The moment came nearly a month ago, in the minutes after Kansas’ preseason men’s basketball victory over Emporia State.
The Jayhawks had just destroyed the Hornets 109-56, and freshman forward Cliff Alexander had mauled his way to 12 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes of court time.
Emporia State coach Shaun Vandiver, a former star big man at Colorado, sat down in the Allen Fieldhouse media room and gazed at a stat sheet. This was Vandiver’s first look at Alexander — and rest of the Kansas frontcourt — and the towering coach was left reciting an old phrase he had learned years earlier.
“We call ’em GAMs,” Vandiver said. “Grown (rhymes with sass) men.”
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On that night in early November, Kansas coach Bill Self might have politely disagreed with Vandiver’s assessment, especially when it came to Alexander, the centerpiece of the Jayhawks’ freshman class.
Based purely on physical description, Alexander has the “grown” thing down. He stands 6 feet 8; weighs in at a broad-shouldered 240 pounds; and he describes his playing style in a simple and unsophisticated way.
“Power,” Alexander will say.
But it was clear from the beginning that Self believed Alexander had much to learn. While Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor — another Chicago native and top-five recruit — exploded into a national player of the year candidate during the month of November, Alexander’s first month of college basketball was defined by flashes of promise and a slow build in playing time.
“Some guys it takes a little bit longer and they learn through repetition,” Self said this week. “They learn through being visual … Cliff is one of those guys that’s going to learn through repetition. Once he gets enough reps, he’s going to be fabulous.”
Alexander, who is averaging 18.7 minutes, is already proving to be something close. He is averaging 10.0 points and 6.6 rebounds while coming off the bench for all seven games, and the advanced metrics suggest that Alexander could be even more productive as his minutes increase.
When he’s on the floor, Alexander is Kansas’ most efficient scorer, averaging 1.21 points per possession. (Junior Perry Ellis is averaging 1.18). Alexander’s offensive rebounding percentage ranks 39th in the country. And while Self has been concerned with Alexander’s inclination to foul, it’s also worked in the reverse: Alexander is one of the best in the country at forcing contact and provoking fouls, drawing 8.7 fouls per 40 minutes. That number ranks eighth in college basketball.
“Cliff embraces contact,” Self said.
So the natural question comes: Could Alexander, a potential one-and-done player, eventually crack the starting lineup? For now, Self says it’s a matter of when, and not if, and Alexander will likely see an increase in playing time on Wednesday, when the Jayhawks face Georgetown.
Junior forward Jamari Traylor will serve a one-game suspension after being involved in an off-court incident last weekend, and the Jayhawks will need their biggest bodies on the floor against Georgetown center Joshua Smith, a 6-foot-10, 350-pound load on the block.
“When (Cliff) and Josh are guarding each other, there will be some banging going on in that regard,” Self said.
In Self’s view, Alexander is just scratching the surface of what he can become. During his first months on campus, Alexander has proven to be a “sponge,” as Self puts it, a freshman big man who craves coaching and desires to be great.
But on some days, the process is smoother than others.
To put this point in context, Self uses an example from last season, when the KU coaching staff was molding Joel Embiid into an eventual lottery pick. Embiid had played organized basketball for just a couple years, but he was something like a basketball savant. He could perfect post moves on the first attempt; his mind and body were always synchronized.
“Nobody is going to be like Joel ever again,” Self said. “He’s smarter than the coaches. Joel gets it. Joel was Danny (Manning). Danny had that same type of mindset.”
So perhaps Alexander is a different specimen than Embiid or Manning — a little rougher around edges. But it’s also worth pointing out that through six games, Alexander has actually earned more minutes than Embiid through the same point last season.
It was around this time last year, of course, that Embiid rocketed into the national consciousness and claimed a spot on NBA draft boards. For the moment, Alexander is trying to take the same step from freshman big man to certified GAM.
“When you look at (our) inside guys, Cliff has probably played as well as anybody,” Self said. “But I do think he will emerge as a guy that we can play through.
“His passing has improved dramatically. His rebounding outside the area has improved dramatically. He’s getting a better understanding of what we’re trying to do offensively and defensively, whereas early on he was just out there. Now he’s actually out there with a purpose.”
No. 10 Kansas at Georgetown
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Records: KU 6-1, GU 5-2
Radio: KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM
TV: FS1 (Cox 60, DirecTV 219, Dish 150, U-verse 652)
No. 10 Kansas at Georgetown
KANSAS: The Jayhawks, who have won five straight since losing to No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 18, will play their first true road game this season. They will also play without junior forward Jamari Traylor, who is serving a one-game suspension following an arrest in Lawrence over the weekend. KU should have the depth to compensate; sophomore Landen Lucas has averaged just 10.7 minutes per game this season despite starting the last five games. Freshman forward Cliff Alexander is playing 18.7 minutes. Junior forward Hunter Mickelson is also an option off the bench. During the five-game winning streak, Kansas has outscored opponents by 13.8 points per game and outrebounded opponents by 9.8 boards. Selden will look to continue his offensive surge after a season-high 21 points in a comeback victory over Florida last Friday. Mason has been in double figures for four straight games, while shooting 55.6 percent in his last three contests. The Jayhawks are 2-1 all-time against Georgetown.
GEORGETOWN: Georgetown owns a neutral-floor victory over Florida, and its only losses have come against Wisconsin and Butler at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in November. Smith is a genuine load in the middle, standing 6 feet 10 and 350 pounds. Smith, who is averaging career highs in points (12.7) and rebounds (6.9), was limited to five points before fouling out in last season’s 86-64 loss at Allen Fieldhouse. The Hoyas enter Wednesday’s game ranked 20th nationally in KenPom’s efficiency ranking, boasting the 24th most efficient offense in the country. Georgetown shoots 35 percent from three-point range, but the Hoyas do most of their damage inside. They shoot 56 percent inside the three-point line, which ranks 16th nationally. Under head coach John Thompson III, Georgetown has been in the NCAA Tournament seven of the last nine years. Last year’s team finished 18-15 and lost in the second round of the NIT.