In season of change for Kansas Jayhawks, coach Bill Self has adapted, too
03/15/2014 5:41 PM
03/16/2014 5:50 PM
The screaming is more connected now. With more context. More understanding.
The same mistake that caused Bill Self’s face to turn tomato red and practice to stop for three minutes now causes him to roll his eyes and use a sort of angry shorthand.
A man can only go nuclear so many times and, besides, at this point in the season Wayne Selden knows he can’t let the ball stick for this particular play to work. He knows what he did wrong before anyone says anything.
“(Expletive)!” Selden screams.
“Yeah, (expletive) is right,” Self says. “Somebody get in for Wayne. I can’t watch that anymore.”
But by now, Selden is already walking to the sideline. He knows. Self knows. And each knows the other knows. Time is running out for progress, but you mark it where you can. Small moments like this are the product of six months of a Kansas basketball season that has been unlike any other in Self’s 11 years here.
This group has surprised him, both good and bad. The Jayhawks have lost nine games before the NCAA Tournament, the most by any of his KU teams.
They have the two most talented players Self has ever coached, but not the sort of calloused toughness and self-guidance that he sees as the structure of the great teams that have become the standard at Kansas.
That means Self has coached differently than ever before, and to be honest, he’s uncomfortable with that. This isn’t his way.
But he’s the superstar coach with the $50 million contract, so it’s his job to use whatever means necessary to get a collection of possibilities to a 10th consecutive conference championship and into the conversation for another national championship — with or without 7-footer Joel Embiid and his injured back.
The education of perhaps Self’s most interesting team is six months in the making, with tricks he’s used for years and also some he’s trying out for the first time.October: Managing expectations
Somewhere along the line, someone compared Andrew Wiggins to LeBron James. In the hype-gone-wild world of basketball, the next person said Wiggins was better in some areas. This game of telephone went on and on until the 18-year-old who rests by putting his hands on his hips like Forrest Gump is on magazine covers.
Normally, Self embraces attention. He hugs expectation and turns it into fuel. If you can’t handle pressure, you are probably soft, and there is no place for soft in Self’s world.
Which makes his approach with Wiggins so interesting. Outwardly, Self is downplaying Wiggins’ talent, saying the freshman might average as few as 10 or 12 points per game but still be a productive player. Away from the cameras, Self is asked if he really believes that.
“Oh, no,” he says. “I need to say that in case he’s at 12 a game, but I think he’ll be at 16, maybe more. I’ve never had a player like him. But if he does score 12 a game in the beginning, it shouldn’t be a disappointment.”
This is the first sign that Self is changing who he is for this group. He has never felt the need to protect a player from outside scrutiny the way he is with Wiggins.
But as protective as Self will be of Wiggins in public, he will be harder on him behind the curtains during practice, especially when he’s dribbling into the lane against the lesser red team in practice and lets the ball bounce off his hip and out of bounds.
“Are you kidding me?” Self screams. “You think that’s going to be good enough against Duke in two weeks?”November: Diagnosing shortcomings
This is that moment that Self has been threatening the Jayhawks with for weeks, for months:Duke
The Jayhawks stand outside their locker room at the United Center in Chicago, the basketball world waiting through that tunnel for the unofficial start of the college season in front of Dick Vitale and millions of strangers on TV.
Normally, Self recruits and coaches the kinds of athletes who approach these situations like a test of their manhood.
But Wiggins welcomes this moment with a full-faced smile instead of an assassin’s glare. He dances, literally, into his first national close-up against Duke and their own Sports Illustrated cover freshman, Jabari Parker.
In the end, Wiggins comes through: a step-back jumper in isolation that he’ll make money with next year, then a breakaway dunk that pushes KU’s lead from two to six in the final minutes.
As it happens, the game is an honest representation of where the Jayhawks stand. They are wildly talented, perhaps overhyped, and good enough to finish even against the best teams. They run off the court in smiles, but their coach sees a long to-do list.
“We can get so much better,” Self will say. “And we need to.”
Self has been here before with teams in November, but probably not with this type of worry. In the past, Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor knew Self’s demands and played with a type of violent edge that would pull them through. Self hadseen
that in them. He hasn’t seen that in this group.
