NCAA Tournament: Jayhawks Prep for Shockers on Practice Day

OMAHA, Neb. – Sunday’s round of 32 features a storyline a little closer to home when top-25 programs Kansas and Wichita State meet for the first time since 1993 to decide who advances to the NCAA Sweet 16. Prior to the clash between the Kansas squads, the Jayhawks met with the media in the CenturyLink Center Omaha Saturday afternoon.
From the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional, No. 2 seed Kansas (27-8, 13-5 Big 12) will take on No. 7 seed Wichita State (29-4, 17-1 MVC) in the third round of the NCAA Tournament at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska. Sunday’s game will start at 4:15 p.m. (Central) and will be televised on CBS.
 Head coach Bill Self takes questions on SaturdayKansas advanced with a 75-56 win against No. 15 seed New Mexico State on March 20. Wichita State won its first game of the event with an 81-76 victory against No. 10 seed Indiana. Following a closed practice session on Saturday afternoon, Kansas head coach Bill Self, junior forward, and Wichita native, Perry Ellis and freshman guard Devonte’ Graham represented KU at the NCAA press conference.
Q. For Perry, Evan Wessel’s dad said he thought you guys started playing basketball with and against each other when you were five or six years old. Can you tell me about that relationship, what you think of him and what it’s going to be like tomorrow playing against him?
ELLIS: We have been competing since we were young and he’s a great guy. It’s going to be fun to get to play against each other again.
Q. Perry, beyond Evan, how much do you know these guys? Were you ever a summer participant in some of those legendary runs over at Koch Arena, and how familiar are you with the rest of the roster at Wichita State?
ELLIS: (I know) a couple of players, we did camps and stuff with, and I got to talk and meet with those guys then. That’s pretty much it, but I know a couple of them.
Q. Devonté, being a non-Kansan, talk about the game in general and your thoughts on Kansas playing Wichita State. I know Wichita State has wanted to play this game for a long time. Just your thoughts about it all?
GRAHAM: It’s a big game for us. The State of Kansas has been kind of like anticipating this game for a while now. We just gotta get our minds right and focus on the game and what we gotta do to get the win.
Q. Perry, you’re getting ready to play against your hometown team. What’s it feel like to get ready to play against the Shockers?
ELLIS: It feels good, you know what I mean? Like I said, whatever happens, whoever we have to play is whoever we have to play, you know, so we just out there ready to compete, and compete.
Q. Perry, talk about just your leg, your injury, if you have one anymore, what’s the percentage? How do you feel?
ELLIS: My leg (knee) feels good. I would say just the key thing is just mental, it’s just a mental thing. Each day I’m getting better and better. Practice today went well. The key thing is just getting out there and just being aggressive and attacking, and I was doing that today, and I wasn’t thinking about it at all. That’s just going to be key going forward, but the knee feels great.
Q. Devonté, what did you learn most playing in your first NCAA Tournament game
GRAHAM: You have to go out and compete, you’ve got to put it all out there and leave it all on the court because you never know, it might be your last game. You can’t take any possessions off, and you gotta go out and have fun.
Q. For both players, what are your impressions of Wichita State, the game with Indiana that they had yesterday. Just talk about the Shockers in general.
GRAHAM: It was a very good game. You know, they played really aggressive. Their guards play pretty well, (Fred) VanVleet and Ron Baker, he had an off day, but we’ve just got to focus on guarding for us, I think, just focus on the defensive end and the offense will take care of itself.
ELLIS: They had a great game, they’re real composed, and that’s a good thing about the team. Whatever happens up or down they stay composed and I think that’s key for them.
Q. Do you guys make as much as of the rivalry as we do and the fans do? Do you guys feel it?
ELLIS: I would say not — we don’t think about it much. We just try to get out there and just play. We try to take every game the same, so I wouldn’t say we do.
GRAHAM: Of course not as much as the fans and the media make of it, but, you know, like Perry said, we just take it one game at a time. We just focus on who we are playing (next).
Q. Perry, compared to the last couple years, would you say, what difference, if any, is there in the mindset and attitude of the team? What’s the locker room like compared to what it was like the last two years at Kansas?
ELLIS: We had a couple that players experienced losing last year, and I would say we are a lot more focused. Everybody is willing to and just listens to the coaches. That’s the key. We just all really focused.
Q. Perry, have you had a lot of friends from Wichita coming out of the woodwork, asking for tickets?
ELLIS: I honestly haven’t. I honestly haven’t heard much. I know a couple of friends just anxious to see us play, but nothing like that.
Q. Perry, with the matchup tomorrow, could you possibly see yourself guarding Evan?
ELLIS: Yeah, that’s definitely a possibility. That might be how it (works out), so I’m looking forward to it.
