Self talks season-opener at weekly press conference

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas men’s basketball head coach Bill Self met with members of the media Thursday afternoon to discuss his team as the Jayhawks head into the regular-season opener Friday against Tennessee State. Self, beginning his 15th season at the helm in Lawrence, talked about his team’s readiness heading into its first regular-season game, the development of the younger players and the looming match-up with Kentucky next Tuesday in the Champions Classic.

A video of the press conference can be seen on the Kansas Basketball Facebook Page and the transcript is below.

Q. After three games, do you feel these guys need to play a real game or do you think they’re ready?
BILL SELF: I don’t know that we’re ready. I hope we are. I think that the first game against Missouri, obviously, exposed us in some ways and got a little bit better. Then I didn’t think we took a step forward with our last performance, but hopefully that will be good motivation, knowing that when you play a quality opponent, no matter where you play them, that if you don’t come ready to play, then it could definitely put you in jeopardy. I thought that Fort Hays State did that to us in the first half. And certainly Tennessee State is more than capable of doing that tomorrow.

Q. Other than just not being ready in general or maybe where you want to be, is there something common in common with every opener that you generally worry about?
BILL SELF: I think so. I think so. The common thing is that your opponent will do something that you’re not prepared for. It could be like, for instance, we haven’t done much, but they’ve got three game films on us. And all we’re looking at is what they did last year towards the end of the season. So I think there is an advantage sometimes with that season opener from a scouting standpoint that some teams can have an advantage over others, obviously.

Q. Along those lines, what do you know about Tennessee State and have you met Coach Ford before?
BILL SELF: I don’t know him well, but I’ve seen him around. He’s well-respected in our profession. He’s done great. Being a head coach — I think he’s been a head coach now three or four years if I’m not mistaken. But, you know, he was at Wichita State for a short stint, was at Chipola and certainly at Illinois State. He’s done a really nice job.

Last year their team was good. I believe they won 17 or 18 last year, and this year they’re picked to finish fourth in their league in the (Ohio) Valley. So they’re more than capable of doing well. They lost their two leading scorers from last year, so, you know they’re kind of like us. Although they have some experience back, they’ve got guys who have different roles this year with the returning guys, which is much like us as well. So there’s a lot of unknown, but a lot of positives for them.

Q. Are you hoping to get the attention of your guys based on the other night? Maybe Svi (Mykhailiuk) and Malik (Newman) especially after yesterday?
BILL SELF: Well, yesterday, so much of when something happens, a lot of times people think that there should be immediate results. Well, yesterday, we practiced yesterday. It was more of a walk-through, controlled practice. So we’ll practice for real today. But those guys’ attitudes are great. I just want to be more aggressive. It’s not that complicated to me. If you’re going to make a mistake, at least make it going full speed. When you try not to screw up, that’s when you screw up the most. We just need those guys more aggressive, playing with more reckless abandon.

Q. Does it make it easier to focus youngsters — it’s not like you’ve got a bunch of fifth-year seniors who have been through the mill. Is it easier when you have a team like Missouri on your early season schedule?
BILL SELF: Yeah, I think it’s easier to get their attention leading up until three weeks prior, two weeks prior, one week prior. Yeah, I do think that’s easier.

But the whole thing is you can’t look ahead. I mean, people naturally do that, but players shouldn’t and coaches shouldn’t. If we’re going to have success playing anyone next Tuesday, playing Kentucky next Tuesday, the best way to have success is to have some momentum moving forward by playing well on Friday. So you can’t — you’ve got to focus in on the next one or whatever.

Certainly this one shouldn’t be a problem, because it’s the first one. Everybody should be jacked and excited about playing. But still though, you can be exposed very easily if they do things that you haven’t really prepared for. It’s hard to have everything in. I mean, it’s hard to have everything in this early.

Q. Is there a benefit to playing at Duke or Kentucky this early in the season? And like you say, no one’s really all that good coming into the start of the season, but when you play these guys right at the get-go, is there a benefit for you guys?
BILL SELF: I think the biggest benefit are the things you can talk about in practice to get guys to understand if we don’t get better at these things, then can he could get exposed really bad, which has happened with us. I’ve forgotten about it, but I think they beat us pretty bad in the Champions Classic about three years ago, I think. I can’t really remember. But they hammered us.

I think that teams had a false sense that we were ready to play that game when obviously we weren’t. But that’s okay too. It’s early in the season. You grow from it, you learn from it. It’s not like football where you lose a game in September that could affect your standing in December. It’s not like that. So you have time to get it back. But certainly you want to get off to a good start.

