The stubborn ease and familiar confidence are in every move they make, this group of friends. Some of them are famous. At least one will soon be a millionaire. Others will go into coaching, or business, or teaching, but no matter what, these last six months will be branded in their brains and hearts forever.
This Kansas basketball team has, almost from the very beginning, had the feel of a group fighting far more pressures than most — even by the standards of one of college basketball’s most storied programs.
Most of it has been self-inflicted. Some has been nothing, like Devonté Graham’s arrest stemming from an expired vehicle tag. Some has been proven unfair, like Carlton Bragg’s arrest in which prosecutors later charged the woman who accused him of battery.
But other parts have been more serious, most notably news that a university investigation found Lagerald Vick to have likely committed domestic violence in December 2015, and Josh Jackson being charged with misdemeanor property damage. Also, a University of Kansas police investigation into an alleged rape at a dorm that houses basketball players, in which five of those players are listed as witnesses, and other students remains open.
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Through it all, the team has remained remarkably resilient. The players have not just managed their self-inflicted drama — on the court, they’ve thrived through it.
When coach Bill Self agreed to let The Star behind the scenes at practices throughout the season, neither knew what twists and turns the year would take.
But now, with the benefit of access, time and perspective, we have some clues about how Kansas managed to put together a 28-4 record, another conference championship and the Midwest Region’s No. 1 seed entering this week’s NCAA Tournament.
It’s Oct. 12, a week or so into practice, and usually by now Bill Self has a hundred reasons to be angry at his team. This is how coaches are — Self more than most. He is one of the most-liked figures in his sport, but he can rip the stitching off your shorts with when he’s worked up, and most Octobers, he is usually worked up.
This is different, though. This is more … pleasant?
“Guys, guys, guys,” Self says. “Where’s our jerseys?”
They’ve been practicing for a half-hour or so, in T-shirts. This is the kind of thing that, in the past, maybe Self starts screaming about. But he doesn’t have it in him. Not now.
Instead, a smile.
“Gotta be the managers’ fault, right Frank?”
“No, Coach,” Mason says. “That’s our fault.”
It’s easy to see what Self likes about this group. The coaches debated some over the summer about who would be their leading scorer, but already everyone in the gym understands that Mason is the alpha.
“That little sumbitch can play,” Self says.
Jackson, the freshman here for one year before heading to the NBA, defends and works hard, which means he has Self’s heart. The coach compares him to former Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft — Jackson isn’t as athletic, but he’s a better basketball player.
There is a hitch in Jackson’s shot, a hiccup that sticks out in his otherwise polished and smooth game. Self sees it but will not obsess over it. Jackson has heard too many voices about his form already, so Self has suggested one minor tweak to make the shot quicker and prohibited anyone else from saying anything.
Udoka Azubuike is a specimen, too. He’s 7 feet, 280 pounds and just 17 years old — “Trump would probably want to see his birth certificate,” Self jokes. The coach is enthralled by Azubuike’s talent, and is already telling people he can be the second-best big he’s ever had, behind Joel Embiid.
There is more. Self’s teams are always at their best with experienced combo guards, and Devonté Graham will start alongside Mason. Landen Lucas is a terrific rebounder, good defender and perfect fit for a team full of scorers. Yes, there’s a lot to like.
Kansas lost two thousand-point scorers, but the expectations are to surpass last year’s loss in the Elite Eight. Self once called this “Kansas Math” — the idea that you’re supposed to be better every year, no matter what — but at least this once, he thinks it fits.
“Our team is better than it was last year — better personnel,” Self said. “The big keys will be, can ’Doke come around” And can Carlton carry his load?”
November 7 now, and remember all those good things from three weeks ago? Well, forget it. Forget all of it. Forget every single part of it, because KU is four days from its nationally televised season opener and nothing is right.
Bragg is too often lost, or slow, to the point that Self stopped a practice to ask an NBA scout in attendance what the league thought of a 6-foot-9 forward who doesn’t rebound his position. “Can’t play,” came the response.
This practice is going nowhere, too. Azubuike is standing at the top of the key instead of positioning for rebounds, and in the span of 15 seconds, Self screams and benches both Jackson and Mitch Lightfoot for shading the wrong side of a dribbler in an end-of-game drill.
“If you’re guarding the ball, you have to assume there’s no help, if you have any pride at all,” Self says. “And if you’re not guarding the ball, you have to assume the guy guarding the ball sucks, and be ready to help.”
As much as anything, that encapsulates Self’s philosophy: don’t depend on anyone to do your job, and you’re not doing your job unless others can depend on you. Be prepared and willing to do more than your share, because that’s the only way to approach full potential.
