LAWRENCE — Some of the best coaching advice Bill Self ever received came in what he now labels an accident.
During his three-year stint at Illinois in the early 2000s, Self was told by an opposing coach he had yet to figure out one of basketball’s biggest secrets. Self’s interest piqued.
“I said, ‘What do I have to figure out?’ ” Self recalled Monday. “And he said, ‘You tell your big guys to bully everybody, foul the crap out of everybody, because you know that if they don’t foul, there’s no way you keep them all happy.’ ”
It’s advice the current Kansas coach has taken to heart and woven into the fabric of a Jayhawk identity he’s established on toughness and assertiveness from frontcourt players.
“I think (we) kind of lucked into that,” Self admitted.
It’s also advice that has never been as inapplicable as it has become this season.
The No. 2-ranked Jayhawks (5-0), who host Toledo at 7 p.m. today are down to two bigs in their seven-man scholarship rotation — 7-foot sophomore center Udoka Azubuike and 6-8 sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot. It’s a situation spurred by an almost perfect, or in this case imperfect, storm.
Offseason transfers from forwards Carlton Bragg and Dwight Coleby, program departures of cup-of-coffee transfer forwards Evan Maxwell and Jack Whitman and, most recently, the indefinite withholding of freshman forward Billy Preston from the lineup have all led to the razor-thin margin for error in the KU frontcourt. It’s a situation with no end in sight, at least until university administrators complete their ongoing investigation into a vehicle Preston was driving on campus or until Class of 2018 prospect Silvio De Sousa’s reclassification attempt is approved and processed, a situation Self said would make the 6-9 forward eligible for the Jayhawks’ conference opener Dec. 29 at Texas in the “best-case scenario if everything goes perfect.”
As Self looks across the country, he sees a number of teams deploying seven-man rotations — but he doesn’t put them in the same camp as his Jayhawks.
“It’s just that they’ve got three or four on the bench that they choose to play,” Self continued. “We’re choosing to play everybody. So it’s a little bit different. … If we had our full complement of players counting our redshirts, trust me, there’d be 10 playing right now, trying to get our rotation down to eight or nine by conference play.”
Depth concerns have driven Self to lean even more on the four-guard lineup, particularly in the first half of games where the coach is just looking to get 20 good, foul-averse minutes out of Azubuike and Lightfoot. He’s played the frontcourt duo together at times with huge leads in second halves to give his guards a breather and experiment, Self said, but the drop off has been noticeable.
“One thing about it, when you watch us play with two bigs, we don’t play near as well as we play with four guards,” Self said. “The ball doesn’t move. Maybe defensively rebounding we can be as good. But I do think you get kind of used to playing a certain way and playing with the same guys and you probably benefit from that every bit as much as it’s a detriment if things don’t go well.”
Despite winning their first five games by an average margin of 32 points and the last two by 43 apiece, the Jayhawks have six players averaging at least 25 minutes and three averaging at least 30 minutes. Self said if he’s rejecting more requests for in-game breathers this year it is only slightly.
He also said it’s important for his team to simply play smarter and realize, right now, going full bore just isn’t practical.
“I’ve probably had to adjust a little bit,” Self said. “There’s going to be certain stretches in the game where we just need to be sound as opposed to athletic and aggressive because it takes a lot of energy to play with that all-out personality if you can’t sit.”
VILLANOVA SERIES FINALIZED — The Jayhawks will play a home-and-home series with Villanova over the next two seasons, the programs announced Monday, beginning with a Dec. 18, 2018 contest at Allen Fieldhouse and concluding with a Dec. 21, 2019 game at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.
The most recent meeting between the two programs was a 64-59 victory for Villanova in the 2016 NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. The Wildcats went on to win that year’s national championship.