Self Prepares for Big 12 Opener in Weekly Presser

LAWRENCE, Kan. – In two days, No. 12/13 Kansas will begin its defense campaign of its 10-straight Big 12 Conference titles when the Jayhawks travel to Waco, Texas to play Baylor on Jan. 7. Prepping his team for the road opener, head coach Bill Self met with the media to discuss the conclusion of non-conference play, field goal percentages and defending the streak.
Kansas (11-2) at No. 21/22 Baylor (11-2) will tip off at 8 p.m. (Central), on ESPNU. The Jayhawks then return home to host Texas Tech on Saturday, Jan. 10 at 2 p.m., on ESPNU. Kansas also hosts Oklahoma State on Tuesday, Jan. 13, at 6 p.m., on ESPN2.

Q.  Cliff Alexander was a little bit of an enforcer in the second half.  Is that something that maybe he can be, that big body?
COACH SELF:  Yeah, I think so.  He’s the best candidate we have for that.  He played with good energy and went after balls even when he fouled them.
So there wasn’t as many easy basket opportunities, and I thought he played really well the first half.  He had five rebounds and was 2-of-7 from the field, he missed some shots; but I thought he did a really nice job the first half.
We need him to be that guy.  Even if he’s not starting, at least the way it’s going right now, he’s still our best low post physical presence, and certainly we need him to play to that.
Q.  Who is your most consistent player?
COACH SELF:  Our most consistent player this year so far?  Frank (Mason III), hands down.  I don’t want to say that he’s our best talent because I still think Perry (Ellis), when he’s playing well, can put up numbers.  But Frank’s been our most valuable player easily, and (that’s) in large part because when Devonte’ (Graham) went down, we didn’t have another point guard, really, in our program.  Wayne’s (Selden, Jr.) done some, obviously but not much.  Frank’s played very, very well, consistently well.
Q.  Can you evaluate the non-conference season, now that it’s over? The record, the way you played and what you expected? And have there been surprises along the way?
COACH SELF:  I never go through it and say, ‘We should win this one or this is a coin-flip game’ or anything like that.
We weren’t ready to play with Kentucky. We got handled, so it was never a contest. We’ve improved a lot since then. Going back before Thanksgiving, although we’ve been a little bit inconsistent, we’ve basically played fairly well — with the exception of one miserable night. We have played very well in halves and not played well in halves, but we’ve played good enough to win with the exception of the Temple game.
So I would say, record-wise, it’s been really good.  But from a consistency standpoint or execution or developing identity standpoint, I think it’s been average.  I think, since Christmas, we’ve taken a positive step in those intangible-type directions.
Q.  Where do you think you’ve gotten better most?
COACH SELF:  I actually think we’ve rebounded the ball pretty well.  There have been very few games where we didn’t rebound the ball pretty well.  I can’t say that our defense has been good, but it has not been all bad.  We’ve played a good schedule. If you watch teams during league play, opponents will shoot above 40 percent against them in league play in large part because you’re playing better teams night-in and night-out.  And we basically kind of played the league, even though not as strong, but we played a pretty good non-conference schedule.
I think our defense has been okay, but our activity level has been bad.  I thought our activity level was much better in the Kent State game and against UNLV.  I don’t think that we’ve executed great, but I think our execution has gotten a little bit better and I do think that we shot the ball from behind the arc better than we were earlier in the season.
But there’s still a lot of room for improvement.  You look at our stats:  We are last in our league in field goal percentage and we are eighth in field goal percentage defense.
But that’s not — that’s not really true, but it’s not that far off.  We’ve certainly got a lot of room for improvement in those areas.
Q.  Are the stats really true with the schedule you’ve played?
COACH SELF:  The way that you should do it is start looking at stats about four or five games into conference, and that should be the stats that you go by.  I won’t even talk about our opponents’ stats after five games of league games have been played.  Prior to that everything will just be based on what they have done in the league and the type of teams that you play against.
Q.  Does that give you optimism that you’ve played maybe not very well, and you’re 11-2?
COACH SELF:  I asked our guys the other day when I wasn’t real happy with them, a little two-hour meeting that we had, you know what do we do?  Tell me, what we can hang our hat on? What does our program, our team do well right now?
