Kansas coach Bill Self is acutely aware that it’s nice to have won a 12th straight Big 12 title and all, but that this is about the long haul.
He also certainly appreciates the compressed time crunch of the conference-tournament format.
So he was absolutely conscious of how he dispensed playing time as his top-ranked Jayhawks took on Kansas State in a Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal on Thursday at Sprint Center.
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And he “still played guys” too long, he said with his trademark grin after KU smothered the Wildcats 85-63 to advance to the semifinal round against Baylor at 6 p.m. on Friday.
Not that you couldn’t see ample signs of Self’s effort.
Fourteen players saw time, after all.
And just over 7 minutes in, Self already had employed nine players, including freshman forward Carlton Bragg — who had a career-high 12 points and was on trajectory to play 20 minutes if he hadn’t fouled out after 11.
But reminiscent of Royals manager Ned Yost knowing but generally ignoring that he must rest catcher Sal Perez more, Self can’t help himself when it comes to point guards Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham.
So it was that with less than 3 minutes left in a game KU led by 24, they still roamed the court (along with forward Perry Ellis).
Only after Ellis’ two free throws with 2:38 left made it 85-59 did Self pull them all, with Graham (34) and Mason (32) leading KU in minutes played, as they have all season.
“But it’s hard to take those two little guys out, you know?” Self said. “And they don’t get tired too often.”
Never mind that Mason made just 21 of 70 field goals over a seven-game stretch starting with and including 53 minutes played in KU’s triple-overtime win against Oklahoma.
It’s truly just a matter of conjecture what impact, if any, their playing time this week might have on their energy reservoir for the NCAA Tournament.
It’s easy to understand, though, why Self is enamored of what they infuse in this team.
With Kansas leading 27-21, it was on display with a dizzying 12-4 burst that put KU double-digits ahead for good via seven points, a steal and two assists by Graham and five points and an assist by Mason.
But that was only a glimpse of the dynamic that essentially was absent as KU has gone 4-3 in three NCAA tourneys since advancing to the national-title game in 2012. The very dynamic that was essential to the Tulsa and Illinois programs Self coaxed to Elite Eights in 2000 and 2001, the KU team he whisked to the 2008 national title and the 2012 Final Four team.
For Self, playing two points has made for the straightest line to deep postseason runs, something that was eclipsed by having guard personnel such as Kelly Oubre and Andrew Wiggins the last two seasons.
“Talented (but) the ball probably didn’t move and probably didn’t create easy opportunities for other guys near as much,” he said.
“So moving forward, recruiting-wise, we want to play two point guards: I’d play three if we could, as long as one of them was big enough to defend a three,” he said, adding, “The reality is, when Devonte’ and Frank play well, they drive us more than anybody else.”
In so many ways: from freeing guard Wayne Selden to gravitate towards his truer skill-set, to KU’s more vigorous transition game, to finding better shots for all.
That was well-reflected in the pair combining for 15 assists with 3 turnovers as KU made 32 of 56 from the field (57.1 percent).
“We’re the two best playmakers on the team, so Coach wants us to stay aggressive and get other guys easy shots, then create for ourselves,” said Mason, who had 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting with seven assists. “We have a lot of confidence in each other and ourselves.”
It’s an obvious difference to anyone who’s seen the last few KU teams and a great reminder that the game still rewards team play more than individual stardom.
It all flows from Mason and Graham, who also have become key constants for KU by ratcheting up their defense.
There is another significant element in all this, one that figures to loom large as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
A team that often in recent years has lacked animation (perhaps best symbolized by the expressionless Ellis being KU’s best player) now seems stoked by the complementary fusion of the expressive Graham and stone-faced Mason.
At a time when Self wants to see his team better understand that “pleasure should exceed pressure” and just play, no one has more influence than they do.
And, Self believes, Mason more so than Graham, even if Graham shows it more — enough to get scolded by referee Gerry Pollard Thursday when he squawked over a call.
If that’s counterintuitive to Mason’s grim demeanor, it radiates from his relentlessness.
“Let’s call it like it is: When Frank is playing really well and creating energy, to me everybody follows easier,” Self said. “Devonte’ is important, but to me Frank is the one as much as anything else.”
This assures nothing, of course, in the NCAA Tournament.
But it does speak to one of Self’s concerns as he considers a team he really likes but knows is prone to lapses in defense and rebounding.
What he does know with a group that likely will be the overall No. 1 seed when the brackets are revealed on Sunday is that it has in Mason and Graham two pillars of what he has seen make March magic.
So much so that he resists resting them even when he knows better.