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The Enigma of Miles Bridges: Inside the ‘weirdo’s’ decision to return to Michigan State

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Tom Izzo knows just how fortunate he is that Miles Bridges was born in Michigan State’s backyard.

He knows all too well that it’s unusual for Michigan State to beat out programs like Kentucky for a recruit. He knows how fortuitous it is for his program that the future lottery pick they were able to beat Kentucky for just so happens to be a remnant of the past, a relic of a foregone era that values friendship and loyalty and the life lessons that he’ll learn by spending another year in East Lansing over getting rich quick.

Izzo knows all of that.

“You writers got fancy terms,” he said, chuckling, after he was told that his star pupil will be named the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. “My term: he’s a ******* weirdo.”

“I know this, one way or another, he’s an unbelievable kid,” Izzo added. “He’s a quiet kid. I don’t know if he’s a great interview, because he hates talking about himself. It’s one of his goals, but if you were sitting in front of him he would tell you about three teammates that were better than him.”

In fact, that is precisely what Bridges did. He told me that Josh Langford, who doubles as Bridges’ roommate and one of his best friends in the world, is “the best shooting guard in the nation”; that Cassius Winston was “one of the top guards”; that Kyle Ahrens is an incredible teammate that was happier Bridges was returning than anyone despite the fact that he and Bridges play the same position. When Bridges told his teammates that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season, they celebrated – Ahrens included – like they had just won a title despite the fact that Bridges’ presence on the roster cost everyone shots and many of them minutes.

That’s why Bridges loves Michigan State and the Spartan family. Everything about it. His coach, his teammates, his friends, his fans, his chance to be a kid. He also knows the history of the program. He’s friends with Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris. He talks to them regularly. He knows how they’re viewed in the annals of Breslin Center lore.

And he knows that none of them will ever be up to par with Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, the two Spartans that brought national titles back to East Lansing.

That’s the legacy he wants to leave.

“The only way I’m going to leave a stamp on the program is winning a national championship,” Bridges said. “The two guys that did it, Magic and Mateen, they’re never forgotten here. When we talk about winning, we talk about them two.”

That has been the goal since the first day he arrived on campus.

It’s why all the talk about his decision frustrates him.

“I never really had one and done in my mind. My whole focus was on wining a national championship,” Bridges said. “I never really made a decision to leave or to stay because staying was always in my head if we didn’t win the national championship.”


Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

Miles Bridges is not a trailblazer. It’s uncommon for a one-and-done lottery pick to return to school, but it’s hardly unheard of. Marcus Smart did it. Harrison Barnes did it. Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones III, Ivan Rabb. He isn’t even the only player to make that decision this year; Texas A&M’s Robert Williams skipped out on the chance to be a lottery pick as well.

What sets Bridges apart from the rest of that group is there is more inherent risk in his decision.

Part of it has to due with his athleticism. His explosiveness and his quickness for someone his size is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. He’s more than capable offensively, but being ‘more than capable offensively’ while having the springs to protect the rim and the versatility to play and defend multiple positions is why he’s a commodity. He was built to play in today’s NBA, but if – God forbid – he were to pop his Achilles’ or blow out his knee, the impact that losing a step or a few inches off his vertical would have is much greater than if it were to happen to, say, Jayson Tatum or Lonzo Ball.

He’s putting a lot of guaranteed money at risk by delaying the NBA for a year. Bridges has reportedly taken out an insurance policy to protect himself in case of a catastrophic injury – the maximum the NCAA allows for is $10 million – but for a guy who looks to have a 12-to-15 year career waiting for him, that may not be 10 percent of his career earnings.

Injury is not the only risk Bridges faces.

To be frank, returning to school has almost always proven not to work out for a player whose draft stock is measured in potential. An extra year on campus means an extra season to poke holes in his game. Instead of picturing a world where that player reaches his ceiling, scouts have 12 months to break down what he can’t do and where he has yet to improve. You’re far more likely to be Melo Trimble than you are Blake Griffin if you return to school.

This is what Izzo wanted Bridges to understand.

This is why he kept trying to convince Bridges to listen to what people in the business had to say. Declare for the draft. Test the waters. Talk to NBA teams. Educate yourself before you decide.