Q. Devonté, describe Fred VanVleet, what you’ve seen on film or maybe watching him on TV over the last year or two. How do you describe his game?
GRAHAM: He’s an aggressive player. He looks to attack and score. Every time he has the ball in his hands, he makes plays for others, and he’s a really good point guard for them. Yeah, he’s just really aggressive at all times on the court. You just have to stay with him and pay attention to him at all times.
COACH SELF: Yesterday was a great win for us, I think anybody that plays in the tournament that won would say it’s a great win, but we got forgot about 30 minutes after we played and focused in on the next task, and that’s a talented and well-coached Wichita State ball club.
Q. Bill, you talk a lot about making the other team play bad. Do you know when or where you started saying that, and I’m curious with the way that Wichita State protects the ball and takes good shots? Is that one of the bigger challenges you have had toward that end this year?
COACH SELF: Of course, we haven’t played them yet, but you’re right on how well they take care of the ball and how sound they are offensively, but they’re probably just as good defensively as they are offensively. They’re a real sound team, and it’s hard, you know, taking something away from sound teams and making them uncomfortable and making them play without rhythm. I probably started thinking that since I was at Oral Roberts when we didn’t have very good players, because if it became a talent contest, you were probably going to lose. The thing about it is if the other team has better players, you need to make those better players as well and that’s been my philosophy since I’ve become a head coach.
Q. Coach, the Ron Baker skipping and the Lawrence story, what was your understanding of that? Do you ever find yourselves wishing he hadn’t made that trip that day?
COACH SELF: Well, you know, he’s a terrific player, and I have great respect for how he conducts himself, how he carries himself and how he plays the game. People make recruiting mistakes all the time and people get lucky recruiting and get unlucky recruiting all the time. I would say that there’s a lot of people that made a mistake on Ron, and we would certainly be one of them that made a mistake, because we were not aware of him in the way in which I wish we would have been aware of him, because obviously anybody would love to have him in their uniform. That happens all the time. There has been other cases — you look at — arguably two of the very best guards and maybe the best set of guards playing on the same team, in Fred and Ron, in America, were obviously — one of them, Wichita State may have been fortunate to get because he still came on as a walk-on, if I’m not mistaken, and the other one was basically — I watched him play in an event, and I believe it was in Indianapolis or just outside Indy and I love Fred and I went to my staff and I said who is this guy, he’s better than anybody we’re recruiting, and they said, ‘Coach he just committed to Wichita State,’ so we were just a little bit late on that, too. That happens a lot in recruiting, and I’m not as familiar with the legend otherwise as maybe some others are, but I sure wish we would have had an opportunity to study and see him more than what we did.
Q. Bill, what impresses you most about what Wichita State has been able to achieve and accomplish as they’ve moved up and got to a Final Four and been so good?
COACH SELF: Well, I would say — this is obviously a positive to anybody that were to have the success that they have had, but it’s one thing to have a great team; it’s a totally other thing to have a great program, and they’ve got a great program. They’re going to be in the game every year, and I think that’s obviously a compliment to Gregg (Marshall, head coach) and his staff, but also a compliment to how hard his players work. There is obviously a culture there that will remain intact for years to come. It’s pretty impressive. They had the great run where they went to the Final Four, they followed up by going 35-1, I believe. They followed that up by going 29-4, I believe, something like that. That stuff doesn’t happen all the time, but if you have a run of good players, you maybe can find lightning in a bottle once or twice, but they’re going to find it year in and year out. Think about it, they’ve obviously got a couple of key seniors, but they’ve still got the best backcourt in the country, and those two, they lose Tekele Cotton, obviously, but those two returning, it will make them a top-10, top preseason team next year. So it’s pretty good, and I think America should take notice, and obviously has, of the job that’s being getting done there.
Q. Bill, the second round presents that challenge of you’ve got such little time to prepare for your opponent and then you don’t know who that opponent is until two days prior. How do you approach those challenges?
COACH SELF: Well, it is a little bit different obviously than league play. We play a ton of Saturday/Monday games, and I don’t know if Wichita State does the same in their league with one-day prep, but we play several of those. And we do that on purpose in some ways, although we don’t control our schedule totally, but we do that on purpose in some ways to allow us to emulate an NCAA Tournament-type weekend. It’s not easy, because the most important thing over preparation and getting through their stuff and working on your stuff is fresh minds and fresh legs. I think you have to do a balance, and I do think this, and I don’t know if Gregg would feel the same way. I like the fact that we played the first game yesterday, as much as it stunk playing it, I liked the fact that we played early, so we basically had two days to prep for this from a mental standpoint as opposed to one.
Q. Coach, I know you never know how a guy is going to handle his first NCAA Tournament game, but after watching Devonté, does that give you confidence he can keep playing that way throughout the tournament?
