On the surface, anyway, Kansas coach Bill Self spent much of KU’s game Thursday against Austin Peay exuding much the same sharp disposition from the 53 previous NCAA Tournament games he coached.
Charming as Self is away from the court, in the fever of competition he cajoles and coaxes with a certain cutting edge.
So in the Jayhawks’ 105-79 first-round victory, that included abruptly hooking freshman forward Carlton Bragg for a miscue after a 42-second cameo.
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It meant bellowing “What are you doing? Good God!” at Svi Mykhailiuk even as he played the game of his life.
And it meant the usual dollops of Self’s standard term for the most intolerable of offenses: just … being … “soft.”
Even so, subtly as it might have been, Self still was radiating something to his players that they’ve absorbed for weeks now.
Something that has provided some thrust for KU’s ascension to the overall No. 1 seed and its 15-game winning streak as it prepares to play No. 9 seed Connecticut on Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena.
And perhaps all the more meaningfully, something these players hadn’t felt much along the way to stumbling in the second round the last two years.
This team enjoys the trust of Self, who knows it’s a more healthy, mature and whole group than the last two versions were — and has made it a point to inject that notion into them, and reinforce it.
Part of that is not projecting his anxieties on them as much in the cauldron of the postseason — even if Self didn’t quite embrace the suggestion that he is not as tight as he has been.
“I don’t think that I’m doing anything consciously; I just think I’m always loose,” he deadpanned, then smiled and added, “No, I’m joking … (But) I think it’s said a lot that teams take on the personality of the head coach; I think sometimes the coach can take on the personality of the team.
“And in our particular situation, these guys over an extended period of time have played a certain way, and they have given us all confidence on how they played.
“So I don’t think it’s anything that I’m consciously trying to do different. I think these guys have kind of brought that out in me.”
Of course, Self helped bring something out of them, too.
At least in part, that was through a meeting in which he implored Devonte’ Graham to exert his personality on what at the time was a team of “duds” — Self’s word — that had lost three out of five games.
“As the season went on, we changed and he changed. Some things had to change,” Graham said. “And one of the things was he gave us more freedom. But with that, it took a lot more responsibility from us.”
Whatever the chicken-and-egg quotient in all this is, it’s clear that the dynamics of the team — and how it perceives its coach — have radically shifted from the last two particularly stinging postseasons.
Each of those flameouts was hampered by key injuries late in the season, influenced by the flux of youth and one-and-dones on the roster, and, in hindsight, Self’s regrets that he got away from a formula that he long has favored for postseason success: having multiple point guards in the lineup at the same time.
Contrast that with the 2016 postseason, in which Kansas has a more structured identity and roles better understood.
And with that a coach who has so urged his players to cut loose and have fun and just be guys who can weather his withering gameday words in a different way.
The message of faith in them has been transmitted in a variety of ways, including Self’s rare display of raw sentimentality when he cried during Jamari Traylor’s senior-day send-off at Allen Fieldhouse.
“He’s a lot more open and a lot more free; he’s not as mean, I guess,” Traylor said, smiling and adding that he was moved by the love Self has for him and the bond they share.
Less overtly, forward Landen Lucas says he senses Self understands that the last couple of years his anxieties “might have carried over onto the team a little bit.”
Now, Lucas says, Self is more relaxed and gets how “self-aware” this team of veterans is … and that he knows that without Self even having to say it.
He also can tell it even when Self might let loose even as he seeks to keep them loose.
“Naturally, you get a sense of people, and just everything they say and every action that they do kind of comes across as one way or another,” Lucas said. “And so he really doesn’t have to say something extreme to let us know.
“We can just kind of feel that; I think that’s the biggest difference.”
How much of a difference that actually makes, and whether the feeling will hold up as the tournament intensifies, of course, remains to be seen as KU tries to advance to the Sweet 16 and beyond.
That’s something Self has managed 10 times in a career in which he’s 38-16 in NCAA play overall and 28-11 with a national title and two Final Fours at KU.
That’s remarkable success, by any rational measure.
But since it’s not perfection, it’s lent itself to questioning what’s gone wrong with early ousters.
One theory is that Self’s state of agitation can smother his team, and with the benefit of hindsight — or is it confirmation bias? — you can look back at some of the losses and see instances that fit the narrative.
Whatever the reality, Self is too smart, too psychologically attuned and too, well, self-aware not to have thought about how he can do his job better. He doubtlessly has reflected on the impact of the vibe he sends his team.
Even if he doesn’t quite want to admit it and can’t always help himself, what matters is that his players sense something different emanating from him.
And thus he has come to trust them more. And/or vice-versa.
That may or may not prove pivotal in what comes next.
But it seems to be a fine and good thing for them all to know, and it could be a key distinction from what went awry the last two years.
Even if it might not look so much different from the outside looking in.