And basically, the biggest thing that they came up with, we found a way to win some games where we haven’t played very good.  And I do think that’s a positive trait.  That’s a very positive trait.  But now we’re dwelling on the negatives because I think we’ve played pretty well since we’ve gotten back.
Even though we were behind at halftime yesterday, we played good.  We missed shots and got the ball where we wanted to, and basketball or football, whatever it is, it’s such a unique game that you can do something good and have an unbelievably long 7-footer take that away. It leads to a layup on the other end, and you don’t have time to get back for balance. Of course, UNLV had guys like that who could quick-twitch and make plays.
I thought we played decent the first half, but obviously the results were much better the second half.  We did play a little better, but they also didn’t play quite as well.
Q.  What was the reason for that meeting the other day?
COACH SELF:  Oh, we’ve met a lot since we’ve been back from Christmas.  No, it wasn’t a break-you-down meeting. It was just like, ‘Hey, let’s identify what’s going on.’  I actually read the Big 12 stats to them and where we ranked and that kind of stuff.
You know, stats can sometimes be very overrated.  But the reality of it is it’s not way off.  It’s fairly accurate, and the thing that we have to do, if we’re shooting 43 percent now, let’s say, the difference in shooting 43 and 48 isn’t what we’re running.  It’s activity that create an easy basket to get a layup in transition or a second chance opportunity. I think that’s the thing that we’ve improved on, is our energy level to create some of those opportunities.
Q.  Have you ever had a team that has gone this far into the season and you can still stand there and say, ‘There is so much room for improvement’?
COACH SELF:  Oh, yeah, absolutely.  Last year’s team was the same way.  We were 9-4 last year. So absolutely.
Our league is such a monster.  Every coach right now is a little uptight, I would think, just saying, ‘Oh, gosh, if we don’t play well this game or that game or whatever, you’re going to go home sad.’
Do I believe that we have a lot of room for improvement?  Without question.  But I do think we have improved quite a bit, too, and we have some individuals that are playing a lot better.
Q.  How many teams are in your head right now that you think could win the league?
COACH SELF:  Without naming them out loud, I would say that there’s probably 50 percent of the teams in our league, five, that have a legitimate shot of winning our league.
You could probably make a case that if another team just gets on a roll — it’s hard for me to play that out, because the records are so good, but not everybody’s played the same caliber of competition.
But from what I’ve seen, watching the little bit I’ve watched, I think there’s some really good teams out there.  Oklahoma can win our league without question.  Iowa State can win our league, and the team that most people are talking about, and rightfully so, is Texas.  They could win it all, for sure be a Final Four contender.
There are multiple teams, but the great thing about it is, from my standpoint, if you’re good enough to be considered in winning our league, you’re probably good enough to be considered a contender to make a great run in the Tournament, too, because the league is so good.
And there’s others.  Watching OU and Baylor, that’s two really good teams playing each other.  Who could ever force 22 turnovers a game?  I mean, nobody does that.  But West Virginia is.  There are some different styles and things like that that could give a lot of people a lot of problems.  More so than ever, though.
This year, I would predict that injuries and timing-type things, which we’ve benefitted from fortunately over the years, will play as much of a roll in who gets a leg up and wins the league as anything else.  You get the wrong guy injured and he’s out three games and it happens to fall against these three teams, you could be out of the league race right there in a span of 10 days.
Q.  Maybe you don’t want to think this way, but during this conference streak that you guys have had, has there been a year where, privately going into the conference you’ve said, ‘I don’t know if we can win it this year?’

COACH SELF:  Yeah, there’s been about 10 of them [laughter].  Maybe not 10, maybe nine, when we had some of those cats I felt pretty good about.  But even when we won it in 2008, we still lost three out of five in our league over a two-and-a-half-week period.
There’s no way after the San Diego State game last year that I would have said we win the league by two games, no way.
(The) Year before, we were dead.  We were dead, and somehow kind of put it together and end up losing to Baylor to end the season.  But if I’m not mistaken, K-State lost at Oklahoma State, and we ended up pushing it that year, is that right?  But yeah, there’s been several years.
