Press Conference: NCAA Elite Eight preview
Kansas head coach Bill Self and starters Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, met with members of the media on Friday to preview the Jayhawks Elite Eight matchup against Oregon.
The NCAA Championship Midwest Regional Final between the No. 1 seed Jayhawks and No. 3 seed Ducks tips off on Saturday at 7:49 p.m. Central inside Sprint Center. The game will be televised by TBS.
BILL SELF: It hasn’t been long and certainly it was a short night. We’re preparing for Oregon and their terrific team. We’re excited to play in the game. We had a disappointing end to our season last year in this particular game, as did Oregon, so I know that’s fresh on everyone’s minds. Certainly it is motivation, I’m sure, for both teams over the past year. We’re excited for the opportunity and really looking forward to it.
Q. Devonte’, mentioning that game against Villanova in the Elite Eight. What did you take out of that experience specifically looking at how you guys closed the game and weren’t able to get off a shot on those last couple of possessions?
DEVONTE’ GRAHAM: Well, it was, you know, tough trying to get over that game. We could have executed a little bit better down the stretch. You know, we’re back here again, and we’re just excited to be here and being able to play in this Elite Eight game again and possibly make it to the Final Four.
Q. Coach and any of the players, you’ve just had it going so good the last couple of games. What do you have to do to make sure that happens again? It’s really hard to replicate, isn’t it?
BILL SELF: Well, yeah, we had it going pretty good the second half yesterday. But the biggest reason I thought we kinda got it going is that, you know, energy and defense deflections led to plays that created confidence.
We need to make sure that, you know, we don’t let Oregon play well, just like I’m sure that’s part of their game plan, not letting us get in a rhythm. You can never count on making shots like we did yesterday, but certainly it’s a lot easier to make shots when you’re playing with pace and with rhythm. We just need to go out and play, compete, and not worry about the results. Just go have fun.
JOSH JACKSON: I think we’ve been playing pretty well lately, but I think our success has really come from the defensive end. I think we gotta keep it up on the defensive end, and like Coach said, keep trying to make the other team play bad.
Q. I’d like to ask this of Frank and also Coach: Oregon gave Michigan some trouble with their defense and how they kept switching. I’m curious with short turnaround what are the specific challenges that switching defenses will present? How does it affect you?
BILL SELF: I was hoping you would tell me! (Laughter.) The thing about it is, I think Oregon will go 1-2-2 three-quarter court, 1-2-2 full court. They will play zone or match-up or man and change their ball screen coverages. So they do a lot of different things. The biggest thing I think we have to do offensively is not think and play. If you have to come down every time and say, okay, let’s study. What are they in? You’ve lost your momentum and your pace. We will encourage our guys to play and whatever we’re doing, just do it, whatever they’re in.
Maybe make adjustments as the game goes, but I’m not sure that we will run a different offense based on us backing it out and being looking at what they’re doing. I think we’re going to play and try to play as quick as we possibly can regardless if it’s man or zone.
FRANK MASON III: They switch 1 through 4 sometimes or switch 5. We can’t let that affect us. We have to execute our offensive play no matter what defense they’re in and that’s what we’re going to try to do.
Q. Does it stop your rhythm? How does it impact you?
FRANK MASON III: It can confuse us sometimes, but Coach tells us all the time that let the mismatch come natural, just don’t go to, say, if the 4 man it guarding me, just don’t give me the ball. Still move the ball and just let the match-up come natural.
Q. Bill, on the Elite Eight games, I know you spent some time dwelling on the Villanova game last year. Doesn’t really matter now, but is there a different sort of challenge to this because it’s the game to get to the Final Four? What is it about this game that’s different?
BILL SELF: I think it’s the hardest game in the tournament. Of course this will be our ninth one that we played in and we haven’t experienced very much success to date in this game.
It’s a hard game because there’s so much emphasis on road to the Final Four. It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the National Championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and the type of publicity that it gets. So I think if you make it to the Sweet 16, at least you make it to the second weekend.
If you get beat in this game, you come just that close to getting to the goal. The goal is to win a National Championship, but certainly all of the hoopla around it is the Final Four. I think that may add something to it.
