On late Friday afternoon, Bill Self has plans to take his basketball team to Disney World. Perhaps they’ll ride Space Mountain, or shake hands with Mickey, or throw back an ice cream cone at the Main Street Ice Cream Parlor.
The Jayhawks are here in the Magic Kingdom for the Orlando Classic, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be a short window for some team bonding or some playtime.
“As young as we are,” Self said, “we should play with youthful exuberance.”
At this point, you should know that Self was talking about basketball again. Just in case it wasn’t clear.
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It was Wednesday afternoon, and Self and KU had just concluded an hour-long practice at HP Fieldhouse on Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. The 11th-ranked Jayhawks are slated to play three games in four days here at Disney, beginning at 1 p.m. on Thursday against Rhode Island, and Self has outlined one imperative for the rest of the week.
Play with some youthful joy and energy.
“Each and every day,” Self said, “and that’s what I want to see.”
Self calls this Kansas team the “youngest” he has had at Kansas, and while it’s standard operating procedure for college coaches to offer the usual invective about youth, Self means that his team is young in specific ways. They are slower to grasp offensive concepts and schemes; they forget scouting reports and turn easy plays into hard ones.
“We are not really a high IQ basketball group when it comes to really studying what helps us win,” Self said.
Part of this comes with the territory. The Jayhawks are playing four freshmen and four sophomores in the rotation. They feature zero scholarship seniors on their roster. But this is precisely why Self would like to see Kansas, 2-1, embrace its youthful side.
“If you’re playing less than 20 minutes a game,” Self said “and you’re a young kid, don’t you make the most of every minute you’re out there?”
The Jayhawks enter the Orlando Classic coming off an 87-60 victory over Rider on Monday night. On the heels of a blowout loss to Kentucky in the Champions Classic, Kansas put up 51 points in the first half against Rider — a performance that Self labeled as the best of the season. Now the Jayhawks will try to maintain that momentum in a field that also includes Michigan State, Marquette and Georgia Tech. If the Jayhawks defeat Rhode Island on Thursday, they will face the winner of Tennessee and Santa Clara at 11 a.m. on Friday morning in the semifinals. A matchup with Michigan State could be waiting in the finals.
“I hope we win the tournament,” Self said adding: “I hope that we come down here and kind of become a team.”
On Wednesday, Self noted that it had been “a while” since Kansas had won an early-season tournament with an eight-team field. That’s pretty close. In fact, KU hasn’t won such a tournament since the Great Alaskan Shootout in 1999, more than three years before Self arrived at Kansas.
The trend continued last year, when the Jayhawks defeated Duke at the Champions Classic before back-sliding at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas. This year, Self is hoping the narrative will be reversed. After a disappointing loss at the Champions Classic, Self hopes his team can spend the next four days growing into a more polished outfit.
“We need to win a tournament,” Self said, plainly.
In the moments after the Rider victory, Self began speaking about his team. Before long, he had delved into a long soliloquy about what his young players must come to understand. For the moment, Self says, his young players still don’t understand how to play without the ball. For now, they don’t understand a lot.
“To me, it’s just as important to play without the ball as it is with the ball, and maybe more so, and I don’t think everybody totally understands that yet,” Self said. “We’ll get there, but we’re just really young right now in that line of thinking.”
▪ GRAHAM QUESTIONABLE: Freshman guard Devonte’ Graham (sprained shoulder) practiced on Wednesday afternoon, but Self said his availability for Thursday was still in question. Graham, who suffered the injury against Kentucky, missed Kansas’ victory over Rider.
“He’s sore, so I don’t know,” Self said. “We could have played him the other day, but no reason to. I don’t know how much he’ll be available to us, but I do anticipate him playing some.”