The year we tied it (for the Big 12 title in 2005-06) when Brandon (Rush) and Mari (Chalmers) and Julian (Wright) were all freshmen, we started out 1-2 and 10-6.  So there’s been numerous times it didn’t look very good.
Q.  Wayne Selden, Jr., said he wasn’t prepared for Big 12 play last season.  Where does that responsibility lie? With the coaches? With the individual player? With the captain?
COACH SELF:  I don’t know if I buy into that because his first Big 12 game last year, he made five threes and scored 26 points.  In the second game he played great and was named Big 12 Player of the Week.  Wayne may have a short memory, or he studied so much in late December that maybe he hasn’t quite gotten it all (his memory) back yet.
Coaches can say all they want to say, but you’ve got to put them in positions where they have to live it a little bit and hopefully our non-conference schedule does that.
Q.  Do you feel that Kelly Oubre, Jr., and Cliff Alexander’s time to shine is now, kind of like what Wayne did last year?
COACH SELF:  I don’t know if anybody is going to be named Big 12 Player of the Week their first week as a freshman, but I do think that (they could), and Frank (could too).  You talk about Kelly and Cliff, which is true, being very young and all that.
But Frank’s not old, and certainly, if we need Perry playing his best — we need everybody.  Yesterday was a pretty balanced effort by a pretty good team; it’s 53-53 and it’s a pretty good effort by a team playing at home.  It’s not like we are just going to overwhelm people, even when everybody is playing well, because yesterday, for the most, part everybody did play well.  You just have to play 40 minutes.
Q.  You talked about some of the defensive numbers.  Where do you think your team needs to improve?
COACH SELF:  It’s a philosophical deal with me.  I think the two most important stats if you look at it, even though it doesn’t always equate to be true, is field goal percentage defense and field goal percentage offense, I think those two — and rebounding.
If you go back and look over time, there was a study done, I don’t know who did it, of all the programs in the country — they did assists, they did assisted turnover rate.  You’ve probably seen this since you’re the analytic guy that covers this.
But they did all these things, and the three (stats) that correlated to winning were rebounding, field goal percentage and field goal percentage defense more than anything else, and that’s kind of what we’ve tried to hang our hat on.
Q.  In the conference — sometimes you’re eighth or better in the nation —
COACH SELF:  I don’t know where I read this, but I think the worst defensive team we’ve had since we’ve been here before last year was ranked 13th in the country, something like that.
And granted, Arkansas, when they won the (1994) National Championship with Coach (Nolan) Richardson, they never would have rated up high in those stats, because they got their points and their field goal percentage was maybe a little higher; but their steal level was so high, that kind of stuff; or the rebounding was not as good because their steal level was so high.
You can definitely be successful doing it different ways.  But I would be disappointed every year if we are not a top-10 defensive team in the country, and we are obviously not.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve and play to that level.
When we were at Illinois, when Kansas beat us in my second year there, Kansas beat us in Wisconsin, a great game, a great game up in Wisconsin.  It was a one-possession game, we missed a shot and they won.  But we were a 4-seed and we were playing to a 1-seed.  We were playing that well and Kansas was playing unbelievable.
So that’s what I think, too; we’re not that now, but I still think that we can get to the point where we can be a great defensive team.  I still believe that.
Q.  What do you think of Baylor’s three-point shooting?
COACH SELF:  I think everybody shoots them, even their big center (Johnathan Motley) has shot 12 of them.  I think that’s right, 3-for-12 or something like that. Some of their best — Al Freeman, we recruited, and he has into the really gotten in the groove shooting the ball from behind the arc and we know he’s a great shooter.
But they can all shoot.  And then they have whenever (Taurean) Prince is making threes.  I don’t know how many he made against OU, I think he may have made three.  But when he’s making threes and they play him at the four, it obviously puts stress on your defense because they can stretch it.
Q.  How has their redshirt (Johnathan Motley) played? Did you know about him?
COACH SELF:  He did.  He played on the Houston — I believe it’s the Houston Defenders.  He was with the twins, the Harrison Twins, so everybody saw him.  But he’s one of those guys that was an athlete and then they have obviously done a good job with him.  He’s gotten a lot better.  He’s good.  He’s a good basketball player.  He has a really high ceiling.