Last year, everybody thinks, well, we were off to a great start because we beat Duke. Well, but we also lost to Indiana. So going 1-1, that wasn’t the worst thing that happened, but certainly we want to obviously do better than that.

The one thing I’ve learned, we haven’t done — I don’t want to talk about the Champions Classic, and I know that’s not the reason for this, but we haven’t done particularly well in that. Those are hard games. Whether you win them or you haven’t won them, the purpose of those games are to prepare you to be better moving forward and you can get exposed and know more about who you are. Certainly that’s been the case with us and probably with those teams as well.

You’ve got to take care of the business at hand, and the business at hand is certainly Tennessee State. Knowing you’re going to go against a quick, athletic team that will put pressure on you that really defends and you’ve got to move the ball and bodies in order to get good shots because you’re not going to get good shots when you play on the first side. So guys got to understand that.

So hopefully we will, and that will put us in a position to become a better team. We need to become a better team Friday and not worry about Tuesday yet.

Q. What is your biggest concern with this group?
BILL SELF: I have a lot of them. I would say the biggest concern right now would probably be just pure toughness. Can you win games when you don’t play well? If you look at how we shot it so far in our exhibition games, it’s been miserable. We’re a good shooting team, and we’re shooting 31 percent from three. Only because Devonte’ is 13-of-28. Without those, without him, we’re a 25, 23 percent shooting team from three. That’s what we should do good.

So can we win games when we don’t make shots? Last year’s team and most of the teams we’ve had here could because they were tough. They knew how to grind and get stops at key points. I don’t know that this team is ready — I think we’ll be able to do that, but I haven’t seen it consistently yet. To me, that’s the biggest thing. When things aren’t going well, can you make somebody else play poorly?

Q. Marcus Garrett seems to be one of those players that’s fit that mold so far. Has he surprised you with his activity level?
BILL SELF: No, he hasn’t surprised us at all. He’s doing exactly what we thought coming in. We thought he could be a guy — you know, when you recruit two freshmen and you say have they surprised you at all? I mean, usually that’s from a positive standpoint. But when you’re only playing — when two of the freshmen are two of the only eight you have, you’re going to get a chance to play and play through some mistakes and things like that. So it’s been good to see Marcus do that. But the opportunity is perfect for him to do that because, obviously, of our numbers situation.

Q. What is the next step for Marcus and his game?
BILL SELF: Well, let’s get to the first game first. I would say just continue to do what he’s been doing. Activity, and instilling some extra possessions for us, and you know, scoring as the game comes to him. But I don’t think he’s thinking about the next step. I think it’s too early for that. He needs to think about how he can just make us better. He’s worried about the right things, and that’s why he’s doing well because he cares about all the right things.

Q. How do you improve or cultivate a toughness aspect? Does that come from the coaches or player leadership, or just an individual basis? How does that grow?
BILL SELF: I think it naturally grows. You’re put in tough environments and you get your butt handed to you every now and then. You have to grind out some things. I mean part of it is regardless how things are going, you know it’s a long game. You know that body language shouldn’t change. You know that you’re two or three possessions away from having a 6-0 or an 8-2 run to put you right back in it. Knowing these things, that’s where we were really good, to be honest with you. There’s been a lot of games we played like crap for 34, 35 minutes, but on a five-minute deal we go on a 17-4 run and it’s game over.

I don’t know that this team understands that just yet, but we can do it. Coaches can talk about it, but the players have to do it. They’re the ones who have to feel it and take pride and doing what they think is important. You know, you’re going to dribble or fumble or go at it with two hands? Are you going to flinch when you shoot a lay-up?

You know, Svi did that the other night, back door lay-up, guy comes to contest, he flinched. He’s a senior. That’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about. So I don’t think that will happen again, but that was probably good that it happened at that time.

Q. When you were a younger coach, would you have approached a game like the Kentucky game or Champions Classic, would you have installed more of your defense? Hey, we’ve got to get these guys ready to go in November, forget about getting them ready for the conference. Are you more comfortable bringing them along or have you always been that way?
BILL SELF: I would say that I’m much more concerned about meat and potatoes than I am putting in all the other stuff. Let’s get good at what we do. This doesn’t have anything to do with the game on Tuesday. This has everything to do with how you go through a season. You started out and you want to be good at what you believe is the most important things.

