The Kansas Jayhawks have won five games in a row dating back to the Big 12 Tournament. Their best player during this recent stretch was not senior leader Devonte’ Graham. It was not senior guard and second-leading scorer Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, either. In March, the Jayhawks’ best player has been Malik Newman.
Before the season started, fans did not know what the team would get out of Newman. He was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school, and was ranked tenth overall in the 2015 ESPN 100. He was ranked ahead of star players such as Donovan Mitchell, Dejounte Murray, Marquese Chriss, Tyler Lydon, Luke Kennard, and Jalen Brunson. Newman, who played for Ben Howland at Mississippi State as a freshman, was supposed to be a one-and-done freshman phenom. However, he struggled to adjust to the college game and only averaged 11.3 points per game on 39.1 percent shooting from the field. After his freshman season, he decided to transfer to Kansas.
Newman was forced to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. During the 2016-17 season, Newman practiced with the team and improved his game by adding muscle.
This season, it took Newman a few months to start to feel comfortable in a Jayhawk uniform. He only averaged 9.9 points per game and attempted just over eight shots per game. He was not a focal point of the offense, which made it easier for opposing teams to defend the Jayhawks. Since then, he has become more assertive on offense.
Newman had a breakout game in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament in early March. He scored 30 points in a win over Oklahoma State, who the Jayhawks had lost to in their first two meetings. Newman then proved that his breakout game was not a fluke as he scored 22 points in a semifinal win against Kansas State and 20 points in KU’s win in the championship game against West Virginia. It certainly helps that Newman hit 15 three-pointers in the three games.
Newman is Kansas’s X-Factor. The team wins when Newman seeks out his shots. The team loses when Newman is not a big part of the offense.
The same cannot be said for anyone else on the team. Graham had a horrible game (by his standards) in Saturday’s Second-Round matchup with Seton Hall. The senior point guard made just one field goal in the entire game, but Kansas still found a way to advance. Mykhailiuk has been important to the team, but he has been the team’s third- or fourth-leading scorer in many games on the Jayhawks’ recent winning streak. His scoring numbers have dropped off a little bit after his hot start in November, and Kansas has continued to win in spite of that. Lagerald Vick and Udoka Azubuike are important players, but Kansas can win without them being at their best. KU won without Azubuike in the Big 12 Tournament, while Vick has had an up-and-down season.
As the Jayhawks enter their Sweet 16 matchup against Clemson, they know they will need to feature Newman in the offense. Newman is the one player that can take KU to the next level. If the Kansas Jayhawks want to end their Final Four drought, they will need Newman to play the way he has played in the past five games.