TOPEKA — Having attended enough of these functions already to anticipate Bill Self’s message to donors, first-year Kansas athletic director Jeff Long this time got the jump on his head basketball coach.
“Coach Self hates to hear us talk about the No. 1 team in the country, and he’s going to come up here and tell you how good we aren’t and where we have to get better,” Long said Wednesday afternoon at a Williams Fund event at the Ramada Hotel and Convention Center in downtown Topeka. “I’m with him. They have work to do. That team has work to do, and I’m excited to see him do it.”
Peculiar as it may be to say about the nation’s newly minted top-ranked squad, Long appears to believe the only direction these Jayhawks (8-0) can go is up.
As Long anticipated, Self echoed that sentiment.
“The best thing about our team so far is that they figure out a way to win close games. The worst thing about our team so far is that every game is a close game,” said Self, whose Jayhawks have trailed in all eight contests by an average largest deficit of 8.1 points. “So that’s good and bad. I think we’ve had enough of those (close games), although the schedule just now starts to get even harder.”
At 11 a.m. Saturday, KU hosts No. 17 Villanova (8-3), a recent postseason rival that has eliminated the Jayhawks from two of the last three NCAA Tournaments. The Wildcats have taken more lumps than expected to this point in the season, suffering losses to Michigan, Furman and, most recently, a 78-75 defeat Tuesday to Penn, but Self expects a test in the high-profile tilt.
What Self likely won’t want to endure is another double-digit deficit, a scenario that’s happened three times this season already with 12-point holes overcame against Louisiana, Marquette and Stanford.
Those comebacks are “the sign of a good team,” Self said, though his praise came with a catch.
“We can’t live that way,” Self said. “You live that way you’re going to end up getting hurt and not finishing the way we want more times than not. ... We’re not good enough to get ahead and stay ahead, and we’re not good enough to play 40 minutes yet, so we’ve just got to find a way to play a really good 10, be average the other 30 and win by two. That’s kind of been our formula for success so far.”
The Jayhawks are further along defensively than offensively, though that “really isn’t saying a lot,” Self acknowledged.
“But we are better offensively and defensively than we are shooting free throws,” Self quipped of the team’s 64.2-percent free throw conversion rate, ranked 300th nationally, “so there’s always a positive thing to what we’re doing.”
Self’s concerns may resemble a laundry list at this point, but unsurprisingly, it’s a challenge the Hall of Famer finds invigorating, in part thanks to the Jayhawks’ yet-untapped potential.
“We’ve got to figure some stuff out, but they’re good things to have to figure out,” Self said. “I’m excited about that. It’s going to be a fun year.”
AZUBUIKE TARGETING JAN. 1 — As expected, junior center Udoka Azubuike will miss the Jayhawks’ contest against Villanova, still unable to put full pressure on his injured ankle.
Self, though, provided an optimistic outlook, eyeing a return and full integration by the team’s Big 12 opener Jan. 2 against Oklahoma.
“I said all along: I expect him to be 100 percent by the first of the year,” Self said, “because even if he comes back he won’t be 100 percent in rhythm, conditioning and explosiveness and all of that stuff for at least a week or 10 days after that. That’s where he is.”
During a question-and-answer session, an audience member wondered aloud if Azubuike could practice his retooled free-throw shooting form while in the walking boot. The answer is no, Self said, though he isn’t certain that’s the fix for Azubuike, who is shooting a career-worst 32 percent from the stripe.
“You know, I’ll be honest: I’m not sure practicing helps, and I’m being dead honest,” Self said. “He could stand out there and practice and he’ll make 75 out of every 100. He’ll get to the game and it’s mental. He gets into games and it’s a different pressure.
“Does anybody know a hypnotist? Seriously.”
SELF ‘HOPEFUL’ FOR DE SOUSA NEWS ‘RELATIVELY SOON’ — Self said the status of withheld sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa remains unchanged, though he expressed hope the season-long situation will soon find a resolution one way or another.
“I do think we’ll know more relatively soon, but that’s not coming from anybody in the know telling me that,” Self said. “I’ve just gotta believe that something’s at least going to happen from (the NCAA) educating us on what happens next, but we don’t have anything for sure to tell you on that.”
KU has voluntarily withheld De Sousa as the NCAA looks into allegations of illicit payments received by his guardian during De Sousa’s recruiting process, claims stated during a recently completed trial of three individuals involved in the federal government’s probe into corruption in college basketball.
COACHES SEEK CONSISTENCY FROM VICK — Consider guard Lagerald Vick’s scoring outputs this season, in chronological order: 2, 32, 33, 16, 15, 27, 0 and 5.
Yes, it’d be fair to say Self is looking for more consistency from his lone senior.
“As a whole we would say (he) far surpassed expectations. Far surpassed,” Self said. “If you look at him in the last week you would say, ‘What is up with him?’ I’m preferring to look at the big picture.
“He’s done really well. He’s played off-the-charts good. He’s played probably above the level of who he is. I’m not sure anybody anywhere (can). I mean, Devonte’ (Graham) never had a run like this. Frank (Mason) never had a run like this. Thomas Robinson never had a run like this. That five-game stretch where he shot and carried us, you’ve got to be proud of that, but (he’s) just inconsistent.”
Vick has come off the bench in each of the last two contests following practice-related transgressions.
“He’s doing a lot better,” Self said. “It’s nothing new that we haven’t dealt with before, but it’s also something that he’s got to correct.”
Perhaps more confidence shown on Self’s end could help the situation, he acknowledged.
“But sometimes it’s hard to have confidence when you’re 30 minutes late to a damn shootaround the day of a game,” Self joked. “So that’s kind of how we see that.”
LONG TALKS FOOTBALL STRIDES — Long is already encouraged by the job Les Miles has done with the long-suffering football program, particularly in recruiting, where the new head coach has made up ground in a short amount of time.
The Jayhawks on Tuesday picked up an oral commitment from junior college quarterback Thomas MacVittie.
“The recruiting period has been so short for this new staff, but I’m telling you, the reception has already been outstanding,” Long said. “We will be recruiting better players and better student-athletes to our university.”