"This team is pretty loose," said Bill Self. A lot of that is youth. We have a bunch of young guys out there, and they don't know any better. Even when we're not playing well, they seem to enjoy playing with each other. We think that one of the reasons that we have become so much better is because we've become a better practice team."
This team has always excited Self – I’ve heard it in his voice all year. Yes, even when they were 3-4 on the season. He might’ve been unsure what the record would show, or how quickly they would put it all together, but he’s always been high on this group of Jayhawks.
Kansas began taking baby steps forward in December, but the KU coach admitted that that Julian Wright and Mario Chalmers are the pair that’s allowed this team to improve by leaps and bounds. The two freshmen have taken this team to a whole new level and as a result Kansas has won 15 of its last 16 games.
After earning a share of the league title, a tournament title, and a four seed in the NCAA tournament’s Oakland region the expectations for this team have been raised.
"I think as it gets closer to a championship, your goal will always become to win that if you have a chance. Even the first day of practice, we said our goal was to win the league. Even though that was a goal and we all maybe didn't really have that it was attainable, our goal has never changed,” Self continued. “Fact of the matter is, these guys just somehow rallied around it and just played fabulous ball down the stretch. To win 15 of their last 16 games in a league like this, with eight of those wins away from home, I didn't think that could occur on January 1. We did adjust our goals internally, but outwardly they were always the same."
Up next for Kansas, the Bradley Braves who are making their first tourney appearance since 1996. The Braves are on a bit of roll themselves after winning seven of their last eight games. The Braves, much like Kansas, feature a staunch defense. The Jayhawks have been hot from three and ironically enough, Bradley happens to defend the three extremely well – something will have to give in this area. The Missour Valley conference’s fifth place team features a stingy defense that gives up only 31 percent from long range. Self sees the similarities between head coach Jim Les’s “D” and his own.
"I think there are some similarities. We tried to guard in a similar fashion. They remind me a lot of the Oklahoma State on the perimeter defensively, and we all know they gave us some problems,” Self continued. “…but their perimeter defense is something that they're doing as well as anything right now. They're really getting after it."
Heading into the Big 12 tournament, Self pleaded for his big men to help KU offer a more balanced attack. The lobbying worked. Sasha Kaun, C.J. Giles, Julian Wright, and Darnell Jackson were all solid contributors in Dallas, and earned rave reviews from Self.
"I think C.J. and Sasha both played really well in Dallas. C.J.'s stats didn't show it as much because he was limited with his groin. I thought he played great and Sasha maybe as good of games as he has played all year back-to-back-to-back. I'm very happy with them, and then Darnell gave us a huge lift off the bench. Our bigs played well down there. They produced and rebounded the ball fairly well. Julian played fabulously."
Kansas will need more of that to advance in a bracket that features a couple of physical foes. Bradley’s interior is highlighted by 7-0 sophomore Patrick O’Bryant, who averages 13.2 points, and 8.0 rebounds.
"(Patrick) O'Bryant may be bigger than LaMarcus Aldridge. He's a big guy. He's agile, and he can move. He's also an excellent shot blocker and has good timing. He's definitely a very good NBA prospect. They do have size. They also can create some mismatch problems because they can play (Marcellus) Sommerville anywhere,” said Self about Bradley’s 6-7 senior. “He's a great scorer. He's a great shooter, and he can also play on the block. They can play big or not so big. That's a concern…”
Self, like a lot of other coaches, chooses to look at the Auburn Hills location as a two-game tournament. Worrying about what’s ahead is for the fans and the media. Not the team or the coaches.
"I know who's in our bracket. I could really care less. I'm concerned about Bradley, and hopefully if we play well enough we'll play another game. It's a two-game tournament, that's how we're looking at it,” stated Self.
If Kansas should survive round 1, Pittsburgh could be there waiting, yet another physical, and tough defensive-minded squad. But for now Self will concentrate on Bradley and what his team needs to do to advance to Sunday.
“With us, you always have to look at rebounding and taking care of the ball. We're not always going to shoot it well -- no team always shoots it well. You can control a lot of other things easier than you can control shots going in. Stealing extra possessions and not giving away possessions will probably be the stat that enables us to play well,” Self concluded.