The annual freakout came a little early this year. Kansas basketball being dissected and picked apart and fretted over usually happens in January (lost three of five in 2016) or after the last game before Christmas break (a 25-point loss to Temple in 2014) or sometimes even in February (the Henry T’s meeting in 2008).
But, the freakout almost always comes, and Bill Self always — aaalllwwwaaayyysss — wins another Big 12 title anyway. Then, everyone moves on and waits for the Elite Eight game.
Self has, literally, made a Hall of Fame career by funneling the outside stress into production and focus. This is often one of the easiest columns of the year to write, because he always — again, aaalllwwwaaayyysss — gets out of the freakout. But, well, this one feels at least a little different.
“I think it feels pretty familiar,” Self said.
And, actually, that’s part of why this feels a little different.
Self, like many successful coaches, is by nature hardest on his guys when they’re doing well and by learned habit brightest with them when they’re not.
That’s basic psychology, and as he talked to reporters before practice here on Thursday afternoon, Self was constantly reminding himself to stay positive, and constantly noting that he was speaking negatively.
“I’m optimistic,” he said about freshman Billy Preston’s eligibility, before noting the decision is entirely out of KU’s hands.
“I love Sam,” he said about transfer Sam Cunliffe, before noting he’ll play sparingly and isn’t as good as the five guards currently playing.
“I don’t mean that negatively,” he said when noting that not being able to bench players because of depth concerns makes coaching this team more difficult.
This is a coach trying to counsel himself through the problems of two consecutive losses, and before we get too much further into this let’s at least acknowledge the crazy standards that exist around this program.
Kansas gave Kentucky its only loss. KU lost to Washington in a bit of a one-off, a night when Self failed to adjust effectively to an extreme defensive gimmick, and the Jayhawks didn’t shoot or defend well enough. Then KU lost its next game, to Arizona State, who on that afternoon was accurate on 14 of 28 three-pointers and currently ranks No. 5 in the country.
Like most of KU basketball’s problems, hundreds of college programs would love to be so troubled.
Cunliffe will play for the first time at Nebraska on Saturday, and if nothing else he gives KU an eighth scholarship player to help the five guards above him on the depth chart avoid wearing down.
In the last three games, Devonte Graham has played all but one minute, an unsustainable pace, and you could not watch the Arizona State game without believing stamina was a major issue.
More notably, Self expects to learn the SAT score of Silvio De Sousa, a major step in the 2018 class’s No. 25 recruit reclassifying to play this season with Kansas. Preston’s eligibility is mostly a mystery, with Self giving regular and vague non-updates, as anxious as anyone for the 2017 class’s No. 11 recruit to play.
Those last two would be particularly important, because at the moment Udoka Azubuike is the only eligible player taller than 6-foot-8. Mitch Lightfoot is currently KU’s second-best big man. Kansas has not played even a single minute of a meaningful game with two bigs on the court together. All of that changes when and if either De Sousa or Preston are eligible.
All of it changes in a major way when and if both are eligible.
“We can also become a very, very deep team in a short amount of time, too,” Self said. “Right now, we don’t know what our team is, or what it will be.”
This is a strange place for KU to find itself. Self must wear the consequences of the uncertainty, and not just because the players get scholarships and stipends while the coach is on a $53 million contract.
Former forwards Carlton Bragg, Dwight Coleby and Jack Whitman would all help in varying ways and degrees, and all were dismissed in varying fashion. Instead of pursuing lower recruits — potential “program guys” — they signed forwards Dedric and K.J. Lawson, and guard Charlie Moore, but those are transfers and this is the gap year.
Self has a long history of getting the crucial recruit but missed on several, most prominently No. 2 recruit Marvin Bagley, No. 8 Collin Sexton and No. 16 Trae Young. Any of those would fundamentally change the way KU is able to play at the moment.
The nature of college basketball means a different challenge every year, but this is one Self has yet to face in his 15 years at Kansas.
Cunliffe is one more body, and Self can try to protect against exhaustion by using some zone defense — but in college basketball all that matters are tournament games still 91 days away. KU is a little different, because the conference title streak is A Thing, but we’re still two full weeks from the league opener.
How much should Self change to fix problems now, when the important games and the best solutions are all in the future?
This is a strange sort of holding pattern, then, where KU continues to play games shorthanded while remaining unsure when — and, if we’re being technical, if — that full roster will be available.
This is a real problem, in other words, and a different one than all the years when KU’s biggest concern was making the developments over a six month season typical of good college teams.
KU has to do all that this year, but it also must rely and wait on two critical eligibility decisions that in the end are entirely out of its control.
“I’m hopeful,” Self said. “I’m optimistic.”
Which is how you know these challenges are different, and real.