Bill Self has started four freshmen in a game twice now in his 16 seasons as head basketball coach at Kansas.
There was Saturday, when David McCormack joined regular freshmen starters Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes and Ochai Agbaji plus junior Dedric Lawson in the opening lineup against Oklahoma State, as well as Dec. 10, 2013 at Florida when Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Wayne Selden and Frank Mason started in a loss to the Gators.
“That’s a pretty good four. I don’t know if I could say it’s comparable. Those guys should have started,” Self said with a smile, speaking of current NBA players Mason, Embiid, Wiggins and Selden after the Jayhawks’ 84-72 victory over Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday.
It remains to be seen how many of the current KU freshmen advance to the pros.
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What’s certain is they contributed 47 points, seven assists and 20 rebounds Saturday as KU (18-6, 7-4 in the Big 12) bounced back from Tuesday’s loss at Kansas State and avenged last year’s home loss to the Cowboys.
Lawson led the way with 25 points against Oklahoma State (9-14, 2-8) on Saturday, while Agbaji hit five three-pointers and scored 23 points. Dotson scored 18 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished four assists and Grimes hit two three pointers in a 16-2 second-half run that ultimately broke open a close game.
McCormack — who started in response to Lagerald Vick’s taking a leave of absence from the team this week and with Self electing to play two bigs in Vick’s absence — contributed five rebounds and a block in 14 minutes. McCormack did not score.
“Dave did a great job today,” junior Mitch Lightfoot said. “He got five rebounds. We got 14 rebounds from the center position in 32 minutes that weren’t there before.”
Nine of those rebounds came from Lightfoot, who Self said, “wasn’t the best player in the game but was the most important player in the game.”
Lightfoot scored six points on 2-for-3 shooting with nine boards, two blocks, a steal and an assist in 20 minutes.
Lightfoot started the second half in place of McCormack and (along with Agbaji, Grimes, Lawson and Dotson) remained in the game until the 8:10 mark. when he picked up his fourth foul. In that long stint, KU went from a 36-36 halftime tie to a 69-55 lead.
“I thought it was the best matchup for us. I thought Mitch would be better for us finishing the game than Dave would probably because of experience,” Self said of his decision to start the game with the 6-foot-10 McCormack as KU’s second big instead of the 6-8 Lightfoot. “I didn’t see any reason to give Mitch two fouls the first five minutes of the game.
“There was positive energy in our group, and I think Mitch contributed to that.”
Lightfoot set the tone early in the second half when he skied to reject a left-handed dunk try by 6-10, 225-pound Oklahoma State freshman center Yor Anei. Lightfoot stared at former Lee’s Summit West standout Anei after stuffing the shot with his right hand.
“Coach says, ‘No easy baskets.’ You’ve got to earn every one of them. It’s something we’re trying to enforce moving forward. You’ve got to earn every point against us,” Lightfoot said. “I feel it’s how we are going to start improving as a team — on the defensive end.”
The crowd of 16,300 became energized after Lightfoot’s block and staredown of Anei.
“It’s actually funny, just the human nature of Mitch, what type of person he is. He’s a good kid, a good person,” Lawson said. “It’s just all the love of the game in his energy, his intensity.
“Mitch is a guy that talks a lot too. Sometimes I don’t know what he’s talking about, but he’s definitely a guy that voices his opinion and states what he has to say. He’s definitely a leader on this team.”
The good-natured Lightfoot said it’s important to big men not to get dunked on.
He said ineligible teammate Silvio De Sousa nearly rammed one over Lightfoot’s head at a recent practice.
“He was (upset) about something,” Lightfoot said of De Sousa. “I don’t know what it was. Coach (Self) might have been on him. I went to go block him. It was like a train hit me. I fell to the ground. He didn’t make it, but that’s the worst I almost got dunked on.”
Lightfoot dunked off a missed shot early in a 16-2 run that busted a 49-49 tie in Saturday’s game. Agbaji and Quentin Grimes followed that dunk by hitting two threes apiece.
“We all appreciate a guy that goes out there and gives us so much effort,” Lawson said of Lightfoot. “With the limited time that he’s been given (this season), you’ve just got to tip your hat out to a guy like that. That’s much respect. You never know how people are going to handle situations. He handled it the best way he can. Mitch has been great for us. We just look forward to him stepping up and being another impact player for us.”
Self said he appreciates Lightfoot’s enthusiasm, noting “to be honest I think we’ve been a bunch of duds in some ways (much of the season).”
Lightfoot works hard to bring that energy.
“He’ll hurt somebody in practice because he’s doing the same thing (trying to prevent dunks) or hurt himself,” Self said. “Mitch always tries. I know it’s frustrating for him we’ve been playing four guards. Oklahoma State I thought was a better team for us to play two bigs. The positive energy — he and Ochai I think bring it as much as anybody. I think it is contagious with the other guys.”
Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton viewed Lightfoot’s play as a key factor.
“He was phenomenal,” Boynton said. “He did what you do when you put on a uniform. When the opportunity comes, you make sure you’re ready and you do whatever it is that your team needs on that day. And today it was just bringing energy, even in the sense of not giving up a layup. The crowd fed off that, (as did) his teammates.
“It’s a really small thing and in some ways it’s a negative. It’s a foul. But it’s not a dunk, it’s not two points guaranteed, and it sends a message that, ‘This is what we stand for.’ There’s been a lot of guys like him (at KU). I know we talk about Hall of Famers in Wilt (Chamberlain) and Paul Pierce, but there’s been a lot of guys like Mitch Lightfoot that come in and help those teams hang those banners as well.”
KU will next meet TCU at 8 p.m. on Monday at Schollmaier Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.