KU basketball’s MJ Rice makes splash ... despite early season injury, ailment and illness

Kansas freshman MJ Rice’s career-high 19-point outing — which featured accurate 6-of-9 shooting (2-of-4 from three and 5-of-6 from line) — certainly impressed the 16,300 fans who packed Allen Fieldhouse on Monday night.

The performance of the McDonald’s All-American out of Durham, N.C., in KU’s 87-55 men’s basketball victory over Texas Southern, in fact, could be classified as remarkable considering the 6-foot-5 guard has practiced just two times in the last 21 days.

“I missed quite a bit of time,” Rice said after filling in admirably at guard on a night guards Kevin McCullar (groin) and Bobby Pettiford (hamstring) were forced to sit on the bench in street clothes. “It’s kind of a buildup. I had to get that rhythm back.”

Rice has been hampered by a bad back, case of COVID-19 and severe bout of kidney stones , all affecting his health this past month.

“It was terrible. I went to the E.R.” Rice said, referring to the painful kidney stones that sent him to the hospital last week. “I didn’t practice for a little minute.”

Rice — he combined with junior combo guard Joseph Yesufu (14 points for second straight game) as capable replacements for McCullar and Pettiford — showed off a soft touch on his jump shot Monday.

“It’s a process. Whether I like it or not, it’s a process, especially where I’m trying to go. I’ve got to be mentally strong,” Rice said.

KU forward Jalen Wilson — he scored 22 points off a career-high five threes in 10 tries — said he’s been impressed with Rice during the rare moments he’s been able to practice.

“You see MJ’s size and strength, his ability to shoot the ball and score on all three levels,” Wilson said. “Now that he’s finally getting a chance to play and get into his rhythm you see how successful he is (on) the offensive end. I didn’t see too many shots he missed at all. When he plays like that, that’s what we need. He has the ability to do that every single night.”

KU coach Bill Self was impressed, too.

“He played good offensively. Defensively he’s got a long ways to go,” Self said. “I thought he did a good job tonight. He saw the ball go in. It’s a little different game when there’s not pressure. When there’s pressure and guys are guarding you every possession it’s different than somebody forcing help and getting you an uncontested look or you can play bully ball, which he did a couple times on some plays. Texas Southern (1-7) is going to be good in their league (SWAC) but that’s not exactly Wisconsin or Tennessee guarding us out there from a physicality standpoint.”

Self — his squad improved to 7-1 — also was pleased with the performance of Yesufu, a junior guard making his first start as a Jayhawk.

Yesufu could conceivably start again Thursday against Seton Hall (8 p.m., Allen Fieldhouse) because Self said Pettiford’s likely date for return is the Missouri game on Dec. 10. Self said it’s possible McCullar could play against Seton Hall, but for now his status is questionable.

“I thought he did fine. Defensively he should be better, heating people up, causing havoc,” Self said of Yesufu. “He needs to be a guy who makes 2 of 5 (threes; he was 3 of 5 Monday) when he comes in the game. He’s a good shooter. His stroke looked good tonight.”

Yesufu said he learned he was starting “today at shootaround. It was a blessing, I got to step up with Bobby and Kevin out. That’s my job, to bring energy, score and defend.”

Wilson noted: “I’m always encouraging Joe to shoot, to be aggressive, When those two (Rice and Yesufu) are aggressive like tonight, they really help this offense.”