Oklahoma State head basketball coach Brad Underwood, who has known Bill Self since the 1980s, fired a text to Kansas’ 14th-year coach earlier this week.
“He did want to make sure I knew the game was sold out on Saturday,” Self said of the Big 12 regular-season finale between the No. 1-ranked Jayhawks (27-3, 15-2 Big 12) and Underwood’s unranked, but red-hot Cowboys (20-10, 9-8).
Underwood — a former Kansas State guard whose host on his recruiting trip to Oklahoma State in 1984 happened to be Self, who at that time played for Oklahoma State. Underwood, in his recent text, didn’t need to explain to Self how loud it’ll be during Saturday’s 5 p.m., contest in Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater, Okla.
Self has both played and coached in the building when it’s been full.
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“If you haven’t seen Gallagher when it’s jumping, it’s as good as any place in America,” Self said.
Self’s KU teams have compiled a 15-8 overall record against Oklahoma State, but just a 3-6 mark in Gallagher-Iba Arena, where KU has dropped three straight games and five of seven. Oklahoma State enters Saturday’s game having 10 of its last 12 games overall. The Cowboys are 11-4 at home this year.
“I think our guys are pretty tough,” Self said. “I think they enjoy playing in front of rowdy atmospheres. We played in front of our fair share this year. I think it will be a great test for our guys, but our guys usually like playing in those type situations.”
The Big 12 champion Jayhawks are 7-1 on the road in conference play this season, losing only at West Virginia, where coincidentally Kansas has dropped four straight games.
“This is a time where I just hope our guys go down there and play with a free mind and love to play with each other and know that it (season) is coming to an end at some point shortly,” Self said, asked about KU’s motivation for a game it doesn’t need to win league.
“We just want to make it last as long as we can and make the most out of each opportunity, and this is certainly another opportunity,” added Self, whose team wrapped up its 13th straight Big 12 title back on Feb. 22 with three conference games still to play.
Possible motivation Saturday could be the Kansas players’ desire to protect their No. 1 national ranking. Kansas moved to the top spot in The Associated Press poll for the first time this season on Monday. A loss would likely mean a short stay at No. 1.
The only other time KU visited Gallagher-Iba Arena as the No. 1 ranked team in the AP poll was on Feb. 27, 2010. The Cowboys, who went 22-11 in 2009-10 and 9-7 in the league, hit 60.4 percent of their shots in an 85-77 victory over a KU team that went 33-3, 15-1 that season.
“It’s good,” Kansas senior Landen Lucas said of the atmosphere in Gallagher-Iba. “A lot of times I’ve been there, even if it hasn’t been all the way full, it’s been loud. They get into it. Something about it has prevented us from winning, along with good players and their team. I heard this weekend is supposed to be pretty packed. They’ll be ready to go I’m sure. I’ve heard stories how loud it can get in there. I’m definitely looking forward to go down there and playing.”
Lucas said it’s important for Kansas to win despite the fact the Jayhawks likely have already wrapped up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s on the guys who were here the last couple years, make sure we stay motivated,” Lucas said. “We understand how important momentum is going into the (NCAA) tournament, how important confidence is. You don’t want to go into the tournament — even if you are a 1-seed — coming off a couple losses.
“We want the same momentum we had last season going into it. That helped us the first couple rounds to get us to a game like Villanova (loss in Elite Eight). At that point in time, it’s just a couple of possessions and anything can happen.”
Kansas overcame an 11-point first-half deficit to trip Oklahoma State, 87-80, on Jan. 14 at Allen Fieldhouse. Oklahoma State forward Jeffrey Carroll scored 23 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Sophomore guard/NBA prospect Jawun Evans contributed 15 points (on 6-of-22 shooting) with six assists against four turnovers. Senior guard Phil Forte, the son of former Kansas football player Phil Forte, scored 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting (2 of 8 on three-pointers) with six boards. Oklahoma State junior forward Mitchell Solomon had 16 points and four rebounds. KU countered with 22 points from Frank Mason, 21 from Devonté Graham and 20 from Josh Jackson.
“A lot of people are touting Jawun Evans for a lot of national honors, All-American teams and things like that, which I think he’s deserving,” Self said.
The 5-foot-11 Forte, who is Oklahoma State’s all-time leading three-point shooter (323-814 for 39.7 percent), has averaged 13.3 points a game while compiling a 3-5 record versus KU. As a sophomore, he hit seven threes and scored 23 points in an 80-78 loss at Allen Fieldhouse. He’s 17 of 54 (.315) on three-pointers versus KU in his career.
“We recruited Phil,” Self said of the Flower Mound, Texas native who has his Senior Day on Saturday along with Leyton Hammonds. “(Forte’s) mother was in the same sorority here as Julie Manning (wife of Danny Manning), and his dad played football here when Danny was here. So we’ve known of Phil, and we recruited Phil.
“I’m happy for he and his family with the success that he’s had. People talk about Perry (Ellis) being around a long time. Phil’s been around. He came in the same recruiting class as Perry, and he’s still there. But he’s obviously a tremendous shooter that you can just tell has worked so hard on his game to get better each and every year. He’s tough. One thing as a coach you can be a fan of other players on other teams obviously, and there’s a lot of them that I am, but certainly I’m a big fan of his.”
Self also is a fan of first-year Cowboy coach Underwood.
“He would be my pick for conference coach of the year without question,” Self said. “I think there’s a lot of guys that have done good jobs, but I don’t think anybody has done a better job than Brad. Certainly, they played a hard schedule to start the conference. I mean, you look at their games, and so it would be hard to have a great record playing those six games to start. But to start out 0-6 (vs. West Virginia, Texas, Baylor, Iowa State, KU, Kansas State), and then what did they win, like eight league games in a row, something like that? (The Cowboys won five in row, and 10 of 11.) It’s pretty remarkable. He’s done a fabulous job. He’s a good coach, good guy, and he fits that university very well from the outside looking in.”
Underwood, who was born in McPherson, Kan., knows all about KU’s program and his buddy, Self.
“What Bill has done is remarkable. Winning is doggone hard,” Underwood said. “We are trying to get there.”
A win over No. 1 Kansas on Saturday would give Oklahoma State a boost in terms of national attention.
“They’re really good. There’s a reason they’re No. 1 in the country,” Underwood said of the Jayhawks. “They arguably are going to have the league MVP (Frank Mason). They arguably are going to have one of the top three picks in the draft (Josh Jackson), but it’s a team that’s a lot more than that. They are gifted offensively. We’ve got to be sound literally on every possession. We’re playing better. They’ve maintained that level for a very long time.”
Self named coach of year candidate
Kansas’ Self has been named one of 10 national semifinalists for the Naismith College Coach of the Year, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced Friday. Self won the honor in 2012 and has been a finalist seven times. Other semifinalists this year: Chris Collins, Northwestern; Scott Drew, Baylor; Mark Few, Gonzaga; Bob Huggins, West Virginia; Tim Jankovich, SMU; Sean Miller, Arizona; Rick Pitino, Louisville; Mike White, Florida and Jay Wright, Villanova. Four finalists will be announced on March 16.
Vitale honors KU players, coach
ESPN’s Dick Vitale on Friday released his end of the season awards for each conference. Frank Mason won Big 12 player of the year, Josh Jackson “diaper dandy” of the year and Bill Self coach of the year.