LAWRENCE, Kan. — Devonte Graham got a break.
The Kansas guard watched three first-half minutes of the No. 8 Jayhawks’ 104-74 blowout win from the bench Monday night. If that seems unremarkable, it isn’t. It’s incredibly noteworthy.
“It actually did a little bit, it did” Graham said when he was asked if it felt weird to be sitting on the bench in the first half. “I haven’t watched a game from the sidelines in I don’t know when.”
The rest Graham got broke a streak of 10-straight games where he’s played 40 minutes. The last time Graham didn’t play the entire game came in Kansas’ Jan. 13 home win over Kansas State (when he had four fouls) and his 35 minutes played Monday thanks to some late-game rest because of the margin of victory is the least game action he’s seen since Dec. 18.
And when Graham was on the court, he was the best player on the floor. He scored a game-high 23 points along with seven rebounds and five assists. Oh, he also guarded Oklahoma freshman Trae Young, whose late-season slump continued, at least in part to Graham’s defense.
Young had 11 points and nine assists but turned the ball over five times and was just 3-13 from the field.
“That’s a hard guard,” Self said of Graham’s assignment on Young. “And to guard him and then to have to set everything up and run things for us, it was good to see him make shots.”
Young was the impetus for Graham’s first-half rest too. Self said the only reason Graham came out was because Young spent some time on the bench. As soon as Young was back in the game for the Sooners, so was Graham.
If Young is the most important player to his team in the country, Graham isn’t far behind. Everything the Kansas offense does runs through him and he often draws the Jayhawks’ opponent’s best perimeter player on defense.
Graham spent his junior season in the shadow of former teammate Frank Mason, who averaged 21 points per game and led the team in both field goal attempts and assists.
With Mason and Josh Jackson off to the NBA in 2017, Graham returned for his senior season and was named the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year. But that center of attention didn’t last long as Young started putting up video-game numbers in his first (and likely only) season in Norman and became the only college basketball player in the country to have his stat-line constantly on the screen when ESPN televises his games.
Young overshadowed Graham in their first matchup too. He scored 26 points and had nine assists while going 7-9 from the field. Graham, meanwhile, scored just 11 on 4-19 shooting as Oklahoma stormed back for an 85-80 home win.
That game, Kansas guard Malik Newman said, set up Kansas for payback Monday night. While Self didn’t necessarily agree with the revenge premise, the Jayhawks and Graham clearly saw what they needed to force Young to do. The gameplan was to force Young to use his left hand instead of his dominant right and then let the team’s bigs help if Young got too deep in the lane.
“I take pride in every matchup but I think I played pretty well defensively tonight,” Graham said.
He was also the guy that killed the Sooners’ morale in the second half. Oklahoma withstood an early barrage to creep within 10 at halftime. But Kansas quickly sprinted away in the second half and Graham’s three — which was followed by a gaze at the raucous crowd for a few seconds — with just over 11 minutes remaining stretched Kansas’ lead to 20 and slumped Oklahoma’s shoulders.
OU doesn’t exactly play much defense anyway (Kansas committed two more fouls and OU shot two more free throws!), but from that point on it became even easier for the Jayhawks, who scored 100 points in regulation in a Big 12 game for the first time since 2011. It’s also the first time Kansas has beaten a conference opponent by more than 10 points at home all season.
The Sooners were 15-4 after beating Kansas in Jan. 23. Now OU stands at 16-11 (6-9 in the Big 12) and has lost six-straight games, putting its NCAA Tournament hopes closer to uncertainty.
Meanwhile, Kansas (22-6, 11-4) has a half-game lead in the Big 12 and heads to No. 6 Texas Tech on Saturday for a showdown that will go a long way to deciding the regular-season conference champion. A Kansas win means the Jayhawks are likely on the way to at least a share of the conference title for a 14th-straight season.
If Graham plays well Saturday and the crazy conference championship streak looks like it’s going to keep going, awarding the Big 12 Player of the Year award to Young at the end of the season may not be a foregone conclusion.
– – – – – – –