Still think KU is playing soft? Malik Newman, Bill Self don't
The video clip was on repeat. Play, rewind. Play, rewind.
It was the film session after Kansas' home loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 3, and KU coach Bill Self wouldn't let one moment pass.
The snippet was from late in the second half. KU trailed by nine when Oklahoma State guard Kendall Smith lost control of the ball, his pass sailing helplessly away toward the baseline.
It could have been a KU steal. Instead, guard Malik Newman reacted a half-second late, allowing Oklahoma State's Cameron McGriff to catch it before taking one dribble and putting home a game-sealing slam.
The problem for Newman was clear on second and third glance.
On one of the game's most important defensive possessions, he was grabbing his shorts.
"Malik," Self said, "you've got to be kidding me."
The moment was just the continuation of a season-long struggle for Self, who couldn't figure out a way to get through to one of his most talented players.
So what happened? How, in the span of a few weeks, did Newman go from scorned to savior for these Jayhawks?
Assistant coach Kurtis Townsend smiles in the entrance of KU's locker room Thursday. He's seen stories like this play out before.
"Coach," he says, "did an unbelievable job with him."
To understand what Self values, one needs to know about his unofficial grading system.
Each practice — and each game too, after film review — players are ranked based on their "energy points."
And there are lots of ways to earn those.
Offensive rebounds, steals and deflections are three of those categories. An intern keeps the official count at workouts, marking tallies under a player's name for each positive contribution.
And this was an issue for Malik Newman.
"He was the lowest every day," Townsend said.
Self let him hear about it too. How could teammate Devonté Graham have 10 energy points in practice and Newman only one? Was the transfer guard even trying?
The coach's frustration grew over time ... even with an admission among staff members that they'd partially created their own dilemma.
Newman, a former top-10 recruit came to KU with the reputation of a scorer. His whole life, he was told to shoot, shoot, shoot, basing his basketball worth on whether his attempts went through.
KU's coaches only fed into that last season.
Newman was placed on the scout team during his redshirt year, and he was told to challenge KU's guards with an offensive focus. Defensively, he was asked to mimic the upcoming opponent's style with little attention given to his effort there.
"We didn't hold him accountable defensively in practice," Townsend said. "Then when he started the year, coach started holding him accountable, and that was a little different for him."
And Self couldn't figure out how to properly motivate Newman to play better defense.
He tried taking Newman out of the starting lineup for three games to start the Big 12 season before relenting. Then, after Newman had another uninspired practice in early February, Self brought him off the bench again in KU's 80-64 road loss to Baylor, saying, "I’m really kind of tired of starting guys that don’t really put themselves in a position from what we need to do (from an) intangible standpoint."
At that moment, Self and Newman appeared to be at a crossroads.
"Coach was just trying to pull whatever string he could," Townsend said, "to get him to realize what's important."
The eventual shift, though, would come from Self, who decided to try something different in an attempt to bring out his guard's potential.
In practices, Self stopped complimenting Newman for anything he did on the offensive end. Instead, he made sure to point out every time he was doing something well defensively.
The type of encouragement varied from practice to practice. "Good, Malik, you're in a great position there." "Hey, that was great, bluffing and getting back to your guy." "Hey, good job digging the ball out of the post."
Townsend slowly started to see a change. The player who had always gotten positive reinforcement for his shooting was now receiving it in a different way.
"I think it made him feel good," Townsend said.
And the mind-set change came shortly after that.
Newman, who had no steals in KU's last three regular-season games, started running through passing lanes while picking up a combined seven swipes during the Jayhawks' three-game run in the Big 12 Tournament.
He was a different player in practice as well. After lagging behind in energy points all season, Newman consistently finished in the top three or four.
"It was a process," Newman said of his improvement. "It was just me finding myself and doing a lot of soul-searching. I never doubted myself. I was just trying to find the person I knew I was."
Self has been quick to trust Newman late in the season. The guard has told his coach he wants to go against the opponent's best perimeter player, and Self has let him, something that played out in KU's 85-81 overtime victory over Duke in the Elite Eight.
Newman's assignment was preseason All-American Grayson Allen, who finished with 12 points on 3-for-13 shooting.
Townsend said Newman's performance was even better than that. One of Allen's field goals came after he was switched onto a teammate, while a second was in the game's final moments with the outcome already decided.
The player who was benched partly for his defensive effort last month? He'd effectively held Duke's best guard to a single field goal.
Right in stride
In the minutes after KU's victory over Duke, Newman walked through the hallway of CenturyLink Center in Omaha before turning around to face Self.
Graham had just made a comment about the team earning a few more film sessions, and Newman — because of this season's history — knew he was best suited to deliver a punch line.
"You're going to bust a gasket for no reason for another week," he told his coach with a smile.
Self didn't break stride while turning to Newman's teammates.
"You know I'll find some way to bust his ass," he said with a laugh.
The two have pushed each other this season, yet both have come out better for it.
Self will appear in his third Final Four this weekend, while Newman will enter Saturday as KU's "most consistent and best player," according to his coach, since the Jayhawks' postseason began.
Though Newman has stopped by Townsend's office often, his visit there this week held extra significance.
"He said, 'I know. I'm glad you guys stayed on me, because that's what I needed," Townsend said, retelling the story. "'No one had ever done that to me.'"
Townsend, more than anything, is proud of Newman. He's seen other players brought up in today's AAU culture who have shut down under similar circumstances, blaming coaches and those around them for any issues they might have.
Newman stuck with it. He kept faith in himself and the journey. He kept his head up when there was little reason to.
And because of that, he changed for the better.
Right there along with his coach.