LAWRENCE — An inevitable conference-play stumble awaits Kansas basketball's three contributing freshmen.
If there's any doubt about the validity of that claim, consider who first offered that assessment Monday.
“The freshmen haven’t hit the wall yet. They’ll hit it here in late January or early February,” KU coach Bill Self said. “They all do at some point in time.”
Fasten your seatbelts.
Freshmen guards Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes, freshman forward David McCormack and the fifth-ranked Jayhawks open Big 12 play with an 8 p.m. Wednesday contest against No. 23 Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse, joining former transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore as KU contributors set for their first taste of what is, year-to-year, arguably the nation’s toughest league.
Evaluating where his first-year players stand entering the team's defense of a Big 12 regular-season title streak that began when the trio were in preschool, Self offered various observations on each. He also spoke in general terms about the group Self on Saturday said he wasn’t sure “totally respect(s)” the rigors posed by conference play.
“We haven’t talked to the group about what it takes to win the league. We haven’t talked about that yet, but we certainly will focus on that, the things you have to do to be consistently good over a span of two and a half months, which isn’t easy to do,” Self said. “You need to be kind of even keel. There will be peaks and valleys, but they don’t need to be spikes. They don’t need to be like the December market.
“It needs to be something that you kind of grind through it, but you can’t pass up opportunities to take advantage of good nights, good situations.”
As indicated, it’s been a mixed bag this season for the Jayhawks’ three contributing freshmen, all former McDonald’s All-Americans.
Dotson, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound native of Charlotte, N.C., has enjoyed the most seamless transition to the collegiate level. Averaging 11.2 points on 53.4-percent shooting with a 43.5-percent clip from 3-point range, Dotson also posts 3.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game in facilitating the Jayhawk offense.
With the lightning-quick guard doing so much so well, Self was asked what should be the next step for the starting point guard?
“I think as good as he’s done, and I think he’s done great — you said something else, so you’re the one being negative," Self quipped.
“I still think he could get more assists,” Self said. “I think he can create easier baskets for Doke (Azubuike) and Dedric than what we’re doing right now. He's done a good job getting downhill, but I just think simple plays — feeding the post, outside hand, or whatever — those will be things he'll get better on as he continues to move forward."
It’s been more of an uphill battle for Grimes, a 6-5, 210-pound two-guard from The Woodlands, Texas. There have been flashes of brilliance — a 21-point, six-3 performance in the Jayhawks’ season-opening victory over Michigan State comes to mind — but for the most part, Grimes has all too often blended into the background.
A 16-point performance in Saturday’s 87-63 victory over Eastern Michigan represented Grimes’ second-highest scoring output of the season and perhaps a step in the right direction for the former five-star recruit.
“He made a couple 3s, attacked the hole. I thought he did some good things,” Self said. “I do think there is value (to that performance). You're not going to expect a guy to come out and make every shot, all that stuff, but he's due to have one of those games where he gets on a little bit of a roll.”
Grimes played a team-high 29 minutes against EMU, another positive development, and is now averaging 8.1 points on 39.5-percent shooting with a 31-percent mark from beyond the arc.
Self said he’s interested to see how Grimes performs next against the Sooners (11-1), who deploy a man-to-man defense that challenges opponents to get their points at the rim.
“He’s been practicing better,” Self said. “I see him having some confidence and positive momentum moving into the league."
Then there’s McCormack, a 6-10, 265-pounder out of Norfolk, Va. Averaging just seven minutes off the Jayhawk bench, the forward has posted 2.8 points and 2.6 rebounds across his first 11 career appearances.
He’s been on an uptick of late, though, particularly at practices. Self went as far as to say McCormack earned the right to start the EMU contest, though everyone involved decided it’d be best to give that nod to the returning Azubuike (ankle sprain) as to avoid a stiffening of his injury after warmups.
McCormack scored four points and hauled in five rebounds in a career-high 17 minutes against EMU.
"He's really bright. I think he's figuring it out, how he can really contribute defensively and also playing more under control offensively,” Self said. “... I think he’s starting to figure that stuff out, and I think we’re going to need his size and rebounding.
“We’re not a really good rebounding team. If I was going to pick one area that I wish we were better at, thinking we would be going into the season, it’d be rebounding. We’re only about plus-four, which isn’t a great number regardless of who we’re playing.”
While Self expects his freshmen to hit a wall, junior guard Mitch Lightfoot went even further.
“I don’t think it has to do with just freshmen. I think everybody will hit a wall at some point in time,” Lightfoot said. “You have to understand how to get past it and you gotta understand it’s going to take a lot of work. A bunch of our guys have pushed through that. Even look back to last year — how good did Malik (Newman) play? That guy was the best guard in the nation at one point in time and it took him a little while to get going. So there’s a bunch of different things you can do to get yourself going.”
Azubuike scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 20 minutes against EMU, his first action since the injury suffered in a Dec. 4 contest against Wofford.
Self said Monday afternoon that he hadn’t spoken with Azubuike since the contest, but he had no reason to believe there was anything wrong.
“He played and looked like he was close to 100 percent. This is 48 hours later, so why wouldn’t he be even better?” Self said. “I’m not going to ask him how he’s doing. He might say, ‘Not very well.’ ”
Still, Saturday was an encouraging effort for the “big fella.”
“I thought he did good,” Self said. “He made a lot of baskets in tight, but that's what he does. I didn't think he jumped like he is capable of. He mistimed a couple of dunks that he'd normally make. I thought he did terrific. I thought he moved his feet well. The biggest concern with him is just conditioning."