The much-anticipated question still was hovering in the air on its way to Kansas basketball coach Bill Self when he smiled and shook his head.
He knew this was coming, after all:
Kansas freshman Josh Jackson, projected as an NBA lottery pick next year, had had the temerity to tell USA Today that one of KU’s goals this year was “trying to go undefeated.”
“There you go again,” Self said, laughing.
Perhaps Self subconsciously invoked the term made famous by Ronald Reagan in the spirit of the political debate season, which has earned Self’s rapt attention.
Or maybe it was a reference to a pattern of media seeking his reaction — generally to debunk — whimsical thoughts players might put out there.
Either way, though, Self didn’t so much try to quash the notion as clarify it.
“We don’t talk like that,” he said, noting that the incoming players don’t know much yet about the sorts of challenges at this level … not to mention ones they’ll find in Ames or Manhattan or Morgantown and elsewhere in the Big 12.
Then again …
“I don’t think that’s an unrealistic goal, to try to win every game,” Self said. “ … There’s nothing wrong with goals. That’s good. But I don’t think that would be a realistic prediction.”
The distinction between prediction and stating a desire is dramatic, actually, so much so that any outrage about Jackson’s audacity is silly.
But the broader point in Self’s contained response is that this is exactly the sort of mind-set and personality he wants to cultivate towards the more tangible pursuit of a national championship.
Because the kind of belief and hunger that Jackson apparently carries with him needs to be contagious — part of the active ingredient in a formula Self has long touted and already knows he has on hand waiting to come to life: a mix of a veteran nucleus infused with more talented youth.
He’s seen that blend in many perennial top-five teams, though he reminds that there are exceptions: Defending national champ Villanova was dominated by veterans, after all, as was the KU team that went to the 2012 title game.
Maybe more to the point, though, Self remembers well how that composition was part of what made the 2008 KU national title.
“You had five great seniors, and you had Mario (Chalmers) and Brandon (Rush) as juniors, but you could make a case (youngsters) Sherron (Collins) and (Darrell Arthur) may have been our two most talented guys in our program at that time, too,” he said. “ … Everybody was so good on that team, they kind of traded turns being who was the best that night.”
A reason Self thinks of this as ideal is that it creates a certain dynamic: older players who can teach and younger players so talented they command respect.
That can set the foundation for something that catalyzes, what Self calls “kind of an unknown X-factor that makes it rise to (a new) level and take your team maybe to a place that it wasn’t capable of going the year before.”
“We certainly have that, I believe,” Self said.
Starting with freshmen Jackson, Udoka Azubuike and Mitch Lightfoot joining veterans Frank Mason, Devonte Graham and Landen Lucas.
Then, with sophomore Carlton Bragg expected to make a major stride forward (enough so that Self says he expects him to start) and returnees Svi Mykhailiuk and Lagerald Vick and others vying as role players.
This is all a long way from taking root, naturally.
And Self knows painfully well that there’s a thin and blurry line between being of the caliber to win a national title and actually having a chance at it on the last weekend of the season.
Including last season’s loss to Villanova, Self is 2-4 in regional championships at KU and 2-6 overall in the gateway game to the Final Four.
He knows he has to find the right combinations and vehicles for this particular team, has to learn how to teach and reach the newcomers and see what the composite picture looks like.
Moreover, a year ago he figured the pieces fit about as well as they could … and KU still “came up short,” he said.
“This year, if the pieces fit as well, then I think you may have a little bit more talented group that may give you a chance maybe to play better when it counts the most,” he said. “But certainly it remains to be seen if the pieces can get there yet.”
But pardon Self if he doesn’t really mind some bravado from Jackson, whose game and approach could help provide a certain spark that might have been a missing piece a year ago.