Senior forward Clif Brown scored 32 points with a career-best six three-pointers, giving Niagara its first NCAA tournament victory since 1970.
“Niagara (76.1 ppg) scores the ball as well anyone we've played,” Self said. “Aside from Texas, they are probably averaging more points than anyone we've played this year. All their big guys shoot three-pointers, which is a bit different and unorthodox. Their leading scorer (6-3 Charron Fisher at 21 ppg) is a three-man that is a pit bull, plus they have five guys who score in double-figures."
Self thinks his players are wiser, tougher, and hungrier headed into Friday’s matchup than they were last year in their first-round loss to Bradley.
"We are more seasoned,” Self said. “I think that's the biggest thing, that we are older. ... The fact that we started out with expectations, lost early which humbled and toughened us up, we played games with high stakes and national implications, which we didn't last year. I think through that maturation process we should be better to handle the attention that the NCAA gets."
KU’s NCAA opener in Chi-Town marks a return for Chicago natives Julian Wright and Sherron Collins. They came up short in their last visit to Illinois, as KU fell at DePaul, 67-54, on Dec. 2.
“I would say Sherron and Julian probably, more so than anyone, want a different result than when we went up there to play DePaul,” Self said. “From that standpoint, maybe the DePaul loss will be beneficial for us."
Self is excited about this weekend, but cautious at the same time.
"We basically tell them that the way we have prepared and focused has worked and that we can't get out of that routine,” he said. “They have to be aware of the distractions that exist. You can't be everything to everybody. You can't return every phone call. You can't worry about tickets or the media. You have to keep the same routine that creates better playing. If we do that, we'll perform better."
Kansas comes into the tournament following a huge 88-84 overtime win over Texas last Sunday for the Big 12 Championship in Oklahoma City, where the ‘Hawks managed the biggest comeback (22-point deficit in first half) in school history. Self was proud of his team’s resilience and defense, but knows his Jayhawks must improve.
“From a toughness standpoint, we have to rebound the ball better,” he said. “We did not rebound the ball well in Oklahoma City last week. That is a sign of toughness. We were fourth in the country in rebounding margin and in Oklahoma City, we were only plus-one.”
"Boxing-out has been our problem all year long,” Self added. “We don't block-out people in a textbook manner. I also think a lot of it is mindset. I think a lot of guys wait for the ball to come to them instead of attacking it with two hands. We had several opportunities where we could have got balls where the more aggressive player got it instead. We can't allow that to happen. The one guy that has emerged and is our best rebounder-per-minute is Darnell Jackson. Darnell goes after the ball like a man. We need to get Darrell Arthur, Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, and Sasha Kaun all doing that as well. Our guards have also done a good job of tracking down long rebounds all year and we need to continue to do that."
With KU’s long awaited NCAA opener days away, Self is looking forward to a great start Friday night.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “I am going to sleep fine, though Thursday night I might not sleep much. There is no question that the last two years have made me not so much nervous as mad. Sometimes I think that has created some extra incentive and fight which will be a positive situation and hopefully our team sees that in practice."
And with one of the most talented teams in school history, Self hopes his team continues to fight hard in the Big Dance.
Talent. Hunger. Drive. Balance. Maybe this is the recipe for a national championship? And so what if KU doesn’t have a go-to player.
"I think this team has the highest ceiling of any team I have coached,” Self said. “I think that we are still young and we make young mistakes, but we do have a high ceiling. I love this team. I really like how it doesn't matter who it is that has the big game. I like that Sherron can go scoreless last week and get 20 points on the big stage. I like that Brandon can miss shots and come back and make them. I like that Mario can score nine points one game and still want the shot to force the game into overtime. Our go-to-guy changes, but I like the balance. They seem to really like each other, too. We are, if healthy, equipped to play very well and our depth situation has been very important to us this year."
And a deep run this March could make it a year to remember.