Jayhawks’ trio of freshmen playing big minutes in Big 12 run

MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) Now that Big 12 play has rolled around, Kelly Oubre no longer consider himself a freshman.

The same goes for Cliff Alexander and Devonte’ Graham, two more pieces of the decorated recruiting class that arrived at Kansas last summer. The trio, along with Ukrainian youngster Svi Mykhailiuk, have put several months of practices and games under their belts.

Good thing, too, because it is quickly becoming apparent that the ninth-ranked Jayhawks may only go as far as their first-year players take them this season.

”Coach always says, `Second semester, you’ve had a semester of summer school, you’re pretty much sophomores now,”’ Oubre said. ”We look at it like that. We don’t call each other freshmen anymore. We feel like we’ve grown past that stage.”

Now, Oubre has emerged as Kansas’ most capable scorer, a slashing forward with a silky outside shot and short memory. Alexander is a bruising beast in the paint, giving Kansas not only some size but also some presence. And Graham is a point guard with the peerless court vision.

Mykhailiuk, possibly the youngest player in Division I hoops, is a proficient outside shooter who is capable of providing a lift off the bench.

None of that was the case earlier in the season.

Despite being a five-star prospect, Oubre had to earn his starting job. He only played 4 minutes in the season-opener against UC-Santa Barbara, and was held scoreless three times in his first six collegiate games. He didn’t play more than 13 minutes in any game until Dec. 10 against Georgetown, and didn’t score in double figures until Dec. 20 against Lafayette.

Somewhere along the line, though, a switch went off.

Oubre scored 23 in that game against the Leopards. He struggled with his shot a bit at Baylor last week, but came up with the steal that sealed the victory. Then, he had back-to-back 14-point games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, playing 35 minutes against the Cowboys.

So what changed?

”Probably just playing time and seeing some good things happen,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. ”Probably maybe me believing in him more, to be real candid, because maybe I didn’t trust as much early on, which probably affected him because he wasn’t performing well.”

Alexander was one of the nation’s top recruits, but his underwhelming start had many fans wondering why. He struggled to get on the floor early in the season, and then struggled to make a difference when he did – Alexander had just one point in 14 minutes against Utah.

But just like Oubre, he has finally hit his stride. Alexander had 12 points against the Red Raiders last weekend, and his dunk gave the Jayhawks a shot of momentum against the Cowboys.

”When Big 12 play came around, we felt it. It was more competition,” Alexander said, trying to explain why all of the freshmen have seemingly stepped up.

Graham is a little bit different case. He hurt his toe against the Hoyas in early December, forcing him to miss six games. In fact, there were times that Self wondered whether the diminutive point guard would be back this season. But he returned against the Red Raiders and piled up six assists and six rebounds in 19 minutes, spurring along a sluggish Kansas offense.

In the win over the Cowboys, Graham produced nine points while sharing the floor with fellow point guard Frank Mason, giving the Jayhawks a smaller, quicker and more explosive lineup.

At some points during that game, Graham also shared the floor with Oubre and Alexander, the trio of freshmen starting to play well beyond their years.

”We have great chemistry,” Oubre said. ”We’re always together off the floor, and it kind of carries over onto the court.”

Self said he’s not surprised at how far his youngest players have progressed – this is hardly the first time he’s relied on freshmen. If anything, he thought they could have come along even quicker, but a brutal non-conference schedule may have held them back.

”How do you let guys play through certain things when you’ve got to win the game?” he said. ”I believe it’s going to be an asset to our team moving forward. But earlier in their careers, I think that would be something that’s a little bit of a detriment to some of those kids.”

If the start of Big 12 play is any indication, Self may be correct. Those freshmen are no longer playing like freshmen, which ultimately makes a whole lot of sense.

After all, they don’t consider themselves freshmen anymore, either.