He talked about it last summer. It thought about it during the early weeks of September. On a Wednesday morning in October, he stood on a dais at Big 12 media day in Kansas City, outlining a vision for his basketball team.
Kansas coach Bill Self, ever blunt and honest, is not one to traffic in clandestine schemes or strategy. So in the months before the season began, Self kept offering a collection of hints — most rather clear — for how his latest Kansas team would play. With the return of sophomore guard Frank Mason, and the addition of freshman point guard Devonte’ Graham, Self envisioned playing multiple ball-handlers and combo guards, pushing the tempo and creating penetration, returning to a style that served Kansas so well during an NCAA title season in 2008 and the years that followed.
For the last month, though, Self’s vision was put on hold. Graham missed seven games with a sprained right toe, and that left Mason as the Jayhawks’ only real option at point guard. Mason performed admirably while Graham was sidelined, but on Saturday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse — less than 24 hours after Graham received good news from KU’s medical staff — the Jayhawks could return to their chosen identity.
“I think the offense flows,” Graham said.
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Consider this sequence from the first half of an 86-54 victory over Texas Tech in the Jayhawks’ Big 12 home opener. Mason and Graham were on the floor together. The Jayhawks’ offense was seamless and smooth. And in the span of two possessions, Graham found freshman forward Cliff Alexander for an alley-oop in transition, and Mason set up another lob dunk to Alexander after a drive and kickout to KU guard Wayne Selden.
When the two-possession sequence was over, the Jayhawks led 20-8 with less than 10 remaining in the half, and the 12th-ranked Jayhawks were poised to roll on.
“They both can make plays and they’re smart players,” said junior forward Perry Ellis, who finished with a team-high 15 points. “They just see the floor great.”
Graham, who was playing for the first time since injuring his toe Dec. 10 at Georgetown, came off the bench and finished with two points, six assists, six rebounds and zero turnovers in 19 minutes. Mason posted 10 points and five assists in 24 minutes. Alexander shot six of eight from the floor and dropped in 12 points. The Jayhawks, rejuvenated by Graham’s presence, shot 52.5 percent while improving to 13-2, 2-0 in the Big 12.
“I think the two guards,” Graham said, “we just try to push the tempo, get up and pressure, just bring energy and try to get the crowd involved.”
On Friday morning, Graham was still wondering whether he could return on Saturday. Self was doubtful, but Graham participated in his first full practice since the injury. The soreness was minimal. His toe felt fine. He offered a short plea to Self: “I want to play.”
When Self and Kansas’ medical staff granted the request, Graham retreated to his apartment at the Jayhawker Towers and laid his head on his pillow. His adrenaline was already pumping.
“I was just so hyped up, that I really couldn’t sleep,” Graham said. “I woke up kind of early.”
In seven games in November and early December, Graham displayed signs of being a secondary playmaker and backup point guard, a solid defensive player who could pressure opposing guards and step into passing lanes. On Saturday, Graham’s presence appeared to give more life and continuity to an offense that has struggled to find a consistent rhythm. The Jayhawks recorded 24 assists on 32 field goals, and a more free-flowing attack generated 22 attempts from three-point range.
The Jayhawks drilled 11 of them. Graham, who was averaging more than five points and 14 minutes per game before his battle with “turf toe,” did not show any ill-effects from the injury. Graham and Mason created havoc with penetration and playmaking skills, and the Jayhawks’ big men were the main beneficiaries. Ellis drained a career-high three three-pointers. The Jayhawks also threw a bevy of lobs.
“The lob has always been part of our arsenal,” Self said. “We play to that. We train that.”
Saturday’s performance was promising. But more encouraging for Self, perhaps, is envisioning his backcourt in March with a full-strength Mason and Graham. In the final minutes against Texas Tech, Graham looked to the bench and motioned to come out. After sitting out for a month, he was running on fumes.
“My conditioning is so bad,” Graham said.
In time, Graham’s legs and wind should return. The Jayhawks return to Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night to face Oklahoma State. Graham, after sitting for a month, is ready to get back on the floor.
“Sometimes,” Graham said, “you just have to sacrifice some things and play through injuries.”