Sam Mellinger

Bill Self’s slow build of 2018-19 KU basketball depends upon these two Jayhawks

Bill Self’s thoughts on Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson

Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self discusses the performances of Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson following his team's 74-71 victory over No. 17 Villanova on Dec. 15, 2018.
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Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self discusses the performances of Lagerald Vick and Dedric Lawson following his team's 74-71 victory over No. 17 Villanova on Dec. 15, 2018.

Nine games in and ranked first in the country, this Kansas basketball team remains hard to figure. Talented, versatile, an intriguing mix of ability and experience. Undefeated against one of the sport’s toughest schedules, and still largely underwhelming.

Maybe — maybe — we saw a glimpse of their best in a 74-71 win over No. 17 Villanova at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday. Maybe. Did we mention maybe?

Let’s be clear: KU can be better than this. Has to be better than this, actually, to keep the Big 12 championship streak going and continue feeding the Jayhawk basketball industrial complex.

So, it’s not that this is the ceiling. Or even the path. But we may have seen their best begin to unlock against one of the toughest programs and smartest coaches in the sport.

“It happened out of necessity,” KU coach Bill Self said. “And we have to see it daily.”

He was talking about Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick being aggressive with the ball. Go get yours, in the parlance of the game. They combined for 57 points on 30 shots; their teammates combined for 17 on 16.

Lawson and Vick can be a wicked pair. Lawson is an admittedly ordinary athlete with obviously extraordinary skills, a smooth big man with the footwork and coordination to score off spot-ups, pull-ups, spins and drives. He’s a player of the year candidate.

Vick is a shot hunter in the best way possible, the kind player who changes the rules on what’s a good look or a bad one. At his best, he’s as good as anyone. At his worst, he’s hard to remember.

“A shot maker,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said, and maybe he was talking about the deflected ball Vick caught and turned into a guarded fadeaway on the baseline with about 4:22 left.

The commonality of Lawson and Vick is that they can score against good defense, and without Kansas running good offense.

The emerging truth is that for Kansas to push forward, this is what will be needed from the Jayhawks’ two most capable scorers.

“That’s how we have to play,” Self said. “I’ve talked a lot about this.”

Moving parts abound. Most obviously, Udoka Azubuike is expected to be out until around the start of conference play. He is a rare college basketball force — 7 feet tall and 280 pounds, a force near the rim and an unnecessary appendage away from it. Silvio De Sousa remains out while the NCAA investigates his eligibility in the wake of the Adidas trial.

That means that Kansas is not only playing without two core players, but with a style and feel that will fundamentally change. Lawson has more space, fewer passing options inside and generally more defensive responsibility without Azubuike.

“I thought we caught a little bit of a break,” Wright said. “Azubuike not playing, that makes a difference too. I wouldn’t want to play them with both those guys on the floor. But maybe we could’ve found some things to do if he was playing.”

That’s insightful from Wright. This was KU’s first ranked opponent since losing Azubuike early in the Wofford game. Facing this KU team at full strength is a daunting task, but Azubuike’s strengths and flaws can create mismatches on both sides.

Vick won’t always be this good. We’ve seen that already. He can be the best player on the court, and then disappear in the next game. But KU needs him to be aggressive, no matter what, and depend on freshman guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes to fill the gaps when he’s off.

This is part of what makes judging this Kansas team early so difficult. But only part. The Jayhawks have not looked the part of a No. 1 team. They’ve often been choppy, occasionally brilliant, and largely unspectacular. Twice they’ve been passed in the polls without losing. Duke has been much more impressive.

The criticisms of this team, such as they are, mostly feel like nitpicking. You can’t be better than undefeated, after all, and KU just led one of the nation’s best programs virtually wire to wire without a key starter. To whatever extent we talk about flaws, they should be kept in perspective.

Some of Self’s teams have shown rocky growth. If you’ve followed his teams, you know this is about the time of year for him to call his group the softest he’s ever coached. He hasn’t done that, and the players have not given him reason.

If his teams in the past have grown like the stock market — ups and downs, crashes and spikes — this one might be more of a slow build. They start two freshman guards, but their top three scorers have been in college ball a combined 11 seasons.

That might lower the ceiling on this group compared to some loaded with lottery picks, but it should make for a more reliable product.

But even after Azubuike returns, and no matter what happens with De Sousa, the only way for the Jayhawks to become the best version of themselves is with Lawson and Vick persistently pressing forward and pulling their teammates along.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.