Prior to the Yale game on January 4th Kansas head coach Bill Self determined he wanted to start a backcourt consisting of freshman Mario Chalmers and sophomore Russell Robinson, a combination he hadn’t utilized since the first exhibition game against Fort Hays State. According to Self, the motivation behind the tactical move was to put Russell Robinson in charge of the primary ball-handling responsibilities alleviating some of the pressure on the young and inexperienced Chalmers.
“We said all along we were going to play the two best out of the three (Chalmers, Robinson and Jeff Hawkins), but the biggest thing was we decided to move Russell to point,” Self stated. “And Mario became much more effective and we’ve been practicing that since Christmas. He’s become much more effective playing off the ball.”
Early on Mario was susceptible to careless turnovers and never looked completely comfortable during the first couple of months of the season. Five games after making his first regular season start Chalmers has picked up his level of play and is becoming the player most thought he’d be. His coach was quick to point out the difference and the reason Mario has been KU’s leading scorer the last two games.
“Playing off the ball and not having all the responsibilities at least in his mind, he doesn’t have to think so much and it freed up his mind -- and the other thing is he’s playing better. He’s certainly defended a lot better, sounder, and he’s just doing a better job,” according to Self.
Robinson and Chalmers have anchored the nation’s second-ranked defense by wreaking havoc on opposing offenses. The two have combined for 28 steals over the past five games.
“First of all Mario is playing a lot sounder. In the first part of the season he was one of the biggest gamblers out there. They both have quick hands and create havoc but the biggest thing is Mario has been sounder and Russell has always been a good defender but they’ve both improved in that area immensely,” said Self.
Russell and Mario have a lot in common and Robinson can certainly attest to the struggles of playing point guard for Kansas as a freshman. Russell’s first year was a grind at times and as a freshman he was often plagued by turnovers. In his initial year in crimson and blue he finished with 25 assists and 32 turnovers.
“I think the thing about Russell last year was we played him at point the whole year and he probably wasn’t as ready to do that as what we had hoped,” Self continued. “And to be honest, it’s probably the same with Mario. But last year we never moved Russell off of it (the point). When he was in the game he was in for Aaron (Miles). This year they’re in the game at the same time and they kind of take pressure off of each other.”
Robinson has recognized how to take care of the basketball and has almost as many assists in the last five games (22) as he did all of last year (25)! In the meantime, Mario has the spring back in his step and is brimming with confidence. Chalmers scored 22 points against Missouri and were it not for Thomas Gardner’s superman-like performance (40 points), the attention and praise would’ve been saved for the Alaska native. Mario will eventually showcase his point guard skills but after averaging 14.4 points over the last four games, Self is likely to continue to let his McDonald’s All-American guard play without the constant burden of being the primary ball-handler.
“Mario is a scorer. I just felt it’s an awful lot to ask somebody that’s never been in a situation like this to say ‘Hey, go run our team’, because he’ll be able to do that when he gets comfortable with what he’s supposed to do. It’s hard for him to tell other people what to do when he’s not 100 percent sure himself,” Self said.
“I do think they’re both playing well and Russell is certainly playing to win and Mario is just trying to make basketball plays. He’s not concerned with anything other than the bottom line stats. I think Mario is getting more and more that way all the time,” stated Self.
But how much time did the third year Kansas coach have to spend restoring Mario’s confidence?
“I would say Mario probably did that more on his own. I think coaches can do some things like say, ‘we believe in you’ and ‘you’re a good player’ and ‘you’re going to get it’. I mean we can say that but the bottom line is they gotta believe it and they’ve gotta go work at it. He’s become a better worker and he’s seen success through practice which has given him more confidence on the court,” said Self.
Over the last five games, Mario has played a bulk of the minutes at the off-guard spot while Robinson has handled the ball with precision. Robinson has only turned it over six times in the last five games while accumulating 22 assists. Any coach in America would love a point guard with that assist-to-turnover ratio. Since making his first start five games ago, Chalmers has amassed 25 assists and 13 turnovers -- quite an improvement from his early season numbers. Check out the final numbers in the scoring department – 72 points over the last five games for Chalmers and 46 for Robinson. As a tandem they’ve averaged 23.6 ppg, 9.4 apg, and only 3.8 turnovers per game.
Self has certainly found a winning combination in the backcourt.