth. And they offered a simple reminder: Sometimes players improve. Sometimes teams do, too.
“I’m enjoying the moments with my teammates,” Oubre said. “We got a big win today.”