Wins aside, Self admits Jayhawks not elite -- yet
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The popcorn was still game-day fresh and the game tape got its first run some 90 minutes after the live event ended. For the Kansas coaches, this was a good way to put off going outside into the frigid single-digit temperatures for a wee bit longer.
While Self is having as much "fun" coaching this team as he has any in his previous three years, the inconsistencies from just about everyone prevents him from pushing KU into the elite company of teams that can win six games in March -- at least not yet.
"I think Carolina, Florida, UCLA, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Pitt could all be those teams [that win six games for the title]," Self said. "I'm not sure I'd put us in that group because we're too inconsistent. We haven't demonstrated over time that we can be consistently good.
"We do too many things because of our age that on a bad night could get you beat," Self said. "There are too many mental mistakes and we need to become a smarter basketball team and understand time, score and momentum."
Exhibit A in Kansas' 80-77 victory could have been Russell Robinson's three-quarter court pass to Brandon Rush, a toss that sailed way out of bounds. Robinson resembled a quarterback throwing the ball over his receiver's head to get out of a potential sack. Rush had no shot to catch the pass and the turnover gave Missouri one last shot to tie the game. You can only imagine the collective groan from the staff watching that play.
"We could still potentially be in that group but we've got to get better," Self said. "We still have strides to take. We're not quite ready to put ourselves amongst the elite [and] be one of the teams that could really challenge [for the title]. I think, though, that we'll get there."
Self threw out an interesting stat early Tuesday morning. He said the Jayhawks won 23 out of their 25 games last season by double figures. And that this core group of players is 31-4 since mid-January a year ago.
"But we lost in the first round [in a tight game to Bradley] and then we lost to Oral Roberts [at home this season] and it gets magnified," Self said. "These kids in the program have done pretty well. But now we have to take the next step. So, from my standpoint, for us to fight to win close games is great."
Self, of course, is referencing gutting out an overtime win over Iowa State in Ames last Saturday and then the three-point win over Missouri Monday night. While Kansas is always the Game of the Year in Ames, the Cyclones are still a potential bottom half Big 12 squad and Missouri is winless in four Big 12 games. But just to make those numbers or projections meaningless, the Jayhawks handed Oklahoma State, a possible Big 12 title contender, its worst loss of the season by pounding the Cowboys by 30 in Lawrence on Jan. 10.
So, in just those three Big 12 games, you can see the high and you can see, while not a low, at least a struggle.
"We're still a team that definitely makes it difficult on ourselves by shooting ourselves in the foot too often," said Self, whose team had a solid December after losing at DePaul by beating USC and Boston College and then opening January with a road win at South Carolina by 26.
|“||If we can limit our careless and silly mistakes we can be a really good team. We're not that far off. ”|
|—Kansas coach Bill Self|
"If we can limit our careless and silly mistakes we can be a really good team," Self said. "We're not that far off."
What was encouraging Monday night, certainly to the coaches upon a second review after experiencing it live, was seeing freshman guard Sherron Collins make three late takeover plays for the Jayhawks. The Tigers were up one 72-71 when Collins took -- and made -- a jumper to give the Jayhawks the lead. He then extended it to four with a 3-pointer and ultimately gave the Jayhawks the final three-point lead by scoring the last Kansas basket on a strong layup to the hole with 32 seconds left for his game-high 23rd point of the night.
Self coached the Jayhawks to the Elite Eight in his first season, but his team suffered through disappointments the following two years. In Year 2, Kansas had a senior-laden team, but got bounced by Bucknell in the NCAA Tournament's first round. The following season, a young team got zapped again in Round 1 by another killer 'B' in Bradley.
"We started out 20-1 my second year," said Self of a team that included Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford. "But that team had a ceiling and the ceiling on this team is higher than that team. I thought our team played unbelievable last year [late to win the Big 12 tournament over Texas] but they weren't ready to take that next step because of inexperience. This year's team is more prepared to take the next step."
The coaches have been pleased with Rush's defense, his overall demeanor and his willingness to be coached. The same is true of possible fellow first-round NBA-level picks Darrell Arthur and Julian Wright, who at times doesn't play strong but still winds up with double figures in rebounds (10 against Missouri). The workmanlike approach of Sasha Kaun is also a plus, but the decision-making of Robinson and Mario Chalmers has to be steadier for Self to probably feel like this squad can win the title.
Remember, this was a team that rebounded from a poor performance in a win over Ball State to beat Florida in Las Vegas. It's the same squad that dismantled Oklahoma State and Boston College at home. So, it's clearly within the Jayhawks' reach.
"It wasn't fun the first month of the season in large part because we weren't doing things that fun teams do such as showing the commitment to work every day," Self said. "But the last six weeks the attitude has been terrific, the focus has been really good and they're all trying really hard."
So, ultimately, if this team finds its consistent stride, then winning six games in the NCAA Tournament is a possibility.
"We can play different styles," Self said. "Our hope is that our first-shot defense is solid and even though our offense is inconsistent, we do have guys who can make plays. But if our first-shot defense isn't good, then we've got to rebound the ball better, take care of the basketball better since most of our mistakes our unforced. We've got to find a way to steal five more possessions a game through our rebounding and if we do that then this team can be quite better."
And then just maybe, Kansas can win those six games in March -- or at least the first four -- so Self can get to the elusive Final Four that he has come so close to on three different occasions with three different schools ( Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas).
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.