The Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball team is more athletic and longer than they have been in years, their head coach said. They’re also younger and more inexperienced. And at KU’s media day in Lawrence Thursday, head coach Bill Self said all that could make this year’s team one of the most interesting in some time.
“We’re excited about the 05-06 campaign, and we certainly have a lot of numbers to replace from last year’s very experienced team. We have good players; they’re just young,” Self said.
But then he stuck a warning label on it: “It’s going to take awhile, and we’re going to have our ups and downs, but I’m real excited about this group. It’s an athletic group that’s long and, on paper, probably has some deficiencies.
However, despite their youthful indiscretions, Self also said this Kansas squad has some qualities that fans haven’t seen in his other two Jayhawk team. Among the missing, he said, have been depth, team speed, offensive rebounding and – he bold-faced and underlined this one – balance.
“Last year, if you were going to defend us, A, you stopped Wayne (Simien) and, B, you stopped Keith (Langford). This year, we could have five guys all average around 10 points a game. I think we’ll have more balance. Those are positive things. Sometimes balance is the hardest things to defend.”
Self also said the longer, leaner, more athletic Jayhawks would utilize those qualities, but minimizing the opponent’s lack of size and abundance of quickness would be just as important for his young players.
He explained, “We can utilize length; I think we need to get to where we neutralize lack of length. Can a 6-8 guy handle being harassed by a 6-2 guy? We play with length, that means some 6-2 guy is going to guard one of them. Can we adjust to that kind of deal when these guys are used to being defended by the other team’s biggest guy? I think we can utilize length to our advantage as long as we can neutralize other teams’ speed as far as little bitty guards that can play.”
Well, sort of.
The Jayhawk coach noted that Jeremy Case, Russell Robinson, Jeff Hawkins and Christian Moody have stepped up to try and fill the leadership void. But as quickly as he did, he tuned a bit cautious, citing the difficulty of being a leader when you’re not sure where you fit in.
“I’d say they’re all probably 25 percent of what they could potentially be. I think it’s unfair to say that they’re more than that because right now, they don’t know exactly what their roles will be. I think it’s much easier to be a leader given the fact that you’re totally secure with where you are with that team and in your program. There’ll be a lot of things that come to light and are defined in the next three or four weeks. It’s too early to tell,” Self said.
The loss of a ton of points, rebounds and assists also have the Jayhawks lacking in something else they’d become accustomed to: high preseason rankings and even higher fan expectations. But that’s fine with the coach.
Team expectations, he said, are the same every year: be the best you can be. Team expectations have never been a problem. It’s expectations from outside the team that become an issue.
“Where the expectations become a problem, if players try to live up to other peoples’ expectations are of them,” the KU coach said. “The outside expectation factor, when we let that come and run us and dictate us on what we think we should be doing, like last year’s team did a little bit, is where you run into some problems.”
And about the expectations for Mario Chalmers, Micah Downs, Brandon Rush and Julian Wright, the heralded uberfrosh? Self was quick to soft-peddle the hype with a longer-term (and more realistic view) of his recruiting class.
“I think when you recruit, you recruit where they’ll be at age 19, 20, 21, 22. You don’t recruit just where they’re going to be at 18,” he said. “So, these guys are going to have their ups and downs. Some fans will say they’re great one game and not-so-great the next. I think everybody with the exception of Wilt (Chamberlain) probably went through similar things when they came to KU.”
But are there enough basketballs to go around Allen Fieldhouse this season? The coach isn’t concerned, citing the time-tested “little fish in a big pond theory” theory.
“There’s not a guy being recruited into the Big 12 that probably wasn’t a number one guy on their high school team,” Self noted. “I think what we’ll find out is these guys, after they get here, in a short amount of time have been humbled. They know that not everything revolves around them. I think they’ll relish the fact that there’s balance, because with balance comes more opportunity for the individual. If playing time is the sole thing that keeps them happy, then we could have some problems. If they play the way I want them to play, if they play 25 minutes, they’ll be gassed.”
When asked about team chemistry, Self said that they Jayhawks are pretty happy group – at least for now.
The opening of the season can have an effect.
“I’ve never on October 14th heard that the chemistry stunk,” he commented. “The thing the players don’t understand: right now, in practice, 10 play. Everybody’s happy during practice, so they want breaks. Then you get in games and they don’t get the minutes, that’s when your chemistry issues will come about, if you’re going to have any. Last year, there were the seniors and there was the rest of the team. This year, because we’re so young and everybody’s kind of an unproven commodity from a performance standpoint, everybody is about the same.”
“I do think this is a closer knit group, maybe, than what we had last year,” he commented.
The coach was quick to note a few players for their work in the off-season and since the fall semester started, and they might not be who most fans think.
Self positively gushed over sophomore big men C.J. Giles and Sasha Kaun, “If you asked any of our guys and they were going to rate our guys one through 14, the majority of them would put CJ (Giles) and Sasha (Kaun) one-two. They’re the two most improved guys on our team from last year.”
“These guys have been the two most consistent performers, so far, and neither one has ever been a ‘star’ star. They’ve got to get the confidence that we can lead a team and score and have a team depend on us. These are probably our two most proven guys right now if we had to make a basket. They have to be able to know that they can carry a team during different stretches of the game. My biggest concern is that they’ve just never done it before.”
There was also a Russell Robinson sighting.
“Russell, in my opinion, is probably the most consistent perimeter player we’ve had so far since school’s started. A lot of that is, he understands what we want. He’s not thinking – he’s reacting. The guy works; he’s like a machine. He’s the best in the weight room, he works on his game as much as any individual, and he wants it really bad. He wasn’t real happy with how last season ended, and I think he wants to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
He also mentioned Jeremy Case (“He brings a dimension to the game that will make it difficult for other teams” and Jeff Hawkins (“I’ve always liked him as a kid…he’s worked hard to be a leader…He’s hungry. We haven’t seen how talented he is…”) as players to keep an eye on in 2005-06.
Perhaps some of the most interesting thoughts, however, came out of Self’s comments on how many players he’d play “in a perfect world.”
He said, “If we played two big guys at all times, I think the perfect world is nine. If you play three big guys and one perimeter player who can play either a big or a little, I think the perfect world is eight. But realistically, probably nine with us. It’s going to be hard to get to nine, to be honest with you, because there’s probably more than nine that deserve to play.”
“We’re trying to figure out a way to play two bigs and three little guys some. We’re going to play one big, two wings and two little guys,” he continued.
But knowing full well that he has several of the kind of wing players most coaches would sell their soul to have just one of, he made what may be his most telling comment when he said, “One of the big challenges will be playing one big, one point guard and three tall wings. We can go different directions, but we have to be able to play those guys.”
When it all boils down, Self said, he anticipates more ups than downs with this young, relatively inexperienced team. However, he urged patience with his young squad.
“I think this is a team that the coaching staff needs to remain patient with, because we’re not going to be as good in November as we are in February,” Self said, seemingly issuing a caveat not only to himself and his team bur to rabid, Final-Four-or-Bust Kansas Basketball fans, as well.
“But on the flip side, the early season games will put pressure on the guys, give us a sense of urgency, that, ‘Hey, we better be pretty good pretty fast.’ I think these guys are good enough, they can compete and have success. But we’re not going to hang the balance of the season on what happens in November. We’re all going to have to understand that,” Self said.