Whenever I think of Bill Self’s sustained success — and his 13-year run of conference titles — I often think about walking up to Bob Huggins’ table eight months ago.
My goal at Big 12 basketball media days was to ask coaches about Kansas’ dominant defenses, and many answered the way you’d expect. Kansas State’s Bruce Weber talked about Self making adjustments, while Texas’ Shaka Smart praised KU’s coaching staff for its attention to detail.
When I asked Huggins, though, his response surprised me. The West Virginia coach didn’t want to talk about defense at all.
“People say, ‘Oh well, he’s got all these great players.’ He does,” Huggins said. “But you know what? He controls them. They play as a team. They’re unselfish. They play hard. That’s tough to do now.”
This conversation kept popping into my mind while watching one of KU’s first workouts Tuesday.
The Jayhawks return just five scholarship guys who played minutes a year ago, and one of them (Svi Mykhailiuk) isn’t on campus this summer. With that much turnover, it’s easy to see how a team’s culture could change in a negative way.
It’s the reason why Self’s words were calculated in the early workout. There will be other practices to teach fundamentals and introduce play calls.
Something else was more important on this day.
“The biggest challenge is to get the guys to understand how we want to play,” Self said, “and to understand that the game’s not about them as (much) it is about us and just get the ball to move.”
Self was clear about his expectations Tuesday. “Drive to pass!” was his most repeated phrase, and he stopped practice a few times to explain the importance of getting the ball swung side to side and to the corners, which helps to spread out the defense.
“What you don’t want to do is have a new group of guys that try to change up your format,” said Malik Newman, who will be eligible this season after transferring from Mississippi State. “I feel that, like (Coach) said, moving the ball, getting everyone involved, I think it just makes the game easier for us.”
There were good and bad signs a day later during KU’s camp game against former players. On one instance, Newman drew three defenders on a drive before finding Mitch Lightfoot for an open three.
Another time, Arizona State transfer Sam Cunliffe penetrated before hitting a cutting Devonté Graham for a layup.
On other occasions, bad habits were hard to miss. At one point, freshman Billy Preston looked determined to take Mario Chalmers one-on-one, crossing over four times before clanging a guarded 18-footer off the back iron. Cal transfer Charlie Moore also hoisted one three in transition from 25 feet … that hit nothing but backboard.
Those plays — especially in a June pickup game — are bound to happen. And Self knows how difficult routines can be to break.
“If you watch our veterans play, the ball moves,” Self said. “And with the young kids, the ball doesn’t.”
This won’t be a quick lesson. Self says it’s usually a year before his players start to embrace his message, and even then, “probably you’re going to keep preaching the same thing as long as they’re here.”
The main point, though, is that Self isn’t settling. This year’s KU basketball team is going to have the same mind-set as last year’s team, and the one that was here the year before, and also the one that won the title in 2008.
“Whatever coach Self says goes,” said Darnell Jackson, a forward on that championship squad. “If you want to win, I feel like he has the blueprint. He’s been doing it for a long time.”
It’s the foundation for success that Huggins spoke about last October. Each player, from his first week on campus, is learning KU’s way to play to basketball.
The process might take months. But Self — from years’ experience — knows the final reward has been worth it.