The biggest thing is to just go play. Don’t play the game like there’s — like you’ve got to win to go to the Final Four. Play the game like you’ve got to go compete because you have a chance to win a regional championship. Not look ahead. Look in the moment and enjoy the moment.
Q. Have you changed your approach on that at all?
BILL SELF: I don’t know if I have or not. Every year I get looser and looser! (Chuckles.)
So I don’t know that I’ve changed my approach at all. In my mind, I’ve been totally loose and everything. But the reality of it is, if kids didn’t care an awful lot they wouldn’t be in this game. So I think it’s time to let ’em go. Hopefully that’s what we will do tomorrow.
Q. Bill and Landen, you’ve dealt with expectations since you arrived at Kansas. Somebody tweeted out yesterday after how well you played against Purdue that now if you don’t win the National Championship the season is not a failure, but it’s certainly not what you anticipated. How have you adjusted to those expectations over your tenure as coach? Landen, in your time at Kansas were you aware that expectations would be like this when you got there?
BILL SELF: Go ahead, Lando.
LANDEN LUCAS: Yeah, when I first came to school here there was expectations every year and you just kinda get used to it. We go through the same stuff during the regular season with the Big 12 and winning it and the streak and everything. Everybody on the team is used to high expectations. I feel like we do well with the pressure of that, and we handle it well as a team. Just worry about the guys next to us and taking it game-by-game. We handle it just fine.
BILL SELF: I think the thing that — we actually followed a difficult guy to follow, that won at such a high rate. The thing that I’ve kind of learned to know is that you handle expectations a lot better if you embrace ’em. It’s good that people believe that we should play at a high level. It’s good that people believe that we should win. That means we’ve got good players.
To me, pressure is expected to win and not have good guys. That’s real pressure, and certainly we haven’t been in a situation where we don’t have good players. I would much rather deal with the expectations than deal with the reality of not being able to play at a high level where there would be expectations.
Q. For the juniors and seniors up there, this is the second full year with the shorter shot clock. I’m wondering if you think that teams have adjusted to that fully and you guys have adjusted fully; and second, if you think it leads to not just more points but actually a more efficient offense.
FRANK MASON III: Well, we want to play fast. Having a shorter shot clock is in favor with us and even though it’s a shorter shot clock we want to take good shots and drive the ball downhill and create for each other. So it’s good to have a shorter shot clock.
LANDEN LUCAS: Yeah, I agree with that. I feel like the way that we play it benefits us and we’ve gotten used to it. Last year was a little change but not a big one. This year we’re pretty comfortable with that.
DEVONTE’ GRAHAM: Like Landen said, last year you could notice it at the beginning of the season more. But now we’re really adjusted to it, and we like to play fast. So it doesn’t really bother us too much.
SVIATOSLAV MYKHAILIUK: Yeah, I agree with everybody. It’s just 5 seconds, not a big difference. We just like to play fast.
Q. Bill, have you ever coached a team with this much confidence? How do you strike that balance of coaching ’em real hard and still creating an environment that makes ’em confident?
BILL SELF: We’ve had some pretty confident teams without question over the years. This is certainly one of the most confident teams.
You could ask them, but I think they would be very disappointed if they weren’t coached hard. I think that they’ve been through enough, and of course Josh is the new guy, but he went to college for — and chose a college in large part because he wanted to play for the highest of stakes.
I believe that these guys think that we would be doing them a disservice if we didn’t coach ’em hard. I think you can coach ’em hard and be confident and I think up with thing that breeds confidence is coaching hard. Because if you can do it when a coach is on you pretty good it probably makes a game seem sometimes a little easier, or in tough situations in games seem a little easier.
Q. For all you guys, Coach says he’s looser and looser now. How would you describe him?
DEVONTE’ GRAHAM: I think he’s very loose. You know, as far as letting us just go out and play, shoot the ball when we’re open, whenever we want to, early in the shot clock, one-on-ones, make plays for each other and ourselves. I feel like every year since I’ve been here he’s given us more freedom. It actually builds our confidence and we play well like that.
