While leaning back against a wall outside his team’s locker room at Bramlage Coliseum, Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self was asked about being two games up with four to go in the Big 12 race.
The coach let his guard down for a second.
“I’m real proud of our guys,” Self said with a smile, “but we don’t need to relax at all.”
No. 2 KU, which has won seven straight games, will try to continue its strong run when it visits No. 19 Baylor at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
It’s quite a turnaround from four weeks ago, when KU’s chances of winning a 12th straight league title looked dire at best.
Following an 85-72 road loss to Iowa State on Jan. 25, KU had lost three of its last five and had dropped to a three-way tie for fourth in the Big 12 standings. At his weekly press conference that week, Self even talked about how he sensed from people in Lawrence that the sky was falling.
So what changed? How did KU win seven straight since that point, which included a non-conference win over Kentucky?
“I thought when we went through that rough stretch, we were just playing. We had no purpose behind our play,” Self said. “I feel like we’re playing with more of a purpose now.”
Self also has seen his team rebound with a new energy level. The coach says every Big 12 team will hit a stretch that seem like the “dog days” of the conference season.
KU, in this particular season, just hit that stint a little earlier than other years.
“Everybody will tell you they’ve run through 10 days of a wall,” Self said. “I don’t think what we were doing was any different than what we’ve done in the past and any different than what all teams go through across America. I don’t think there’s any team out there right now that’s good enough that they’re not going to have some lulls and talent will just prevail.”
Self also made an important lineup change late in January when he shifted junior forward Landen Lucas to a starting role, which has helped solidify the 5 position next to Perry Ellis.
Since Big 12 play began, Lucas has been the league’s second-best offensive rebounder and third-best defensive rebounder, according to the percentage of missed shots he’s pulled down.
“He does all the dirty work for us,” Self said.
Another benefit for KU has been getting some lineup consistency. When Self was shuffling his starters earlier in the season, he could sense it was difficult for his players to understand their roles from game to game.
“Just having a solid rotation — everybody knows who’s starting, who’s coming off the bench — even though it’s kind of been at the expense of the freshmen, I think it’s been good for our team,” Self said.
Lucas, of course, isn’t without his flaws. Self says there are times in practice when Lucas will do things that will drive him crazy. He’s also not the most explosive athlete and isn’t the type of rim-protector that Self typically has played in the middle.
There are still intangibles that Lucas provides. One example was against Kansas State on Saturday, as Lucas hustled to two rebounds that led to two fouls on K-State forward Dean Wade, who had to check out of the game in the first three minutes.
“Little things that go unnoticed,” Self said, “where nobody else on our team can make those plays.”
Self understands the significance of KU’s road game against Baylor. If the Jayhawks win, they can wrap up at least a share of the Big 12 title with a home victory over Texas Tech on Saturday.
“We’re in good shape, but we need to go play great on Tuesday,” Self said. “Now, if you win on Tuesday, you obviously put yourself in a terrific position.”