LAWRENCE — In sending Christian Braun out to start the second half of Saturday’s high-stakes Big 12 opener, Bill Self put on display his growing faith in the first-year player.
In explaining that decision shortly after the come-from-behind win, the Kansas basketball coach verbalized that newfound trust.
“We decided to go with our toughest guys,” Self said, “and Christian is for sure one of our toughest guys.”
Braun played all 20 minutes in the second half of the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks' 60-53 victory over No. 16 West Virginia at Allen Fieldhouse, with the guard a Self-labeled “stabilizing force” in helping the home squad rally from a six-point halftime hole. The 6-foot-6, 205-pound Burlington native finished the game with six points on 2-for-3 shooting, adding five rebounds, two steals and an assist.
Braun took over for sophomore forward David McCormack in the second-half starting lineup.
“I thought we played a lot better in the second half, and he was a big reason why,” Self said. “... He didn’t get outside of who he was and played fairly conservative on offense and still yet made a couple of big plays. Certainly defensively and rebounding, he did a good job going after the ball.”
While Braun’s box score numbers weren't eye-poppers, his fingerprints were all over the outcome.
Braun’s offensive rebound off a missed free throw from Udoka Azubuike early in the second half created an extra possession for KU (11-2, 1-0 Big 12), which capitalized with a bucket that cut the deficit to two points. Later, Braun put the Jayhawks in front with a traditional three-point play, finishing a layup through contact and hitting a subsequent free-throw attempt for a 40-38 lead with 12:45 left.
KU wouldn't trail again.
“I think (the foul) was on Oscar (Tshiebwe), I think,” said Braun, referring to the WVU freshman forward who finished with 17 points and 17 rebounds. “We had to get him back — he got us a lot in the first half. So it was a good bucket.”
Going right at bigs like Tshiebwe and Derek Culver, Braun argued, is the best way to lower their confidence.
“They were kind of big-boying us in the first half,” Braun said. “I think Tshiebwe was playing really well the first half (15 points, 10 rebounds) ... so we had to help Doke (Azubuike) out because we didn’t do a very good job boxing (Tshiebwe) out and going to get it. Just taking it right at ’em, I think that was the best way to get in their heads.”
Braun’s and-1 kick-started an 8-0 rally for KU. A pair of Culver free throws ended the run, but it was Braun with the answer once again, this time on a short jumper for a 47-40 lead with 8:09 left.
After acknowledging KU appeared “shell-shocked” by WVU’s physicality, size and length in the opening half, Self expressed his pleasure that a true freshman became a calming presence.
“Blue Valley Northwest I think did a great job of prepping (Braun) for college, but they didn’t prep him for today, and there’s no high school that does prep you for that today,” Self said. “I think there’s a learning curve with him, but I do think he likes (competing). You know, he’s a competitive kid.
“He’s going to continue to get better and better as it goes on. I could certainly see him playing a lot more moving forward, especially in tough games like this.”
Braun also went 2 for 3 from the line, his first free-throw makes on the season.
“I knew we were down, so I had to step up and do what I always do," Braun said, "and just do what I was taught to do since I started playing basketball."
Toughness, Braun said, was a theme all week in advance of the matchup with the hard-nosed Mountaineers (11-2, 0-1).
“That’s something I’ve always prided myself on, and that’s something when I came in here, that’s what we always talked about, that’s what (Self) always described me as,” Braun said. “We’ve got a lot of tough dudes, so to be in that five toughest group is pretty cool.”
Braun finished with a career-high 30-minute appearance against WVU, his fifth straight game with double-digit minutes played. The guard averaged just 8.6 minutes across the Jayhawks’ first eight contests, but a positive outlook and focus on the bigger picture helped him keep the often-short stints in perspective.
“I knew there were going to be ups and downs all year and there were going to be certain things I had to work out to get in the game,” Braun said. “You’ve got to gain Coach’s trust, and early in the year, I wasn’t doing the little things or I wasn’t being myself or playing my role, so that’s why I was coming out. I just started doing the little things and being myself.”
Self wasn’t the only KU coach to offer high praise for Braun following the league-opening win.
“He’s definitely not scared, and you could tell that. You feel like he’s been there before,” assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said in a postgame radio interview. “Coach started him the second half, and boy he got some key rebounds, made some buckets. ...
“He did great. Coach pulled the right string at halftime and it ended up working out for us.”