JOSH JACKSON: Obviously, I wasn’t here last year. So I don’t really know what Coach was like years before, but I’ve heard a couple of stories from the guys. From what I’ve heard, I definitely think he’s more loose and allowed us more freedom out there on the court.
LANDEN LUCAS: Yeah, you know, in my time here I’ve seen him loosen up a little bit. I think overseas when we were in Korea it was a time where, you know, it started a little bit. He got some confidence and trust in us and stuff, and then, you know, this year if we’re playing hard and competing, and he doesn’t have to worry about getting on us about those things, which we’ve done so far in this tournament for the most part. It makes it easier when he can coach the other things and not have to worry about the intangibles. This team has done pretty well with him.
FRANK MASON III: Since I’ve been here, I’ve definitely seen the changes in Coach. I think he’s mainly trusting us more and we can tell, and, you know, he just wants us to compete on the defensive end and really lock in on that part and the rest of our game will come and that’s what we try to do. If we focus on the right things, then, you know, we pretty much can put ourselves in position to make one-on-one plays and take good shots and things like that. If we just compete on the defensive end and make the other team play bad then we pretty much have freedom.
SVIATOSLAV MYKHAILIUK: Yeah, I agree with Frank. Coach got a bit loose because I think he trusts in us and he believes in us and he let us do our thing on the offensive end and defensive end and he just trusts us.
Q. I don’t know how much you’ve had a chance to watch Oregon. With the short turnaround how difficult is it for that preparation? Do you know Coach Dana Altman very well?
BILL SELF: Dana and I have known each other a long time. We were assistants in the league together when he was at K-State and I was at Oklahoma State and coached against him when he was a Creighton and I was at Oral Roberts in Tulsa.
So certainly go way back. He’s experienced so much success out west in I believe it’s seven years if I’m not mistaken that he’s been there. I think at this particular time, you know, any short prep is a tough prep, without question.
I do believe this: This does not mean that they will be prepared for us or we’ll be prepared for them. But you look at it, there are some similarities in how we play and how they play. Whether it be with the five man or the three man that’s playing the four on both teams or whether it be the guard play on the perimeter. I do think there are similarities. That doesn’t mean we can guard them, but I think that we guard ourselves every day and they guard themselves every day.
So I don’t think there will be a lot of changes that need to be made going into the game, but it’s hard to simulate shot blocking, things like that in practice which obviously they do as well as anybody.
Q. Bill, can you recall recruiting Landen out of Oregon and how that went and describe his trajectory during five years with you?
BILL SELF: We recruited Landen, and I’m not being remotely negative about this. We recruited him with the idea that in time he will be a good program guy. All he did was come in and start for three years, basically, and has become probably as an important part of our program as anybody we’ve had. You hate to look at a team over the last three years and say, why would you be without him and the answer would be not very good.
So he’s worked his butt off. He’s developed into a premiere player, a player that doesn’t get near the credit that we think he deserves, because all of us up here know how much he does to give our team the best chance to win. He’s been a real pleasure to coach, and he’s very, very bright. He gets it. He gets the big picture. Certainly he has grown so much since he’s been here.
Q. Coach and Devonte’, talk about the trust that you have in between each other. Devonte’ said last night after the game that he made the decision or suggested the idea to have the screen set higher out near the 3-point line instead of near the free throw line because Purdue’s bigs were having little success stopping you guys from penetrating. How long does it take like that to have trust like that in one another to go with what Devonte’ said?
BILL SELF: As a Coach, I think sometimes you want to have as much control you can but still let your players play. You can do that when you play inside/out. When you play outside/in you have to trust your players that they’ll make good decisions and be able to make plays on their own.
I think this year I have probably grown because we have changed so much in on you we played to trust guys to go be individuals out there. These guys have not abused that at all. They still think unselfishly but still they know they have freedom to go make plays. A lot of times I ask our guys, what do you guys think? What do you guys want to do? I’m certainly open to suggestions and if they see something I hope that they do let me know. What Devonte’ said last night was 100% accurate. It really helped us down the stretch in the second half.
THE MODERATOR: We will release the student-athletes to go to their breakout areas. Good luck tomorrow.