“I told him no over and over again,” Bridges said. After Michigan State’s season ended, a loss to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Izzo spent the better part of three weeks in Bridges’ ear. “It was probably after our third meeting, him asking me if I really wanted to stay. I just told him, ‘Coach, I don’t want to leave. I said, ‘I actually wrote down my goals and what I want to do at Michigan State and I’m not leaving until I accomplish those goals.'”

“And really, it’s the first time that I actually got mad at coach, and he realized it.”

The dynamic doesn’t make sense.

A Hall of Fame head coach trying to convince one of, if not the best player in college basketball that he shouldn’t play for him, that returning to school would be the wrong step to take.

Part of it is self-preservation. Izzo – and Bridges – know what the former’s reputation is at the college level. Michigan State is not Kentucky. It’s not Arizona or Duke or Kansas. That’s not the school to go to if you’re goal is to jump to the NBA as quickly as possible. Fair or not, that’s the way that the way that the Spartans are viewed.

“Our program isn’t going to force anyone out,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “Izzo gives families and kids and people that he’s close to the best information that’s available. Experts, college guys, former players. Get them the best unbiased opinions possible and let them make that choice.”

With Deyonta Davis, Michigan State lost a piece that could have changed the course of the 2016-17 season after he was taken with the first pick in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft. With Gary Harris, it meant that the Spartans got a player back that put them in a position to make a run at the 2014 national title. Harris dropped to 19th in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he not only was the youngest sophomore to get selected – he didn’t turn 19 until November of his sophomore season, making him younger than many of the freshmen that were picked that year – that extra time on campus helped him mature and get ready to be a professional; is it a coincidence that Harris, who has earned just under $5 million in his three years in the NBA, is getting ready to sign an extension that could top $20 million annually?

“Where you get picked is your ego, not where you’re going to end up,” Izzo said, and he wanted to make sure that Bridges understood this point. The real money is made when you sign that second contract. “You’re better off being picked 7th and going to the right team than being picked first and going to the wrong one.”

“I did a three week study on him to say, ‘Are you sure?'” Izzo continued. “There’s no question in my mind, there’s no remorse. No seller’s or buyer’s remorse. He did what he wanted to do. He did it for the right reasons. It wasn’t just to win a national championship. It wasn’t just to be player of the year. To get to a Final Four. It wasn’t just to try and up his draft status. He enjoyed college, he wasn’t ready, he didn’t want to be a G League player, he wanted to be as prepared as he could be when they took him, and I feel so comfortable about that.”


(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

The other issue that Bridges is facing is that he will be changing positions this season.

This is a topic that isn’t going to be discussed much, but part of what made Bridges just so good last season is that he is the perfect small-ball four at the college level. He’s a perimeter player with perimeter skills offensively, but he played his freshman season at 240 pounds. Combined with his athleticism, he was built for playing in the paint defensively. It created mismatches everywhere on the floor, and instead of having to go up against a team’s best perimeter defender, he was being guarded by college four men.

It was perfect.

But it won’t be the way that it works this season.

Bridges is going to be playing the three for much of the year. There will be times where matchups or foul trouble or poor play dictates that Bridges ends up playing at the four, but Michigan State’s best lineup this season will feature Bridges at the three with Cassius Winston and Josh Langford in the back court while Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward man the paint.

Offensively, it should not be that big of an issue. Bridges is going to be getting the same shots that he got last season, only they’ll be coming from different spots on the floor. Instead of, say, shooting threes as a trailer in transition or as a floor-spacing four, he’ll be coming off of down-screens and getting isolations on the wing. Instead of being the screener in ball-screen actions, he’ll be handling the ball. He also had a knack for making tough, contested shots. They’re not worried about him offensively.

Nor are they worried about Bridges in transition. Running a wing will give him more opportunity to make a play in transition, while the added depth of Michigan State’s front court means that Izzo will unleash Bridges on the offensive glass. Expect to be wowed by his athleticism at least once a week this season.

The defensive end of the floor is a different story.

