To appreciate the five seconds where these Jayhawks became a Bill Self team, you have to go back.
To last week. And the week before. And also two decades ago.
Self was leaning against a wall outside his team’s locker room following KU’s 65-61 victory over Kentucky when he stopped to tell an important story. Back when he was a coach at Tulsa, he gathered his players to explain what needed to happen to win the next game.
One of his guys interrupted him.
“Coach, what about if we don’t do that?” he said. “Does that mean we’re automatically going to lose?”
Self has mentored players differently since that day. In basketball — in life — things aren’t always going to go your way. The important part is figuring out a way to still persevere, to still somehow win.
So Self, multiple times per year, talks about his view of a basketball season. He’ll say one-third of the time you play great, and one-third of the time you play average. But the special years are when you can grind out victories in that one-third in which nothing’s going right.
Heading into last week, he didn’t seem to have much confidence in this particular group.
“We’ve got to get a little bit tougher,” Self said during his Hawk Talk radio show.
Seven days later, KU won a game making 29 percent of its threes with top player Devonté Graham making 3 of 14 shots with five turnovers.
Self said his guys “uglied up the game,” and he did so with a smile. It was the ultimate compliment, the beginning of a new identity the coach worked hard to build over the last few weeks.
With the game on the line Tuesday — KU up two, 25 seconds left — the Jayhawks quietly outworked Kentucky during one of the game’s most important moments.
Start with 6-foot-8 senior Svi Mykhailiuk, whom Self challenged publicly a week ago.
“I think he should play to his athletic ability,” Self said. “He’s a good athlete. Sometimes I don’t think he showcases that as much as he could.”
That wasn’t a problem during a crucial time Tuesday. Kentucky’s Kevin Knox missed a baseline jumper, but his drive also forced KU’s Udoka Azubuike to help.
Mykhailiuk, with two feet in the lane, was KU’s only hope for the defensive rebound. And he was sandwiched between the 6-foot-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones and 6-7 P.J. Washington — a forward known for his 7-3 wingspan and 43-inch vertical leap.
So what did Mykhailiuk do? He outcompeted them both, springing off both legs and extending high with his left hand to knock a tip attempt away from Killeya-Jones.
The ball bounced to a spot where 6-3 guard Malik Newman had created his own luck.
This, by the way, is the Newman that Self had called out over the past few weeks. The one who didn’t start Friday because his coach thought he’d had bad practices.
“Defensively he’s a ball watcher,” Self said two weeks ago. “He can improve in that area.”
He did quickly.
On Knox’s release, Newman extended his right arm to get inside position on 6-5 Hamidou Diallo. Then in one, two, three shuffles, he cleared Diallo out of the lane with an aggressive boxout, displacing him more than 10 feet in the process.
And wouldn’t you know it? That ball that Mykhailiuk tipped went right in the location where Diallo should have been. Instead, Newman had the inside track in a foot race, sprinting to beat Diallo to the rebound by a step.
We all know how this ended for KU. Newman was fouled and made two free throws. The Jayhawks held onto their lead after that.
It was the type of win that Self values most. Anyone can win in that top third, and most teams can figure it out in the middle third.
But when it all goes wrong? Two decades of experience have taught Self one thing:
Those games are winnable too.