Bill Self entered the locker room Saturday with a purpose. The first half was over, his team trailed by nine, and worse yet, it could have been more.
At halftime of KU’s national semifinal against Ohio State, Self was ready to speak. He typically convenes with his staff before he addresses his players. But because the Jayhawks were not executing on defense or offense, Self’s message could not wait.
“The way the first half went, he thought we played the worst basketball we could have played,” said senior guard Jordan Juenemann, who has been around long enough to know they were in trouble when Self addressed the players first.
You already know what happened — Kansas rallied for a 64-62 win — and it would be easy to assume the Jayhawks woke up because of a locker-room speech out of the Bob Knight Coaching Handbook.
But to a man, players say Self did not go nuts; he simply stressed what they needed to do better, gave the regulars specific areas to improve, and most importantly, said he believed in them.
After all, Self reminded them, they’ve been down before and won — surely they could do it again.
“He didn’t really jump on us or get on us too bad (Saturday),” junior center Jeff Withey said. “But he was saying we’re a better team than this, and we knew that we were going to come out in the second half and play a lot better.”
KU is 32-6 for a reason. And while talent and game-planning have something to do with that, Self credits his players for being willing listeners.
“We don’t change a lot,” he said, “but we do make minor adjustments, and they’ve been good at making those adjustments during the second half.”
Players say it’s hard not to listen to Self.
“Whether it’s (telling) jokes or yelling, he does whatever it takes to get our attention,” junior guard Elijah Johnson said.
If they aren’t focused in the first half, Self will yell, certainly more forcefully than he did Saturday night. Junior guard Travis Releford said nothing irritates Self more than a lack of intensity of defense.
“Because that (stuff) got us here,” Releford said. “We know that if we don’t do that individually or as a team, we’re going to get yelled about it at halftime.”
A lack of hustle will get the Jayhawks yelled at, too.
“If we try hard, he doesn’t get excited, he doesn’t get angry,” freshman guard Naadir Tharpe said. “But if he can see that if guys don’t have any excitement and don’t look like they’re ready to play, he’s gonna tell us.”
Effort was not a problem Saturday. But like any good motivator, Self got through.
“It was just a forceful demand,” Juenemann said. “He’s just great at what he does.”