Bridges has never really defended on the perimeter before. There are different reads to make, different instincts to have, different muscles to use. Bridges is going to have to be quicker, less-inclined to use his size on smaller defenders, more willing to chase a shooter around a pin-down or over the top of a ball-screen than he has been in the past. He’ll be moving a lot more than he has in the past, which is why this offseason’s no-sugar and conditioning-heavy training regimen is so important. Bridges is now a streamlined 225 pounds.

“There will be some new adjustments. The fours in most of these programs, including ours, he didn’t post up very much, he was on the perimeter the whole time, so it’s not like it’s going to be a foreign subject,” Izzo said. “Miles has the athletic ability and the brains to do it.”

“It’s my job in practice. Better passer? Work on your passing. Better ball handler? Work on your ball handling. Better shooter? Work on your shot. Stronger guy? Work in the weight room. Better defender? He ain’t going to be working on his slides down in the gym in the summer. That’s going to be done with us [in practice], and I owe him to just pound the **** out of him and get him to be a better and better defender.”

“So I don’t see that as an issue at all.”


(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Looking back on it, people around the Michigan State program will tell you that it makes sense that Bridges opted against the one-and-done route.

Throughout the year, he would drop hints, making off-hand remarks about his sophomore season or skipping the draft that no one really took seriously. “It was subtle stuff,” Fife said. “We thought he was joking, that he didn’t want to talk about it.” The jokes, they believed, were his way of avoiding a conversation that he wasn’t ready to have.

Here’s an example Izzo gives: There is a tradition at Michigan State where the freshmen carry the bags for the upperclassmen. One day midway through the season, Izzo looks at his crop of blue-chippers, saying, “Boy, this is going to be nice next year. You guys aren’t going to have to be carrying bags, there will be some other freshman carrying your bag. Well Miles, you’ll probably be carrying bags in the NBA.”

Miles’ response?

“Why are you trying to get rid of me?”

Leaving was never a part of his plan. Listen to Bridges tell it, and he never even realized that he had a shot to be a one-and-done player until the first game of the season, when he put up 21 points on Arizona. I know, I’m incredulous as well, but Bridges is different. He’s not into worrying about himself. He also wasn’t considered a can’t-miss, one-and-done prospect until later in his high school career. He wasn’t a Golden Boy gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as an eighth-grader.

He still views himself that way.

When I told him he was being named the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year, he was polite. He was gracious. And, frankly, I don’t think he cared.

“National Championship. Big Ten championship. Big Ten outright.” Those are the three goals Bridges wrote down for this season. Those are the three things he wants to accomplish in his final season in East Lansing.

“I don’t have individual goals,” he said, “because I know that individual goals will come with team accomplishment.”

And there isn’t a better way to sum up the enigma that is Miles Bridges than that.

No. 25 Cincinnati sends Mississippi State to 1st loss 65-50

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — No. 25 Cincinnati had plummeted to the fringe of the rankings and needed a confidence boost. The Bearcats got it against a previously unbeaten team.

Jacob Evans III had 24 points and eight rebounds as Cincinnati recovered from its back-to-back losses and handed Mississippi State its first defeat, 65-50 on Tuesday night.

The Bearcats (8-2) were coming off losses to crosstown rival Xavier and Florida that dropped them from No. 11. They ended the slump with a solid defensive showing against the Southeastern Conference’s last unbeaten team, blocking 11 shots.

“We needed to get this win for us to build our confidence and get this thing back on track,” Evans said.

Mississippi State (8-1) was off to its best start since 2003-04. The Bulldogs struggled to make shots in their first game against a ranked team. They missed 10 straight in the first half and 14 in a row in the second as Cincinnati blew open a close game.

“I think we took a multitude of things away from them,” said Kyle Washington, who added 16 points. “We knew what we wanted to do on defense. We were locked in on how they played well as a team. We just wanted to take all of that away.”

Aric Holman matched his career high with 18 points and had 10 rebounds for Mississippi State, which shot a season-low 30 percent from the field. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for Cincinnati’s defense.

“We lost the game tonight because of our inability to attack that zone,” coach Ben Howland said. “We were standing way too much, not enough ball movement, not enough cutting and getting the ball inside.”

