LAWRENCE — Lagerald Vick’s prolonged funk has cost him his starting role.
Whether the Kansas junior guard ever reclaims that job remains to be seen, but in the wake of coach Bill Self’s scorching critique Monday, it’s clear it will be an uphill battle.
The No. 10-ranked Jayhawks (18-5, 7-3 Big 12) will start sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot in Vick’s place in the team’s next contest, an 8 p.m. Tuesday tilt against TCU at Allen Fieldhouse. The decision is direct fallout from KU’s last contest, an 84-79 home defeat to double-digit underdog Oklahoma State in which Vick finished with five points and three rebounds in 34 minutes.
The decision is a “long-term” one, Self said, making it unlike the single-game bench role Vick had in a Jan. 15 victory at West Virginia. Self is not certain this will correct the team’s effort level, the primary reason for Vick’s benching, but status quo didn’t appear a consideration.
“I don’t know that it fixes it at all, and I’m not predicting unbelievable results from it,” Self said. “But I am predicting the guys that start will try harder than the guys that started the last game.”
Self didn’t hold back in his direct and indirect criticism of Vick, who has averaged 7.2 points and 3.9 rebounds over his last 10 contests. He used the word “selfishness” as a specific cause of the team’s five defeats, an idea he expanded upon when asked to clarify what that means.
“Thoughts, thoughts,” he explained. “Not carrying out an assignment, not running or executing a play hard because you know it’s not for you, things like that.”
Coaching effort in February is not something Self has ever had to do before, he said, putting the 15th-year KU coach in unfamiliar territory with how to correct the matter. For the moment, he will start Lightfoot and 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike side-by-side in a two-big lineup, a look the team hasn’t deployed and has rarely practiced this season. The duo are two of only three frontcourt scholarship players in the Jayhawks’ lineup and the team’s foul-trouble tightrope may become even tighter with both on the court simultaneously, Self acknowledged.
The risk, though, appears worth the reward.
″(Lightfoot) actually tries to rebound. He actually tries to block a shot. He’ll actually run a guy down in transition and try to make a play,” Self said. “Mitch is going to screw up — we all screw up — but at least he’s going to screw up going hard.”
Lightfoot, averaging 3.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 14 minutes per game this season, will play more of a true big than a stretch four, Self said, as the team hopes to improve offensive and defensive rebounding numbers that rank ninth and 10th, respectively, through 10 conference contests.
“I know as a staff it’s more comforting to know the guys you have out there will at least try their butt off to try to do what’s best for Kansas and what’s best for our team,” Self said, “and we know Mitch is always going to do that.”
Still, Self is optimistic about what the Jayhawks’ energy level will be against the Horned Frogs (16-7, 4-6) — “I don’t know that we can get wore effort (than Saturday),” he said — but he indirectly referenced a “couple of guys, starters, that obviously don’t try very hard.” Given his decision to bench Vick, it’s not hard to read between the lines.
Other deficiencies Self cited in the Jayhawks’ losses this year included attitude, focus, preparation, energy, intensity and competitiveness.
“There are reasons you don’t play well in February — fatigue, tired, maybe being a little bit selfish from a thought standpoint or maybe thinking about what happens next year. There could be an abundance of reasons why you don’t play well during certain times of a season,” Self said. “But the fact of the matter is it should never be because you don’t want to play for the guy next to you. Even selfish guys play for themselves, which is better than playing for no one. We’ve obviously gone through periods of time where individuals haven’t played for anyone.”
Svi Mykhailiuk, who along with Lightfoot and Devonte’ Graham were the only players Self specifically mentioned as having satisfactory effort levels, said the team collectively needs to play with more energy than it did against the Cowboys.
“If we try hard we’re definitely going to make mistakes and we’ve got to make up for ’em later, but if we play without energy we’re kind of slow,” Mykhailiuk said. “If we play with energy it’s hard to beat us.”
Asked what causes a lack of energy, Mykhailiuk responded: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
Still, the sky isn’t exactly falling in Lawrence, where the Jayhawks remain tied atop the Big 12 in their quest for a record-breaking 14th consecutive regular-season conference championship. If anything, Self appears to consider it no small feat the team is this well positioned given its plethora of issues.
“That’s what’s amazing to me: We’re ranked 10th in the country and we’re talking about effort. Hopefully that’s a positive,” Self said. “If we can just tie a few things up — of course they’re the most important things — then we’ll have a chance to get better and compete at a higher level.”