Q.  Yesterday at the 15-minute mark, loose ball, everyone getting on the floor; how does this team do that more, just want to?
COACH SELF:  Not really because there’s not always plays in games that lend itself to having a play like that.  You can’t just go create that:  ‘Okay, I’m going to go steal it and bounce it off your foot so it’s rolling out-of-bounds and then I can make a great play.’  But you have to be prepared to go after it when it does.
It’s kind of an indictment to a coach, I guess, if we have to talk about these things.  But the reality of it is, it’s the best play we’ve had this year.  It’s one of the few plays that I’ve felt like, from an intensity standpoint, that the guys were on edge and playing like our teams have always played in the past.
A lot of it is, also, I think I’ve probably cluttered their mind a little bit, like with Kelly (Oubre, Jr.).  Kelly doesn’t have a cluttered mind now.  Kelly has a free mind.  And when guys think, they can’t react as well. I probably had them thinking too much.  A lot of that is on me.
But to me it’s just a mindset.  We’re not going to play great every game, but we can do a better job of making sure that our opponent doesn’t play well and we can do a better job of coming up with more 50/50 balls and those type of plays that change games.  There’s certain plays that are important.
But Mari’s (Jamari Traylor) dunk and that play were the two most important plays in the game yesterday in my opinion, because it changed your mindset and gave you confidence and made you feel like you could stick your chest out a little bit and the guys kind of fed off that.
Q.  We’ve asked you about this a lot, but with Devonte’ Graham, what’s his next step?
COACH SELF:  He is actually doing some light running, some cutting, light cutting.  He’s doing some individual shooting.  We’re going to continue that — and I’m talking about, this has just started but we’re going to continue that and I’m hopeful we can put him in some type of practice situation later on this week.
Q.  What do you think, how long would it take Graham to maybe get back?
COACH SELF:  I don’t know. He’s in terrible shape obviously, but I think he can get his shape back and he can get back where he can play spot minutes in a week I would think, for sure.
But we are not going to put him out there too early.  We are going to make sure that he’s feeling good and has total confidence in it, but I don’t know when that will be.  He’s progressed nicely in the last week, much better than what we had anticipated.
Q.  Is there any talk about a medical redshirt for Graham?
COACH SELF:  Not at all. I mean, he hasn’t done anything; he can’t cut, has hasn’t done anything full speed, anything like that.  If he can’t be 100 percent, then we’ll shut him down, but we’ll make sure he is close to 100 percent before we put him back out there.
Q.  The last could of games you’ve pressured a little bit more with screens and stuff. Is that something this team can do well?
COACH SELF:  See, that’s my fault, but we changed how we guard ball screens this year a little bit and it took away some aggressiveness I think.  We need to get back to being who we’ve been in the past and become much more aggressive.  I thought our bigs did a pretty good job on ball screens the last two games.
Q.  I think you guys have won 23-straight conference openers, is that important?
COACH SELF:  Yeah, I guess it is, but it’s not the end of earth, either.  It’s a long season; 18 games is a long time, but I really appreciate you pointing that out, though.
Q.  One thing that doesn’t show up in the stats is that you’ve shot 100 more free throws than your opponent.
COACH SELF:  We have, but the last two or three games, we’ve been non-factors on the free throw line.  Yesterday we shot 14. I don’t know (how many we shot versus) Kent State, I can’t remember. At Temple we didn’t shoot hardly any and the ones we shot, we missed.
We have done a really good job of getting to the free throw line.  A lot of times, bigs don’t score points, but they can also put the other team in foul trouble and things like that, which is almost just as important.  So that’s one area that we have done a pretty good job in and hopefully that will continue.
Q.  Have you ever had a small guard like Frank Mason III, who can easily get between two or three defenders?
COACH SELF:  I’m sure we have, but not with the same results usually.  He’s about as good as I’ve seen at using his body to shield the defense and still putting soft touch on the ball. Mario Chalmers is the best floater shooter we’ve ever had by far.  He can get in a lane, just throw it up there and it’s so soft.  Frank’s kind of developing that, too.
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