Cincinnati has won 31 straight home games , the longest streak in the nation. The Bearcats are playing this season at BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University while their on-campus arena is renovated. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season.

BIG PICTURE

Mississippi State: The Bulldogs can’t get that breakthrough win against a ranked team. They have dropped 18 in a row against teams in the Top 25. Their last such win was 67-57 over Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats’ offense was stymied during the losses to Xavier and Florida. Cincinnati shot 41 percent from the field against Mississippi State but scored 22 points off 14 Bulldogs turnovers.

“This was a defensive victory, no question about it,” coach Mick Cronin said. “We’re still searching on offense a little bit at times.”

DRY SPELLS

Mississippi State went nearly 7 minutes without a field goal in the first half, managing only one free throw, as Cincinnati took control. The Bulldogs’ 14 straight misses in the second half helped Cincinnati pull ahead by 19 points. The Bulldogs shot 45 percent or better in their eight wins, including four games at 50 percent or better.

FIRST TRIP

It was the first road game for Mississippi State, which was picked to finish 12th in the SEC preseason poll. Howland figured it will help get the Bulldogs ready for conference play.

“Cincinnati is like an upper-echelon SEC team, so it’s very similar,” Howland said.

QUOTE OF THE GAME

Cronin on the back-to-back losses: “I was just concerned about the guys’ confidence level. It’s hard to shield them from the social media and the outside world. Young people live in that world, and I’m sure the sky was falling in that world because we lost a few games.”

UP NEXT

Mississippi State plays at UT Martin on Saturday.

Cincinnati plays UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, a rematch against the team that knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA Tournament 79-67 in the second round last season.

POSTERIZED: Jericho Sims throws down dunk on Duncan Robinson

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Playing without leading scorer Andrew Jones, who’s out of the lineup after suffering a fractured wrist, Texas got off to a slow start in the first half of its game against Michigan Tuesday night.

Freshman forward Jericho Sims did his best to provide a spark, as the 6-foot-9 Minnesota native rose above Michigan’s Duncan Robinson to throw down a vicious alley-oop dunk.

Sims has a couple inches on Robinson in the height department, and the running start Sims managed to get rolling to the basket didn’t help Robinson’s chances of stopping the dunk either.

Delgado keys No. 15 Seton Hall over Saint Peter’s

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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. (AP) — After playing solid defense in a win over Virginia Commonwealth last Saturday, Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard knew that his 15th-ranked Pirates had to keep up the pressure against old-time New Jersey rival Saint Peter’s.

“I thought if we could get them a little out of a rhythm, we’d be in good shape,” Willard said after his team held the Peacocks to just one field goal among their first 12 shots in an easy 84-61 win at the old Walsh Gym on the campus of Seton Hall.

“We played a little zone to make it difficult for them to shoot,” Willard said. “I loved the way we came out and played defensively.”

The Pirates’ stifling defense enabled them to take an 8-0 lead and cruise from that point on. Seton Hall managed to push Saint Peter’s farther and farther away from the basket with every possession.

“It was the same intensity that we had against VCU,” Willard said.

“Saint Peter’s likes to be able to run their own stuff and we didn’t let them do it,” said senior forward Angel Delgado, who scored a game-high 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, the 57th time in his career that Delgado has registered double figures in both categories. “We pressed. We played zone. They couldn’t run anything.”

“I think we set the tone defensively,” said senior Desi Rodriguez, who continued his fine play with 17 points. “We were able to close out, defend their shots and we were able to make some runs.”

Khadeen Carrington added 11 points and five assists, as Seton Hall (9-1) raced out to an early lead and never looked back, winning for the 20th time in the last 21 meetings against the Peacocks (4-5).

Davauhnte Turner scored 13 points and Nick Griffin had nine to pace Saint Peter’s.

After Elijah Gonzales drained a 3-pointer to pull the Peacocks within 35-23, the Pirates scored the last seven points of the first half, capped by a layup by Delgado with 42 seconds remaining, giving Seton Hall a commanding 42-23 halftime lead. Rodriguez paced the Pirates with 11 first-half points.

Seton Hall scored the first four points after the break to take a 46-23 lead.

