The name of the injury — “turf toe” — might be the most misleading piece of terminology in sports medicine.
In the 24 hours before No. 10 Kansas headed to the Sprint Center to face No. 13 Utah, Bill Self conferred with the Jayhawks’ medical staff and received the grim news. Freshman Devonte’ Graham, one of just two scholarship point guards on the Kansas roster, was diagnosed with a sprained right big toe and will be out at least one month.
Then came the hammer: If the injury doesn’t heal quickly, Graham could potentially miss the rest of the season.
“The doctors say there’s no guarantee on anything,” Self said.
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On Saturday afternoon, in Kansas’ annual game at the Sprint Center, the absence of a backup point guard was not a crippling blow. The Jayhawks built a 21-point lead early in the second half, wasted the entire thing, and then rallied to survive Utah 63-60 after a desperation three-pointer in the final seconds hit the side of the backboard.
For Self and Kansas, it had to be an odd feeling. The Jayhawks, 8-1, won their eighth straight, notched another victory against a ranked team, and still felt a little weary while boarding the bus to head back to Lawrence. The Jayhawks will be ranked firmly in the top 10 as they begin a six-day break for final exams. But they now face the prospect of playing an extended period of time with just one point guard in sophomore Frank Mason, who logged 36 minutes on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a situation where we have to redefine who we are,” Self said. “We’ve won some games, playing the way we have, which is fine. But the next three weeks, we got to do some things to really get better.”
For the moment, the Jayhawks are surviving with an instant-coffee offense — you never quite know how it’s going to brew — and a gallon of grit in the final minutes. The Jayhawks have won four straight by six points or fewer, and while the stretch has come against high-quality competition, Self certainly sees some red flags amidst the success.
“There’s some possessions you have to win,” Self said, “and fortunately, the last few games, we’ve been able to win the most important possessions in the game.”
On Saturday, the Jayhawks shot just 26.1 percent in the second half and fell behind 55-53 after Utah freshman center Jakob Poeltl dropped in a layup with 4:36 left. At this moment, as the life faded from the Sprint Center, Kansas had squandered a 42-21 lead and looked poised to offer a baffling collapse just nine days after completing an 18-point comeback against Florida.
“I’ll say this about our team,” Self said, “we can screw up a good time about as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
The Jayhawks, though, shook off the horrid stretch of offense, and won the game on defense and at the free-throw line. The Jayhawks procured four crucial stops and converted 21 of 23 from the foul line, including six straight down the stretch from Jamari Traylor and Brannen Greene.
“We have been fighting and working hard,” said forward Perry Ellis, who finished with a team-high 14 points but managed just three in the second half. “It’s just building our confidence more and more.”
For Kansas, confidence and toughness is not the issue. But there are some structural problems with the way KU is winning games, specifically on offense. In Self’s view, the injury to Graham now puts even more stress on a team that plays like no Kansas team he can remember.
In nine games, the Jayhawks are shooting just 43.1 percent inside the three-point line, which ranks outside the top 250 nationally and would be the lowest mark of the Self era by far.
“Our team is different than any team we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Self conceded. “We don’t throw it to the post and score. We’re not very big, and then our two biggest guys (Landen Lucas and Cliff Alexander) have a hard time in there.
“We got to find different ways to manufacture points, and we’re not doing it off our defense, and we’re not doing it in transition. Now the guy that can really do it in transition has got to play 36 minutes per game.”
The player Self is referring to would be Mason, who had 10 points on Saturday and is averaging 32 minutes per game. Now he will likely need to play even more while Graham sits. At this point, it might be worth remembering that Kansas also lost sophomore guard Conner Frankamp during the preseason, when he elected to transfer, eventually landing at Wichita State.
“We had one guy quit, and we had another guy injured,” Self said on Saturday. “It kind of changes the dynamic of your program.”
For now, Self is trying to think creatively. On Saturday, he offered the example of using junior forward Jamari Traylor as a point-forward, someone who could initiate offense from the top.
Because here’s the thing: The Jayhawks are 8-1, proving they are a team that knows how to win. The formula might have to be tweaked — if ever so slightly.
“I don’t think it’s the kids’ fault,” Self said. “(But) I think it’s something where we’ve got to come up with a way to help them.”