"I couldn't be any more excited than I am about coaching a team than I am this bunch,” Self said. “These guys have worked hard, they appear to be hungry, and certainly it has a chance to be an awfully fun season around here."
But he was careful not to set anything in stone.
“A fun season means you have a chance to win a lot of games, but I think you look past that, I’m not going to make any bold predictions, but we are one of the teams out there that has a chance (to win a national championship), and there are a lot of teams like that” he said.
“The guys like each other. I believe they’ll share the ball. I believe they’ll sacrifice for each other and for the most part they’ll have one goal in mind as opposed to individual goals. I believe that when you have those qualities and you have good players, you have a chance to have a lot of fun,” Self added.
One of the biggest reasons for optimism, according to Self, is experience. Citing Kansas’ past fortune with holding onto players for three and usually four years, he said this year’s KU team featuring four seniors is somewhat unusual in today’s college hoops climate.
“I started thinking about this today: Kansas has been really blessed. You think of the great teams Kansas has had, how many guys have left early? (Jacque) Vaughn, (Scot) Pollard, Raef (LaFrentz), those guys all stayed four years, and Paul (Pierce) stayed three, and you’re not going to find that very often with four bonafide NBA guys who stay that long. Then you look at Drew (Gooden) and Nick (Collison) and Kirk (Hinrich), those guys stayed together 11 years out of a possible 12. That doesn’t happen very often.”
He continued, “Now, we may have guys that may not have had the same opportunities as maybe a Paul coming out early, but still not that far off. To have these four guys stay together 16 years out of a possible 16 years gives us a leg up. Few teams have four seniors who’ve been through the fire like these guys.”
Self emphasized the importance of a healthy Wayne Simien. "Here is a guy that played hurt all last year and he averaged 18 (points) and nine (rebounds). A healthy Wayne, even if numbers don’t increase dramatically, could certainly be a much better player than he was last year.”
He was also quick to address concerns with Keith Langford’s bum knee. “From a structural standpoint, he’s 100 percent, but from a conditioning standpoint, he’s about a 50 percent guy. He’ll play Late Night and he’ll practice, and he’ll do fine. I don’t think his timing and conditioning are where he would have hoped they would be. But I’m not concerned about that. I’m concerned about him feeling good, and he’s feeling better than he has in a long, long time
To keep his Jayhawks healthier and happier than last year’s squad – in particular, last year’s chronically-injured Simien, Keith Langford and J.R. Giddens – Self looks to keep his players fresh deeper into the season with shorter practices, fewer repetitions, and more bodies.
“Last year was such a long season because everything was new, so two hour practices became three hour practices, and you do that over five months. It wears on your body. We need to find ways to keep their bodies fresher, and I think we can do that by cutting down on their reps. (The returning players) won’t need as many, although but the young guys will.”
And for the younger players, Self said the exhibition trip to Canada helped solve that problem.
“We were able to get 10 days of practice in, so a lot of the stuff that took so long to teach last year, this year it won’t take quite as long, plus the veterans can teach the newcomers, and I think that will make for shorter practice sessions. The plan can obviously change if we don’t work hard, but that’ll be my intention,” he said.
"We will play faster because we will have more bodies. Aaron (Miles) won't have to play 35 minutes a game. I think that playing shorter spurts of minutes, guys won't pace themselves. Last year, depth was an issue, so I think that will give us more possessions in a game than we had last year."
While some problems are solved relatively easily for the team, others still exist. But from a KU fan perspective, a lot of these problems are nice to have. For example, who’s going to play center next to Wayne Simien?
“Right now, if you’d ask our players coming off the Canadian trip, C.J. (Giles) right now. But that doesn’t mean anything. You’re looking at Sasha (Kaun); the first time he ever picked up a ball, he’s a sophomore in high school, so how fast will he develop if he’s a sponge? How fast will Darnell (Jackson) come along? And C.J.? I really think the sky is the limit for him. Can those guys, early in the season, be better than veteran guys like Christian (Moody) and Moulaye (Niang)? I don’t know. The best players don’t guarantee starting position.
