Sam Mellinger

Bill Self's greatest strength seen in KU group of non-stars on doorstep of Final Four

KU’s Svi Mykhailiuk talks game strategy for Elite Eight game against Duke

Kansas Jayhawks guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk thinks there will be opportunities for KU against Duke's zone defense in Elite Eight game in NCAA Tournament
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Kansas Jayhawks guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk thinks there will be opportunities for KU against Duke's zone defense in Elite Eight game in NCAA Tournament

The words that follow are about the remarkable way Bill Self's Kansas basketball program has developed talent, particularly talent further down on recruiting lists, but before we get to the meat of the topic Norm Roberts would like a word.

Roberts is the assistant coach who's worked for Self every stop of his coaching career. He knows the stories as well as anyone, about the coaches licking stamps for letters begging for money at Oral Roberts to picking All-Americans for a program that built a $22 million museum to house the original rules of basketball.

He's proud of the work they've done at Kansas, particularly of this team playing through injuries and no depth and a top recruit who never played now facing Duke here on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four. But Roberts will also be the voice of reason.

"These stories all grow," Roberts said. "Soon, we'll be talking about, 'Marcus Morris couldn't even dunk. Joel Embiid couldn't even dribble.'"

Fair point, but the stories of player development at Kansas need no embellishment, and as much as anything else these are the backbone of an incredible run of success over Self's 15 years. Few teams, if any, embody that better than this one.

Devonté Graham was the nation's No. 65 recruit out of high school according to the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, and that was only after a year of prep school and the inevitable bump that comes from signing with Kansas.

He started zero games, and averaged 5.7 points as a freshman. Today, he is the Big 12 player of the year and a first-team All-America.

KU guard Devonté Graham says there was a nearly two-hour team meeting after the Jayhawks lost at home to Oklahoma State in February. Former KU players were honored at that game, which led to an awkward team banquet in which the loss was discussed.

He is the fourth first-team All-America for Self at Kansas, and they all fit the same general pattern. Frank Mason was the No. 89 recruit in his class, and averaged 5.5 points as a freshman. The most interesting thing about him at the time was a disproportionately braggadocious rap song, but dangit if three years later he wasn't the consensus national player of the year.

Thomas Robinson averaged 2.5 points and 7.2 minutes as a freshman. Two years later, he was a first-team All-America and the muscle behind Kansas' push to the national championship game in 2012.

Wayne Simien was a holdover from Roy Williams, and the No. 20 recruit out of high school, so he's the outlier here but the development was also stark — Simien was the conference player of the year and first-team All-America playing a completely different system than the one he signed to play in.

"Coach Self's system, it's great for you if you're a guard, if you're a big man, whatever," said Aaron Miles, Self's first point guard at KU and the school's all-time assists leader. "He's figured out a way to get the ball to everyone."

Some of the player development is absolutely schematic. Self came to Kansas running the high-low offense, which essentially meant playing through the post on every possession. After two years of running Williams' fast break, Miles said it felt like going from trying to win 100-99 to trying to win 1-0.

Simien is an important figure here, too. He was injured his senior year, and the other starting post player was walk-on Christian Moody. Self was most comfortable playing through his bigs, but now his best players were all guards.

Assistant Tim Jankovich, now the head coach at SMU, convinced Self in 2004-05 to try a new system based on ball screens that would let those guards create. Self agreed, but it was a bit like being forced to write with your off hand, and it didn't help that KU trailed by 16 to Georgia Tech its first game using the new system.

"This offense sucks," assistant Kurtis Townsend remembers Self saying at halftime. "This will never work."

But Kansas came back and won, and eight days later won again — without Simien — at Kentucky. That's when Self started to believe, enough that even when Simien returned they ran the ball-screen offense more than high-low.

This is indicative of a general pattern — Self came to Kansas stubborn, stuck in his ways, but is now among the nation's most adaptable star coaches. Last season, he started playing with four guards, and some former players would've been less surprised if he started four parakeets.

KU’s Malik Newman praised teammates when he struggled earlier in the season and talked about playing Duke in the Elite Eight in the Midwest Regional championship game for a spot in the Final Four.

Self's first year, Kansas ranked 126th in three-point attempts, and he once famously dismissed those shots as fools' gold. Now, his team shot more than anyone else in the conference and ranks 21st nationally.

Does anyone believe Graham would've developed into an All-America pick and Svi Mykhaliuk into an NBA prospect stuck in the old system?

"When I first got here, all (Self) was about was getting tough guys who we could teach how to play," said Townsend, who's been with Self 14 years at Kansas. "There wasn't, honestly, as much freedom offensively. We were going to run the high-low and reverse the ball two or three times. That's what we were going to do.

"Now he's evolved to more of a guy, 'Let's just get good players and get guys who can make plays.' It's more of the way the NBA plays, than a college team that takes time."

Self can throw more pitches now, in other words, which is why the players who've developed the most under him — Mason, Robinson, Graham, Marcus Morris, Jeff Withey, Tyshawn Taylor and others — range from under 6-feet to over 7-feet, from shooters to scorers, guards to shot blockers.

Self does a lot well. He recruits, he coaches, he schmoozes, he's great with the media and better with boosters, all of it amplified by the resources at Kansas. He is not the most successful coach of his generation, but he's close and he is the most consistent.

Self's record is far from perfect with player development. Josh Selby is the most notable miss. But KU's lack of down years largely comes from a pool of talent ready to fill whatever holes are left from the year before, some combination of recruited and improved enough to keep the success rolling.

That's never been truer than this year, when the four leading scorers are a transfer and three guys who averaged a combined 12.8 points as freshmen.

Self named Mason and Graham when asked which of his players at Kansas improved the most from start to finish. Graham signed with Appalachian State out of high school, and will now have his jersey retired in the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.

Should be fun to see how those stories grow about him, too.

"No doubt," Roberts said. "It'll be, 'He came to us a short little guy, and then grew tall into this powerful guard.'"

Kansas Jayhawks coach Bill Self spoke March 24, 2018 about playing Duke in the NCAA Midwest Regional championship game in Omaha.