Now that final exams are over, KU will attempt to shift its focus back to the action on the court when Pepperdine visits Lawrence Monday. Bill Self hopes his team will carryover the positive momentum built in the second half against Cal nine days ago.
The next four opponents Kansas will face are less than daunting. Pepperdine is young and struggling, Northern Colorado is still learning what Division I basketball is all about, New Orleans lost its best player Bo McCalebb for the season, and Yale is struggling to keep its record above .500. The combined record of the next four opponents is 8-28.
So far the KU schedule has featured enough quality opponents to disrupt the quest to build momentum and confidence. That’s why this stretch might be just what a young Kansas squad needs before taking on a ranked Kentucky team and facing the everyday rigors of the Big 12.
"I'm hoping our young guys will get confidence. Three of the four should be real confident right now based on how they've played the last couple of games,” continued Self. “Mario (Chalmers) had some struggles against Cal, but he'll get his confidence back. He's had some of his best days in practice recently. The goal is not to play guys certain minutes. Our goal is to win the game."
If Kansas wants to win its share of Big 12 games and possibly contend for a title, Self will have to get better play out of his point guards, particularly Chalmers. The freshman has to find level ground in the next four games and cure some of the turnover problems that have plagued him thus far. He had better do it before January 7th, if he doesn’t Kentucky’s Rajon Rondo will have a field day. Rondo is one of the best guards in the country and wrecks havoc on the defensive end of the floor. Much-like Emeka Okafor used to do for UConn, Rondo has the ability to change the game without scoring a point. --though he’s certainly doing his share of scoring now for the Wildcats. Meanwhile, Mario has also been struggling from beyond the arc and is 6-22 from three on the season. Bottom line – Chalmers is too good a player to struggle like he has at times.
"He's had some of his best days in practice. He's been aggressive and had a good mindset. He's a very talented young man. He's going to be a real good player. He just has to keep plugging away and not let one performance be a big deal for him. I think he is taking that approach,” Self stated.
As my college coach used to yell all the time, “Make the easy pass!” That’s really what Stephen Vinson does so effectively and the type of “back-to-basics play” that Chalmers needs to get his confidence back and remain in the flow of the offense. Like I mentioned last week, a lot of the guys could learn a lot from Vinson’s play.
Self has not been shy about mixing-and-matching lineups this season, and you can expect that shuffling to continue through the next 160 minutes of basketball as two new faces are added to the mix.
USC transfer Rodrick Stewart could see his first action of the year Monday against Pepperdine. Stewart is a bit of an unknown to Jayhawk fans and after sitting out over a year, he’ll finally get the chance to get his feet wet in crimson and blue. Considering the next four home tilts will likely provide ample opportunity for Self to utilize his bench we should get a better idea what Rodrick may bring to the table.
Stewart’s been tirelessly working on his outside shot, but there’s one thing he can immediately bring to the table – energy. He may not be a prominent part of the rotation right away, but the 6-4 guard will likely be the type of player Self will turn to when the team warrants a boost. If Stewart can get in the open floor, dive for a loose ball, or drive the baseline for a nifty dunk he’s certainly capable of injecting this young team with some vigor. The intangibles are Stewart’s biggest assets but how much he plays from game-to-game will vary. If the athletic Stewart can give KU the type of lift that Vinson does off the bench, Self may turn to Rodrick when the team seems a bit stale.
"In my mind, I have him as a guy who can provide depth and energy. I am still of the belief that Micah (Downs) and Brandon (Rush) need to get as many minutes as possible, and he plays a similar position. He'll play some, but I don't know how much,” Self said. “He's going to have to beat one of the other five guys out to warrant any significant minutes. Right now he's on the outside looking in. He will play though."
Thursday against Northern Colorado Kansas can look forward to adding some much-needed bulk to the lineup with the return of 6-8 forward Darnell Jackson. Jackson, whose 9-game suspension ends after Monday’s game, will be the more significant addition to the KU lineup. C.J. Giles and Sasha Kaun have performed well, but they don’t provide the physical presence in the paint that Jackson does.
The Jayhawks have only out-rebounded their opponents by three on the season – a number that must improve in the rough-and-tough Big 12. Remember the Nevada game? The way to guard Nick Fazekas is to be physical with him, and when Self needed a “big body” to bump the Wolfpack star, Jackson was in street clothes. Meanwhile, Fazekas scored 35 points which led to the Jayhawks’ demise. Darnell will be an important cog once the Big 12 begins and makes Kanas better in both areas. Self has raved about the sophomore’s practice habits this season and is optimistic he’ll bring the same level of play to game action.
"I see him being very much a part of the mix. We're going to have some good days and not so good days with him. He's been one of our most consistent performers in practice so far in practice. I can't believe that it won't be the same when the game starts,” Self said.