Now, Lucas enters a drill and does it correctly, but even that’s annoying to Self, because he’s never worried about Lucas. So, Lucas is benched too, replaced by Azubuike, who is slow to his first two spots.
“You don’t know the offense! (expletive)!” Self says. “Guys! We play! In four days! And you don’t know the offense! (expletive)!”
Self compares, just like fans do, only with more information and a sharper mind. And he knows, with 100 percent certainty, that the Jayhawks of Nov. 7, 2015 would mop the floor with the Jayhawks of Nov. 7, 2016. And it’s driving him mad.
He still likes the talent and drive of this group. But they don’t listen. At least, that’s how it feels now, because he finds himself correcting the same mistakes.
Nothing in this program happens without Self’s approval, but he isn’t crazy about the schedule. The Jayhawks are rushing to Kansas City after this practice, staying at the downtown Marriott before a ridiculous day of travel for their season opener against Indiana — KC to Atlanta to Hawaii. After that, it’s Hawaii to New York to play Duke.
But if Self is being honest, the practice wasn’t all bad.
“Good, do it again,” he says after one of the better moments. The praise lasts a second, two at the most. The criticism lasts much longer.
December 20, and Bill Self is up to his eyeballs in drama now, almost all of it unknown to the public. Still, he is smiling, particularly after playfully trash-talking a recruit’s little brother, who then mean-mugged the coach and drilled his next shot.
“You see us getting better, right?” Self says. “Yeah. We’re coming along.”
The story of the last week turned out to be not much of a story. Carlton Bragg was charged with misdemeanor battery and suspended. He was later cleared, after video convinced the prosecutor’s office he was actually the victim in the incident.
Of course, what’s not known publicly is that Bragg’s suspension is the least of Self’s concerns. Eleven days earlier, a night at the bar ended with a phone call to police that would eventually turn into a misdemeanor charge of property damage against Jackson.
Three days earlier, an alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl was reported at the dorm that houses the basketball team and other students. Listed as witnesses by police are Jackson, Frank Mason III, Mitch Lightfoot, Lagerald Vick and Tucker Vang.
The investigation would remain open even months later, and Bragg will soon catch another suspension for having drug paraphernalia in his room.
All of that is still unknown, though, except to the coaches, players and a few others. In the circle after practice, Self makes a point to remind his players to be careful about what’s in their room, and that people are watching when they’re in public. There is nothing obvious in anyone’s words, actions or body language to tip anyone off about the percolating drama.
Kansas is 10-1, ranked third in the country and undefeated since losing in overtime in the season opener in Hawaii. There is no public sign yet of the team’s off-court troubles, and no reason to suspect it.
“We’re understanding everybody’s strengths and weaknesses more,” Self says. “They’re utilizing Josh more, and Josh is not feeling pressure to make amazing plays, so he’s making easy plays, which is good for us.”
There is plenty to pick apart, of course. That’s Self’s job. He wishes his big men could score easier, and more, without it being on a lob or dunk. At one point, he tells Lightfoot he can no longer chew gum while he plays because it’s affecting his concentration, and it’s hard to know for sure if the coach is serious.
The practice is smooth. Mason is flawless with the ball, and at one point, Jackson finishes an ally-oop with a nonchalant windmill dunk. Yes, that’s a strange thing to read. Even stranger to see. The machine is cranking, in spite of it all.
“I can’t think of any place I’d rather be,” Jackson said. “I’ve never had a coach coach me as hard as Coach Self. I’ve never been on a team this talented.”
The next day, Kansas will announce that Azubuike is out for the season. Hurt his wrist. Happened on a play so innocent that Self made fun of Azubuike for sitting out.
By now, it must be obvious to everyone in the program that this season will be much more difficult than any of them expected.
January 31, and this is one of the busiest practices of the season.
Larry Brown, the Hall of Fame coach who won the 1988 NCAA title at KU, is here. So is Aaron Miles, the Jayhawks’ career assists leader, and now an assistant at Florida Gulf Coast. NBA scouts. An Adidas rep. Trevon Duval, Rivals’ No. 3 player in next season’s freshman class, is on hand with his family.
KU basketball moves at a different pace. That’s something you notice on the inside. Self has a way of cramming two hours of practice into 90 minutes, no wasted moments, because as soon as a run of four or five possessions is over the coach is ready to tell six different players what they did right or wrong.
“Dwight, do you know what you’re doing?” Self yells. “Dwight? Dwight!”
Now Svi Mykhailiuk is rising for a contested three-pointer. It misses.
“Dwight, that’s your fault,” Self says. “Just went right through your screen! Be tough one time.”
