Kansas big man Silvio De Sousa finds his way

Three months ago as he waded through his first days on campus at Kansas, Silvio De Sousa didn't know Massachusetts Street from Massachusetts Bay.

How far the kid from Luanda, Angola, has come.

Sunday, in the victorious locker room after the Jayhawks upended Duke in overtime of the Midwest Regional final to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament's Final Four, Mitch Lightfoot leaned over to show the freshman a video just posted to Instagram of fans back at home pouring in celebration onto "Mass Street," as they know it, the main drag in Lawrence.

De Sousa smiled and flashed a knowing glance at Lightfoot, his roommate and fellow big man at KU.

Even two months ago, De Sousa, the 6-foot-9 forward who completed final exams the week before Christmas to graduate a semester early from IMG Academy, was lost.

"I felt like I had to learn everything at once," he said.

In his first collegiate game, on Jan. 13, De Sousa played four minutes against Kansas State, committing one turnover and one foul. A week later, he committed three fouls in two minutes against Baylor. He turned it over three times in one minute on Jan. 23 in a loss at Oklahoma and scored only two points in his first eight games.

Just how then, as Kansas heads to San Antonio to meet Villanova on Saturday, did De Sousa grow into the Jayhawks' most important reserve and a key piece of coach Bill Self's third Final Four team?

"He knew his number was going to be called," Self said. "And one thing we found out with Silvio, if he can stay in there extended minutes, he gets a lot better."

The Kansas roster features several potential X factors. There's sharpshooter Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who hit the 3-pointer with 26 seconds to play that forced OT against Duke, and guard Malik Newman, who has caught fire in the postseason and scored all 13 of the Jayhawks' points in the final five minutes Sunday.

But an argument exists that, beyond primary threats Devonte' Graham at the point and Udoka Azubuike in the paint, De Sousa rates as important as anyone. Because if Azubuike, the 7-foot center, gets in foul trouble or if KU needs an extra rim protector in its perimeter-oriented lineup, De Sousa is invaluable.

His emergence has coincided directly with Kansas' rise from a vulnerable position in the Big 12 race to the outright league champ, winner of the conference tournament and victor in the most exhilarating game of this NCAA tournament.

"I'm really proud of him," Azubuike said.

Same goes for Lightfoot, from whom De Sousa has taken minutes as he progressed in February and March.

"He's done a great job of learning," Lightfoot said. "And it's only up from here."

Teammates still protect De Sousa, listening as he answers questions from the media. They direct him around Lawrence and guide him along as De Sousa works, according to Lightfoot, to "learn the speed of student life."

De Sousa is not listed anywhere in the Kansas media guide. After moving to Florida before his freshman year of high school and leaving Montverde Academy for IMG in the summer of 2016, he committed to KU in August 2017 and opted soon thereafter to reclassify to sign in November.

He got to Lawrence on Dec. 26, four days after the results of his fall coursework in Florida permitted him to practice with the Jayhawks.

All the while, De Sousa said he watched on television as Kansas struggled to rebound and develop an inside presence. It lost consecutive games in early December to Washington and Arizona State.

"All I could see was that they needed another inside person, another big man," he said.

De Sousa waited until Jan. 13, hours before his debut, for NCAA clearance to play.

And yes, the advancement came slowly.

"We thought probably around Feb. 1 would be the time -- after he'd been here about four weeks -- that we'd start seeing some progress," Self said. "And it probably didn't happen quite that quick."

De Sousa broke out on Feb. 19, a blowout of Oklahoma, with 10 points and six rebounds.

Then with Azubuike sidelined by a knee injury in the Big 12 tournament, De Sousa, sharing time with Lightfoot, produced eight points and 11 rebounds against Kansas State in the semifinal round. The next day, he went for 16 and 10 on 8-for-8 shooting in the title-game win over West Virginia.

Against Duke, De Sousa equaled his career high by playing 26 minutes as Azubuike fouled out, contributing 10 rebounds to go with four points as KU out-boarded the bigger Blue Devils by 15.

His 40-minute averages are striking -- 16.2 rebounds leads all Jayhawks in the playing rotation and 17.5 points trails only Azubuike and Graham.

Considering his spot in a high school classroom barely more than three months ago, De Sousa described the anticipation of playing in the Final Four as "unbelievable."

"I still can't believe sometimes that I'm living the dream," De Sousa said.