If Kansas was going to make a stretch run to the Final Four, I figured it would be senior guard Devonte Graham using the whip.
The Jayhawks are his team, after all. Graham is the All-American and the potential player of the year in college basketball.
But Graham has not been the driving force in KU’s streak through its first four games in the NCAA Tournament, including Sunday’s 85-81 overtime win over Duke that sends the Jayhawks to San Antonio for their 15th Final Four.
KU’s hottest player, its best player, has been Malik Newman, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Mississippi State, who was being doubted by Jayhawk faithful earlier this season.
Once a prize recruit who many believed would spend just a season in the college ranks after leading his high school team in Jackson, Miss., to four state titles, Newman did not flourish at Mississippi State under Ben Howland. He was the team’s fourth-leading scorer during his freshman season in 2015-16, after which he transferred to Kansas and sat out a season.
It’s not accurate to say Newman has come out of nowhere. He’s had a very good season for KU as a part of the Jayhawks’ killer starting five, all of whom are averaging at least 12 points per game.
Lately, though, Newman has been the most dangerous of Kansas weapons.
Yes, Mykailuk made the game’s biggest shot Sunday against Duke, a three-pointer late in regulation that tied the game and sent the game to OT after Grayson Allen’s shot at the buzzer somehow rimmed out.
Newman, though, made the most big shots. He made four three-pointers and scored 26 of his game-high 32 points in the second half and overtime.
Eight times in those 25 minutes, Newman scored to either tie the game or give Kansas a lead.
“He made a lot of tough shots and a lot of timely shots for them,” Duke’s Allen said in the post-game news conference. “A lot of them. Obviously, the game was close the whole game but a lot of them, it just felt like they came right when we felt like we were about to get a run.”
It’s been going like this for Newman during the NCAA Tournament. He’s been the go-to guy and to the credit of Graham, Mykhailuk and mostly Kansas coach Bill Self, the Jayhawks have been going to Newman often.
In four NCAA games, Newman is averaging 21.8 points. That’s more than eight points more than his average going into the tournament.
Newman has taken 56 shots – three more than Graham, 11 more than Mykhailuk and 13 more than Lagerald Vick.
Newman has made 27 shots – nine more than Graham and Mykhailuk and seven more than Vick.
Newman has made 13 three-pointers – five more than Graham and Mykhailuk and seven more than Vick.
“He’s been their hottest player,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He basically continued to do what he does. But their four perimeter players, it’s very difficult to concentrate on stopping one. And that’s why they’re as good as they are.”
Which brings us to Self. Has anyone in the country done a better coaching job than this guy?
The Jayhawks have been limited all season by a lack of size, which has always been one of their strengths under Self. So he improvised and turned the offense into a perimeter-oriented shot-fest, occasionally complimented by a lob dunk or a converted offensive rebound inside by Udoke Azubuike.
Graham and Mykhailuk were the sure things. Newman was the wild card, especially after his difficult season at Mississippi State and sitting out the 2016-17 season. What could he give?
Newman started the season well, but he hit a rut. In 12 games from Dec. 2 through Jan. 15, Newman shot only 38 percent from the floor, 28 percent from the three-point line and averaged only 9.2 points per game.
He reached double figures in only four of those games and if you take away a 27-point performance against Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse, Newman’s numbers are really scary.
But he found a way to get back on track. Give him credit, but for sure give Self credit.
Don’t forget, too, that Newman was assigned to guard Duke’s Allen on Sunday. He’s the reason Allen had to work so hard for that late shot that just missed.
Everybody associated with Kansas was elated, of course, with the win. And with what it represented – giving Graham and Mykhailuk an opportunity to play in their first Final Four after narrow misses the past couple of season.
Those guys don’t do it, though, without Newman.
“I’m just glad that I was able to contribute in a good way to help these guys,” Newman said. “I couldn’t ask for better leaders than these two guys.”
The feeling, I’m sure, is mutual.