LAWRENCE — Kansas freshman Jamari Traylor has been playing the last week or so with a sprained right thumb. You might not have noticed.
He has a little white wrap that goes on during practices and games. And he can’t quite squeeze the ball the way he’d like. But when you’re Traylor, a 6-foot-8 power forward who plays just 10.7 minutes per game, minor injuries like sprains tend to be overlooked.
“It’s not that bad,” says Traylor, whose averaging 2.1 points per game.
Even if you didn’t notice the injury, you probably did notice Traylor’s performance on Wednesday night against Oklahoma State. In Kansas’ most important game of the season to date, Traylor had four points and four rebounds while playing 17 minutes as the Jayhawks won 68-67 in double overtime. It was the most minutes he’d logged since Big 12 play began.
It was also the kind of night that hinted at the unbridled potential oozing out of Traylor’s fast-twitch frame. He has the athleticism to throw down a put-back dunk or block a shot while looking eye-to-eye with the rim. But Traylor, who didn’t start seriously pursuing basketball until his junior year of high school, often looks like a player still feeling his way through the game.
“He’s going to be a heck of a player,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “He just needs time.”
Maybe that time comes on Saturday afternoon, when Kansas plays host to TCU at 3 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse. Then again, perhaps not. Traylor had averaged nine minutes in the four contest before Wednesday.
Self believes Traylor can someday be a great defender, and Traylor says he’s working on his 15-foot face-up game. But for now, his offensive limitations often mean frontcourt starters Kevin Young and Jeff Withey take most of the minutes.
“You gotta be ready to play whenever,” Traylor says. “Coach (Self) always tells me ‘stay ready’. And when my name gets called, I just try to come out there and bring what I got. Bring some energy and help my team win. I think I do a nice job of doing that. Whenever I get my chance, I just try to go out there and try my hardest.”
It’s a role Traylor has embraced. On some nights, he just isn’t going to play that much. One example: Back on Feb. 2, when Kansas suffered its night of national shame in a 62-55 loss at TCU, Traylor had just two points and one rebound in seven minutes.
A lot has changed since then, and not just for Traylor. After the TCU debacle contributed to a three-game skid, the Jayhawks have rallied with three straight victories and control their own destiny in the Big 12 race. With a three-day swing that includes a home game against TCU and a Big Monday test at Iowa State, the Jayhawks can make major headway toward the conference crown with two more victories.
“We definitely had to look in the mirror at ourselves and analyze what we were doing,” Traylor says of the losing steak, “and we didn’t like what we (saw).”
That night at TCU, of course, was as startling as a blast of cold water in the face. The Jayhawks, quite famously, had just one field for more than 10 minutes of the first half, and then finished with just 13 points in the opening 20 minutes.
“It’s gonna be a different story (on Saturday),” KU center Jeff Withey said. “We have a lot of confidence right now. We’re definitely not gonna score two points in the first 10 minutes of the game.”
It would be easy, based on recent developments, to assume the Jayhawks gained … well, something from the disaster. On Friday, Self wasn’t quite ready to endorse that idea.
“Not yet,” Self said. “I watched the tape; of the three games we lost in conference play, or the four games we lost this season, there was only one team that handled us from start to finish, and that was TCU.”
In the minutes after the loss in Fort Worth, Self called his team’s first-half performance the worst by a Kansas team since James Naismith put up some peach baskets and called plays against the Topeka YMCA.
The unvarnished words drew plenty of attention, and the Jayhawks would fall three days later at Oklahoma. But now, after three straight victories — and the conference title in play — the Jayhawks are ready to bury the memory of that night in Fort Worth.
“It’s just a game we gotta go out there and win,” Traylor said. “We should have definitely won the first game. So I wouldn’t say it’s revenge. It’s just — we’re going out there and we gotta do what we gotta do.”