In the days leading up to Saturday’s game between No. 2 Kansas and No. 4 Kentucky, no one was talking about junior forward Dwight Coleby.
After all, why would they? Entering the game, the junior forward was averaging just 1.1 points and 1.8 rebounds per game, had logged just three total minutes in conference play and had been almost entirely phased out of the Jayhawks’ rotation. Even in the wake of sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr.’s suspension, most expected freshman forward Mitch Lightfoot to receive his minutes, not Coleby.
But after Kansas had won 79-73 and the dust had settled, one thing was clear: Coleby is not the player we thought he was.
At one point, the Kansas Jayhawks were down by as many as 12 points to the Kentucky Wildcats. But valiant efforts from freshman guard Josh Jackson and senior guard Frank Mason helped boost the Jayhawks to victory.
If you didn’t watch the game closely, it’d be tough to be impressed by his pedestrian stat line of three points, one rebound, one steal and four fouls. But in the context of both this game and the season as a whole, Coleby’s unsung performance was exactly what the Jayhawks needed.
No better example of this comes than from the end of the first half. With just 2 minutes and 34 seconds to go, Coleby checked in for senior center Landen Lucas. Kansas trailed by nine. He had yet to accumulate a single stat, and seemingly only checked in to give Lucas additional rest before halftime.
After missing the back end of a one-and-one, Coleby lined up with Kentucky freshman center Bam Adebayo. Wildcats freshman guard De’Aaron Fox floated a pass in Adebayo’s direction, but did so just softly enough to allow Coleby to get a hand on it.
He tapped the ball to his teammate, sophomore guard Lagerald Vick. Vick took off down the floor, quickly passing to junior guard Devonte’ Graham after just a pair of dribbles. Graham was met by a defender before throwing a lob back to Vick for the acrobatic finish.
In an instant, Coleby’s tip had been parlayed into an emphatic alley-oop and a complete resurgence for Kansas. Despite trailing by five, the Jayhawks now entered halftime with a newfound energy that they would eventually use to propel themselves to victory.
The second half was less exciting, but equally as sound for Coleby. He shot and made his lone field goal attempt of the night, got his only board and didn’t turn the ball over. He finished with three points, one rebound and one steal on 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, Lightfoot, who had been coach Bill Self’s first option behind Lucas earlier in the game, found himself on the outside looking in as he remained on the bench for the rest of the contest. With Bragg suspended indefinitely, it would seem as though Coleby has already surpassed Lightfoot on the frontcourt totem pole for now.
Regardless of how long Bragg is out, Coleby will certainly continue to see his role grow. If Bragg does return this season, Coleby should have a chance to keep a steady role in the rotation. Bragg has struggled at times this year, so if Coleby can perform consistently, he’ll at the very least eat into his previous share of minutes, if not overtake him. And, of course, in the scenario Bragg doesn’t suit up for Kansas again this season, the pressure on Coleby will rise astronomically.
Usually when two unheralded recruits go up against the best point guard and second-best shooting guard in their recruiting class, the latter comes out on top.
Just don't count out Kansas guards Frank Mason III and Devonte' Graham.
Having an additional effective big man could prove invaluable for the Jayhawks down the stretch. With such a thin front line as currently stands, if any of the team’s current three (four if you include Bragg) big men fell victim to injury, Self would be left with no other options taller than 6-foot-8. A similar problem could be felt as a result of foul trouble, a concern Lucas and others have consistently dealt with as of late.
The benefits of an expanded role for Coleby extend beyond the precautionary. If he can consistently provide the stout defense and efficient offensive play he displayed against Kentucky, he may prompt Self to loosen his leash and give him more time on the court. Doing so would not only boost Coleby’s confidence and help the team, but would also provide more rest for Lucas and allow him to be as fresh as possible for the postseason.
With just 10 games left before the end of the regular season, Kansas is still evolving. With one player’s return from suspension, still up in the air and movement in the depth chart, very little is set in stone. But, if anything is certain after Saturday’s game moving forward, it’s that Dwight Coleby is here, and, in some way, shape or form, is here to stay.
— Edited by Paola Alor