Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson has known Bill Self since 1982. Their friendship could call into question the objectivity of the following statement.
“I can unequivocally say without hesitation or reservation (this season is) the best coaching job he’s done in his career,” Hinson told The Oklahoman columnist Jenni Carlson this week.
Best friends or not, Hinson is 100 percent correct. If a 14th consecutive (and record setting) Big 12 regular-season title, a Big 12 Tournament championship without the team’s best low-post scorer and a trip to the Final Four appears to be something close to an annual expectation for a blue-blood program, you haven’t been paying attention.
Your Veteran Scribe is here to fill in the blanks.
First, remember last season. Kansas went 31-5 and reached the Midwest Regional final behind consensus player of the year Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, an NBA lottery pick, and steady/savvy center Landen Lucas. Most programs would regress having to find replacements for that trio.
The 2017-18 plan was for seniors Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk to step into new roles. Graham would go from Robin to Batman replacing Mason at point guard while Mykhailiuk would go from a reserve 3-point specialist to a starter who needed to become an all-around player.
Malik Newman, a 6-3 sophomore guard, sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi State, was slotted to start alongside Graham. Sophomore Udoka Azubuike, a powerful 7-foot center, missed all but 11 games of his freshman season after suffering a broken wrist. His presence would give Self a dominant big man for the first time in three seasons.
In addition to Azubuike, Self recruited Billy Preston, a 6-9 four-star freshman and added Jack Whitman, a 6-9 graduate transfer from William & Mary. Along with 6-8 sophomore Mitch Lightfoot, Self envisioned having four post players.
But three months after arriving in Lawrence, Whitman changed his mind and left school. Preston got tangled up in an NCAA investigation over his eligibility and never played in a regular-season game before leaving school in January to play professionally in Europe. With just two scholarship players – Azubuike and slender 6-8 sophomore Mitch Lightfoot – who could be considered inside or post players, Self was left with starting a four-guard lineup.
Being short-handed and undermanned meant that Kansas spent most of the season struggling on defense and battling to stay level on the boards. Having a team unable to defend and rebound to his standards left Self acquiescing two of his core coaching beliefs.
“I’ve never played like this,” Self said in Omaha. “I’ve never [played] four little guards around one big. It just goes against the grain from the teams we’ve had in the past. The guys would agree that our margin for isn’t as great. We didn’t even know who was going to finish the season with our roster a couple of months ago. We had some hard lessons to learn, and I had to do a better job of motivating and coaching and pushing the right buttons.”
Out of several, here are three reasons/examples to explain how Bill Self masterfully guided this flawed team to the Final Four.
First, the team’s lack of front court depth got an unexpected boost when 6-9 Silvio De Sousa, who had signed with Kansas for its 2018 class, graduated high school early and joined KU for the second semester. At a time he should be getting ready for prom, De Sousa has become the Jayhawks’ second-best power player.
Self had hoped De Sousa would be contributing by Feb. 1 but he was off by three weeks. In a loss at Oklahoma on Jan. 23, De Sousa played one minute and committed three turnovers. In his first 12 games, he was DNPed three times and in the other nine played a total of 39 minutes. Instead of giving the rookie playing time he hadn’t earned and wasn’t prepared for, Self allowed De Sousa to acclimate. Over the last eight games – seven in post-season play – De Sousa has become a major contributor as a reserve, averaging 15 minutes, 6.7 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Second, Self helped Newman salvage his season. One of the top high school recruits in 2015, Newman didn’t like the fit at Mississippi State and transferred to Kansas. He was an outstanding practice player last season but soon discovered it was challenging to go from practicing to playing games that counted. For the first half of the season, he struggled to fit in offensively and let those struggles lessen his impact as a defender and a rebounder.
The coach had no choice, because of the limited roster, to stick with the player. But Bill Self was more critical as the regular-season neared its end. Kansas needed Newman to find his shooting spots, attack the basket when necessary while not neglecting his defense and rebounding roles.
In seven post-season games, Newman is averaging 22.7 points and has made 28 of 51 3-pointers. He scored a career-high 32 against Duke, notching all 13 of the Jayhawks’ points in overtime. Newman harassed Duke’s Grayson Allen for 3-of-13 shooting and checked him perfectly on his game-winning shot attempt.
Third, after gut-punch losses one victory short of the Final Four the last two seasons, losing Sunday’s regional final to Duke would have added to Rock Chalk sorrow. Even though Kansas was the No. 1 seed, few were picking the Jayhawks to beat the second-seeded Blue Devils. It appeared to be a bad matchup – KU’s four-guard lineup that struggled to rebound against a Duke team with twin freshmen towers in Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. According to KenPom.com, the Blue Devils had the third-tallest roster in Division I; Kansas was 55th.
With one day to prepare, Self schooled his players on doubling the post – a defensive strategy they had rarely used. Mykhailiuk was given the assignment of guarding Bagley who scored 16 points but attempted just nine shots.
Kansas last won the national championship 10 years ago in San Antonio’s Alamodome so a return trip a decade later has KU fans believing in nostalgic karma. When the Jayhawks victory over Memphis was secured in 2008, Self celebrated by thrusting both fists in the air. That’s saved for special victories and the double-fist gesture returned after another NCAA Tournament overtime victory Sunday.
The Jayhawks played with free minds against Duke. The day before the game Self emphasized that there was not pressure, it was a game between two great programs and it was something to enjoy. Another correct button pushed. Mykhailiuk’s 3-pointer with 26 seconds remaining tied the game and enabled overtime where Newman dominated.
“We didn’t play to go to the Final Four,” Self said. “We played to beat Duke. So many times when you get on this stage regardless of how you tell your players to be loose, you play because you want what’s after. This wasn’t one of those games. Our guys know their guys. Their guys know all us. We played to try to win that game, and the ramification of winning that game is going to San Antonio.”