Early Sunday morning, just before 9 a.m., Kansas coach Bill Self walked up to a makeshift free-throw line and clutched a basketball, the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean hanging over his left shoulder. One day before the start of the Maui Invitational, the eight coaches from the participating programs had gathered on the grounds of the Sheraton Maui Resort & Spa for an early-morning photo-op and a free-throw contest with local school children.
“I was a defender back in school,” Self warned the crowd.
The breezy atmosphere offered a stark contrast to what had been a turbulent week for Self and Kansas. In the span of six days, the Jayhawks took a gut-punch loss to Michigan State at the Champions Classic, Self suspended junior wing Brannen Greene for six games after a contentious incident in Chicago, and the KU athletic department began a public-relations war against the NCAA, voicing criticism for its handling of freshman Cheick Diallo’s initial eligibility case.
Here was a lighter moment. Self stroked a free throw toward a temporary basket, and the ball barely grazed the front of the rim.
“Oh god,” Self said. “I was a defender.”
Finally, No. 4 Kansas, 1-1, can return to the floor on Monday night, opening the Maui Invitational at 8 p.m. Central Time against host school Chaminade. If the Jayhawks can handle the Division II Silverswords, they will play the winner of UNLV-UCLA at 9 p.m. Tuesday. After six days off, the Jayhawks can focus on basketball again — and for that, Self is thankful.
The Jayhawks will likely have to move forward this week without the presence of Diallo, who is still waiting on the NCAA, or Greene, who is back home in Lawrence. The absence of Greene will put more pressure on a veteran backcourt that struggled against Michigan State, and much of the burden could fall on sophomore Svi Mykhailiuk, who could see added minutes off the bench after scoring nine points in 28 minutes during KU’s first two games.
“He’s a terrific shooter,” Self said. “But I would say we’re still waiting to see the real Svi. I think there’s a lot more he can give us.”
The same could be said for the rest of the backcourt. In the Jayhawks’ loss to Michigan State, starters Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Wayne Selden combined to shoot 9 of 36 from the floor, including 7 of 23 inside the three-point line. At times, Selden appeared to disappear, while Graham played slightly out of control. For all involved, the performance stung. So in the days after the loss, the three guards met as a group, working through the issues.
“We had a talk, just amongst each other, about us just playing better,” said Graham, who was 1 of 9 against Michigan State. “Because I feel like we all kind of played not as good as we’d hoped to. We just got to learn from it.”
For Graham, that meant working on his shot after struggling during Kansas’ first two games. At the moment, Self didn’t appear too concerned. On Sunday morning, Self said Graham, despite the off shooting night, actually graded out as the Jayhawks’ top guard against Michigan State, based on a staff breakdown of the film.
“He just needs the ball go in the basket,” Self said, “because I like how he’s playing.”
Self had a plethora of compliments for Graham’s play, citing his solid defense, rebounding and execution.
“He guards the ball pretty well,” Self said. “He’s probably as good a team defender as we have. He’s as good a rotation rebounder as we have, from a guard standpoint. He executes what we want to do from an offensive standpoint.
“He tries to put pressure on people and do what we ask him to do. He’s just not finishing with his shot. And I think when he starts shooting the ball better, it will obviously open up more things for him to do driving the ball.”
Graham and the rest of the guards will have three games in three days to work through the issues. The grueling schedule could also force senior forward Perry Ellis to play some minutes at the three, Self said, while freshman Lagerald Vick could also see some action. Vick was unavailable for the Michigan State game after suffering a scratch on his eye last week.
“Whether he’s ready or not, he’s going to be out there and he’s going to have to (play),” Self said. “He’s got to play in goggles, which has got him totally messed up right now. …
“I think he can help us. He’s excited to have that opportunity.”
Self wrapped up the free-throw shooting contest — his team didn’t win — and prepared for a relaxing morning before a practice at the Lahaina Civic Center in the afternoon. Four years ago, the Jayhawks came to Maui after a loss at the Champions Classic and advanced all the way to the championship game before falling to Duke. This time, even with Diallo waiting and Greene on the sideline, Self is ready for another run in Maui.