Vahe Gregorian

Self tries to tamp down KU’s great expectations

Updated: 2013-10-10T14:48:56Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

— Bill Self has a certain charming and wily way of soft-selling even those things that he knows.

This shows up frequently when he brings up a useful statistic, for instance, like the one he casually mentioned Wednesday.

“The last seven years,” he said, “I think our teams have averaged 33 wins a year.”

And what do you know? It has, or 32.57 to be more precise.

But that was just a plank of Self’s platform as he looked toward a 2013-14 season that might be viewed skeptically with no returning starters … but instead is being anticipated breathlessly by KU fans because of the star-studded recruiting class.

And yet …

“If this team got to 33 wins, it would be an unbelievable year considering how difficult the schedule is,” said Self, whose team begins practice in earnest Friday.

As much as Self wants to undersell and overdeliver and practice, well, Self-restraint, though, he almost can’t help himself after seeing the group in limited practice situations.

When he considers the pure athleticism, a commodity that makes him smile and that he’ll bring up unbidden in several different conversations, he allows as to how KU has “as many good players in the gym as we’ve ever had.”

Then he’ll try to reel himself in again.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere close to being compared to any of the great teams that have come through here yet,” he said. “It’s not even close. We have a lot of unanswered questions.”

And yet then this slips out: “If everything falls right, come March I would think that this team’s ceiling would be very high.”

Self concedes this because there already are some knowns in the unknowns, and that’s evident when he begins speaking about the jewel of the recruiting class, Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins has plenty of work to do and won’t be able to get away with just turning it on when he wants to like he did in high school, Self said. But when asked about his coachability, Self didn’t hesitate.

“He’s a ‘10,’” Self said. “These guys have all been ‘10s.’”

That can change, of course. It’s September, after all.

But cross that attitude with a class as talented as this one has been rated, and it’s a pretty spicy formula for the Jayhawks.

And the class is about much more than Wiggins, the 6-foot-8 forward who was considered the consensus top recruit in the nation and already is being projected by some as the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft.

“Andrew was the icing on the cake,” Self said. “But this class would have been one of our better classes even if Andrew didn’t come.”

Starting with forward Tarik Black, a transfer from Memphis who is eligible immediately after graduating in three years.

“I think Tarik Black may have been the whole steal of any recruiting class in America,” Self said.

Then there’s 7-foot center Joel Embiid, from Cameroon, as “talented a big kid as we’ve had,” Self said, and whose footwork reminds him of a young Hakeem Olajuwon.

“I’m not saying he’s Olajuwon; I’m not saying that at all,” Self said.

But only after he did blurt out the point of comparison himself.

Guard Conner Frankamp, who recently made 52 of 53 three-pointers in a shootaround, is such an eagle-eyed shooter that Self already says, “If there’s somebody who shoots it better, I’d like to see it.”

Understatement unraveling, he could go on. And he does:

In any other recruiting class, Self said, 6-7 guard Brannen Greene would be “a headliner” because of his range and vision and ball skills.

Guard Frank Mason, 5-11, is “a pit bull” with “fire in his belly” who could push to start. And Wayne Selden, 6-5, is versatile enough to play multiple positions and so well physically developed that he won’t get pushed around as some freshmen might.

Not that there won’t be stumbling blocks and growing pains along the way, particularly up against a nonconference schedule that includes Duke, Wake Forest, Florida, New Mexico, Georgetown and San Diego State.

“We’re not going to please everybody,” Self said. “And certainly we’re going to go through up and downs where people think that we shouldn’t be going through downs — where usually the downs are what allow us to be good in the end.”

And the end, Self knows, is what justifies the means. That’s why he is 35-15 in NCAA play and 25-9 at Kansas, where he guided the Jayhawks to the 2008 national title.

There are plenty of legitimate questions, of course, including where the leadership will come from on a team with just four upperclassmen and how they will all mesh and how the youngsters will manage the hype.

And don’t forget, Self says, right now they aren’t ready to play and don’t know how to play, and they won’t just automatically succeed.

“If wanting to work is not a part of the equation, then the individuals will never live up to the hype,” Self said. “But if this group wants to work, I do think there’s a chance that they could all be pretty pleased in the end.”

A chance. Qualify it as he might try to, though, Self may have more than just a hunch about that.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com

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