LAWRENCE — No one is better equipped to discuss the adversity and uncertainty Silvio De Sousa has fought through this season than the Kansas freshman’s own roommate.
After all, Sam Cunliffe has dealt with those same obstacles himself.
De Sousa shares living quarters with Cunliffe, a sophomore guard and former Arizona State transfer now with the No. 8-ranked Jayhawks. Entering Monday night’s game against Oklahoma, neither player had accumulated double-digit minutes in a game since Cunliffe’s 11-minute appearance on Jan. 6 at TCU, the team’s third Big 12 contest.
For De Sousa, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound forward who graduated early and joined the Jayhawks in late December, the college hoops crash course proved particularly rocky — he had appeared in a combined 22 minutes in his first 11 contests, contributing totals of 5 points, 7 rebounds, 6 turnovers and 8 personal fouls.
“It’s hard, man,” Cunliffe said in a postgame radio interview Monday. “I mean, I’ve been here for a year and I still struggle. There’s a lot of things you’ve got to pick up and a lot of things you’ve got to pick up fast. To come in the middle of a season like he did, we all kind of knew he was going to struggle a little bit, but I think his attitude and just staying positive kind of carried over into tonight.”
If Monday night’s 104-74 drubbing of the Sooners was an act of redemption for the payback-minded Jayhawks (22-6, 11-4 Big 12), then no player personified that theme more than De Sousa. The former five-star recruit finished with career-highs of 10 points and six rebounds in only 13 minutes, providing more-than-adequate relief of foul-troubled starting center Udoka Azubuike. De Sousa’s last appearance against OU, part of an eventual 85-80 defeat in Norman, Okla., marked a low point for the freshman — he finished that game with three turnovers and a foul in just one minute on the floor.
KU coach Bill Self noticed a "night-and-day" difference in De Sousa’s second effort against the Sooners, a showing he said the team “could see coming in practice.”
“So happy for Silvio,” Self said. “He’s had such a great attitude and nothing’s gone right. We saw a glimpse tonight of how good he can be. He can be a force down there.”
De Sousa saved his best for Monday’s second half.
After a nifty post move led to a layup at the 13:05 mark, De Sousa secured two offensive rebounds on a single possession the next time down the court, then drained a pair of free-throw attempts after getting fouled on his second board. Then, after grabbing a defensive board on the Sooners’ next trip, De Sousa flushed a wicked dunk on an alley-oop from Svi Mykhailiuk that gave the Jayhawks a 17-point lead with less than 12 minutes left.
Allen Fieldhouse erupted — as did the KU bench, with a jumping, twisting and shouting Azubuike leading the roar.
“I’m proud of his attitude,” Self said. “I’m proud of him never having a bad day and keep grinding. You can tell how he’s loved by his teammates by their reaction. I think he’s obviously going to be a fan favorite, too, by the crowd’s reaction and appreciating him. That was great.”
While Self initially targeted Feb. 1 as the day he hoped to get De Sousa fully integrated, both coach and player acknowledge it didn't quite work out that way. Perhaps that was too lofty an expectation. But if the frontcourt-thin Jayhawks can get this kind of effort from De Sousa in March?
“I think he’s starting to kind of turn that corner a little bit,” said teammate Malik Newman, “and I think right now is a great time for him to do that.”
Cunliffe said he and De Sousa face similar uncertainties in pregame warmups, unsure of whether the upcoming contest will be the one in which they're called upon. It’s too early to tell if Monday’s game was a watershed moment for De Sousa, but Cunliffe said the forward was ready for his opportunity.
“I’m really proud of him because he had kind of been down on himself, but he really came out and proved everybody wrong,” Cunliffe said. “I heard a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, he’s not ready,’ but I knew he was ready. He needed to come in here and get a game like this where we were rolling and he was able to come in and keep his confidence up.”
Speaking to the media in a postgame news conference for the first time was just another part of the learning process for De Sousa, who said the college game is finally slowing down for him. He had a feeling after he hauled in his first rebound Monday without fouling that he might be in store for a lengthy appearance. Of his alley-oop dunk, he said he was just thankful to finish it off, as that hasn’t been a sure thing at practices.
As for whether the performance gave KU fans a glimpse into the future, well, De Sousa indicated the best is yet to come.
“I love Kansas, and the reason I chose Kansas was just because the fans. They just make me feel like I’m at home and I’m safe here,” De Sousa said. “... Right now, I’m pretty sure that’s not all they want to see, but I promise them that they’re going to see a lot better.”
Cunliffe appeared in two minutes against the Sooners, finishing with a highlight dunk in the game’s final minutes. Still, he’s seen just 13 combined minutes of action in the Jayhawks’ last 12 contests.
Despite the limited minutes, Cunliffe indicated he’s staying positive and hopes to have more responsibilities next season, if not sooner.
“I think I’m just going to keep, if my number’s called, coming in and doing my best, (and) if not, just continue to grow in practice,” Cunliffe said. “When it is my turn to be one of those guys, just be ready to step right in. I think at some point soon here, whether it’s this year or next year, I think I’m going to have a bigger role and I think I’ll be ready to take that on.”