Bill Self grabbed the remote control off his desk in the Kansas men’s basketball coach’s office, putting an interview on mute as he turned up the volume on a big-screen HDTV hanging just a few feet away.
“I’d gotten to know him a little bit just through different sporting events that he’s covered. He was a good dude,” Self, KU’s 14th-year coach, said while watching ESPN’s report on the death of broadcaster John Saunders at the age of 61.
“I’ve been on shows he’s hosted. He seemed like a great guy,” Self added in a respectful tone.
Returning to business at hand, Self, after silencing the screen, told a pair of Kansas City Star reporters he’s been able to keep up on current events the past couple of weeks during a rare break in his hectic schedule.
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His Jayhawks players scattered to their respective hometowns at the conclusion of the second session of summer school on July 29. They were told to return before the start of first-semester classes on Monday, Aug. 22.
“I’ve watched quite a bit,” Self said of the 2016 Summer Olympics. “The only reason I’m not glued to the tube (for NBC’s coverage) is because I’m too busy flipping channels between CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, seeing what reality TV it brings us today. It’s unbelievable,” he added with a smile, ostensibly referring to daily sound bites from the Presidential campaign trail.
Though Self didn’t mind addressing all sorts of topics on a slow summer day, he beamed when asked about the impending arrival of his players and prospects for a stellar 2016-17 season.
“I’m as excited this year as any year that we’ve had,” Self said. “I really like our returning guys (including likely starters Devonté Graham, Frank Mason III, Carlton Bragg and Landen Lucas) and I think our recruiting class (Josh Jackson, Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot) has a chance to make a very immediate impact. The guys returning have all had good summers. I’m very excited about the season.”
He said the Jayhawks figure to be even more energized from the start than last season’s 33-5 squad, which spent much of the summer winning the 2015 World University Games in South Korea. This summer, junior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk competed for Ukraine at the Under-20 European Championships in Finland, while Graham, Mason and Bragg spent a weekend at the Adidas Nations camp in California.
“That probably has helped,” Self said of not having many summertime commitments, “that batteries are recharged, whereas last year I think we all were a little bit tired going into the year, even though with the exception of a couple weeks in late January, early February we really didn’t play tired. We’re a much more rested team, hopefully a team that will be able to play to last year’s team.
“I think we’re more eager to get things started due to the fact we’ve had basically a much lighter summer.”
As far as any question marks heading into individual workouts and the official Oct 1 start to the season, Late Night in the Phog, Self said junior forward Dwight Coleby should be ready to practice full speed upon returning to campus. He had left ACL surgery last Oct. 17.
“We’re hoping when he comes back he’s full-go,” Self said. “We still haven’t seen Dwight at full speed. He has to continue to work at it in rehab but also has to get some confidence to go on it (knee). He’s not behind, but if he doesn’t start out full speed he could get behind. I am hopeful that’s not the case.”
Practices figure to be as intense as ever, especially with former Mississippi State guard Malik Newman able to work out but not play in games in 2016-17 as he fulfills NCAA transfer requirements. Newman, who was ranked No. 8 in the recruiting Class of 2015 by Rivals.com, figures to have some ultra-competitive practice battles versus Jackson, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2016 by Rivals.
Both play the same combo guard position, though Jackson is 6 feet 8 and Newman 6-3.
“I’m not even thinking like that,” Self said. “I haven’t even remotely thought about how they would match up just one against the other. Malik is going to have to guard Josh or Svi, Lagerald (Vick), Frank or Devonté every day just like Evan Maxwell (transfer from Liberty) is going to have to guard Udoka or Landen or Carlton every day.
“I think from Malik’s standout it’s a big year for him to kind of get his health back and get his mojo back so to speak, to put him in position to be a leader on next year’s team.”
One of the veterans on this year’s team is Self’s son, Tyler, a walk-on in his fifth year with the program. Bill Self was asked if he’ll become “emotional” coaching Tyler one final campaign.
“I haven’t cried yet today,” Bill Self said with a smile. “I don’t know if that (emotional) is the right word but I’m really looking forward to this year with the guys. It may get to that point where it is like that during the season. I know there’s nothing I have enjoyed more in coaching than having my son on the team.”
Some have suggested Self may seriously entertain coaching in the NBA after Tyler moves on.
“I haven’t heard anybody say that,” Self said. “I don’t think that’s the case at all. Nothing has changed with me on how I feel about my job or the college game right now. There are frustrations out there in all professions. To me I feel I have the best of the best here.”
Self on the Summer Games
Self, who was speaking before the Olympics reached the halfway point, said his KU players could learn some valuable lessons from the competitors in Rio.
“I think the Olympics can be a source of motivation for everybody and there’s so many unique and great stories that come out of it,” Self said. “It’s amazing some of the sacrifices so many have had to make to get where they are considered among the world’s elite.”
Like everybody else, he’s been amazed at the performance of 31-year-old swimmer Michael Phelps.
“I’m impressed with anybody that’s good enough to win a gold medal, but to do it in five different Olympics, that’s crazy to me. Think of that, that’s basically 20 years of training,” Self said of the Baltimore native who has won 23 Olympic gold medals.
“I’ll tell you another one that’s impressed me: the 41-year-old gymnast (Oksana Chusovitina of Uzbekistan) that qualified for the finals (in the vault). Forty-one years old … to me that’s just unbelievable.
“The Olympics to me is different because basketball is huge for the Olympics, but you still have the NBA championships. Soccer is huge in the Olympics but you still have the World Cup. Tennis is huge but you still have Wimbledon and the majors, same with golf. It seems to me gymnastics, swimming and track — this to me is the main thing at least from my perspective,” Self added, noting he was amazed at the athleticism of gymnast Simone Biles.
“Did you see how high she jumped? She’s 10 feet off the ground. It’s unbelievable,” he stated.
As far as Self’s sport — hoops — he had words of praise for U.S. men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke, who is seeking a third consecutive Olympic title.
“The time and effort that has been put forth (by Krzyzewski) with USA Basketball, that’s something you applaud, because it’s good for our game. It’s good for our country from a competitive standpoint,” Self said. “There’s a lot of good that comes out of that and whoever was coaching the team, if it was a collegiate coach, would certainly receive a boost because of all the things that come along with that.”
Self was asked if he was concerned Krzyzewski perhaps had an advantage in recruiting high schoolers to Duke because of his status as a legendary Olympic coach.
“I am not upset at all,” Self said, “because I think it helps in recruiting if you are on commercials. It helps in recruiting if you win more. It helps in recruiting if you have better facilities. It helps in recruiting obviously with whatever type exposure or bells and whistles or contacts you can have with recruits. Those things all help in recruiting (not just coaching the Games).”
Self’s name had been mentioned once or twice on a list of possible successors to Krzyzewski as Olympic coach.
“They already hired Pop,” Self said of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who indeed takes over for Coach K after the 2016 Games.
What if Self was asked to be an Olympic assistant at some point?
“My involvement with USA Basketball has been very limited compared to a lot of folks,” Self said. “I’m sure if there are collegiate guys that will be on staff, I’m sure they will be guys who have experience with USA Basketball that probably far exceeds mine.”