OMAHA, Neb. — The FaceTime call was placed Sunday around 11:30 a.m., just hours before Malik Newman took the court for the biggest game of his Kansas career.
But instead of sharing a few laughs—perhaps to ease some anxiety prior to an Elite Eight showdown with Duke—Newman was greeted with a Blue Devils scouting report compliments of his father, Horatio.
Grayson Allen pump-fakes on every shot. You can get by their guards on offense. Find the soft spots in their zone.
“I was trying to break down everything,” Horatio said, “and finally [Malik] was like, ‘Dad, this is too much. Just calm down.
“‘I got it.’”
Did he ever.
In one of the most clutch performances in the history of Kansas’ storied program, Newman propelled the Jayhawks into the Final Four by scoring 32 points in an 85-81 overtime victory against the Blue Devils. Twenty-six of Newman’s points came after intermission—and he accounted for all 13 of his team’s points in the extra period.
Mix in a lockdown defensive effort against Grayson Allen (3-of-13 shooting), Duke's second-leading scorer, and it’s no wonder that Newman’s teammates were calling him “Mr. March” as he hoisted the Midwest Regional MVP trophy amid a sea of confetti on the CenturyLink Center court.
“This doesn’t feel real,” Newman, a Mississippi State transfer, said as he tugged on his goatee. “It feels like I’m living in a dream.”
Prior to Sunday, the Elite Eight was beginning to feel like a recurring nightmare for Kansas coach Bill Self. The Hall of Famer was just 2-7 in regional final appearances before Newman’s heroics, which occurred in a game that featured 18 lead changes and 11 ties. Neither team ever led by more than seven points.
Self, who has won 14 Big 12 titles during his 15-year KU career, said the Jayhawks’ 2008 championship victory over Memphis—a 75-68 overtime thriller—is the only win that tops the one the Jayhawks pulled off Sunday.
“What makes it [so great] is the quality of play,” said Self, whose squad will face Villanova on Saturday in San Antonio. “That was a hard-rockin’, big-boy game. There’s been so many weird things happen in the tournament this year. It was probably nice for the last game of the second weekend to be a game like this, with two blue bloods beating each other's heads in.”
Rare are the times when Self exhibits emotion after big victories, but as the final horn sounded Sunday, the 55-year-old raised his hands in the air, let out a scream and pumped his fists. After falling to Villanova (2016) and Oregon (2017) in the Elite Eight the past two years as a No. 1 seed, Self said he was elated for his players—particularly for seniors Devonte' Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk.
“Those guys had done so well to put us in a position (to get to the Final Four), but we hadn’t kicked the door in yet,” Self said. “They deserve to experience what the best of college basketball is, and that will be what takes place Saturday and Monday.”
Midway through the season, few people would’ve pegged Kansas as a Final Four participant. For the first time in Self’s tenure, the Jayhawks dropped three games at Allen Fieldhouse, and they lost another (against Washington) at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. Eligibility concerns were raised about star recruit Billy Preston, who never played a minute before leaving the program in January. Then, in early March, forward Udoka Azubuike suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss the Big 12 tournament.
The Jayhawks persevered, though, winning the Big 12 regular-season title by two games before capturing the conference tournament title without Azubuike.
Still, even though Kansas was awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, most pundits predicted it would fall to Duke in Sunday’s regional final—if anything because it didn’t have enough size to match up with potential No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Marvin Bagley III in the paint. Oddsmakers made KU a three-point underdog.
“A lot of people are talking about whether we’re going to find a way to match up with them,” a slightly irritated Self said a day before the game. “But remember, they’re going to have to find a way to match up with us, too.”
Playing with an unorthodox four-guard lineup, Kansas somehow out-rebounded a bigger, thicker, deeper Duke squad 47-32. Mykhailiuk—a natural small forward who's been forced to play the 4 at KU—held Bagley to 16 points, more than five below his average. With Azubuike marred by foul trouble, freshman Silvio De Sousa snared 10 rebounds off the bench. De Sousa didn’t join the team until December after graduating from high school a semester early.
“We didn’t even know who was going to finish the season on our roster a couple of months ago,” Self said. “I didn’t think we were a very good team even though we were winning. When we got exposed, visually and by losses, I think that helped us in the long run and changed our mindset.”
No Kansas player elevated his game more than Newman, a McDonald’s All-American who was the No. 1-ranked guard in the country when he signed with Mississippi State—his father’s alma mater—in 2015. Known as a flashy, high-volume scorer, Newman was high on confidence entering college. He’d been the focus of an award-winning documentary by the Clarion Ledger and even had his own website.
But Newman grew frustrated playing under taskmaster Ben Howland in 2015-16 and bolted for Kansas, where he sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules. After a slow start this season, Newman began to flourish during conference play and has taken his game to a new level in March. Newman entered Sunday’s contest averaging 21.2 points in his last six outings.
“I’m used to seeing this,” Horatio said after Sunday’s win. “This is new to y’all, but this is what I’m used to seeing. For him, it was about being comfortable and not looking over his shoulder. Coach Self is hard on him. [For a while] he was trying to play mistake-free basketball, and everyone knows that’s not possible.
“I kept telling him, ‘Just relax and be yourself.’ Once he did that, he became the player everyone envisioned.”
Newman’s performance against Duke was clearly his masterpiece.
Three of his field goals in the second half either forced a tie or gave Kansas the lead. After a three-pointer by Mykhailiuk forced a 72-72 deadlock with 25.7 seconds left in regulation, Newman played tight defense on Allen as the senior attempted an off-balance game-winning shot off the glass at the buzzer. The ball bounced around the rim before falling off the side as time expired.
“He made a lot of timely shots for them,” Allen said. “A lot of them … it just felt like, right when we were about to go on a run, he’d hit one.”
Newman made two more three-pointers in overtime: The first gave KU a 75-74 lead, and the second—arguably his biggest of the game—put the Jayhawks ahead 81-78 with 1:43 remaining. Duke didn't score again until Allen made a meaningless three with three ticks left.
“He’s built for that moment,” Horatio said. “He doesn’t let anything bother him. I’m over here sweating, and he’s just, ‘Next play, next play, next play.’”
It’s a mindset and swagger that were sorely needed by a Jayhawks program that had garnered a reputation for playing passive and tight in the Elite Eight the past two seasons.
“I just stopped thinking,” Newman said. “I stopped thinking and started playing.”
As a result, the Jayhawks get to keep playing now that they’re in the Final Four for the first time since Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson led them there in 2012. Johnson was in attendance Sunday.
Also in the stands was Sherron Collins, the point guard who executed the perfect pass that led to Mario Chalmers' overtime-forcing three-pointer in the 2008 NCAA championship win over Memphis. That game, ironically, occurred in the Alamodome in San Antonio—the same venue that will host this year’s Final Four.
“We back! We back!” Collins screamed from the front row behind KU’s bench after Saturday’s win. “This team reminds me of our 2008 team. They’re tough. They’ve got fight in them. Every time they fall down—every time someone doubts them—they get right back up.”
That’s exactly what happened Sunday thanks to Kansas’ newest March hero. As his teammates celebrated on the hardwood, Newman snuck away from the court, hugged his father in the stands and told him he loved him. Then he reminded him of their phone conversation earlier that day.
“I told you,” Newman said, “that I was gonna do it.”
Jason King is a senior writer for B/R. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King has received mention for his work in the popular book series The Best American Sportswriting. In both 2015 and 2016, King was tabbed as one of the top five beat writers in the nation by the APSE. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.