Certainly as you go on and you’re scouted and you scout other people, you tweak. But I don’t think you go into it thinking, hey, we need to trick it up or do anything like that to try to win a game this time of year. I don’t think that sends the right message to your players. So, we’ll try to get good at the basic set that we do. Doesn’t matter who we’re playing right now. Certainly Tennessee State’s the only one that matters as of today.

Q. You look back to the cross-country trip last year, and is that a moment that made you guys tougher?
BILL SELF: Probably. Yeah, probably. Yeah, you go 0-2 to start the season, the Duke win last year was probably a better win than what people gave it credit for, because we were just in Honolulu and we just got our butts handed to us by Indiana. So I’d say so. I’d say that was a good comeback deal.
Q. After the Italy games and three exhibition games, do you feel now that it’s more like January than November?
BILL SELF: No, no. The Italy deal didn’t do us any good. The practice was good, but the competition was so bad. And Udoka (Azubuike) was hurt or sick, and certainly Billy (Preston) went two games over there because of his situation. We were playing guys that had never practiced.

We went into that deal thinking we’d play three guards and two bigs and try to bring them around and we end up playing five guards or four guards all the time. Mitch (Lightfoot) had a mask on and all this stuff. So I don’t think we got much out of it over there from a playing standpoint. I don’t think we’re any further along than what we would have been if we hadn’t gone to Italy, to be honest.

Another reason for that is that everybody says we’ve got an experienced team. We’ve got two seniors and Lagerald’s played minutes as a junior, and the other five guys are newcomers to us. (Last season) Dok (Azubuike) played some in 11 games and Mitch played. I love Mitch, I don’t think he made his first free throw until the end February of last year, and that’s not a joke. Malik (Newman) hadn’t made a basket here. Billy hadn’t made a basket here. Marcus (Garrett) hadn’t made a basket here. So we’re still a pretty young a team.

Q. When you think back to where you were last year at this time with Frank (Mason III), and where you are now with Devonte’ (Graham), can you explain the trust level there? Did you trust Frank?
BILL SELF: I trusted Frank and I certainly trust Devonte’.

Q. Is it (the trust level) about the same?
BILL SELF: I never thought about trust ratings. But I would say it’s pretty comparable. I would say last year was probably a little bit easier to trust Frank because you had Devonte’. This year you trust Devonte’, but there are still some unknowns out there with some other guys. I trust Devonte’ as much as I’ve trusted any guard that we’ve had here.

Q. As far as leadership, passing that torch from Frank to Devonte’, has that been a smooth transition?
BILL SELF: I think people look at it a little bit differently than I do. I’m not sure we pass the torch from Frank to Devonte’ from a leadership standpoint. I think we passed the keys to him. But I think that Devonte’ has always been a great leader. I think potentially he’s as good a leader as we’ve had because people respect his talent, they respect his work ethic. He’s got personality, and he can talk. If you go back and look at Frank, everybody respected his talent, everybody respected his toughness, but that dude never said anything.

So I really think Devonte’ has the potential to be as good a leader as we’ve had.

Q. Would you say this front court is one of the most exciting in recent years?
BILL SELF: Front court, okay. Would I say that this front court is one of the most exciting we’ve had in years? You know what? You go back and I would say in the last couple years, Landen (Lucas), and Dok, and Carlton (Bragg Jr.), and Josh (Jackson), to me, those were some things to be excited about going into the season last year.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Joel Embiid couldn’t start here. You had Perry Ellis and Tarik Black at least for a couple of games. So I don’t compare this front court with those at all. There was a time front-court-wise that Cole (Aldrich) was a lottery pick, and he started with Marcus (Morris) who was a lottery pick. He was backed up by Markieff (Morris), who was a lottery pick; who was backed up by Thomas Robinson, who was a lottery pick; who was backed up by Jeff Withey, who was in the league. That was our front court. So I can’t say that this front court has me excited like those have.

But I can say if Dok plays to his ability, Billy comes on and if Mitch can give us some solid minutes, then I think it could be a very good front court. But we’ve had some really good front courts here.

Q. With conditioning, you guys were good at it last year and seems like you’re good at it this year. Do you think your four-guard (lineup) looks the way you guys move just kind of naturally?
BILL SELF: Yeah, I’ve said that a lot. You know, we can get kind of stagnant sometimes. But the way that we’ve tried to practice playing four guards I think has been really good for our conditioning. I think there’s more movement with those guys cutting than there is in the other stuff that we do, so I do think it helps conditioning.

