LAWRENCE — Mitch Lightfoot’s answer seemed to confirm a response his coach gave a few hours earlier.
Lightfoot, the Kansas basketball sophomore forward, was asked during a Thursday news conference why he’s made a point to take freshman Silvio De Sousa under his wing. De Sousa has described Lightfoot as the most helpful Jayhawk in getting the inexperienced forward up to speed, an interesting observation given the former’s success may mean a reduced role for the latter.
The reason, as Lightfoot described plainly, is simple.
“Cause when Kansas is better,” Lightfoot said, “I’m happier.”
De Sousa has struggled since his collegiate debut, averaging three minutes across six contests. Meanwhile, Lightfoot has played arguably his best basketball of late, averaging 17.6 minutes, four rebounds and 1.6 blocks over the Jayhawks’ past three contests in relief of foul-troubled sophomore center Udoka Azubuike.
Perhaps, as the saying goes, teaching is the best learning device.
“If Silvio can bring us good minutes and do what we need him to do, then that’s good and it’ll help us win,” Lightfoot said. “If we’re all winning, I think we’ll all agree that we’re all happier.”
This team-first mindset reflects the spirit KU coach Bill Self described as one of Lightfoot’s biggest contributions during comments made earlier Thursday in advance of the Jayhawks' 11 a.m. Saturday home contest against Oklahoma State (13-9, 3-6 Big 12).
“His attitude is a 12,” Self said of Lightfoot. “I mean, we don’t have anybody in the building that is more positive and is more into the team, Kansas, all those things, than Mitch is.”
Self labeled Lightfoot a leader “by example," an important distinction as the team tries to find frontcourt stability with the Billy Preston situation over and the freshman gone.
While Lightfoot isn’t filling out the stat book through the midway point of Big 12 play — he’s averaging 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds on the season — he’s making a habit of having great timing. His block of Oklahoma freshman Trae Young at the end of the first half of a Jan. 23 defeat, his buzzer-beating corner 3-pointer before the break of a Jan. 27 home victory over Texas A&M and a game-saving performance and block in a Jan. 6 victory at TCU stand among his season highlights.
“He’s our most energetic big guy without question,” Self said. “He’s got personality. He’s a much better athlete than what people give him credit for. He’s really quick off his feet.”
Lightfoot finished with three blocks and five rebounds in 20 minutes in the Jayhawks’ most recent contest, a 70-56 victory Monday at Kansas State. That effort included a game-high three offensive boards and a pair of key charges taken on the defensive end.
“We got beat one play against K-State in the first half,” Self recalled. “(Lightfoot) doesn’t really guard the ball screen right — I think (Barry) Brown got past, lays it up. Next thing you know, he blocks it against the backboard and we go the other way with numbers.
“Just from an energy standpoint, he can do some things like that for us.”
A 6-foot-8, 210-pounder from Gilbert, Ariz., and lifelong Jayhawk fan, Lightfoot cited his parents for that “12” attitude Self described. Higher confidence and better defense, he said, have been keys to his improved play of late.
“Just doing what the team needs me to do,” Lightfoot said. “It may not show up in the stat book, but if it gets the win, it’ll get us the win, and I like that.”
Malik Newman, another player on an uptick for the Jayhawks (18-4, 7-2), said Lightfoot has been a “very important” part of the team’s 7-1 run over the last month.
“He’s been bringing incredible energy and incredible minutes off the bench that we need, because big fella (Azubuike) over the last couple games has been in foul trouble and things like that,” Newman said. “We put Mitch in and it’s no drop-off. It’s either we go up or we stay the same. So he’s been huge for us.”
As for Lightfoot’s attitude, well, Newman slightly disagrees with Self on that rating.
“I think Coach probably underrated it. I’d probably say a 15 out of 10,” Newman said. “Mitch is one of those guys where if he messes up and Coach asks him to step off the court to play someone else, Mitch is the first person to try to help that player once they get in.”
For evidence of that last comment, just ask De Sousa.