In the days before Kansas’ victory over Lafayette on Saturday afternoon, Kansas assistant coach Norm Roberts found Bill Self for what was becoming a daily message.
“He’s getting better,” Roberts said. “He’s getting better.”
In his third season back at Kansas — after a six-year stint as St. John’s head coach during 2004-10 — Roberts is tasked with working with the Jayhawks’ big men during practice. In simple terms, this means Roberts is the coach who runs KU’s forwards through post-up moves and other drill work on a daily basis.
It also meant that he was privy to a close-up evaluation of Hunter Mickelson, a 6-foot-10 transfer from Arkansas who had been firmly planted at the back end of the Jayhawks’ rotation. As a matter of philosophy, Self prefers playing four big guys in his larger rotation; Mickelson just happened to be the fifth, stuck behind Perry Ellis, Jamari Traylor, Cliff Alexander and Landen Lucas.
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But as No. 10 Kansas was recording victories and notching signature wins, Roberts kept looking at Mickelson. He saw a player who was quicker off the floor than most people realize. He saw a player who had a knack for knocking down shots in practice. And while Mickelson is not physically imposing, Roberts saw a player whose long wing span also allowed him to block a few shots.
Thus came the message, delivered with perhaps a little more force in recent days.
He’s getting better.
“He’s been great in practice,” Self said of Mickelson. “Sometimes you get in a routine, and kind of stick with it unless somebody kind of just hits you over the head. And he’s hit us over the head the last week. He’s been really good in practice, and his attitude is great. He just needed an opportunity.”
For Mickelson, the opportunity beckoned on Saturday against Lafayette. As the Jayhawks won their eighth straight, Mickelson finished with eight points and seven rebounds in a season-high 17 minutes. Two of those baskets came during the Jayhawks’ decisive run in the second half, and the emergence of Mickelson has caused Self to rethink his frontcourt rotation.
“We’re not going to play five big guys consistently,” Self said. “But we’ll play four, and he’s earned the right to be one of the those four — at least short term.”
If Self is serious about providing Mickelson an extended look, it certainly leads to a more questions about the Jayhawks’ frontcourt rotation. Ellis is cemented as Kansas’ leading scorer and starting four-man, while Alexander offers the most long-term potential and production in bursts. Self, meanwhile, dotes on Traylor, who provides energy and toughness off the bench. Then there’s Lucas, who has started the most games alongside Ellis while playing fewer minutes than Alexander and Traylor.
For now, some of the immediate frontcourt questions will be answered tonight, when the Jayhawks face Temple, 7-4, at 6 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. For the Jayhawks, who will enjoy a short Christmas break after tonight’s game, it’s the final road game in a 13-game nonconference schedule.
For Mickelson, it’s another opportunity to prove his worth, which is really all he wanted when he left Arkansas after his sophomore season. A native of Jonesboro, Ark., Mickelson averaged 5.4 points and 3.5 rebounds during his sophomore year at Arkansas. But his style of play didn’t quite mesh with the frenetic stylings of Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson, so Mickelson headed for Lawrence, searching for a system in which he could flourish.
The change of scenery was welcome, of course, but Mickelson is honest when he says the adjustment has perhaps been slower than expected.
“I know I’m an older guy,” Mickelson said. “But you’re definitely coming into a different system and learning how things are run. They’re different from where I came from, so just learning and soaking everything up — I think that’d probably be my biggest challenge.”
In the moments after Kansas’ victory over Lafayette, Self complimented Mickelson’s “quick-twitch” athleticism. It’s not so much that Mickelson is explosive, but he is able to get off the floor quicker than Lucas or even Alexander, which could help the Jayhawks’ lack of inside scoring.
“I think he’s the quickest-twitch big guy we got, other than maybe Jamari,” Self said.
For the moment, then, Mickelson has cracked the door open on more playing time. It’s not certain it will stay open, of course. But there’s one obvious key to staying in the rotation:
Keep getting better.
No. 10 Kansas at Temple
WHEN/WHERE: 6 p.m. Monday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia
TV/RADIO: ESPN2; KCSP (610 AM)
ABOUT TEMPLE (7-4): Led by veteran coach Fran Dunphy, the Owls began the season with a 7-3 mark before receiving mid-season reinforcements in the form of two transfers. Jesse Morgan, a transfer from UMass, and Devin Coleman, a Clemson transfer, both became eligible last week and played in Temple’s 82-62 victory over Delaware. Morgan started and scored 16 points, while Coleman contributed nine points off the bench. On the whole, Temple’s biggest issue has been scoring, and Morgan and Coleman should help on that front. The Owls rank 180th in the country in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, and they’re shooting just 29.5 percent from three-point range. The Owls’ four losses have come mostly against solid competition. They have suffered defeats to Duke, UNLV, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova. The Owls usually play their home games at the on-campus Liacouras Center, but Monday’s contest is at the Wells Fargo Center, home of the NBA’s 76ers and NHL’s Flyers. The Jayhawks’ last trip to Temple came during the 2009-10 season; Kansas rolled 84-52 inside a Liacouras Center that was at least half filled with Kansas fans. KU also defeated Temple 69-62 at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 6, 2013.
ABOUT KANSAS (9-1): The Jayhawks continued a run of hot outside shooting during Saturday’s 96-69 victory over Lafayette. Kansas made a season-high 12 three-pointers in 23 attempts, including a career-high four three-pointers from freshman wing Kelly Oubre. In their last three games, the Jayhawks are shooting 54.9 percent (28 of 51) from three-point range. On the season, Kansas is now shooting 39.5 percent behind the arc, which ranks 33rd in the country. Oubre, meanwhile, appears to have found his stride after some growing pains in November. During Kansas’ last three games, Oubre is averaging 13 points and six rebounds in 19.3 minutes per game. “He was good against Georgetown,” Bill Self said. “He was better against Utah. He had a great week of practice (before the Lafayette game). So this doesn’t surprise me.” In the frontcourt, junior forward Perry Ellis will try to rebound after an illness limited him to just four points in 14 minutes against Lafayette. The Jayhawks can also push their winning streak to nine games following a loss to No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 18. The last time Kansas won at least nine in a row — during the 2012-13 season — the streak also began after an early-season loss (Michigan State) at the Champions Classic.
Rustin Dodd, email@example.com