Q. Bill, as much as you guys get out in transition as a philosophy and have for a while, I wonder if you remember the irony from your first year when everybody wondered if this guy from Illinois was going to play that way?
BILL SELF: Well, you know, following Coach Williams and his staff, they played at break-neck speed and certainly really, really emphasized not only transition but the secondary break as much as anybody in America, maybe ever has. I’ve never been one to emphasize that as much. I’ve always been let’s score in primary, but if it’s not there we can run our stuff. But their stuff was secondary and they were so good at it. It’s been talked about I’m sure amongst fans probably for years that we don’t play as fast as we should. The reality of it is I don’t know how we can play much faster than we are right now. It’s a team that gets up and down and of course that doesn’t mean you’re going to make shots or score more points, but certainly this team is aggressive and is playing to their athletic ability.
Q. Was there ever a time you thought this was your worst defensive team since Oral Roberts?
BILL SELF: Maybe not since Oral Roberts, but there has been times this year I thought this was our worst defensive team since I’ve been at Kansas.
Q. I assume you don’t think that now, and what was the reason for the progress? You talk about energy, but did you trick things up or try something different?
BILL SELF: No, no, no. I think the biggest thing is that a lot of times you can play bad defense and come away with a blocked shot or whatever, because this year we haven’t had the big guys, the rim protection and mistakes on the perimeter are magnified because people can’t make up for those mistakes inside like you could if you had Joel or Sasha or some of the big guys or the Morris twins or Thomas or Jeff Withey.
I would say we guarded the ball average and we didn’t have a rim protector and it was frustrating for a while, but I think we have gotten better defensively. I don’t think we’re great by any stretch, but I think we’re a team that has learned how to play to our strengths and we’re more comfortable switching. We didn’t used to switch as much as we do now and the switching has been good for us.
Q. Your first three games in this tournament decided by 20-plus. How rare is it to make a Final Four run without at least one game where you have to sweat it out a little bit and you feel like that game may still be ahead for you guys?
BILL SELF: If we’re going to get there then we’re going to have to sweat one out. We know that. Tomorrow will be a highly competitive game, we believe, regardless of the situation. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve played pretty consistently well throughout the tournament, but it’s going to take another effort like that to put ourselves in a position to have a chance to advance. I’m sure Dana is saying the same thing to his guys as well.
Q. Coach, striking difference last night from the first half to the second half. I know in these last few games you’ve been talking about — and the players have said they have been starting a little tight. There is a little bit of anxiety to start the games. What can you do or say to impact on you they start the game tomorrow night?
BILL SELF: You know, we have not started any of our NCAA Tournament games very well. Cal Davis is 21-21, got behind to Michigan State early and of course we were behind 35-27, I believe, last night. Looking back, maybe we were a little tight, but I also thought the other team came out and played well and sometimes that happens. Sometimes you make the same shots you’ve been missing or they miss the same shots they’ve been making and that can turn the tide.
But I think the last two games against State and Purdue I think we were too excited. I think we tried to play too fast early on. I think our shot selection was marginal at best and defensively we didn’t get in any rhythm early. People talk about offensive rhythm, but it’s nice to get into a defensive rhythm as well. Seems like to me around halftime or close to halftime in both of those games it seems like to me that we got comfortable at both ends. Sorry I didn’t answer your question, but we’ll tell ’em to start faster tomorrow!
Q. Is that it?
BILL SELF: That’s it.
Q. You’ve got Devonte’ up there, Appalachian State was where he was going and Frank with Towson and if the production from those two guys changes your recruiting, and Josh is up there, too; and I’m wondering if there might be some intangible attribute that you’re looking for in any recruit.
BILL SELF: I think the reality is you want to recruit guys that are self-starters, self-motivated. You want to recruit guys that have high character and of course those two positively do. We got lucky on both of them. We got lucky on both. If Devonte’ would have been released from his scholarship Appalachian State he would have never gone to prep school, so we wouldn’t have got him.
If Frank had qualified academically he would have gone to Towson. We would have never got him. Recruiting isn’t an inexact science. Sometimes the biggest gets you get in recruiting are the ones you feel like are throw-in guys and we’re going to take him because we can’t get who we want and that players ends up to be the best player. Sometimes the biggest — I don’t want to say disappointments, but the guys that didn’t live up to the expectations are the ones that you wanted the most and coveted the most.
