Reserve Guards Give KU Lift, Send Message

When KU head coach Bill Self inserted reserve guards Stephen Vinson and Micah Downs into Saturday night's KU-Western Illinois game midway through the first half, they provided one of those warm, fuzzy, feel-good lifts the likes of which guys like T.J. Whatley and C.B. McGrath would have been proud.

“[Coach Self] just said, ‘Play hard, pick it up.’ Some of our other guys were struggling a little bit, so he wanted to get some fresh legs out there and see if that would help,” explained freshman guard Micah Downs.

“(Self) was looking for a spark,” agreed Vinson.  “I think we took it as motivation going in.  We had a pretty good idea of why we were being sent in, so we were just doing the same stuff we’d been doing, but trying to execute a little better.”

The second time, though, just 89 seconds into the second half, the two went back into the game, a move that was intended to send a clear message to starters Russell Robinson and Jeff Hawkins.

Western Illinois started the second half with five unanswered to get the Kansas lead down to nine.  Unhappy with his two starting guards, Self called a 30-second timeout and showed the two a seat alongside him on the KU bench.  For the rest of the game.

Of course, being on the way to an 86-57 win allowed Self that opportunity.

“Our mindset still has to become more aggressive, and that certainly wasn’t the way we started the half: when you have a comfortable lead and then let the other team believe they can play with you.  That’s what happened there,” Self explained, post-game.

 

“Tonight, putting guys on the bench for an extended period of time was maybe not something I’d have done if it’d been a tight game but it gives me confidence in those other guys that they can come in and do it,” Self said.

He continued, “I won’t call a timeout very often unless it’s something that makes me mad.  But I think we need to send some messages to some young guys early that certain things aren’t acceptable.”

Enter Vinson and Downs.  While neither would be confused for an All-American in their extended second half play, both did more than their fair share of good things.

Vinson’s play – five points on 1-1 shooting, 1-1 from behind the arc, 2-2 from the free throw line, 4 assists and no turnovers – seemed to anchor a somewhat spotty KU team. 

Self was Vinson’s biggest fan.  “I don’t think there’s any question Stephen was our best perimeter player,” the coach said.  “His stat line probably proves it.  He’s not going to shoot unless he’s wide open, he moves the ball, he’s a good defender and he talks.  And that’s what this team needs is someone who’ll talk and keep people organized.”

He went on, “We’ve talked a lot as a staff about what our team needs.  Our team needs tough mindset, it needs leadership and it needs somebody to be vocal.  Those are three things Stephen does better than anyone on our team.  He brings intangibles to the team.”

Vinson said he just tries to bring some leadership to the floor in situations such as the one he entered Saturday night.

“I make sure guys are in the right spots, making sure guys are matched up.  I think the big thing for me is, I’m not afraid to talk and that’s how I’ve always played – just being active out there.  Just making sure guys are in the right spots so they can be successful.”

On defense, when Vinson was in the game, he did a nice job guarding Western Illinois’ top scoring threat, David Jackson.  Vinson said that’s nothing new for him, though.

“I think that if I have a strength now, it’d probably be defense,” he said.  “My freshman year, guarding Kirk was an experience.  And then getting to guard Aaron and Keith.  They’re all great offensive players.  No doubt those guys have helped me a lot.”

At the other guard spot, Downs contributed 10 points, including two baskets from long range.  He also used his lanky 6-8 frame and athleticism to grab seven rebounds -- all in the second half.

“I was a little off (shooting) tonight.  Coach got on me a little bit about rebounding in the first half, so the second half, I tried to come out and defend a little better and get some more rebounds and, hopefully, if I get an open shot, I can knock it down,” Downs said.

Self liked what he saw from his much-hyped freshman.

“Micah didn’t shoot the ball well, but at least he put himself in a position to shoot it,” the coach commented.  “I thought he did some good things.  He got on the defensive glass.  Other than being more aggressive on the offensive glass, I thought Micah played really well.”

“Micah’s getting more confident and he’s getting better all the time,” Self summarized.

Downs said he’s definitely feeling more comfortable on the floor, thinking less and just playing more.  He was pleased with the opportunity to see extended minutes and knows that there’s plenty of time out there to be earned.

“It’s on me,” he said.  If it play good in practice and play hard in practice and work hard, my minutes are going to come.  Coach is saying, ‘The minutes are there, you just have to show you can do it.’  That’s what I’m trying to do.”

But don’t pencil either Vinson or Downs into your starting lineup against St. Joseph’s just yet.  Barring some unforeseen circumstance, Self doesn’t see a reason to make changes to the starting lineup…yet.

“You guys (the media) make a bigger deal out that than me.  It doesn’t matter to me yet (who starts).  Some guys can handle starting better; some guys don’t like starting as much.  The thing is, you don’t change starting lineups based on one game.  You change starting lineups based over time, and over time, our starters have still been our best performers when you look at practice and everything.  I’m not going to just jump and do something because one guys plays particularly well one night.”


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