KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Godding up coaches is a dangerous endeavor. They all have their human foibles and failures. At the high end of the profession, they’re paid millions of dollars to coach sports and win games. Those citizens of earth who are not interested in the perspiring arts think its silly that the Belichicks and Sabans and Krzyzewskis are pedestaled by the media.
Which makes writing about Kansas coach Bill Self a dangerous endeavor. He has won a national championship, narrowly failed to win another and is a member of the basketball hall of fame. That’s enough praise for one man. But here’s the thing – among many things – about Self: he’s a media favorite because he’s blunt and honest. And he’s the same with his players.
After the Jayhawks beat Kansas State in the semifinals – granted the 16-point victory was asterisked because the Wildcats were without two starters – Self expressed dissatisfaction with his team’s effort and energy. He said that his perimeter players “are just not tenacious right now.”
The same message was delivered in the Kansas locker room but no doubt spiced with eff bombs. Bill Self’s genius is that his negative comments after one game typically turn into positives the next game.
Logic dictated that the Jayhawks would have difficulty handling West Virginia’s bullish post players in Saturday’s Big 12 Championship game. While Sagaba Konate had 18 points and the Mountaineers had a 37-27 rebounding edge, Kansas countered with its … tenacity. KU held West Virginia to 40 percent shooting and overcame a seven-point deficit over the last nine minutes with a 25-7 run to win, 81-70.
“He tells us exactly how he feels,” freshman Marcus Garrett said in the KU locker room. “He let us know we didn’t play hard enough against K-State. “We needed a different level of effort. We figured West Virginia was gonna bully us and we knew we couldn’t take that.”
“They’re going to come out and try to punk you, bully you, be physical. If you’re not ready for that, you’re basically going to get punked the whole game,” Kansas senior point guard Devonte’ Graham said. “We knew that’s what they were going to do, and that’s our whole thing: We’re not going for none of that.”
When in Kansas City, barbecue is the food of choice and Kansas BBQed West Virginia, making 72 percent of its shots in the second half. As Graham (18 points, career-high 13 assists) dribbled out the clock in front of the Kansas bench, Self displayed what the game meant to him – he celebrated with a triple double fist pump, first seen in San Antonio 10 years ago when the Jayhawks won the national title.
“I heard when he does the two fists, it’s a big win for him,” Malik Newman told the Kansas City Star.
Kansas won because every big shot went in. As WVU coach Bob Huggins said, if the Jayhawks shoot like that, they can beat anybody. But anybody can win with the shooting percentages KU posted (56.4 percent from the field, 55.6 percent from three). What pleased Self didn’t involve making shots.
“I thought we competed our butts off,” Self said. “I’m not sure that we’ve been on a serious uptick until today. That’s as well as we played maybe all year long. So I think it should give us confidence moving forward. You can miss the same shots we made today. That doesn’t mean you played bad. That means you didn’t make plays or make shots. If we hadn’t made shots we still would have played right and we don’t always do that.”
Self will mother truck his players in practice and games for lack of effort and mindless mistakes. Sophomore Mitch Lightfoot gets plenty of wrath … but Lightfoot is one of Self’s favorite players.
Freshman Silvio De Sousa – who should be getting ready for high school spring break – helped give KU an inside presence against WVU with a career-high 16 points on 8-for-8 shooting. De Sousa’s thunder dunk off a Graham dish capped KU’s first half effort. At the break, De Sousa had 10 points and seven rebounds and a rebuke from Self for “playing soft.” De Sousa didn’t pout. “I told him, ‘I’ll play better,’” De Sousa said.
Credit Self for recruiting players with thick skins and brains that absorb coaching.
Kansas will probably be a No. 1 seed, perhaps in the Midwest. The Jayhawks set a record by winning their 14th consecutive regular-season title and, according to Self, validated finishing with a two-game edge in the standings by winning the conference tournament.
Now consider these points:
- Kansas came into the season needed to replace the consensus national player of the year (Frank Mason III) and the fourth pick in the NBA Draft (Josh Jackson).
- Unlike years past, there is no lottery pick on this year’s roster. There might not even be a player who gets much run in the NBA.
- A five-star forward (Billy Preston) who was expected to step into the starting lineup ran into NCAA eligibility issues, didn’t play a minute and left the team in mid-January.
- Kansas finished in first place by two games with a seven-man rotation comprised of five perimeter players and two post players. The fact that the Jayhawks were a below average rebounding team irked their coach but that’s the product of playing four guards.
- Two days before playing its first game in the Big 12 Championship, Kansas sophomore center Udoka Azubuike suffered a sprained knee and was held out of the games in K.C.
“Nobody can say that Kansas caught a break or was lucky this year,” Self said.
The Anti Rock Chalk Society will continue to clamor about Kansas getting fortuitous foul calls (recall the 35-2 foul shots discrepancy against West Virginia) but only conspiracy theorists who doubt the moon landings can claim that the Jayhawks win because the officials want the Jayhawks to win. Officiating might be bad, but it’s not that bad.
“They’ve got a lot of guys who can make shots, they’ve got good players and the guy can coach,” Huggins said.
There is no doubt this is Self’s most vulnerable team and he has had more talented teams the last two years that lost in the regional finals. Kansas could be headed home a loser a week from now. The Jayhawks hope to get Azubuike back and De Sousa’s emergence could give them the luxury of two productive post players.
But KU’s chances of making a deep run or revisiting San Antonio a decade after the school’s last national championship will be determined by making shots and good luck. After singeing the nets for three straight games in K.C., can that shooting accuracy be maintained?
“We’re like all the other teams,” Self said. “There’s not as many dominant teams across America, so once you get into the tournament they’re going to be coin-flip games.”
Kansas sophomore Malik Newman turned the Sprint Center into his personal playground and in the process was named the most outstanding player of the Big 12 tournament. Newman’s 72 points in three games broke the school record for points in the Big 12 tourney. Paul Pierce scored 67 in the 1998 championship.
Newman was frightfully efficient. He made 25-of-40 shots and was 15-of-22 from 3-point range.
“I’m really confident, I think every shot I take is going in,” Newman said after the semifinals. “Right now, the basket looks as big as the ocean. Every time I raise my elbow, I think it’s going in.”
He also got some good advice from Graham. Self has been urging Newman to make plays for others but Graham delivered a different message. “He was thinking too much,” Graham said. “I told him, yo, just shoot. Score and defend.”
Kansas State knew it would be without junior forward Dean Wade. He aggravated a left foot injury and it was decided that it was best to get him healthy for the NCAA Tournament. Then before two minutes had elapsed in the semifinal with Kansas, the Wildcats lost junior guard Barry Brown Jr. to an eye injury. K-State without its top two scorers contested the Jayhawks until the final 10 minutes.
While Kansas State’s glass came up half empty, it was filled halfway by the play of 6-9 sophomore Makol Mawein. He scored a career-high 29 and in his last three games he’s totaled 59 points and 16 rebounds. If Wade returns and his game isn’t hampered, Mawein’s development gives the Wildcats a potent combo to operate around the basket.
“He’s really a freshman,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said of Mawein. “He played about 22 minutes a game at junior-college last year. He’s starting to figure it out. We’ve even put in a couple of plays for him. When he came here, he wanted to play on the perimeter. We told him, ‘You want to back up Dean Wade or do you want to start?’ He’s been great defensively and rebounding and he’s figuring out where and how to score.”