But the one thing after you get ’em to school, the one thing you do realize is what they have done prior to college doesn’t mean anything anymore. They have to reprove themselves and we’ve got guys that are hungry. These guys are hungry and they want to be players. They play with a chip and we always want to recruit the best guys regardless of rankings and that kind of stuff. But a lot of times the rankings don’t tell the story and that was the case with these two.
Q. You’ve been asked a fair amount about your players off-court incidents both this week and last week and before that. One general question on how you’ve handled it, do you feel you have a responsibility to discipline players for off-court incidents on top of whatever disciplines may come from police investigations?
BILL SELF: Yes, I do and I do. I do agree with that.
Q. Have you handed out all the discipline that you’re going to handout this year for anything that’s happened in the past?
BILL SELF: Yes, absolutely.
Q. Were there any disciplines that weren’t made public or was it all suspensions?
BILL SELF: You know, the thing about it is as a coach when you recruit guys to your program you recruit guys to a family situation and a lot of times within a family you don’t put on the streets what’s going on within your family.
I mean there’s been numerous media say certain things about maybe what we should do or shouldn’t do, but we know. But what we do stays in our house. So sometimes they can’t just stay in your house if it becomes public, but a lot of times there are things that happen within a family that doesn’t become public. Certainly we have handled that.
Q. Coach, you mentioned the throw-in guys, Devonte’ and Frank and Landen. How would you qualify Svi? Josh isn’t a throw-in guy. Are you one step way from a —
BILL SELF: I wasn’t referring to any of these guys as “throw-ins.” I was saying sometimes in recruiting you go out and you bust your butt and somehow your top 4 or 5 on your list go somewhere else and you can’t get them. So you end up scrambling and you end up with a guy that you didn’t have to work as hard to get because he wants to be in the program. You recruit him as a four-year guy and next thing you know he starts three and a half years for you.
Svi was a highly recruited young man. He could have gone a lot of places, Carolina, Virginia, a lot of places. But he could have gone to those places, but just because you go to those places that doesn’t guarantee you’re going to be an All-League player or a pro. He’s worked so hard. He came at such a young age because he was only 16 when he first showed up that he’s put himself in a position to have a nice basketball career beyond college.
Q. Have you ever had a player have a better season than Frank is having this year?
BILL SELF: No, no. Frank Mason has had the best college season anybody I’ve been around by far! The things that he has done to be a point guard, to be totally unselfish, to play both ends, to lead, to be tough, to be an Ironman, and your team experience success and all he does is average 21.5 and gives your team its personality. It’s been an unbelievable year for Frank.
Q. All of you who enter this insane event that we have every year, all of you know the feeling of being eliminated from it. I wonder if you could look back at last year and describe sort of your interpretation of what finality is like and if it changes at all over the course of a career?
BILL SELF: I think it does change a little bit. When you are young, you’re young and dumb and you think, we’ll just get back here. Then you realize how hard it is to get back. Then as you get older I think the finality is, oh, we put ourselves in such a great position. How many more opportunities will we get?
As you get older, I think it’s the same way with players. If it happens as a freshman, well, we’ll get back but as a junior or senior, the finality. How many more chances will we get like this one? To me, that’s the biggest thing.
Q. It gets worse?
BILL SELF: I wouldn’t say it gets worse. It just gets different. It hurts the same every year. I tell our guys all the time you would much rather be in the game than not the game regardless of the situation. But it hurts every year, but from a coach’s perspective, and I can’t speak for the players, but maybe as a player’s perspective it has a different feel as a senior than as a freshman because there is not a safety net.
I do think that’s why, in my opinion, you see some unbelievable senior performances in the NCAA Tournament because they know there is no safety net.
Q. Bill, what conversations have you had if any with Landen about playing against the team he grew up right down the road from?
