Graham, Newman a dynamic duo for the Jayhawks
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas coach Bill Self spent most of this season bemoaning the fact that Devonte Graham, his All-American point guard, didn’t have a consistent sidekick to take the pressure off him.
Malik Newman swooped in just in time for the NCAA Tournament.
The transfer from Mississippi State finally bought into what Self has been demanding of him all season, and the result has been the finest performances of his career. He dropped 28 points when the top-seeded Jayhawks needed him against Seton Hall, had 17 points in a win over Clemson, then poured in 32 points — and all of their points in overtime — in an Elite Eight victory over Duke.
He’s also turned up the intensity on defense, rebounded the ball better, and allowed Graham to do what he does best: Make plays without having to have the ball in his hands.
“I just felt like he was forcing Devonte to do too much,” Self recalled, “but here of late, Devonte has a sidekick. Or you could even say Malik has a sidekick in Devonte, because Malik has been our best player for the last month.”
All resulting in a Final Four trip and a date with Villanova on Saturday night.
Of course, that raises another question: Who is Batman and who is Robin?
“I’m most definitely still Robin,” Newman said with a smile. “This is Devonte’s team. We know that, he knows that. I’m just trying to help as much as I can, just trying to take some pressure off.
“Coach was right about me throughout the season,” Newman continued. “I’d have a good game, Svi (Mykhailiuk) would have a good game. But it was never consistent.”
The irony of the superhero debate is that Graham had always played the role of Robin, the often-overlooked sidekick to Frank Mason III.
But when the national player of the year graduated last season, his career ending with a thud in an Elite Eight loss to Oregon, it was Graham who immediately became the face of the program — and a smiling, energetic face, too.
He lived up to those expectations most of this season, too. Graham scored 35 points back-to-back against Toledo and Syracuse, and had three consecutive 20-point efforts to start league play. But when he struggled, as he did in a loss to Washington, the Jayhawks likewise stumbled.
The reality is that Graham hasn’t played his best during the NCAA Tournament, besides a dynamic second half in an opening-round win over Penn. He was held to eight points by Seton Hall, and was 8 for 22 from the field in wins over Clemson and Duke last weekend in Omaha, Nebraska.
But he had nine assists against the Pirates, four against the Tigers and six more against the Blue Devils. He was able to attack the glass for rebounds, picked up a couple of steals, and do some of the less sexy things that he did while Mason was scoring in bunches a season ago.
All because his sidekick had started to deliver on the offensive end.
“Coach Self put a lot of pressure on me about getting to the basket, getting to the free-throw line, just get six, seven easy points a game,” Newman said.
“I think that really helped me. Just the tough love he’d been showing me, not letting me take any shortcuts. It really helped me develop on and off the court and made me a better person.”
Made him a more coveted player, too. The only downside of his breakout performance in March is the fact that Newman, once thought to be a one-and-done talent, has gone from perhaps returning to Lawrence for another season to being a likely first-round draft pick if he declares early.
He’d be joining the graduating Graham, who is likewise a projected first-round pick.
Batman and Robin, heading off to the NBA together? Could be.
They’d like to win at least two more games first.
“If anything, I’d be Superman and he’d be Batman,” Newman said, smiling again. “But if not that, I’ll just stick to my Robin role this weekend.”