Freshman Myles Cale nailed a long 3-pointer, then threw down a monstrous windmill dunk off a steal to push the lead to 61-38, causing Saint Peter’s to call another timeout with 10:29 left.

Seton Hall held a commanding 43-27 advantage on the boards.

Saint Peter’s coach John Dunne came away impressed with the Pirates.

“We had Terry Dehere (Seton Hall’s all-time leading scorer) in for a practice and I said to him that this was the best Seton Hall team since he was there,” Dunne said. “I don’t get overly impressed by watching other teams, but I’m impressed with these guys. They have all the pieces. They play unselfishly and share the ball. They’re legit. It wasn’t like we lost to a bad team. We just got stopped by them from the start.”

OLD-TIME RIVALRY

It was the 88th meeting between the New Jersey rivals, dating to 1931-32. Seton Hall leads the all-time series 64-24 and has won 20 of the last 21 meetings. Saint Peter’s lone win in recent years came in 2013, winning 83-80 in overtime. The programs met every year since the 1949-50 season before taking a one-year hiatus last year.

SENIOR LEADERSHIP

The Pirates are the only Division I team to have three players who have scored 1,000 or more points during their career and all three (Rodriguez, Delgado and Carrington) all reached double figures Tuesday night.

FAMILIAR TERRITORY

Dunne was an assistant coach at Seton Hall from 2001 through 2006 under then-head coach Louis Orr.

DOUBLE TROUBLE

It was the 57th time in Delgado’s Seton Hall career that he collected double figures in points and rebounds, the top figure in the nation. Delgado led the nation in rebounding last season, grabbing 13.1 per game. Delgado is the only active Division I player with more than 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds.

NATIONAL RANKING

The Pirates’ No. 15 ranking in the latest AP Poll is the highest for the program since Jan. 9, 2001.

THE BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: Tuesday night marked Seton Hall’s 26th consecutive win against non-conference teams at home. The Pirates improved to 422-142 inside Walsh Gym on the Seton Hall campus. Seton Hall plays its home games at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Saint Peter’s : The young Peacocks return only one key player, graduate student Nick Griffin, from the team that won 23 games and captured the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship last year. Fellow graduate student Nnamdi Enechionya was also a member of that team that tied the school record for wins in a season.

UP NEXT: The Pirates travel down the New Jersey Turnpike to take on state rival Rutgers in Piscataway on Saturday in the Garden State Hardwood Classic.

The Peacocks stay on the road and head to LIU Brooklyn on Sunday at the Barclays Center.

What’s Wrong With Kansas?: After losing back-to-back games, are the Jayhawks still contenders?

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Kansas entered 2017-18 as a preseason top four team, the consensus favorite to win their 14th straight Big 12 regular season title and a contender to make a return to the Final Four and win Bill Self his second national title.

It made sense.

The Jayhawks had an All-American running the show at the point in Devonte’ Graham. They had a former McDonald’s All-American slotted to start alongside him, while two top 20 recruits – sophomore Udoka Azubuike and freshman Billy Preston – anchored a front line that was not deep but that did provide some quality size. There were some easily identifiable issues, but what team didn’t have easily identifiable issues?

In short, there was no real reason to think that Kansas would not be able to do what they always seem to do.

And yet here we are, on Dec. 12th, and the Jayhawks are coming off of back-to-back losses for the first time in four years. That was the year that the Jayhawks lost at Colorado and at Florida with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid on the roster. You have to go back all the way to Nov. 2005 to find the last time that the Jayhawks lost consecutive games that were not on the road. That year, they lost their first two games in the Maui Invitational, and after dispatching Chaminade in the seventh-place game, came back to Lawrence to lose at home to Nevada.

What happened here?

How is it that we all thought would be so good, that looked so dominant for stretches early on this season, lost back-to-back games in the manner that they did?

1. KANSAS DOES NOT HAVE NEARLY ENOUGH BODIES

You cannot talk about Kansas without first mentioning that the Jayhawks are playing with seven scholarship players right now. We’ve been through this over and over again, so I won’t spend too much time on it, but ignoring this problem would be like blaming Goodyear for your flat tire while ignoring that you drove your car directly into a pothole.

