It was Monday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, and Bill Self was busy quoting from the Book of Jim Harbaugh, which speaks to the kind of strange week it has been around the Kansas men’s basketball program.
For the moment, Self admits he’s been stressed — perhaps a little too stressed about his 9-2 Jayhawks. One week ago, they took one on the chin — a 77-52 humiliation on the road at Temple — and Self had all of Christmas break to worry and think about a young team that can’t score inside, has struggled on defense, and is still trying to find itself on many levels.
“Losses (stink),” Self said, bluntly.
But hey, who thinks otherwise? In the world of Kansas basketball, minor crises can often feel like international incidents, which is partially why Self felt compelled to bring up Harbaugh to make a point.
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Harbaugh, who on Monday was in the very public process of becoming the next football coach at Michigan, lives life like a 10-year-old who just went to a 7-Eleven. He also visited Lawrence last season and spent some time talking with Self and his players. One quote stands out, even now, Self says, and it’s particularly relevant to his young team.
“Energy always finds the ball,” Self says, relaying Harbaugh’s message. “Energy finds the ball. So it doesn’t make any difference, you know, how you guard a ball screen or the angle you set a screen, or this and that. That’s all important after you play with great energy and passion. Until you do that, it doesn’t matter.”
You might say that Self has been on an energy kick lately, and Monday was no exception. For nearly 20 minutes, Self spoke with slightly more passion than usual for your typical Monday afternoon media session. Perhaps it’s been the last week.
Self’s team will return to the court at 7 p.m. Tuesday against Kent State, 8-3, at Allen Fieldhouse. The Jayhawks have defeated a long list of good teams, and they have survived one of the nation’s toughest schedules, and Self can spend all day reciting these positives.
But the Jayhawks’ losses have been so tremendous (two by more than 25 points) and their weaknesses so glaring (perimeter defense, low-post scoring) that it’s easy to forget that a college basketball season is a living, breathing process.
And a long one.
This is partly why Self concedes he’s been overly stressed while trying to mold one of the nation’s youngest teams into the Big 12 favorite and Final Four contender that it was expected to be.
“When you’re preseason predicted to be something, is that where you should be at that moment or is that where you should finish?” Self asked on Monday, beginning one of many long answers.
“And the whole deal is from the process, (to) try to get just a little bit better each and every day. When we do that, we’ll have a chance to live up (to) or be what we think we could have been or what other people thought we could be. But based on today, (we’re) not close. And that’s not their fault. That’s just us being a product of being very young and us having to go through some pains.”
In one sense, the Jayhawks are going through some literal pains. Freshman guard Devonte’ Graham has missed three games because of “turf toe” and will visit the doctor later this week to receive an update on his status. Self also revealed Monday that freshman forward Cliff Alexander has been playing through a nagging ankle issue and bone bruise on his shin. Those injuries might explain why Alexander has gone without a field goal for two of the last three games.
“He has not been as explosive or as active,” Self said, “and I think a lot of it’s health-related.”
In some ways, Alexander’s development is a pretty good symbol for the Jayhawks’ year as a whole. A former top-five recruit, Alexander was expected to enter the program and provide an immediate impact for a team that was lacking in low-post scorers.
Alexander has displayed moments of promise, but he is still largely a work in progress. And as a result, the Jayhawks are still struggling to score inside. Against Temple, the Jayhawks’ big men finished with just two field goals, and one of those came on a drive from junior forward Jamari Traylor.
On Monday, Self spoke of some minor changes that could help the Jayhawks in the paint.
“We kind of tweaked how we going to do things a little bit,” Traylor said.
Mostly, though, Self is hoping for an energy tweak. The Jayhawks’ may lack great size, and they may be missing a true All-American option in the paint, but Self believes the right amount of effort and energy can make up for that.
“That’s why teams can play poorly and still win,” Self said, “because they are turned up all the time. Because energy finds a way to cover up mistakes, and that’s what we didn’t do against Temple.”