Tournament expectations are certainly different at Tulsa and Oral Roberts. There, the expectation is to just get in and anything after that was gravy. At Illinois, we hadn’t been to the Sweet 16 in awhile, so when we able to go to the Elite 8 the first year, I think that kind of elevated it a little bit.
I don’t really feel the pressures are different. Wherever you are, there are going to be pressures to succeed and you probably put more on yourself than the outside influences will put on you.
So, expectations are high at Kansas – very, very high. But you know something? They should be high. They should be high at Illinois. When you win three league championships in four years and finish second in the other, expectations should be high there, too. And I think it’s fun to coach at a place with great expectations, because that usually means you have good players. When you have good players, expectations rise because people expect.
What’s it like having a number of players with nothing but Final 4 experience?
Coach: I think that it’s both good and bad, I really do. I think it’s more good than bad.
I think guys expect, and guys believe that it can happen. Some people hope it can happen; they’ve seen it happen. But with all that success, other teams and other players can become hungrier than you, because they want so bad what you had.
When you haven’t experienced anything else, you don’t know what it’s like to be like the rest of America. Kansas has had elite seasons. They haven’t been elite teams; they’ve had elite seasons the last two seasons and they haven’t really gone through much. This year when we went through some stuff, it was good for us because in my opinion, we weren’t tough enough to win games in March if we hadn’t gone through it.
Now, whether we do remains to be seen, but I certainly think the negatives have helped us. But I think, come tournament time, you like to have guys that expect good things to happen this time of year.
What do you do differently to prepare when so many players are hurt?
That’s been frustrating because a lot of times we have guys out there working on situations that – no disrespect intended -- aren’t going to be in the game during those situations. You’re work on end-of-shot-clock or you’re ahead three with a minute left, whatever, and you’ve got guys out there who aren’t going to be in those situations. To me, as a coach, that’s the most challenging thing because you can never get a feel for your team. I feel great about our team based on how we played a week ago. I don’t know how we’ve played in the last week because I haven’t really seen them together.
You recruited Chicago heavily when you were at Illinois, and UIC has 10 or 11 players who came from the Chicago public league. What are Chicago kids like?
One thing about kids from the public league: they’re tough. Chicago high school basketball is as good as any city’s in America. It’s a great city to recruit. These guys are all tough. High school ball there is so competitive, and some of these kids have had to fight for everything they’ve ever gotten. The one thing I really loved about Chicago kids: I never thought they were spoiled. I thought they all had something to prove all the time. That’s the case with the UIC guys, and I think they’d be a fun group to coach.
What do you think of UIC stars Martell Bailey and Cedric Banks?
Martell led the country in assists last year and was second this year, if I’m not mistaken, so obviously he knows how to get the ball to the right people at the right times. He and Aaron will be a nice match-up. He’s 5-8, 5-9, but he plays a lot bigger than that. You’ll see UIC try to post him up some.
When Cedrick Banks quits playing basketball, whenever that is, he needs to be a long-distance runner. He never gets tired. I’ve watched tape and I’ve never seen a guy go as hard as he has for as long on the offensive end. Imagine (University of Texas forward) Brandon Mouton and he never, ever stops moving. He is hard to guard. We’ll have to put several people on him because he won’t tire. He’s a guy that averages 19 and he takes 200 threes and shoots 43 percent. That’s a guy that can score off the catch or off the bounce, and he can go for 30 any night.
You’ve had to discipline Jeff Graves twice this year. Did things nearly get to the point where you thought you might have to take more serious action?
Jeff’s in the best frame of mind he’s been in all year. He’s playing better; he averaged 14 in the Big 12 tournament, which may not seem like a ton of points, but it’s a big improvement because he’s never been a prolific scorer. He’s always been a great rebounder and a guy that gets easy baskets for other people because of his size.
But I don’t think it ever got to the point that we ever needed to do anything more serious than what occurred. Jeff made a lot of progress this year. He’s improved in areas off the court as much as anybody.
He had a ways to improve, but I’ve been real pleased with him, even though we had to do a couple of things in the best interest of everybody. And it may have hurt us. Not playing Jeff at Nebraska? That certainly didn’t help our chances there.
But I felt like over the long haul, something had to be done, and he thought so, too. I think Jeff’s spun a negative into a positive pretty well for a 21-year-old guy. I’m proud of Jeff.
Has anything surprised you about expectations or reactions at KU?
Not really. I said before I got the job at KU that Kansas math was unbelievable: you lose two lottery picks and you get better all of a sudden. But nothing’s really surprised me. We knew going in that there would be expectations, and you’re following a guy who won 80 percent of his games and went to back-to-back Final Fours. All a coach can do is get his team to play as well as they can play. I think there’s been times this year when we’ve done that, there’s been several times we haven’t. But that usually happens over the course of most seasons.
The job at Kansas is a great job. It’s a great, great basketball job. I can’t believe there are many places, if any, that you’d rather coach or play at. But it’s a tough job, too. The more you expect to win, the more you’re supposed to. Certainly, it hasn’t been easy, but I knew it wouldn’t be before I came.
How ready is the team?
Based on today and their energy level, I think we’re ready. Guys are excited. I said to get up and watch the other teams play. You look at the four-thirteens (seeds) play: UTEP could’ve gotten Maryland; VCU certainly could’ve gotten Wake (Forest). So, they know that we’re going to have to play tomorrow.
How do you feel about the health of the team?
Well, this is about as healthy as we’re going to get. We’re trying to hold J.R. (Giddens) to one practice a day, and Keith only shot a little tonight, but I think adrenaline will allow our health to be fine. Now, whether or not timing and everything will fall together… But I don’t think health is going to be an issue.
We’ll all play. We won’t practice, but we’ll all play. That’s a pretty good set-up for our players: you get to play and not have to practice. Like being in the NBA. But it’s tough. People ask me how we’re playing this week, and I have to base it all on Dallas. And before that, it was Columbia (MO.)
Your team seems to be flying under the radar this season. Have they talked about that?
The team hasn’t talked about it, but I’ve certainly told our coaching staff that. I don’t think that’s all bad. The past two years you’ve been a one and a two-seed and won nine games in the tournament, and this year I don’t think, in the media’s minds, especially on the national scene, that expectations are near that high. I don’t think it’s all bad to fly under the radar.