COACH SELF: I think so. He’s had some good games for us. He was good in the Big 12 Tournament, we went to him against Iowa State and against Baylor and he delivered for us. He’s a good player and probably hasn’t scored the ball consistently like we think he can, but he shot the ball well yesterday, and I think we’re a better team in sections of the game when we have our two little ball handlers in there together, so I certainly think he’s capable of having a good game tomorrow and however long we last, playing well in the tournament throughout.
Q. Bill, you talked about Fred and Ron and Tekele, juniors, seniors, veterans, been around a long time. How enjoyable is it to coach veteran guys like that, juniors and seniors? Do you wish you had more of that?
COACH SELF: Absolutely! You know, you love coaching your guys however long they’re with you, and I love coaching Wigs (Andrew Wiggins) and Joel (Embiid), no question about it, but you connect differently to guys over time. I do believe that. When we won in ’08, Sherron (Collins) and Shady (Darrell Arthur) were sophomores, but the core of our team were all juniors and seniors, our foundation. In today’s time with certain programs your best players
are going to be your youngest kids, but the guys that give you the best chance to win are your going to be your older kids. In Wichita State’s case, they’ve got both. They’ve got the best players that are older. And certainly it is nice to have talent, but it’s even nicer to have experienced talent. I do think it’s pretty impressive. Makes it fun for a coach because basically they can coach your team for you as opposed to you having to coach every possession with young kids.
Q. Could you talk about Perry’s status — how he came off the game last night and how he looked today in practice?
COACH SELF: He was good today in practice, and he’s been good in practice most every day, but today was the best day he’s had since he’s been out. I think he would be the first to tell you that. I don’t know if he did or if it was asked, but he was good today. He looked like the old Perry. I thought yesterday — you know, we got the ball to him a lot early on, and he was just tentative, he didn’t show as much explosiveness, didn’t react to balls as well, and I think it obviously was a mental thing. I think every day, you know, he gets through some of those mental barriers, and I can’t see a reason why he can’t be 100% tomorrow physically. Now I just have to make sure he’s into it mentally as mentally as what he should be, and if he does that, then I expect him to play very, very well.
Q. Tom Crean talked about how Wichita State wasn’t a big, tall team, but physically mature and physically strong. What kind of things stick out about Wichita State from your perspective?
COACH SELF: Well, I think Tom (Crean, Indiana head coach) is right. I mean neither one of our teams is, you know, physically imposing from a height standpoint, but Wichita State, they’re probably an average-size team that plays bigger than their size because they’re strong, and they’re tough. They got bodies that they can throw at you, but, you know, Cotton and Baker are strong guys. VanVleet is strong. Carter is strong. Wessel is strong; they’ve got good, strong players, but the thing that probably impresses me most about Wichita State is from a coach’s perspective, they play the game the way that I think all coaches like them to play; ball movement, open man, take the open shot, don’t give up easy baskets, you know, their — whatever their philosophy is and how they want to go about doing things they’re obviously very good at exercising that and certainly playing to that. So that to me is what impresses the most. Offense breaks down, things aren’t going great, so a guy goes and gets 27 or 29, be a different guy the next game or whatnot. I think they play the game in whatever the situation demands. I think they’re good at taking advantage of that.
Q. Coach, what did you think of Landen Lucas’ play yesterday with him coming off a little bit of an injury?
COACH SELF: I thought Landen played well. He defended their big guy, Tshilidzi (Nephawe) pretty well yesterday, very well. I thought he played well. You know, he’s not going to score the ball at 20 a game or anything like that, but he was active defensively and certainly was our best low-post defender and rebounded the ball well, and I think he’s doing just fine.
Q. Bill, on CBS, Charles Barkley said you’re a great coach because you make adjustments. Can you just tell us how you’ve developed that skill, especially when you’re playing a team that you haven’t played?
COACH SELF: I didn’t hear Charles say that, but we are friends, so I appreciate it, Charles, if you did. I don’t think the adjustments that are made during the game are not, in a lot of ways, major adjustments. It’s not like we’re switching defenses every possession; it’s not like we’re switching up on how everything, but I do think that what coaches do and the ones that do it really well, and I think Gregg is one of these guys, is when things aren’t working, you have to help your kids. A lot of times I think that — and I’ve been guilty of this in the past, is that you just rely on the kids to figure it out. That’s okay sometimes, but I think we have to do things to help them and try to make the game a little bit easier for them because certainly teams can take away option 1 and option 2, so whether it be minor tweaks or changing angles of ball screens or let’s trap this block as opposed to playing it straight or let’s guard a ball screen differently, I think you’ve got to see how teams are hurting you and you’ve got to try to combat that and take advantage of it without compromising your philosophies or principles.