Q. Does that help in close games, conditioning-wise?
BILL SELF: Maybe, I don’t know. Maybe. Last year, we were not well conditioned like we will be or should be, but I do think last year we were a pretty well-conditioned team. I do.

Q. At times when you have Devonte’ out of the game getting a breather, how concerned are you with the team’s ability to get into your sets?
BILL SELF: We haven’t run any sets yet. But that’s a great question too because Malik could initiate. I think Lagerald’s probably the best equipped to initiate. But I think it will just work out a lot better if Devonte’ doesn’t foul and he doesn’t get tired. I think that will probably be the thing that gives me the most confidence. But that’s a good point. We’ll do it by committee. I’ve always thought we should play position-less; that’s the way we’ve always coached it and tried to recruit it. I think that’s certainly the case with us.

But we do need to have somebody who can be a back-up initiator, without question. I think it still remains to be seen who would be the best at that.

Q. Do you think last year’s team was one of your better offensive teams, and can this team ever get to that level?
BILL SELF: Last year’s team didn’t throw it inside and score as much. But I think last year’s team attacked the lane and did a really good job (at it). I think Josh was a big part of that, having a guard that’s 6-foot-8 who can play, who can do a lot of things. This year’s team is different because we don’t have Frank or Josh, who were so good at driving the ball. So I think we’ll be more of a perimeter-shooting team, which could be good. It could also not be good.

One thing we do have this year that we didn’t have last year, is Dok, (who) could continue to get better. We have a big body we can throw it to down there and hopefully come away with more points than what we did with Landen. But what Landen did for us was so good. But, certainly, Dok has the potential to be a better low-post scorer.

Q. You said Lagerald is your best at driving into the lane. Did he show you what you wanted in these first three exhibitions?
BILL SELF: I think he’s shown us everything except he hasn’t shot the ball like he’s capable of shooting it. He’s a good shooter, he just hasn’t shot it well.

Q. How has Svi (Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) shot at practice?
BILL SELF: He’s good. He (has) shot it really good. Him not making shots so far, obviously, is not a concern. He can shoot the basketball and he does it every day. (he) Just hasn’t done it in those three exhibition games though.

Q. What about his defense and Malik’s?
BILL SELF: I would say that we can all get better, but certainly those two can certainly improve at guarding the ball, without question.

Q. What is the balance in being aggressive without recklessly trying to force something to happen?
BILL SELF: I think that goes from a point of a comfort level.

You still want to pick your spots and you can’t be full throttle all 40 minutes every possession. We know that. But we have to have the mindset that even if it’s just one bounce, the one bounce toward the basket forces help, where one bounce toward the sideline forces nothing.

You can be aggressive with your square ups, you can be aggressive how you get open and catch the ball in the scoring area. You can be aggressive in how you attack a ball screen, even though there is not really much there. There are a lot of ways you can be aggressive.

If you’re aggressive initially, you may force a little bit of help, which you make the next pass, which allows him to force more help. But just playing station to station, which we do sometimes, that’s not going to win anything. That’s where Frank was so good. He could force help anytime he wanted to.

Q. At the end of the day, this is something coaches probably don’t want to hear, but is the most important stat for you that nobody gets hurt? At the end of the day, you can live with losing some games, but you can’t afford to lose your front line guys?
BILL SELF: I would say we probably can’t afford to lose anybody. But that’s obviously very important. We’re not the only ones in the country who have a little bit of depth in some area and a loss here would certainly affect us quite a bit, at least on paper. But, yeah, I do think that that’s true.

But, knock on wood, I’ve never been one to worry about that. I’ve always thought that when you start worrying about things like that, that’s when those things start happening. So you can’t play hard enough. The teams that play the hardest, will probably have the best chance to stay the healthiest. That’s what I’ve always thought. But you do probably adjust in practice a little bit.

Q. How is Sam (Cunliffe) and when is he eligible?
BILL SELF: He’s eligible after the completion of the first semester, which I think is the Nebraska game. Is that right? He can play in the Nebraska game or right after the Nebraska game. I know we play Arizona State the week before he gets eligible.

Sam’s a great athlete. He’s going to be a nice addition (to our team). He’s probably some time away from being able to impact our team the way that some people think he should, just because you’ve got Svi, Devonte’, Lagerald and Malik ahead of him. But certainly, he’s got a chance to be a good player in time.