Along about late January, when Kansas was wobbling with two losses in four games and seemed vulnerable, coach Bill Self took inventory.
Among the findings of his audit:
“I watched our team,” he said, “and thought we were total duds. Total duds.”
Among the basketball wallflowers and brothers grim and statuesque figures with similar demeanors in the starting lineup, though, was one not like all those reserved by nature.
Sophomore Devonte’ Graham, whose personality Self had loved “as much as any kid we’ve ever had” when he was recruiting him.
A personality that was on neon display Saturday at the Sprint Center, when his 27 points and four steals stoked the sluggish but top-ranked Jayhawks to an 81-71 victory over West Virginia to win the Big 12 Tournament title.
Afterward, just before he orchestrated a team dance on the platform, Graham was named most valuable player of the tournament.
That’s a distinction befitting the single player most responsible for KU coming to life from its mid-season doldrums.
By sheer force of personality.
Unlike silent senior Perry Ellis and junior Wayne Selden, whose big celebration after a momentous dunk on Friday had been to keep a straight face, unlike steely junior Frank Mason and mannerly junior forward Landen Lucas, Graham had it in him to be the animated energizer but was holding back because he didn’t want to overstep with his elders.
“ ‘You’ve just got to get outside that comfort zone,’ ” Self told him.
For one reason more than anything else:
“ ‘Your personality needs to be the personality of our team,’ ” Self recalled saying as he stood on the court just after Graham dumped a bucket of confetti on him. “And I think he’s kind of let it go since then.”
And it’s been contagious, so much so that as Graham dribbled out the clock near game’s end on Saturday, even Mason had loosened up and come over to pretend to guard him.
“He gets guys going, you know?” Mason said. “He’s always smiling and having fun, and we feed off that. A lot of guys don’t really have much personality on the team.”
Hopefully, Mason just meant that in the sense of on the court.
But that’s where Graham has become the most profound difference in this team from last year’s KU squad that was knocked out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago.
Graham’s exuberance and energy were crucial on Saturday, when virtually every KU starter appeared fatigued either physically or emotionally.
The Jayhawks committed 20 turnovers and were especially out of place or out of sorts through much of the first half.
But Graham came through with 10 points in the first 20 minutes to keep KU in contention trailing 34-33 at the intermission.
Then his instant 3-pointer to open the second half paved the way to a 7-0 run to give the Jayhawks a lead they’d never yield.
His back-to-back 3s later in the half put the buffer in double digits.
And when the Mountaineers threatened in the final minutes, here was Graham with a dart to Lucas to set up a three-point play … an assist to Selden for a 3-point bucket and his own two free throws to make it a 10-point game with 1:33 left.
“He’s our energy guy, a vocal guy who pumps us all up,” said Ellis, who managed a grin as he noted he just couldn’t quite be that himself. “You know, I definitely tried. And I got a lot better.”
The animation can get Graham the wrong kind of attention at times. When he vigorously protested a foul call the other night, referee Gerry Pollard said, “Hey, hey, Mr. Graham: Come on.”
But Self will take that sort of thing any time over having duds on the court, something he got across to Graham just before KU embarked on winning 15 of its last 16 games.
Perhaps crucial in him asserting himself further was Mason fouling out at Oklahoma.
“When Frank fouled out of the OU game, Devonte’ said, ‘I’ve got you,’ and he proved it,” Selden said.
Graham finished with 27 in that 76-72 victory.
“That right there gave him confidence that he knew he was a bad boy,” Self said, “and certainly could play with anybody.”
And now KU appears able to just that, too, entering NCAA play infused with a certain dynamic it had lacked.
“It’s not my natural personality … I can try when necessary,” Lucas said. “But Devonte’ can be all (that way) all the time, no matter what the situation is.”