Q. Bill, is there personally any heightened level of anticipation for this game beyond what it means in the NCAA Tournament?
COACH SELF: I think so. I mean, I’m not going to lie. I think there are certain games that are big, and I think this is one of those games that’s bigger. You said for me personally — I’m not going to sell it that way to our players or anything like that, but they get it, they know that it’s a big game; they know it’s bragging rights in the state. I think we have that same sense when we play K-State, and certainly when you haven’t played a team in a long time and there has been talk about playing a team, you know, over that period of time that you haven’t, I think it certainly adds to the anticipation without question. But what happens tomorrow, you know, from our players’ standpoint, and I’m sure Wichita State is, ‘Hey, whoever.’ The team that we’re playing tomorrow, the team that they’re playing
tomorrow is in our way. Both teams are good and both teams are sound, and the mindset is, ‘Hey, what do we gotta do to win another game.’ I think that will be the mindset once the game starts, but with all the talk around it and everything I can’t help but feel it a little bit, thinking it’s obviously a big game to fans. It’s obviously a big game to people at Wichita because we have a lot of fans in Wichita, and of course, bragging rights and water-cooler talk and all those things. Even though that doesn’t matter, it’s something that I know it does exist.
Q. The day you saw Fred in Indianapolis, do you remember what it was that jumped out to you about him? I’m guessing he’s not super quick, not a great athlete, was it the point guard thing he does?
COACH SELF: First of all, I think he’s deceptively fast. I think he can use his skill set to set up his speed. He plays at different speeds, and he shoots the ball, so you have to guard him, which sets up different things. He’s a terrific passer, but the thing I liked, he’s just a point guard. There are not too many true point guards. A lot of people think they can play point guard, but the bottom line is that’s a wishful thought. There are not too many out there, he’s a true point and knows how to run a team.
Q. Bill, you’ve been very complimentary of their program and the way Gregg has run it and everything. How well do you know Gregg on a personal level? How often do your paths crossed?
COACH SELF: Not very often. I’ve known Gregg when he just got started as a head coach, and his wife, we used to talk all the time at Final Fours and things like that. But there is not too much communication between Gregg and myself, at all now, unless we see each other, and then we actually — at least I do, I enjoy visiting with him and his company when we actually see each other. We’re not exchanging Christmas cards or dinner invitations, but it’s not because I wouldn’t want to, it’s just because he’s busy, and I’m busy and that kind of stuff. I do respect the job they have done a lot, I like their staff, and certainly I think it’s great to have quality programs in our state, which we do. But I wouldn’t say it’s anything more than a very cordial, friendly, but professional relationship.
Q. Bill, when you were recruiting Perry Ellis and watching him play high school basketball, what were your impressions of his teammate, Evan Wessel?
COACH SELF: I liked him! I liked Evan. That Wichita Heights team was loaded. They were, I guess, by far the superior team in the state during that run, and of course, Perry was a key player on it, but they had other good players and Evan Wessel is obviously one of them. I liked him. The thing I like most about him is he’s tough. He’s an undersized 4-man and plays his butt off and can play a 3-spot or move to a guard spot, but he battles you. He’s one of those guys that gives your team a chance to be great because he will do all the things that needs to be done to give your team the best chance.
Q. Bill, what does this say for the state? You mentioned bragging rights and everything, but there is not many players that you recruit in Kansas or can, and same with Wichita State, now; they’ve built a program without a ton of Kansas kids, and to just be able to do that and still have such good college basketball in the state?
COACH SELF: We’ve obviously got a brand that we can try to recruit nationally and everything, and of course, everything is relative, but recruiting is hard, wherever you’re at. It’s really hard when you don’t have a backyard that you can recruit out of. Obviously, Wichita State, with Baker, that would be considered backyard and we have had our share of guys, whether it be (Travis) Releford or whether it be Wayne Simien or whatever that have given us great production, and of course, Perry would be a backyard kind of guy for us, and Wichita State. There is just not that many. So to go on someone else’s turf and bring them home is difficult. When you look at we have been to a Final Four and won it; Wichita State has been to a Final Four and K-State has been to an Elite Eight in recent memory and you basically don’t have a big backyard that you can draw players from. I think it’s a pretty big statement that the respective programs and the head coaches at those programs, excluding ours, does a great job and knows what they’re doing.
A Kansas victory against Wichita State would advance the Jayhawks to their 31st Sweet 16 appearance. The Midwest Regional Sweet 16 will be played in Cleveland, March 26, with the regional final on March 28, at Quicken Loans Arena. The official online source for Kansas Athletics, Williams Education Fund contributions, tickets, merchandise, multimedia, photos and much, much more.