Self said later, “I really believe that those three freshmen should have a war everyday to see who deserves to play the majority of the minutes next to Wayne."
Newcomer Russell Robinson will also see significant minutes on the perimeter, and those are minutes that his coach and veteran teammates are looking forward to.
“There is no doubt that Russell will be in our rotation. He’ll play a ton of minutes. He can play the one, he can play off the ball. He’s tough enough and talented enough that I think he’ll earn his way. Our older players love playing with him. Usually you can tell they respect a guy, when older guys want the freshman to do really well."
Self’s abundance of talent on the perimeter – a luxury he didn’t have last year – leaves him with plenty of options, and he plans to exercise all of them.
"The best three perimeter players should start, regardless of size, as long as one of them is a point guard. I think that you could start three point guards. It’s irrelevant as long as you have a guard that’s big enough to guard a three and you have good enough ball handling out there. The three best players will start, and sometimes guys are better off the bench even though they might be a better player."
The extra bodies and added depth also means a more up-tempo game, according to the coach.
"We will play faster because we will have more bodies. Aaron (Miles) won't have to play 35 minutes a game. And now we can pick up in the backcourt and pressure and do a lot of different things. I think that playing shorter spurts of minutes, guys won't pace themselves. Last year, depth was an issue, so I think that will give us more possessions in a game than we had last year."
But while many teams might wrestle with issues regarding playing time and team chemistry, the coach doesn’t see this as a problem. The hierarchy is established.
“The fact of the matter is that the freshmen coming in know who the best players are, and that’s a great situation for them to be in as opposed to coming in thinking they need to be the one to burden that responsibility. They get a good taste of it and they get to learn, just like Keith and Wayne and Aaron learned with Nick and Kirk and Drew taking all the heat. And now it’s (the seniors’ time).”
However, one thing is not a problem, and that’s the team’s desire to bring KU a national championship for the first time in 19 seasons. That charge, said Self, will be lead by his four seniors, and he likened their fire to that of other teams he’s coached.
"The hunger level this year’s better than it was last year, no doubt about that,” Self stated. I’ve coached really hungry guys. I’ve coached guys who’ve been upset and ticked off that programs like Kansas get all the attention. I’ve coached guys who played with a chip on their shoulder the whole time and wondered why top-level programs didn’t pick them. I love coaching guys like that.”
There’s a sense of urgency this season among the seniors, according to the coach. “They see it as, ‘Hey, if it doesn't happen this year, there is no next year,' whereas last year, ‘If it doesn’t happen this year, there’s always next year.’ I like that. I like being able to see the finish line from a hunger standpoint. I think that will benefit this team. Our seniors will shape the attitude and the mindset of all our young guys because this is it for them,” Self said.
And that circling of the wagons among the seniors will lend itself to each of them playing out the leadership role they fill best. The Jayhawks have plenty of leadership, said the coach, in more ways than one might realize.
“I think that’s one great thing about these four seniors: they like each other so much, they sense it’s each other’s team.”
Self went on, “Wayne is the leader by example. Mike’s the best talker – you don’t want to get into a debate with Lee. Aaron is the leader because the ball is in his hand. And this team would feed off Keith from an energy standpoint more so than anybody else. So from a leadership standpoint, I don’t think you say this is one person’s team. I think you say this is the seniors’ team, I really believe that. All of them are exceptional leaders in their own way.”
It would seem that this season’s edition of the Kansas Jayhawks has all the elements for a successful season and make another deep tournament run. Take large portions of passion, talent and experience, then add a healthy pinch of youthful energy and enthusiasm. For many teams, the result is a boatload of wins.
But for this group of seniors and their coach, it sounds more and more like the real prize, the true destination, is a Monday night game in early April. And if the ingredients do come together, this will be a fun year for Jayhawk fans and players alike, no matter how you define it.