KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shortly after completing a lengthy response to the final question at Saturday's postgame presser, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self realized he took the long route to answering a relatively straightforward query.
“That’s a long description,” Self said, “on how to do what.”
Clocking in at a little over three minutes, Self’s response wasn’t quite “The Lord of the Rings” of news conference answers. Still, it was the most noteworthy moment of a tonally critical question-and-answer session following the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks’ 63-60 come-from-behind victory over New Mexico State at Sprint Center, and one prompted by the simplest of inquiries:
Big picture, a reporter asked, what improvements would Self like to see immediately?
Start your engines.
“I’ve never been a big believer (in) how you can go from one day being confident and the next day not. I’ve never been a big believer in that because that’s not something somebody is taking from you. That’s something you rationalize in your mind to make you think that way,” Self said. “So I’m hopeful we can have a tougher mindset and mentality that, hey, we think we’re a bad boy daily. You miss a shot? Something’s wrong with the ball, or you got fouled. It’s not, ‘Oh jeez, I missed that one. I’ve got to make the next one.’ God dang. That’s not how players think. Frank (Mason) and Devonte’ (Graham) and Svi (Mykhailiuk) never thought like that.”
Confidence, as Self identified, is one of the biggest problems for the Jayhawks (8-0), who despite an undefeated record through eight contests for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign have trailed in every game this season by an average largest deficit margin of 8.1 points.
“Basketball is a strange game in which in order to play it really well you need to play with a purpose, you need to play with freedom and you need to play with confidence,” Self said. “So often I think that we get so tied up that we think that something’s going bad and we want to look for somebody else to help us make it better. The ultimately responsibility falls on (you).”
Speaking in Saturday’s victorious postgame locker room, Self told his players that exact message: The only one who can pull you out of an in-game slump, he indicated, is yourself.
“Without confidence, without confidence, how much joy do you play with? I don’t see (much),” Self said. “I see some, like Devon (Dotson) had no problems or whatever. I see some. But how can you be as explosive and as quick and all these things if you’re not playing with joy, if you’re not playing (with) pace? Because your mind’s cluttered because you’re not thinking positive things, and that’s what happens when you think you lose your confidence.”
Self identified other micro-level concerns — in Saturday’s game alone, the team gave up an easy layup when it failed to shade the basket on an out-of-bounds play, and it trapped the post with two seconds left on the shot clock when by instruction it's never supposed to trap under 10 seconds. Those, though, are mental errors Self believes are correctable through in-game experience, film review and other teachable moments.
Correcting what’s going on between the ears, though, may prove a greater challenge.
“I think the guys, if they can kind of play with more freedom mentally, then we’ll play better,” Self said. “I think we get tied up mentally, and I think that’s as much of what we’re doing right now because to me we look slow and that’s what happens when you get tied up mentally — your feet get heavy.”
Self didn’t exhale after his lengthy answer, but it may have been a cathartic moment for the Hall of Famer, whose living-dangerously squad hosts No. 21 Villanova (6-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. The Wildcats, you’ll surely remember, have eliminated the Jayhawks from two of the last three NCAA Tournaments, including last season’s 95-79 thumping in the Final Four.
In that high-profile tilt, relying on another rabbit-out-the-hat performance won’t be a wise strategy.
"(I don’t know) how in the world we’ve won these games,” Self said. “... You can list the things we don’t do from a competitive standpoint, it’s just unbelievable.”