A lot of coaches yell, of course. And a lot of coaches comfort. Those who’ve been around Self for years say his ability to balance is among his greatest strengths. He will dog-cuss you for the entirety of a two-hour practice, pushing buttons and challenging your manhood, but on the way out he grabs your shoulder and tells you a joke.
“He never makes you go home hating him,” says Elijah Johnson, who played four years for Self. “You can hate him all day, but at the end he lets you know it’s family. He gets that across. Some people need to hate him to be successful, and some people need to get along with him to be successful. He knows the difference.”
The Jayhawks finish November at 6-1 and will be ranked sixth at the start of December. For the next three months, they will break their huddle the same way.
1-2-3, Big 12 champs! December: Searching for a leader
Bill Self is announcing that today will be an easy practice, which is the first sign that today will be rough.
By now, the Jayhawks have lost at the buzzer at Colorado and been manhandled at Florida. Self hates to lose, like all coaches, but he also doesn’t mind the opportunity to get through, especially when his junior point guard throws it away in a basic drill.
“Lazy!” Self screams. “Anybody in America can make that play! Instead of doing what we work on, dribbling into the guy and making the pass, you stop, just lazy, and turn the (expletive) over.”
A minute later, and Naadir Tharpe is beaten off the dribble.
“Guard your (expletive) man,” Self says. “You never play hard. Never.”
Now comes a loose ball that Self thinks Tharpe should’ve been on, and this is an unforgivable sin. Tharpe is kicked off the court altogether, replaced by Evan Manning, who never gets his warm-up off in a real game.
“Just play hard,” Self tells Manning. “That’s all I ask.”
With Self, everything starts with leadership and toughness. Sophomore Perry Ellis is Self’s most reliable player, but he’s so quiet. Wiggins isn’t as aggressive as Self thought. Embiid is coming along faster than anyone expected, but he hasn’t played enough basketball to be a leader.
Fair or not, an advanced decision has been made that KU cannot be great without Tharpe making grand strides.
This gets at one of Self’s cardinal beliefs as a coach: A good team can’t become great without the players coaching themselves. Tharpe is the one. Self didn’t let him start at Colorado, but he knows he needs Tharpe playing major minutes for this whole thing to work.
“Na’s kind of a laid-back, easygoing guy,” says Kurtis Townsend, an assistant to Self for 10 years. “But Coach knows, in order for us to be what we want to be, Naadir has to be good.”
The attention is on Self and Wiggins and, increasingly, Embiid. But so much of what is ahead rests on a small guard from New Jersey who wasn’t even the best player on his high school team.
“He expects a lot out of me,” Tharpe says. “That’s good. I want that. I know he loves me.”
The Jayhawks finish December at 9-3 and ranked 16th.January: Pushing Wiggins
Practice started seven minutes ago, but a few guys are off on the side joking and smiling, which isn’t a good look when Bill Self walks in.
“I ask you to go hard for two hours a day,” he says. “I guess that’s too much.”
Self won’t say this in front of his players or a microphone, but he actually feels better about this team today than any time before. Something changed last week in Ames, where Kansas beat a top-10 Iowa State team in the same gym where a small riot nearly broke out last year.
Self saw Wiggins play what he calls a man’s game, grabbing 19 rebounds. Embiid took his first true star turn, with 16 points (on just eight shots), nine rebounds and five blocks. Self always thought Embiid could be the first pick in the NBA Draft someday, but he now knows that might be thenext
No matter what happens from here on out, Self hasseen
this group perform. He knows what it is capable of. And he absolutely will not let up, especially not with Tharpe near the back of sprints.
“Great leadership, Naadir,” Self yells. “Let’s do it again to see if Na can finish last again, you national player of the week stud.”
Tharpe isn’t the only one getting it today. Wiggins dribbles up the middle on a secondary break, which is a no-no, and then loses the ball in traffic.
“Softest hands in America,” Self says.
Another turnover, and Self demotes Wiggins to the red team. Brannen Greene takes his spot with the blue.
“Everybody talks about all of this God-given ability, and you come out here and lay an egg every other day,” Self yells. “What do you do to make us better?”
Self wants his star to be irritated, even angry, to see what’s beneath that smooth ease and other-worldly gifts. He’s done this before, perhaps most notably with Brandon Rush. They won a national championship together.
“I can’t get him mad,” Self says of Wiggins.