As it currently stands, the only players that Bill Self has available to him off the bench are sophomore Mitch Lightfoot and freshman Marcus Garrett. Lightfoot is a stretchy four that should be playing sparingly at this point in his development; he’s being asked to provide 15 minutes a night as the only big man on the roster other than Azubuike. Garrett is a top 50 recruit that has a chance to be a good player and a valuable contributor down the road, but right now he’s not quite ready to provide quality minutes playing, at times, the small-ball four role Josh Jackson played last season.

This is a problem that could get solved by the end of the month. Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Arizona State that averaged 9.5 points last season, will be eligible for the second semester. At the very least, he’ll provide another shooter, another athlete and five more fouls on the perimeter. The issue is whether or not Preston or high school senior Silvio De Sousa will get eligible. Preston is still sitting out as Kansas and the NCAA work through who paid for the car Preston crashed last month. De Sousa needs to get a high enough test score to graduate and be eligible to enroll early.

Preston should help provide offensively – more on that in a second – while De Sousa would essentially be another big, physical body that can give the Jayhawks rebounding, rim protection and five more fouls.

Both are necessary.

Devonte’ Graham (Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

2. KANSAS NEVER REPLACED THE TOUGHNESS THEY LOST WITH JOSH JACKSON AND FRANK MASON III

I discussed this with Jeff Goodman on the most recent episode of the College Basketball Talk podcast. (See below.)

There has never been a player better suited to being a small-ball four in college than Josh Jackson. Let’s for get, for a second, that he was a 6-foot-8 two-guard that could block shots, rebound the ball, make threes and create off the bounce as well as most college point guards. He was also a winner, competitive as all hell and unafraid of the contact and physicality that comes with playing in the paint in the Big 12.

The same can be said for Frank Mason III, who was a pitbull of a point guard. He, too, was uber-competitive and unafraid of a fight, figuratively speaking.

The Jayhawks not only had two alphas on last year’s roster, both of those alphas were all-americans-turned-NBA players. Jackson was the No. 4 pick in the draft while Mason, a second-rounder, looks to be the best rookie point guard in an organization that also drafted De’Aaron Fox.

Who does Bill Self turn to to find that kind of mental and physical toughness?

Devonte’ Graham is a leader in his own way, but he’s not Mason and he doesn’t lead by example the way either of those two did. Svi Mykhailiuk is not tough enough to handle playing the four the way Jackson did. He was barely tough enough to handle the on-ball pressure Arizona State put on him on Sunday. Lagerald Vick is tough, but he’s also a role player and a spot-up shooter that stands all of 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds. He’s not replacing Jackson at the four. Malik Newman isn’t the answer. Mitch Lightfoot certainly isn’t the answer.

There isn’t an answer, far as I can tell.

(Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

“This is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here,” Self told reporters on Monday.

There are two places where that lack of toughness has manifested itself.

It starts on the defensive end of the floor, where Kansas arguably lost their two-best perimeter defenders in Jackson and Mason. Graham and Vick are plus-defenders, but Graham has, in the past, been at his best when he’s chasing an off-guard around screens and denying him the ball, and Vick needs to guards wings; he’s just not big enough to defend in the paint.

Svi is not a good defender. Period. Newman is somewhere between average and not good himself. Combine that lack of perimeter defense with the fact that Azubuike has to limit how aggressive he is as a shot-blocker because of foul issues, and you get a team that can absolutely be exploited by opponents that can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. Arizona State – with their trio of dynamic playmakers in Tra Holder, Shannon Evans and Remy Martin – will make some of the nation’s best defensive teams look silly. Washington also has some better-than-you-think slashers on their roster.

It’s a major problem.

“I’m not ready to accept that that’s the best we’ve got, but it’s pretty embarrassing to keep looking at the tape afterward and say this is what we don’t have,” Self said. “We’ve been saying it now the entire year, at least from a defensive and competitive standpoint. Maybe we need to do something to shorten the game. Maybe we need to do something to figure out a matchup zone to play or something like that.”

The other place the toughness issue arises is in the ability of the Jayhawks to protect the ball. They gave up roughly a dozen points against Arizona State with pick-six turnovers, and most of those were simply an issue of getting their pocket-picked by an aggressive perimeter defender.

