University of Kansas

Bill Self is in unfamiliar territory with this KU team’s biggest enigma

While Bill Self was speaking honestly about his frustrations Monday to reporters, I couldn’t help but think back to a moment from practice three years ago.

During a routine drill, Self screamed out to his players to stop, his voice echoing across KU’s practice gym.

“Cheick,” he yelled, “the least you can do is play hard!”

Forward Cheick Diallo was a McDonald’s All-American. He was one of the team’s best players and a future pro, but in that moment, it didn’t matter.

Self was not going to let any of his guys slide.

And the message was received quickly enough. The next play, Diallo outran a teammate for a defensive rebound, threw it to a guard, sprinted down the floor and finished a transition pass with a dunk.

This, in a nutshell, has been Self’s reality with KU for 15 years.

Ask former players why Self is a successful coach, and they’re likely to tell you this: He knows the right buttons to push.

The Hall of Famer is a master motivator, which creates a game within the game. Each player has a ceiling, Self believes, and finding the right mix to get each individual there can be exhausting and frustrating, but also exhilarating when it all comes together in the end.

How do you get Russell Robinson’s best? Challenge him in practice to the point he wants to prove you wrong. What do you do with Perry Ellis? Keep his spirits high by staying positive with him, even during mini-slumps.

On and on this has gone, even to this year’s team. Devonté Graham wasn’t sure he could be a leader until a sophomore-year meeting when Self told him to speak up more in practice. Two years later, the guard has developed into the unquestioned voice of the Jayhawks’ roster, both on and off the court.

Self also realized a few years back that his practice screams weren’t getting through to Svi Mykhailiuk, who was still struggling with the language barrier. It led to Self altering his coaching style while also working to build Mykhailiuk’s confidence; three years later, the guard is a 1,000-point scorer.

This all leads us to Lagerald Vick, who was the main recipient of Self’s harsh words Monday. This came after Self rewatched film of KU’s 84-79 home loss to Oklahoma State.

“I know as a staff, it’s more comforting to know that the guys you have out there will at least try their butt off to try to do what’s best for Kansas and best for our team,” Self said. “And we know Mitch (Lightfoot) is always going to do that.”

Lightfoot will be the one replacing Vick in the starting lineup Tuesday, which sent a clear message of Self’s frustration with his junior guard.

But it also signaled something else. This was a player Self believed in before anyone else did. The coach called him “one of the most underrated” in the Big 12 at Late Night in the Phog in September, and those appeared to be prophetic words when Vick averaged 17 points through the first 12 games.

Something has changed since then. Vick stopped being aggressive offensively, and also has seemingly lost interest too easily.

Here was the surprise, though: Self never could figure out how to get him going again. Vick wasn’t like other players who were predictable with their response to his tinkering. When the coach demanded one thing, Vick would often do another, leaving Self in an unfamiliar spot.

This all came to a head after Saturday. Self talked twice Saturday after the game about one play that stuck with him: a sequence in which Vick twice didn’t attempt to rebound, which led to the coach screaming from a few feet away.

But remember the Diallo scenario above? This is where so many other KU players have snapped back into focus, using Self’s words as fuel for the next few minutes.

Instead, Vick followed by dribbling a ball of his leg on the other end, then not giving effort to save it from going out of bounds.

I wasn’t with Self in the film room, but you have to believe after watching moments like this again, he decided a statement needed to be made.

This is a Hail Mary of sorts, mostly because it seems like Self is out of ideas. He’s tried all the normal methods with Vick, and none have worked thus far.

So the line has been drawn. This isn’t Self’s deepest team, and because of that, he’s let guys play through mistakes more freely than in the past.

Mistakes are different than effort, though. In the last two days, Self appears to be recommitting himself to something important when it comes to his players.

They might not make shots. They might not play well.

But the least they can do is play hard.

Jesse Newell: 816-234-4759, @jessenewell