The main thought following Kansas’ early loss in the Big 12 Tournament was that players could get some benefit from resting.
And while that was somewhat true — the Jayhawks didn’t have to play three games in three days — the team also received another bonus: It actually could take some time to practice like years past.
KU coach Bill Self admitted that he acted “like a maniac” in those workouts before Selection Sunday. Center Landen Lucas referred to it as “dog days.”
“We weren’t going to play any time soon, and that was a good time to do it,” Lucas said. “It was good for us.”
It also was different from previous weeks.
Because KU has had such a short rotation this season, Self had altered his practice philosophy. Instead of resting guys during games, he worked to keep them off their feet during the week, allowing extra days off while also easing up during on-court activities.
“In the past years, it would be very, very competitive practices, because everybody is fighting for minutes. You’ve got very long, competitive minutes,” Lucas said. “Now, it’s more fine-tuning-type stuff, making sure the guys who are out there are just getting more thinking, more mental things.”
That was all until that TCU loss. In the days after, Self led his team through intense workouts with specific improvements in mind: ball-screen defense, rebounding, toughness and competitiveness. By Thursday, Lucas admitted it felt like the preseason again, as he was tired of colliding with the same teammates in practice and ready to go against someone new.
The grind appeared to be helpful, though. KU’s players were pleased with their defensive performance in Friday’s 100-62 victory over UC Davis, a game in which the Aggies made 41 percent of their twos and 20 percent of their threes.
“They felt us at all times. That’s key,” Lucas said. “You can’t let any team get really comfortable. I think that even if they felt like they got a shot off, it was still contested. There was still somebody there. That was good. You’ve got to make a team feel you the whole game.”
Those types of overarching defensive goals will be important for Kansas as it takes on ninth-seeded Michigan State on Sunday. Kansas senior guard Frank Mason admitted that the Spartans’ extended playbook made them a difficult team to prepare for in one day.
“You can’t really get a good feel for all the stuff they run,” Mason said, “or try to memorize a lot of their plays.”
The Jayhawks’ preparation will be similar to previous years. They went over Michigan State’s offensive actions during a Saturday practice, and Mason said the players would review that again later at the team hotel. Lucas has his own routine, opting to go over video of the players he’s going against to try to understand their one or two best moves.
There won’t be over-the-top cramming, though. Lucas has learned that too much thinking makes a player slow to react, and much of KU’s defensive success will be determined by how it sticks to the defensive principles that have proven successful over time.
“Just play your game,” Lucas said. “If you can play the style of play that you want to play — take them out of their rhythm just by playing the defense you practice all year — it will make everything else easier.”
NCAA round two: (1) Kansas vs. (9) Michigan State at 4:15 on Sunday (CBS, chs. 5 and 13)