That leads to a bigger discussion, because …

Malik Newman (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

3. KANSAS ONLY HAS ONE PLAYER THAT CAN CREATE A SHOT

That’s Devonte’ Graham.

He is, legitimately, a top ten player in college basketball and a top four point guard in the sport, depending on what you think of Jalen Brunson, Joel Berry II and Trae Young.

But he’s also the only guy that you can trust to make a play for himself, or to make a teammate better by creating a shot for him. Svi is a spot-up shooter that can, upon occasion, attack a close-out. Vick is also a spot-up shooter than can attack a close-out. Azubuike can finish a lob and score off of an offensive rebound, but for the most part he is a catch-and-dunk big man. Put another way, you’re not giving him the ball on the block and expecting him to be able to draw a foul or score. Lightfoot isn’t really an offensive threat, and Garrett isn’t really ready.

That leaves Newman, and he was supposed to be the guy that made the difference this season. Except … he’s not the guy we thought he was in high school. In four games against high-major competition, Newman is averaging 8.8 points, shooting 37.5 percent from inside the arc, 29.2 percent from three and attempting 60 percent of his field goals from beyond the arc. The most damning stat, however, is that in 129 minutes of action in those four games, Newman has attempted two free throws.

Two!

And he’s not the only one at fault in that regard.

There are just two teams in college basketball that, based on free throw rate (FTA/FGA), get to the free throw line less than Kansas does: Jackson State and Sam Houston State, and they don’t even have the benefit of playing buy games where they are all-but guaranteed to get a friendly whistle in Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

There are a few things that lead to that stat:

  • Kansas does not have penetrators that look to put the ball on the floor and get fouled.
  • Kansas does not have post presence that can draw fouls.
  • When Kansas does get the ball into the paint, it quite often ends up being some form of a lob for a dunk, which is not the easiest way to draw fouls.
  • The perimeter players on the Kansas roster all want to be shooters.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Svi shoots 46.2 percent from three. Vick shoots it at 45 percent. Newman is knocking down 40.5 percent of his threes while Graham is hitting 40 percent of his attempts.

The problem is what happens when teams chase them off the three-point line.

Washington did it. They did everything they could to keep Kansas from getting open three-point looks, to the point that, in their 2-3 zone, they Vick – at the high post – to play 2-on-1 with Azubuike against their middle defender. Vick scored 28 points and had seven assists, and – it’s going to sound crazy – when I say this, but he was exposed in that game:

Svi was exposed in the same way against Arizona State, who dogged him with smaller, quicker defends and forced him into a 3-for-14 shooting night while turning the ball over four times:

 

This is something that I think Billy Preston can help solve. He is a bucket-getter. He’s not exactly Perry Ellis, but he is a guy that can ably fill that hybrid-four role that Self loves to use. He’s the guy that can get a post touch, force a double, draw a foul, get a defense moving. He’s the guy that can be the pressure release for guards that are getting swarmed. He’s the guy that can make a team pay if they don’t want to guard him at the high-post of a 2-3 zone.

And who knows when, or if, he’ll actually play this season.

I’m officially worried about this Kansas team, more so than I am with Duke or Arizona.

It’s too early to make any predictions regarding the Big 12 title streak, but if Kansas does not get the reinforcements that they so desperately need, it will soon be time to have a serious conversation about whether or not the Jayhawks are the best team in the Big 12.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: It’s time to put Trae Young at No. 1

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: The way the college basketball Player of the Year award is given out is generally pretty simple: Unless there is a player on a good team – i.e. a top four seed – having an insane, outlier season, the award is given to the best player that is on the roster of a team that is a national title contender.

That rule has proven true in every year of the one-and-done era.

