LAWRENCE — How, exactly, does one go about topping an evening that concluded with a stone-faced assassin succumbing to waterworks?
It won’t be easy, but Kansas coach Bill Self thinks this group’s upcoming senior night has a chance at besting the show put on last year by Frank Mason and company — and perhaps reaching even greater emotional heights.
The No. 8-ranked Jayhawks (23-6, 12-4 Big 12) will honor seniors Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Clay Young following the conclusion of an 8 p.m. Monday contest against Texas (17-12, 7-9) at Allen Fieldhouse. Senior nights are always special, Self said, but given the roles Graham (26 points) and Mykhailiuk (21 points) played in the team’s record-breaking, Big 12-clinching 74-72 victory Saturday at Texas Tech, the level the pair have played at all season and the admiration Self senses for the two from KU fans, he anticipates “one of the more special” such evenings in the program’s history.
“Last year with Frank, Landen (Lucas) was obviously a special senior night,” Self said. “I can’t believe anything would top these two this year. The fans have seen them grow up, just like our guys in the past on any senior night. I know these two hold a special place in our fans’ hearts.”
Both Graham and Mykhailiuk put off professional careers to return for their senior seasons, and it’s hard to imagine the team achieving its national record-breaking 14th straight conference championship without either.
Graham, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound guard out of Raleigh, N.C., is averaging 17.9 points and 7.1 assists in his final collegiate season. Told by Self to take on the role as the team’s on-court personality as a sophomore, Graham has taken on a do-it-all role as a senior. He said Sunday that it feels like he just arrived on campus yesterday.
“Being able to travel the world, see a lot of different places, play in a lot of big-time games, meet a lot of good people, a lot of good teammates and friends,” Graham said. “It’s been a great journey.”
While he hasn’t jotted down anything formal for his speech — “Probably just going to freestyle it off the top of the head and from the heart,” he said — Graham remembers the emotional toll the evening took last season on his former backcourt mate Mason, who broke into tears after checking out for the final time at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think it just all hits you at once,” Graham said. “I ain’t cried about it yet. I had dreams of me crying about it doing the speech, but yeah, it’s definitely going to hit me tomorrow.”
Graham returned in part, Self said, because he wanted to run the show. No longer Mason’s sidekick, Graham has done just that, ascending to what Self believes should be a surefire Big 12 player of the year nod.
Running the show, Graham said, requires more leadership than he’d ever displayed in previous seasons.
“It’s not really pressure, but it’s a lot more responsibility on you just to lead the team the right way down the right path,” Graham said. “I think that was the biggest (adjustment this season), just me trying to become a bigger leader.”
Mykhailiuk, a 6-8 guard from Cherkasy, Ukraine, is averaging 15.6 points and 4.1 rebounds as a senior, shooting 44.7 percent from 3-point range. He tested the professional waters after his junior season ended but returned after NBA scouts and executives told him areas his game needed to improve in for a future in the league.
He’s done just that as a senior, posting career-highs in rebounding, assists and steals while showcasing his athleticism by becoming a better scorer at the rim.
“It’s going to be a great day tomorrow,” Mykhailiuk said. “… There’s going to be a lot of emotions.”
Over his four seasons, Mykhailiuk has learned to embrace Self’s tough love. From harsh in-practice criticism during his freshman season — “Not at the beginning, because I couldn’t really understand what he was saying,” Mykhailiuk clarified — to an appreciation for the feedback as a senior, the guard said he feels it’s made him a better player.
“He just wanted me to focus and just make sure I do everything right,” Mykhailiuk said. “Even if he gets on me, it’s not like he doesn’t like me or some stuff. He just wants me to do things in the right way. He’s a great coach. He’s a hall of famer. I know for sure he knows what basketball is and how to play the game, so it’s helped me a lot.”
Young, a 6-5, 205-pound guard, has seen little in-game action during his three-year KU career, but the walk-on played a pivotal role for the frontcourt-thin Jayhawks earlier this season before the arrival of freshman Silvio De Sousa. The undersized Lansing native played 12 first-half minutes at the five-position in a 76-60 victory over Syracuse, somehow keeping 7-2 center Paschal Chukwu in check.
“I kind of think that I’m pretty lucky to be here,” Young said. “It’s an honor to be here and part of this program, so unless I got hurt or something, I don’t think there’s a way I could have a bad day.”
Monday is unlikely to be a bad day for any member of the senior trio, assuming the Jayhawks take care of business against the Longhorns. As for the postgame festivities, teammate Malik Newman guaranteed all three are destined for waterworks of their own.
It was a take Graham wasn’t exactly willing to dispute.
“I’mma cry. I’m definitely gonna cry,” Graham said. “I don’t know about Svi or Clay — nah, they’re going to cry. We all gonna cry.”