University of Kansas

What Silvio De Sousa’s return means for KU, and how it might impact the team’s lineup

Kansas forward Silvio De Sousa has been cleared to play next season following an NCAA appeal, and understandably, KU supporters were excited about that news Friday afternoon.

It makes sense. De Sousa was seen by many as a victim of this whole situation, serving an NCAA penalty when it was likely he didn’t know about the misdeeds going on around him. In essence, De Sousa became a cause to fight for, and the fact that he remained in good spirits on the bench during his yearlong suspension only further elevated his status as a fan favorite.

So the celebration among KU followers was a natural response. Yet, step away from the emotion, and it’s fair to ask how much De Sousa’s return actually helps KU for the 2019-20 season.

Let’s be clear: This is not a criticism of De Sousa as a basketball player. He’s an efficient scorer and elite rebounder, showing off both of those talents during KU’s run to the Final Four in 2018.

Basketball, though, is a sport different than many others, as simply adding talent doesn’t always automatically make a team better. With five players on the court and only one ball, sometimes lineup fit can be just as important as player ability.

And next season will no doubt serve as another test of Bill Self’s coaching acumen.

When speaking two weeks ago, Self seemed to suggest he’d be comfortable going to a two-big look often if De Sousa was declared eligible.

“If we have our full complement of players, no question, our best team will have two bigs out there the vast majority of the time,” Self told The Star. “But if we don’t have our full complement, then we’ve got to get our five best guys out there.”

The question now is if KU’s coaches can get all this frontcourt talent to co-exist.

Udoka Azubuike will be in there a lot. He’s a candidate for first-team All-America, with the potential to help KU in some of the most valuable areas on both offense and defense.

Self seems to indicate he’d be comfortable putting De Sousa next to Azubuike at the 4 position, but just know this isn’t a setup KU has used often. In fact, during the second semester in 2017-18, De Sousa and Azubuike played together for just 10 possessions in 20 games, meaning that almost all of De Sousa’s production came when checking in for Azubuike and serving as the center in a four-guard lineup.

The thought now seems to be for De Sousa to develop and play the 4 this season. Maybe his shooting range has improved and he can help space things for Azubuike offensively.

It still should cause some pause, though, when trying to predict whether this will work next season.

Self spoke more in general about playing big two weeks ago while also citing the potential downsides.

“We certainly can play two bigs, but if you can’t exploit people inside, I don’t think it helps you enough on the glass and I don’t think it helps you enough defensively — switching ball screens and stuff like that — if you can’t take advantage of them offensively,” Self said. “I think a lot of times, you’re better off playing four perimeter players around one if your two big guys, (if) one of them can’t score.”

If De Sousa can serve as an offensive threat — and especially if he can score some away from the rim — then Self perhaps can find a way for this to be successful. As he mentioned, though, the Jayhawks would almost have to become exceptional offensively, as playing two bigs naturally causes some defensive challenges in today’s game against teams that are stretching the floor more often than ever.

If this were baseball, Self would be set; he simply could put all his sluggers together in the lineup, with each one adding to the other’s production.

Basketball, as a team game, is much trickier. Having more good players certainly helps KU’s floor — meaning it’s not as likely for the Jayhawks to have the bottom fall out because of injuries or departures — but having those guys at the same position might also not amplify the ceiling as much as some might think.

The worst case, though perhaps unlikely, is worth mentioning too. If De Sousa can’t become a reliable 4 man, KU could be left with three of its best players — De Sousa, Azubuike and former McDonald’s All-American David McCormack — at the 5 position. That would leave one spot for three players, with Azubuike soaking up most of those minutes and the De Sousa-McCormack tandem fighting for the rest.

Which brings us back to Self. The coach has proven himself to be nimble offensively in recent years, shuffling his own schemes to best fit the personnel that he has. There could be some hope of this all working out simply based on his recent past.

“I actually think that it is hard to play two bigs (in today’s game),” Self said two weeks ago. “But if both bigs can score, like our team had going for it this year with Dedric (Lawson) and Doke, then I don’t think it’s hard.”

KU’s roster isn’t set at this point, and much can change between now and November.

It still appears Self will start this offseason with a new puzzle to solve, though: How to flourish big when the rest of college basketball is going small.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.