Just like a father, Bill Self has had to teach his young team how to walk before they could run. Right now the Jayhawks are running like a bunch of thoroughbreds
Brandon Rush is KU’s best player and he plays both ends of the floor with a passion. It was Rush who led the assault on Oklahoma’s 16-point lead. Then there’s the energetic Julian Wright who is really starting to “get it”. He’s still capable of that pass that makes you turn your head – that’s side to side in the negative way – but most of the time he’s had his coach and the fans nodding in approval. Mario Chalmers has been stellar since Self moved him off the ball, and in the last two games when Kansas was challenged it was Chalmers who put up the stiff arm and kept the opponent at bay. At Nebraska just when the “big red” crowd got going “Super” Mario answered with a silencer from long range. When the Cyclones mounted a comeback Chalmers guaranteed this would not be a repeat performance of Kansas State. The freshman guard poured in 16 second half points on 4-5 shooting.
But against Iowa State, again his classmates were at the heart of every big play. Brandon Rush had two key steals, and Julian Wright chipped in with seven big rebounds.
“The whole thing is those freshman. They combine for 52 points, 23 rebounds, and 11 assists. And Mario (Chalmers) played great in the second half," said Self.
The biggest difference between now and November is that this team has started to assume the identity of their coach. It looks like a “Bill Self-coached team”. The most obvious sign of that is the toughness. It’s exemplified in road wins (4-1) – one road loss in a major conference means you’re going to contend for a title. The defense has been dominating and Kansas has shown the ability to answer challenges.
"Emotion-wise, it was probably the toughest game we have played in all season. That's great. We didn't back down. It shows some toughness on our part, and we were able to get the win,” said KU sophomore guard Russell Robinson.
If you remember the latter parts of November and December, Self was unhappy with the lack of energy and effort at times and he preached how important defense was for a team that labored to score. I can’t remember the last time the third year coach mentioned a lack of energy. Self was never able to keep his best offensive players on the court because they were lagging behind on the defensive end – that’s no longer the case and the points have come easier because of it. Poor shooting affected the defensive effort but now, in a 180-degree turn, when the Jayhawks struggle they raise their defensive level of play which creates a steal and/or easy hoop more often than not.
"We are going to have those days where we aren't shooting well and are going to have to rely on our defense. I don't think we have seen everything, but I think we have seen a lot. We learn from it, and I think it will help us later,” stated Robinson, who played terrific defense for 36 minutes on Saturday.
The Jayhawks have “learned” their lessons well as they continue to lead the country in field goal percentage defense.
When is the last time you’ve heard a coach in his postgame presser say he was glad the lead was reduced to four? Self explained during the game he certainly didn’t want the lead to shrink like it did but in hindsight he thought the challenge was good for his young team.
“It was probably good that it did (get to 4)…We haven’t played in very many close games lately. It’s good when guys get to make plays under pressure,” concluded Self.
And his sophomore guard concurred.
"Once we got the lead, they were going to come at us with everything they had. We just had to match their aggressiveness. When they cut it to four, that was a good thing. It put some pressure on us and made us respond,” agreed Robinson
But Kansas, though much-improved, is far from perfect. On Sunday, Self spoke about how happy he was with the win but lamented his team played “too loose” at times. Like any good coach, he’ll continue to push his team to improve. But for now, another challenge awaits on Monday in Stillwater, one that Self calls, “as pivotal a game as we’ve played all year.”