KU basketball guard Bryce Thompson unfazed by hard-luck freshman season

Matt Galloway
Topeka Capital-Journal
Kansas basketball freshman guard Bryce Thompson, left, watches teammate Ochai Agbaji warm up prior to the Jayhawks' game against TCU on Jan. 28 in Lawrence. Thompson, who is recovering from a broken right index finger, has missed eight of KU's last nine games.

LAWRENCE — Bryce Thompson’s first campaign with Kansas basketball has twice been derailed by significant injuries, with the freshman guard shelved for eight of the Jayhawks’ last nine contests.

That doesn’t, however, mean the former five-star recruit has been unable to find other ways to impress Bill Self — and earn some of the highest praise the Hall of Famer has issued this season.

“I think it’s been a pretty big loss not having Bryce, personally, and I certainly hope he’s healthy enough that he can finish the season strong,” said Self, speaking Thursday ahead of the No. 23-ranked Jayhawks’ 1 p.m. Saturday matchup against No. 17 West Virginia at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, W.Va. “There hasn’t been anybody that’s been hurt that’s been more in-tune to everything going on and trying to do everything they possibly can to get back faster than he has.”

Thompson’s efforts on that front may soon pay off.

While the 6-foot-5, 195-pounder has been ruled out for the matchup with the Mountaineers (12-5, 5-3 Big 12), Thompson’s broken right index finger appears to be trending in the right direction. Self said he is hoping to receive a release in the coming days to utilize Thompson at “full-speed," though the head coach acknowledged it’s “probably wishful thinking” to expect Thompson to be able to go by this time next week.

“I don’t think there’s any problems with the fear of reinjuring it or anything like that,” Self explained. “I think the problem is he still doesn’t have full range of motion.”

Thompson, who suffered a cracked vertebrae in his lower back at a late December practice, broke his finger in his return contest, a Jan. 12 matchup at Oklahoma State. 

A Cowboy player jumped on Thompson while the latter was on the floor fighting for a loose ball in that eventual 75-70 defeat. Thompson played just 13 minutes in that tilt, but it’s worth noting that he was on the court — quite literally, actually — during his team’s furious second-half rally, a run that saw the visitors turn a 16-point deficit into a three-point lead with one minute remaining.

The Tulsa, Okla., product appeared to be earning a greater share of Self’s confidence with every appearance, a reality likely intensified in Thompson sustaining his injury on a hustle play. Asked what has allowed Thompson to earn his trust, Self had a moment of self-reflection.

“Well first of all he’s going to be a really good player. If he hadn’t gotten hurt you guys would see just how much he’d be playing and how much trust we’d have (in him),” Self responded. “Probably should’ve played him more than what we actually did up until Christmas.”

Thompson has contributed 5.1 points per game on 35.3% shooting this season, averaging 17 minutes across his 10 appearances. The nation's No. 21 recruit in the Class of 2020 according to 247Sports' composite rankings, Thompson is also hitting 25% of his 3-point tries and bringing in 1.3 rebounds per contest.

Self views Thompson as “a pretty good defender,” right in line with where the KU (12-6, 6-4) coaches thought he’d be on that end of the court at this stage in his collegiate career.

“I just think he’s a good player,” said Self, who coached Thompson's father, Rod, at Tulsa in the 1990s. “He always tries to do what we want. Even if it’s not always perfect the way he does it, there is an attempt to do that. There is an ability offensively to create some space and get his own shot.”

Another test in Morgantown

Saturday’s showdown with WVU will be a rematch, with KU taking a 79-65 victory in the first meeting on Dec. 22 in Lawrence. The Jayhawks, then the nation’s No. 3-ranked team, moved to 8-1 overall with that outcome but have gone just 4-5 in the subsequent nine contests.

KU went a staggering 16 for 37 from 3-point range in that first clash, but Self cautioned against expecting a repeat performance in that department this go-round against a Mountaineer squad now playing four guards around standout junior forward Derek Culver.

“That’s an awful lot for our teams to shoot, but they were there in large part because of their zone, and they’re not going to play as much zone. And if they do play zone I guarantee you they’re going to get to shooters,” Self said. “I don’t see that (happening again). It’s always important to make shots no matter who you’re playing or where or styles, but I don’t see us getting that same number of opportunities from behind the arc this game.”

Despite losing talented big Oscar Tshiebwe, who in early January announced his intention to sit out the remainder of his sophomore season and transfer to Kentucky, WVU “actually got better” since its first matchup with KU, Self said.

KU is 3-5 all-time in Morgantown.

“We’ve got to go there and it’s got to be a fist-fight,” Self said. “We’ve got to rebound the ball and we’ve got to take care of the ball. Those would be the two things that I’d say jump out at me more than anything else. Those have always been the keys to beating Bob (Huggins)’ teams, at least since he’s been in the league at West Virginia.”

Texas rematch pushed back

KU’s second game against Texas, originally scheduled for Feb. 22 in Austin, Texas, has been postponed one day and will now tip off at 8 p.m. Feb. 23, the Big 12 announced Thursday. The Longhorns won the season's first meeting between the two programs 84-59 on Jan. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse.

KU will then conclude its regular season at 7 p.m. Feb. 27 against Baylor in Lawrence.

NO. 23 KANSAS AT NO. 17 WEST VIRGINIA

Tipoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, WVU Coliseum, Morgantown, W.Va.

Records: Kansas 12-6, 6-4 Big 12; West Virginia 12-5, 5-3 Big 12

Line: West V by 1

TV/Radio: CBS/Topeka: KWIC-FM (99.3); Salina: KZUH-FM (92.7)

Up next for KU: vs. Oklahoma State, 8 p.m. Monday, Allen Fieldhouse, Lawrence