Devonte' Graham, No. 2 Kansas come up empty in loss to Washington
He said he wanted to lead like Frank Mason and take on the starring role for the Big 12 king.
But can Devonte' Graham handle this?
In September, Graham sat at a table near Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas, and munched on his post-practice box lunch.
He seemed comfortable with his new position as the catalyst for a Kansas team that had just lost Mason, the Wooden Award winner. Those around campus said Graham struggled to make his way to his summer classes because fans would swarm him for selfies and autographs.
He returned for this. Not just the hoopla, but the opportunity. He'd wrestled with the idea of leaving school and turning pro after last season, but his new assignment was too promising to forego.
"Just having the ball in my hands, this being my team was definitely part of why I stayed," he told ESPN.com in September.
With the ball in his hands, Graham could not save No. 2 Kansas on Wednesday in a stunning 74-65 loss to Washington in Kansas City. -- ranked 140th by KenPom.com entering the game -- on a "neutral" floor.
With the ball in his hands, Graham finished 1-for-8 overall and 1-for-5 from the 3-point line at a Sprint Center, KU's second home, filled with Jayhawks fans.
Last season, Washington lost 22 games before firing Lorenzo Romar and his entire staff. And then Markelle Fultz left school and entered last summer's NBA draft, when he was selected No. 1 by the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Huskies, led by former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins, entered this season as an afterthought in the Pac-12, a league that has become an afterthought.
They were a bad team last season and lost the top pick in the NBA draft along with Michael Porter Jr. and the top-10 class Romar had assembled prior to his dismissal. But now they boast a win over a team that's projected to win the Big 12.
Graham alone is not responsible for what happened against Washington. Svi Mykhailiuk finished 3-for-12. The team committed 13 turnovers and made only 25 percent of its 3-point attempts.
But Graham is the leader.
Last season, Mason bailed Kansas out in situations like the one the Jayhawks encountered on Wednesday, when they tussled with an average team.
This is a squad missing Billy Preston, a five-star freshmen sidelined by a school investigation, and Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe. But did the Jayhawks really need either against a Huskies team that Virginia Tech beat by 24 points last month?
No, they needed Graham to do what he said he'd do the day he returned. They'll rely on his heroics throughout Big 12 play, just as they depended on Mason a year ago.
They'll suffer on his bad nights, like his three-point night Wednesday against the Huskies.
Graham has scored 35 points twice this season and collected fewer than 10 points in two separate outings, too. He has now finished three games this season with a clip below 30 percent from the field and five contests under 40 percent. He finished 3-for-14 in a Champions Classic win over Kentucky this season.
And there was the 0-for-7 effort in the Elite Eight loss to Oregon last season, along with 2-for-10 outing in a loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals. He'd finished 4-for-12 as KU squeezed past Oklahoma State in a 90-85 road win in its regular-season finale.
Overall, Graham has had a more significant effect on Kansas this season. Entering Wednesday's game, Kansas averaged a wild 1.29 points per possession and held opponents to 0.78 PPP with Graham on the floor, per hooplens.com.
He’s averaging 18.6 points per game while connecting on 92 percent of his free throw attempts and 41 percent of his 3-pointers. But a tougher stretch is ahead.
Kansas will face undefeated Arizona State on Sunday and travel to Nebraska -- where Minnesota lost over the weekend -- on Dec. 16. The Jayhawks will begin Big 12 play with games against Texas, Texas Tech and TCU.
To navigate the upcoming slate, Graham has to be the man for Kansas.
The Jayhawks needed him on Wednesday against a Washington squad that won just nine games a season ago. He didn't show up.
Sure, Kansas will rebound. The Jayhawks have Allen Fieldhouse, their greatest asset in extending their Big 12 title streak. They have Graham and a deep collection of talent that could add multiple contributors in the coming weeks. They're stacked.
But this is about more than the Big 12 title streak. Can Kansas return to the Final Four and exit San Antonio with a title? Not unless it can rely on Graham each night.
Think this is harsh? Graham told ESPN.com he'd give himself a B-minus for last season's effort, despite averaging 13.4 points and connecting on 39 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
He understands the pressure and expectations attached to his return.
"I just feel like maybe there were some plays I could have been more aggressive," he said about his effort last season, "or overall more aggressive as a whole."
He came back to lead, to have the ball in his hands.
He does now. It just weighs far more than it did last season.