The March Madness social media team was on KU’s campus on Tuesday, shining a little light on the women’s hoops program through a day in the life of a KU women’s basketball player.
This kind of thing wasn’t happening three years ago. Five or six years ago, even mentioning it with Kansas would have drawn laughter. And that fact was not lost on the KU players who participated in the experience with Autumn Johnson and the March Madness crew on the 13th edition of their College Road Trip.
“From where we came from to now is really big,” senior guard Zakiyah Franklin told R1S1 Sports. “And I think the sky’s the limit for this program.”
The day began just before 10 a.m., when Franklin and fellow-senior Holly Kersgieter met up with Johnson and her team to give them a little campus tour on a Jayhawk golf cart.
Upon seeing the tricked-out golf cart, Kersgieter had just one thought.
“Can I drive?”
Assistant coach Brock McGinnis handed her the keys, Kersgieter responded with “Come on, KB,” and the two KU guards took the cart on a little test drive before the tour started.
Once everyone arrived, and with McGinnis back behind the wheel, it was up to Jayhawk Boulevard, where they toured the student union, Campanile hill and other attractions on campus before checking out James Naismith’s original rules of basketball at the DeBruce Center.
At each stop, Johnson asked the two Jayhawks to explain a little about what makes KU special along with its traditions and their favorite parts of being a Jayhawk.
The experience brought smiles and laughter, outtakes and do-overs and set the stage for an afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse.
“I think it’s just another way for us to gain exposure and people to know who we are, almost like our daily routine,” Kersgieter told R1S1 of her time as a tour guide. “We got to show people our locker room and our gym and our campus and that gives them a sneak peek into our lives and not just our basketball lives. It was just a fun experience.”
Franklin agreed and said she appreciated the chance to show the world what KU women’s basketball is all about in a way other than putting up points and stats on the court.
“It just shows the growth of the program overall,” she said. “The work is paying off, but we also know that there’s a lot more work to be done.”
Johnson said the decision to include Kansas in their College Road Trip preseason tour was as much about the Jayhawks’ play throughout the 2022-23 season as it was their run to a WNIT title at season’s end. She said the blend of talent, personality and potential on the Kansas roster made KU an intriguing program to showcase.
“They have the pieces,” Johnson told R1S1. “And I think there’s a lot of potential for this team. They made a statement with that WNIT win. But we go to the Power 5s, we go to the mid-majors, we cover women’s basketball period. We want to show off women’s basketball and the personalities that are here in our game.”
Kansas has plenty of them, and nearly 10 different Jayhawks got to participate in Tuesday’s fun.
After the morning tour, it was a mental health round table with four Jayhawks in the locker room. Ryan Cobbins, Danai Papadopoulou, Zsofia Telegdy and McKenzie Smith sat with Johnson and answered questions on camera about the importance of good mental health for student-athletes.
All four were asked in simple terms how they were doing, and each said they were doing well mentally, physically and in school and basketball.
Johnson also asked the quartet questions about what the KU coaching staff does to support positive mental health, tips for coping strategies and what good mental health means to them.
Each had a different spin on the same answer, with Papadopoulou summing it up best.
“I’ve definitely been really stressed, before a hard test or if I knkow we’re going to have to run in practice, but you just can’t let it get to you,” she said. “I’ve always made it, so I think just chill.”
Tuesday’s College Road Trip experience brought its own set of stress for Papadopoulou, but she took her own advice and went into it with a relaxed mind.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What am I gonna say? It’s gonna be embarrassing,’” she began. “But now it’s over and I think I did fine. I think I was OK.”
More than that, she thought the chance to address some of those issues and the other challenges that women’s basketball players face was great for her and her teammates.
“It is exciting to see the change in how we’re being treated and everything and I’m just happy to be a part of this,” Papadopoulou said. “I think it puts us on the map a little more and gives us an opportunity to show who we are outside of our accomplishments.”
Added Telegdy: “It means a lot, especially being a women’s sport and getting the kind of attention that could bring more people to our games. I just really love it. We’re a program that got a lot better throughout the years and we’re on the road to getting even better. I think they saw that.”
After the round table, Johnson, who played and coached basketball prior to joining the March Madness team, had lunch with KU center Taiyanna Jackson and then played a game of M-A-R-C-H — a version of H-O-R-S-E — with KU point guard Wyvette Mayberry.
Johnson had already interviewed Jackson on Zoom calls in the past, but she said the opportunity to meet her and the rest of the girls in person and build a deeper relationship with them was her favorite part of the trip to Lawrence.
“She’s special. She’s so special,” Johnson said of Jackson. “She lights up every single room she goes into with her personality.”
As for the results of that M-A-R-C-H game with Mayberry on the Allen Fieldhouse court, Johnson held her own but was eventually knocked out M-A-R-C-H to M-A-R, when Mayberry drilled a shot from just inside half court.
“There’s bits and pieces that we’ve done and it’s continued to build,” said Kersgieter of extra-attention opportunities like the one they enjoyed on Tuesday. “It’s cool to have these things now. It’s been a work in progress and it’s slowly, slowly paying off.”
After the showdown with Mayberry, Johnson and her crew mic’d up freshman guard S’Mya Nichols and head coach Brandon Schneider for a portion of the day’s afternoon practice.
Both Schneider and Nichols showed a fair amount of intensity throughout the practice, but they were equally as fiery without the mics as they were while wearing them. The same was true for the rest of the roster, and this hardly looked like a late-September practice more than six weeks out from the season opener.
Schneider, who did his own one-on-one interview with Johnson earlier in the day, agreed wholeheartedly with his players’ perspective on what Johnson and her team coming to Lawrence meant for the KU program.
He called it “validation that there’s high expectations,” and said he couldn’t think of a better group of athletes to help showcase a program than the one’s he coaches day in and day out.
“We have a group that understands the importance of trying to put the best version of yourself out there every single day, whether that’s on the court, off the court, in the classroom, in the community,” Schneider said. “I think, hopefully, them being here is an indication that we’re a team to keep an eye on. Our players have worked really hard to deserve that kind of recognition going into what we think is going to be a really exciting season.”
— For tickets to all KU athletic events, visit kutickets.com