Bill Self was as fired up as he’s ever been this season.
This was a few minutes into the Kansas-Baylor game Saturday, and the KU coach was yelling at everyone. “Wake the (heck) up!” he screamed at Mitch Lightfoot, and that was before challenging Udoka Azubuike the next time down.
It was a different look from most of the season. Self, in previous games this year, had adjusted to more of an NBA sideline style: arms crossed, mostly silent, watching his players while often letting them play through mistakes.
That was not the demeanor early, and one can guess why.
On Monday, Self called out his players publicly. He said some were selfish and others weren’t trying hard enough, and the result that came after was the type of victory that Self loves.
KU didn’t shoot well against TCU on Tuesday. Things didn’t come easily. Yet the team grinded defensively and tried harder — that was especially the case for Udoka Azubuike — and came away with a seven-point home win.
And so Self, at least from outside appearances, tried to go the same route again. Did this team just need him to push harder? And would his players continue to be better with more intensity from their coach?
The answer was no — at least on Saturday — as Self found out in KU’s 80-64 loss to Baylor.
“I thought our energy level was average,” he said afterward.
Self, in a sense, is stuck with a problem he helped create.
This team isn’t like his others — or rather, it doesn’t value what he does. Self has won big at KU by getting his guys to believe it will get 80 percent of the 50-50 balls. He’s gotten them to believe in activity and energy and a defensive mindset, and all along, he’s had the depth to sit those players who didn’t feel like playing his way.
That’s obviously changed this year with the Jayhawks’ short bench — a product of the staff taking three non-eligible transfers while also not getting any returns on Jack Whitman and Billy Preston.
The result has been a shifting of the power structure toward the players.
Self was upset with Lagerald Vick on Monday when he chose to bench him, yet the guard played 29 minutes against TCU and 32 the next game. Is that sending a clear message that Vick needs to be more focused when he’s out there?
The latest example was Self choosing to start Marcus Garrett over Malik Newman on Saturday, with Self saying that Newman wasn’t doing enough from an intangible standpoint to earn the nod. Newman ended up playing 32 minutes, including 19 of 20 in the second half. Again, was that really a punishment?
This is a tough spot for all involved. For Self, how much can you push before starting to lose guys? Newman’s psyche certainly has to be considered here, as he didn’t seem to be KU’s statistical problem Saturday with 14 points on 5-for-16 shooting with five assists and no turnovers.
Self, obviously, wants more. The coach likely sees a player that should be more disruptive defensively, as evidenced by the fact that Newman has no steals in his last four games.
Then again, Newman has reason to be frustrated as well. He expected to be better in his first season at KU, and he’s improved his assists and defensive rebounds in recent games, trying to work his role into something that fits this particular team better.
There’s another problem for Self too: When trying to make a point, he’s putting in sub-optimal lineups. Garrett and Lightfoot are among KU’s best from a “giving effort” standpoint, but having them on the floor together creates an offense with too many role players. That was evident in the first half, as KU scored just 0.67 points per possession while relying too heavily on Devonté Graham to make plays, mostly because other guys were hesitant. Garrett played only 3 minutes in the second half, which led to KU’s offense improving, but also Baylor taking advantage of the Jayhawks’ weaker defensive lineup.
The main takeaway: KU is still in tinker mode. Self is fidgeting with his motivational ploys and his lineups, while the players are still working to figure out their own roles.
It’s a weird place to be just 29 days before Selection Sunday. This team could win a 14th straight Big 12 title, or fall well short. It could lose its first NCAA Tournament game, or come together through adversity to make the program’s first Final Four since 2012.
The season’s story is yet to be written, and that’s the encouraging part for KU. No fans will remember this road loss to Baylor or the team’s uncharacteristic home letdowns if the Jayhawks find themselves from this moment forward.
But that’s also the bad news. There’s not much time to fix this.
And even Self has to wonder how this story will end.