BILL SELF: Not any yet. You guys got to understand something. We got back to the hotel at 12:30, had dinner at 1:30 and let ’em sleep until 11:30, and then I had to be over here. So our scout starts with our players as soon as we get out of here. But we will talk about it. Landen and I talked briefly last night about the situation. He’s a big fan of the Ducks not only because he grew up in Portland but because his father played there and was a good player there.
So there’s pride there about that with his family. He told me last night he said, Coach, I’ve seen ’em play at least 15 times this year. Which he wouldn’t be watching any other teams from the Pac-12 play that amount of time unless there was a vested interest with his father. We’ll talk about it. We’ll talk about it, but he has a lot of respect for back home.
Q. Bill, any comparisons to any other Big 12 team in the last five years in the league with the Ducks and also just a little bit about their personnel and what stands out to you?
BILL SELF: Well, comparisons? I don’t know if I can say for sure. Maybe Iowa State? I’m just thinking off the top of my head, so that may not be the best. You think of Iowa State, if they had a big guy and then play around four guards. Burton is kinda like Dillon in a lot of ways. But personnel-wise what jumps out is how athletic and how defensively they can do some things athletically that you can’t simulate in practice. And then of course their skill level. You’ve got a guy like Dillon Brooks that can get his shoulders past and you be a great passer and they’re unselfish. Then you got shooters, all around. You’ve got one in particular, that’s probably the hottest player in the tournament shooting the ball in Tyler Dorsey.
So personnel is very impressive, but if I was going to say a team I think they kinda remind me of us as much as anything of teams that I’ve gotten to know pretty well.
Q. You mentioned your four or five players that maybe weren’t your gets. Was Tyler Dorsey one of those players?
BILL SELF: Absolutely. We wanted Tyler, bad. I just thought he was a guard that could play on the ball and off the ball and certainly that’s played out to be 100% accurate. He’s a point guard that can shoot and score. He’s a terrific kid. We really liked him. A lot. Unfortunately he didn’t like us as much as we liked him. But it turned out to be what great choice he made! Turned out to be perfect from him, at least from the outside looking in.
Q. If the NBA didn’t have an age limit they are probably the outlet for Josh’s talents right now. What do you think of that ongoing rule and how do you think Josh’s game would translate in the NBA?
BILL SELF: I think Josh is going to be a very good pro. I think his game translates because I think he’s a player. In the NBA they talk about skill sets. Does he have an NBA skill? I think Josh has multiple NBA skills. He’s a guard that can obviously play much bigger than that. You could almost play him at four spots offensively and he’s big enough and quick enough he could almost guard four spots defensively, so I think he’s going to translate to a very good pro.
Q. How would he be right now and how much has this year helped him toward that next year?
BILL SELF: Well, I think that he would — I think one thing that all 18 years old need to have is improved strength. So as effective as he could be playing with professionals right now he will be better moving forward because he’s added a year of weight and strength. He’s going to have to continue to get stronger in order to hold his position against guys that are 26, 28 years old. But to me that’s the only thing that could possibly keep him from being really, really good, at a very young age.
Q. Along the lines of what Chuck was asking, has any one tournament loss hit you harder than any others? Has there been constructive elements to any of the defeats?
BILL SELF: You mean constructive like what have I learned from it?
BILL SELF: I think we always go back and evaluate ourselves and what could we have done different, what would have been better? We talked about at that as a staff this week, okay, now, you know — I actually made some notes last year on going into it. I thought last year was the best that we had been prepared mentally. We were on edge, but we were loose and we played so well in the tournament and then, you know, people forget we got beat by one possession by a pretty good team last year.
But we weren’t a confident offensive team down the stretch in that particular game. You look at it, what could we do different to put our guys in better situations and that kind of stuff. I think you’re always self-evaluating and trying to improve and get better. But to me, all of the losses, obviously hurt, but the ones that have hurt the most to me have been, you know, if you lose in the first round, it stinks.
It stinks, especially at Kansas, but you were in the tournament. If you lose in the second round, at least you won a game. If you lose in the Sweet 16 we got to the second weekend, but the one you can’t rationalize is the Elite Eight game. It’s a big game for everybody and I’m not putting anymore emphasis on it than what it is, but it’s a game that needs to be played in the way you played your first three games getting to this point.
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