PHOENIX – No one has played more games in a Kansas uniform than former Gilbert Christian High School star Mitch Lightfoot. The 2015-2016 Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year has donned a Jayhawks uniform 161 times in his career and has hopes of extending that number with a deep tournament run for the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, which opens the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night at 6:57 p.m. Arizona time against Texas Southern.
Lightfoot, who was born in Kansas City, Missouri, moved to Tucson with his family when he was 5 and began his high school career at Ironwood Ridge before transferring to Gilbert Christian. There, Lightfoot’s game went to a new level under the tutelage of coach Kurt Keener.
“He’s one of the best coaches in high school basketball and has coached multiple McDonald’s All-American games and multiple NBA players and has an idea of what good basketball really is,” Lightfoot told Cronkite News. “It was great to be able to play for him. I really enjoyed that environment. The basketball in Phoenix – there’s a lot of good players up there – so I was able to compete against the best of the best on a daily basis.”
Early in the recruiting process, before a visit to New Mexico, Lightfoot received a warning from Keener. Lightfoot needed to show patience with his decision-making despite the recruiting love on display, Keener told him.
“I wasn’t going along,” Keener said, and I said, ‘They want you. They’ll wine and dine you and make you feel great. Whatever you do – they’ll ask you to commit but tell them you want to see what’s going on.’ But once Kansas did come in I really didn’t think there was going to be much chance that he would consider anybody else.”
Forgoing Keener’s advice, Lightfoot called the Knights coach and told him he had committed to New Mexico. As Lightfoot’s recruitment took off and he received offers from Kansas, Arizona, Utah, Stanford and St. John’s, the 6-foot-8 forward eventually decommitted from the Lobos.
“Coach Keener was definitely right again,” Lightfoot said with a grin as he recalled the impulsive decision. “I went head over heels into that and ended up realizing that wasn’t the right situation for me and wanted to open it back up and see what my other options were. It definitely broadened my horizons. I got to be recruited by some great universities and ended up on Kansas and coach (Bill) Self. It’s really been the best decision I’ve made in my basketball career. I’ve loved it and this place means so much to me.”
Lightfoot, who is day-to-day with a knee sprain suffered in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship game win, has been a mainstay in the Jayhawk locker room for the past six seasons.
“You grow and realize what matters and what doesn’t matter,” said Lightfoot, who has averaged 11 minutes per game during his Kansas career. “Most of all, as a person being more mature is a big thing for me that’s happened over my time here. As a player, just being someone that coach can depend on in a crunch, when he needs me I can give him those minutes to help us win games. It’s been super exciting to do that over the past six years.”
After the Jayhawks clinched a share of the Big 12 regular season crown with an overtime victory over Texas on March 5, Self introduced Lightfoot during Senior Day festivities with glowing praise for his commitment to the program.
“I don’t know if Kansas has ever had one player that could cut their heart open and have more Jayhawks fly out of it than Mitch Lightfoot,” Self told the Jayhawks crowd of Lightfoot, who has started 11 of the 161 games he’s appeared in at KU.
Before arriving at Kansas, Lightfoot led Gilbert Christian to the AIA Division II state title as a junior. Keener, who has over 800 career wins as a high school coach and a storied career at Detroit Country Day, where he coached future NBA stars Chris Webber and Shane Battier, said Lightfoot’s energy and effort was superb.
“I thought maybe he’s not as talented as Chris Webber or Shane Battier, but he plays with the same level of energy and focus,” said Keener, who watches as many of Lightfoot’s KU games as possible. “I knew he was going to be a dominant high school player and I thought he had all the potential to be a successful Division 1 basketball player. He had a high motor and he played very intensely.
“He was a skilled athlete, but in terms of going and rebounding and defending, blocking shots – he just competed really hard and he only had one speed and that was fifth gear. He was always on the attack mode.”
In 2018, Lightfoot was part of a Kansas team that made a trip to the Final Four. In 2020 – when Lightfoot redshirted behind second team All-American Udoka Azubuike and McDonald’s All-American David McCormack – the Jayhawks finished the COVID-shortened season as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll. Now, the redshirt super senior forward is a rotation piece on a Jayhawk team with the fourth-best odds to win the national championship according to FanDuel.
Upon arrival in Lawrence, Lightfoot began studying petroleum engineering. Realizing that he wanted a social life, Lightfoot made the change to a business track, winding up with an economics degree and a master’s in sports management. For the last year-and-a-half, he’s taken courses to set himself up for financial success in the future.
Lightfoot was determined to stay the course at Kansas even as he watched a lot of teammates come and go as the transfer portal became more widely used. While at KU, Lightfoot has seen 12 teammates transfer out, and 11 teammates transfer into the program.
“I started at KU and I was going to finish at KU,” Lightfoot said. “I didn’t come here for it to be easy. I didn’t come here for anything to be given to me. I wanted to work for everything and I think I’ve done that. I pride myself on having a sense of loyalty, so if I start something I’m going to finish it.”
Lightfoot, who turns 25 in July, isn’t even the oldest player on a Jayhawks roster littered with upperclassmen. The top nine players in minutes played for Kansas have each been in college for three or more years, with Lightfoot, former Arizona State guard Remy Martin and former Iowa State guard Jalen Coleman-Lands all with five years or more of collegiate experience.
“It helps us a lot. As coach would say, you want to get old and stay old,” Lightfoot said. “I think we’ve gotten pretty damn old and stayed old. It allows us to be mature on the court and even off the court this team has a sense of maturity to it. We know how to joke around but when it’s game time it’s game time and we know how to flip a switch.”