This is a surprise. Self called Wiggins an “alpha dog” when he signed. Self didn’t think Wiggins would need this kind of pushing. He is the leading scorer and best defender on a top-10 team. Wiggins has been very good. But he can be better.
Wiggins is never discouraged, never pouts. The screaming doesn’t seem to affect him, and besides, a few minutes later he puts on the kind of move that fuels all the hype: a drive around or through three defenders and at least two fouls that leaves practice silent for a few moments.
“Nice play, Wiggs,” Self says.
Instead of trying to alter Wiggins’ personality, Self is starting to see that emotional consistency as a strength. After practice, Self puts his arm around Wiggins, says something into his ear, and each man walks away smiling.
“Not to say anything negative, but Josh Selby didn’t have this same mind-set,” Townsend says. “Andrew is such a nice kid, and wants to please. As much money as he’s going to make, everything isn’t about him. He’s the best teammate.”
The Jayhawks finish January at 16-4, undefeated in the conference and sixth in the country. Changes are coming, though.February: For better and for worse
One of Bill Self’s geniuses is his ability to know when and how the pieces of a team will come together, but he guessed wrong in a couple of places with this one.
Specifically, Self thought this group would be better defensively.
Self’s KU teams typically win the way a lion wins, by being strong and aggressive and agile and defending like no other. At the beginning of the year, he envisioned athleticism on the perimeter leading to steals and run-outs and wild highlights that would lead “SportsCenter.” There hasn’t been as much of that as he hoped.
College basketball teams need to know what they are by February, so it’s a little late to develop some lion.
More important, that leader Self has been hoping for hasn’t materialized. Which leaves Self to do it from the bench.
That’s a dangerous thing. There’s a reason Self and other coaches are so obsessed with on-court leadership. In the chaos of a basketball game, the voices from the sideline are often drowned out.
But Self has decided this is the best realistic option. So KU’s success down the stretch will be determined by Self’s ability to bypass the normal channels and directly access the remarkable talents of a group of nice kids who want to please him.
And you should see the smile on his face right now, because Wiggins just zoomed through a passing lane, overpowered someone for the loose ball and finished on the other end with a two-handed dunk.
“Good play, Wiggs!” Self screams. “Now do it again!”
By now, the transition in how Self handles Wiggins is an obvious success. Self is still hard on his star, but he’s no longer trying to change him.
Wiggins doesn’t need to stare into the camera after a dunk or go three-goggles after a jump shot to change a game. Instead of fighting Wiggins’ nature, Self is now encouraging it.
The Jayhawks finish February at 22-6, with at least a share of their 10th consecutive conference title clinched. The celebration is muted.March: Running out of time
Bill Self is sitting behind his enormous desk in an office roughly half the size of a basketball court. A recruiting plan for one of the top players in next year’s freshman class sits in front of him, but for now, he is talking about thenow
and reflecting on the last six months.
With more time, Self thinks Tharpe could be consistent with directing his teammates. But the Jayhawks don’t have more time.
The defense is better now than at the beginning of the year but, without Embiid, was exposed against Iowa State in Friday’s Big 12 semifinal loss.
This group has surprised Self in good ways, too. Wiggins is dunking and dominating in the dreams of NBA scouts. He even developed a nasty streak defensively. Selden’s growth has been steady and relentless. Ellis has shown a feel for grabbing the moment. As a group, they have a lot of natural smarts, an innate savvy that might be their biggest strength.
In that way, the Jayhawks are more chameleon than lion. Just in the last few weeks, they’ve won by doingjust
enough (Oklahoma), by playing their best (Texas), while being outshot on the road (Texas Tech), and with guts down the stretch (Oklahoma State).
And if the players have shown their ability to think on their feet as a major strength, it only makes sense that their coach has done the same.
“I’ve been different in a way that I don’t want to be different,” Self says. “More than I want to be, I need to be the voice. That’s what we need in order for us to have a chance.”
The conversation goes on a few more minutes before another practice, where the changes over the last six months are as subtle as they are important.
Crisper movement, less explaining from the coaches and more talking from the players. They know the important part is ahead. They know they will have to forge through at least the beginning of it without Embiid, which means the biggest of all their on-the-fly adjustments is coming at the most critical time.
They also know that at Kansas, there are no excuses.
So they break their huddle a different way now.
1-2-3, National champs!
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