Kansas coach Bill Self has used all the motivational ploys before.
When his team has tied for a regular-season conference crown, he’s told his players that the Big 12 Tournament was the tiebreaker. When his team has won it outright, he’s talked about it being time to validate what had already occurred.
The coach admits it might be a little bit different this time as No. 1 KU prepares to play either Kansas State or Oklahoma State around 2 p.m. in Thursday’s quarterfinals at the Sprint Center.
With a 27-4 record, Big 12 championship and top rating in nearly every ranking system, the Jayhawks have all but assured themselves a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
And that could change how Self approaches this week’s Big 12 tourney.
“Is it as important as the following week? No. Will we play injured guys to try to win? Absolutely not,” Self said. “But it is something that our guys will take seriously and know how important it is.”
It’s an interesting dilemma for sure.
Three years ago, KU researchers Matt Andre and Andrew Fry — with help from strength coach Andrea Hudy — conducted a study on KU basketball players’ stress levels throughout the season by testing the Jayhawks’ saliva. One interesting finding was that KU players’ testosterone-to-cortisol levels plummeted just before the NCAA Tournament — a potential sign that fatigue and stress were keeping the Jayhawks from their peak performance.
Could limiting minutes potentially help with that? Andre believed it was possible, and discussions about the benefits of additional rest also are circulating at the NBA level.
Golden State coach Steve Kerr limited the playing time of stars such as Stephen Curry late in last year’s regular season before a championship run, and he’s already promised to do the same this season, even if it costs the Warriors a chance at beating the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 victories.
Self was asked Monday about how his plan for healthy players in the upcoming Big 12 Tournament.
“I’m not going to say we’re cutting minutes back. I’m not going to say that,” Self said. “But the ideal role if we could be successful would be to certainly not tax our guys 100 percent.”
Though some might argue teams need positive momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament, Self wouldn’t be among that group. He cites the example of the 2011-12 season when Baylor beat KU 81-72 in the Big 12 semifinals. After the loss, KU won five in a row and reached the national championship game.
“I don’t know if there’s a true correlation between the appearance of being hot at the end,” Self said, “and actually that extending.”
So Self is left with a tournament in his team’s backyard that doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. He’s also coached in it enough to know that winning is a lot more fun than losing early.
“If you get to the finals, then you’ve got to win,” Self said. “If you don’t get to the finals and win, you’re almost better off not getting to the finals (to) get an extra day of rest.”
Self understands that a championship game appearance Saturday creates some challenges. The team takes off Sunday, though that’s a stressful day because it’s when the brackets are released. That leaves Monday and Tuesday as the only true preparation days for the NCAA Tournament (Wednesday is a media availability and open practice day at the arena site), and following a three-games-in-three-days stretch, some coaches elect to give their players Monday off as well.
That doesn’t allow much time to recover and prepare for the most important two games of the season that week.
Which brings Self back to the topic of this weekend’s Big 12 Tournament. In a perfect world? Self says he’d love to win it without wearing his players out.
“I will not take away the importance of it to our team,” Self added, “but deep down in my core, I know it’s not as important as being prepared to play the next week.”