Self is paying more attention to Dwight Coleby now, which means he’s being harder on him. Azubuike’s injury has left KU wax-paper thin, to the point that Mason, Jackson, and Graham are playing more than 35 minutes most nights as Self essentially goes with a seven-man rotation.
Self says all the right things publicly, but in these moments he admits he’s “nervous as hell” that Coleby and Lightfoot have to play more. It’s a coach’s job to worry, but Self has more than his share of reasons already.
The lack of depth means more than just avoiding foul trouble. It affects practice, too, both in terms of what they can do and how long they have to do it. Self wishes he could spend more time on blocking out and fast breaks, more time on details like how to guard the opponents’ sets, but he knows he can only ask for so much sweat and doesn’t want to keep the healthy players he has remaining on the floor too long.
These practices move so fast, and on this day, you cannot watch more than a few minutes without seeing Jackson dunk. He dunks many times, on alley-oops, back-door cuts, drives on his own, drives off ball screens, even a spin out of a post-up that had Duval openly reacting. At some point you start to wonder if the key to playing through so much self-inflicted drama is staying so quick and busy that you can’t think much about anything else.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Self says. “Really, really proud.”
February 10, and the coach of the No. 3 team in the nation with all the wrong headlines is leaned against the stacked-up bleachers at Allen Fieldhouse an hour or so before another road trip.
In front of him, the familiar language and squeaking shoes of another practice. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was the calmest man in the gym. His arms stretch to either side, and his left knee bends back, his white sneaker catching against the bleachers.
This is Self’s happy pose, or at least as happy as he gets during practice. When he stands like this, the players know they’re doing well, because if they weren’t he’d be on the court challenging their manhood.
“Call what you want,” he says when Mason looks back for instruction.
Before each game, on the board, Self writes it out so there is no misunderstanding: I CALL THE SETS. But you can’t be a hard-ass all the time, and this is part of Self’s coaching genius. He shares ownership of the program, even as there is no uncertainty who is in charge.
This team is developing a reputation for relentlessness, for guts, for never allowing the moment to become too big. Most of that is talent, some of it is experience, but an irreplaceable piece of it lies in how Self cultivates what coaches often refer to as “the culture.” Few college coaches are better at maintaining a common purpose. Some of this Self does by creating common enemies and allowing his players to swagger in the right moments.
Five days ago, before the second K-State game of the season, Self spent a practice telling his guys the Wildcats thought they got screwed in the first one. A travel by Mykhailiuk on the game-winner went uncalled, and Self challenged them to be up for K-State’s aim of revenge.
Self laid out a scenario for them, in which Graham would be at the free-throw line, late, with the chance to ice the game. Graham would make both free throws.
“And when you do,” Self told him, “you have to turn toward the crowd and tell them to shut up. You have to.”
As it happened, Mason took that advice a little too eagerly. He started putting his finger over his lips with 2 minutes left, when K-State still could’ve come back to win. Self made fun of Mason for that later, but it was all smiles after another win. In his postgame interview with reporters, Self deliberately said that K-State’s crowd helped his team to victory, and in a few days, after an epic comeback against West Virginia, he’ll say, “Anybody who says their guys play harder than mine, it’s a ridiculous statement.”
He’d been planning to say that ever since he heard K-State coach Bruce Weber reference winning the “play-hard chart” twice against Kansas.
The same way K-State football coach Bill Snyder approaches the rivalry, Self does in his sport. Each man, Self and Snyder, knows he has the superior program and knows what that means to his school’s alumni.
For Self, in this season, it has the welcomed double effect of keeping his guys steady through adversity.
They have been through so much already. The Kansas basketball team has won on national television, lost as a heavy favorite, made the wrong kind of news and preserved a streak of Big 12 championships so old it began when all of them — even 23-year-old senior Lucas — were in grade school.
“Time to shine now,” said Mason, the star point guard and probable national player of the year. “They’re trying to take it from us.”
Those words are harmless, spoken to nobody in particular in a mostly empty Sprint Center before a practice early this month. The words are not intended to be antagonistic, but this group has navigated more drama than any Kansas basketball team in recent memory — at least since J.R. Giddens was kicked out of the program in 2005.
Remember that October practice, when Self said the biggest keys would be Azubuike and Bragg? The former has been hurt since before Christmas, and the latter is averaging 5.5 points. Kansas is still the Midwest Region’s top seed, somehow, Self’s relentless genius shoving his group forward one more time.
How far this goes is now entirely up to them. Most believe they received a favorable draw in the NCAA Tournament. This is college basketball’s time of year, the one part of the calendar when the nation pays attention. That means there will be even more headlines about their mistakes off the court.
But from now until they either lose or have a parade, it also means this group of Jayhawks can write some of their own headlines, too.