There is this thing that Kansas coach Bill Self will do during practices, behind the closed doors of Allen Fieldhouse, a strategy to motivate freshman forward Carlton Bragg.
When he misses a rebound, or doesn’t play big enough on defense, Self will tell Bragg, a 6-foot-9 freshman, that he has “little hands.” Let the record show that Bragg does not have little hands. When inspected from up close, they appear to be the size of badminton racquets.
But Self has a method to the madness, and the same goes for freshman Cheick Diallo, a 6-foot-9 forward with a 7-4 wingspan, a likely NBA future, and a spot near the end of the Kansas bench. The teaching points come daily, in bite-sized increments and big-picture ideas, the focus squarely on the days ahead for Kansas’ two freshmen big guys.
“They both are going to be really, really good,” Self said.
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You may notice that Self uses the future tense when he speaks about Bragg and Diallo, and this is what made Saturday’s 70-63 victory over TCU an important benchmark — even if the performance as a whole was mostly uneventful.
Four days after their first conference loss, a 74-63 decision at West Virginia, the Jayhawks played a get-well game, playing host to perpetual cellar-dwelling TCU. From a stylistic perspective, the victory was far from a smooth. The Jayhawks (15-2, 4-1 Big 12) never buried the overmatched Horned Frogs, and the afternoon was defined, in part, by two KU players — Wayne Selden and Jamari Traylor — taking elbows to the face and lying dazed on James Naismith Court.
But Saturday’s win was useful in allowing Diallo and Bragg to play significant minutes. Diallo finished with nine points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 21 minutes, establishing a career-high for playing time. Bragg put up 10 points and four boards in 16 minutes, offering a spark during the first half.
“It was a perfect day for those kids to get an opportunity to play,” Self said. “But I do think that we need to get them out there, because of a ‘potential’ standpoint, looking down the road, they can both do some things better than what our veterans can do.”
The frontcourt has been a constant puzzle for Self, who says his veterans still offer the Jayhawks the best chance to win close games. He has a trust factor with Traylor and Landen Lucas that he does not have with Diallo and Bragg, and in recent weeks, his freshmen had become casualties of a crowded roster.
On Saturday, facing a TCU team that entered with a 9-7 record, Self could revert to development mode, riding his young bigs as the Jayhawks closed out an uneven performance.
“Coach is always telling them to be ready when their number is called,” said sophomore guard Devonte’ Graham, who had 10 points and six assists. “In practice, you can just see us getting better in practice, each day and each week. They’re going to be huge for us down the stretch.”
On a day when leading scorer Perry Ellis picked up two fouls midway through the first half, and the Jayhawks hit just 5 of 20 from three against the TCU zone, Self let Bragg and Diallo play through their mistakes. This development pleased Diallo, who had played just 17 minutes in Kansas’ last four games.
In some ways, Self’s hand was forced Saturday. Ellis picked up two early fouls in the span of seven seconds, the second coming on a layup from TCU’s Chris Washburn with 9:24 left in the first half. The bucket finished off a 10-0 TCU run, giving the Horned Frogs a momentary 19-15 lead and sending Ellis to the bench for the rest of the half.
It also cracked the door for Bragg, who came off the bench and hit TCU with a dose of his skillful inside-out game. Bragg dropped in eight points during the first half, including a layup at the rim and jumper from the elbow as the Jayhawks built a 37-28 lead at halftime.
“I was really impressed with the two freshmen,” said TCU coach Trent Johnson. “But then again, I think my wife could score on us in the post sometimes.”
The Horned Frogs stayed within striking distance for most of the first half, hitting five of their first seven shots from three-point range. The Jayhawks took control in the second half, but the offense never appeared to run at full capacity. Self called it one of the worst offensive performances of this season. Ellis was limited to just 10 points on nine shots; Mason was 3 of 10 from the floor. In some ways, Kansas hasn’t been the same since its triple-overtime victory over Oklahoma.
The hope is that will change this week. The Jayhawks will travel to Oklahoma State on Tuesday before returning home to face Texas on Saturday. Both teams are expected to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12. The opportunity to play Diallo and Bragg could be there yet again.
That would be cool with Diallo, who said all the right things on Saturday. He came to Kansas to play and develop, he said, and he will do whatever his coaches say. On Saturday, Self hinted that the next stage of his development could be more playing time.
“You guys can see how raw (he is),” Self said of Diallo. “But you can also see how he can do some things to change a game that nobody in our program can.
“We’ve got to get him more minutes. He’s earned them. But also, it would definitely help our team down the stretch if he is a little more seasoned player. And there’s no way he can get there unless we give him a chance to work through some things.”