  • 2017: Frank Mason won and played for No. 1 seed Kansas.
  • 2016: Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine split the award. Oklahoma was a No. 1 seed and reached the Final Four. Michigan State was a No. 2 seed and entered the tournament as the favorite to win it all.
  • 2015: Frank Kaminsky was a No. 1 seed with Wisconsin.
  • 2014: Doug McDermott averaged 26 points for No. 3 seed Creighton.
  • 2013: The only name on this list that doesn’t quite fit perfectly, Trey Burke starred for Michigan, who was a No. 4 seed that year. But they also spent much of the season ranked No. 1, reached the Final Four and finished as a top five team on KenPom.
  • 2012: Anthony Davis won as the star of Kentucky’s title-winning team.
  • 2011: Jimmer Fredette won as Jimmer-mania swept the college basketball world and BYU finished as a No. 3 seed.
  • 2010: Evan Turner beat out John Wall for most of the awards. Ohio State was a No. 2 seed and Kentucky was a No. 1 seed.
  • 2009: Oklahoma finished as a No. 2 seed after Blake Griffin returned for his sophomore season and dominated.
  • 2008: The year before North Carolina won the national title they finished as a No. 1 seed as Tyler Hansbrough won the Player of the Year award.
  • 2007: Kevin Durant averaged 26 points and 11 boards for Texas as the Longhorns entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed.
  • 2006: J.J. Redick was playing for No. 1 seed Duke, and he was almost beaten out by Adam Morrison, who averaged 28.1 points for No. 3 seed Gonzaga.

That’s why Trae Young has not topped our Player of the Year rankings yet this season.

Because there wasn’t much evidence that he was on a team with a shot of getting a top four seed. I’m still not convinced that is any sort of lock, but as of today the Sooners are now sitting at 7-1 on the season and ranked in the top 25. If they win at No. 3 Wichita State this weekend, that will change. Even if they don’t, playing in a league that is as good as the Big 12 appears to be – no one in the conference ranks lower than 63rd on KenPom – will mean that their computer numbers will get and stay inflated once league play starts.

But here’s the other part of it: Young’s season is such an outlier than the rules may not matter. Assuming he stays on his current pace (I can’t imagine that he actually will, but he might) he’ll do things that have not been done for 27 years, and that may never have been done before. Young is currently averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists. The last player to do that was Loyola Marymount’s Terrell Lowery back in 1990-1991.

And as far as I can tell, no player – at least not in the KenPom era, so please correct me if I’m wrong here – has ever posted his level of efficiency on the insane amount of usage he gets in the Oklahoma offense:

2. MARVIN BAGLEY, Duke: Bagley posted another double-double on Saturday, finishing with 15 points and 12 boards as the Blue Devils took a loss against Boston College, but what was most concerning about that performance was that he took four shots in the second half and three of them were three-pointers. That doesn’t diminish the start that he has had to the season, where he took over down the stretch in wins over Florida, Texas and at Indiana.

3. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State: Tra Holder has been the best player for the most surprising team in college basketball this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 5.2 assists and 5.6 boards while shooting 46.3 percent from three on more than six attempts per game. He had 29 points and seven assists in a win at Phog Allen on Sunday. He put up 40 points on Xavier. He’s having a tremendous season.

4. MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: Bridges came to the forefront on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, and in the process took over the lead as Villanova’s Player of the Year option. Read all about that here.

5. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier: Ho hum, it was another week with a pair of 25-point performances for Bluiett. He’s now scored at least 25 points in six of 10 games this season.

6. DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall: Rodriguez has turned into Seton Hall’s best player this sason. Last weekend, he had 17 points, seven boards and four assists in a blow-out win over VCU.

7/. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: West Virginia has completely turned things around after that embarrassing start to the season. Carter has been the catalyst. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 6.0 assists, 5.4 boards and 3.8 steals and just put 23, 10 and seven on Virginia.

8. BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: Colson’s Notre Dame team took a couple of hits in the last month, but he’s still putting up impressive numbers and is an improved defensive presence. Now if he can only find a way to start making threes at a better clip again.

9. JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota: Murphy fell this week and will continue to drop in these rankings for the same reason that I had a hard time putting Trae Young at No. 1 before this week. Minnesota needs to stop losing games.

10. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: Maye makes his way back into these rankings. He’s averaging 19.9 points and 10.5 boards for the Tar Heels this season, but he really struggled against Michigan State. I need to see Maye play more teams of that ilk before fully buying in.

ALSO CONSIDERED: DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona; JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova; KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech; D.J. HOGG, Texas A&M; DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona