LAWRENCE — Holding victories over major conference-frontrunners Michigan State, Tennessee and Villanova, Kansas basketball has had plenty to celebrate throughout the season.
None of those highs, however, compared to that of the postgame locker room following the No. 14-ranked Jayhawks’ 82-77 overtime victory Monday at TCU, at least not in the eyes the team’s head coach.
Bill Self observed Thursday that the spirit from that moment has carried over to practices, shootarounds — “everything” that happens within the walls of Allen Fieldhouse has been affected, he stated.
“I kind of like where we’re at. I think it’s been fun,” said Self, whose Jayhawks (19-6, 8-4 Big 12) play host to last-place West Virginia (10-14, 2-9) at 3 p.m. Saturday. “I think the last week or so has been a lot of fun to be honest with you, just kind of tinkering and seeing guys develop right before your eyes.”
While KU has had more bodies at other points this season — the team has forged ahead without Udoka Azubuike (season-ending hand injury) and Silvio De Sousa (ineligible), expects to get Marcus Garrett (ankle injury) back at some point in the next two weeks and likely views Lagerald Vick (indefinite leave of absence) somewhere in the middle — the Jayhawks’ huddle appears tighter than at any prior point, with Self’s own words painting that image.
“It was just a bunch of young kids out there having fun too,” Self said of the victory over the Horned Frogs, "and everyone contributed, so that probably added to it as well.”
Still 1½ games back of Kansas State in its pursuit of a 15th straight conference championship, KU has shifted from a frontcourt-heavy approach when entering the season with De Sousa, Azubuike, Dedric Lawson, Mitch Lightfoot and David McCormack, to a four-guard lineup following the season-ending situations involving De Sousa and Azubuike, then back to a traditional two-big look after the departures of Garrett and Vick left the team with just five scholarship guards against TCU.
While the Jayhawks are still in contention for a league title and a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, the season has been far from the breeze some fans envisioned when the team received its preseason No. 1 ranking. Still, that the team may finally be settling in after so often tinkering and retooling appears to be a morale-boosting source of pride.
Self shielded his players from blame for the midseason struggles.
“It’s not personnel’s fault; it was more circumstances,” Self said. “I can’t say we won’t change again, but the reality of it is, I think when players can settle in on, ‘Hey, this is my role, this is how we play, this is where I catch it,’ that kind of stuff, you’re obviously better.”
While Vick’s status remains up in the air — “No reports on that at all,” Self said of the situation — the Jayhawks are at the very least certain to get back Garrett, the team’s defensive ace who has missed the last four contests. Garrett is a no-go against the Mountaineers but may return for a pivotal 7 p.m. Feb. 23 contest against No. 23 Texas Tech in Lubbock.
Despite improved on-court chemistry of late, Self doesn't believe it will be a challenge to reintegrate Garrett into the rotation when the time comes.
“I don’t think it’d be a disadvantage with Marcus because I believe Marcus can fit in anywhere, and I believe Marcus doesn’t have to be a starter, and I believe he just wants to win, and we can rest Devon (Dotson) a few minutes here and there,” Self said. “There will be a lot of things that will be positive by adding him because he is kind of a utility guy as well.
“I’m excited about getting him back. He’s one guy we lost (where) that hasn’t been good for us at all. But you know, it’s also given some other guys some opportunities. Their opportunities make them better, and that will make us that much stronger when we get him back.”
Two of those players taking advantage of the opportunities are the freshman guards Dotson and Ochai Agbaji, who scored 25 and 20 points, respectively, against the Horned Frogs. Dotson has averaged 19 points over his last four contests, while Agbaji has three 20-plus-point efforts in the team’s last five games.
“I think they can both be pros — eventually,” Self said of Dotson and Agbaji. “They’ve got a ways to go, but I think their talent level and their intangibles will allow them to play at the highest level at some point in time. But they’re both in my eyes ahead of the schedule we thought they would be on.”
Already playing without injured standout forward Sagaba Konate, the Mountaineers will enter Allen Fieldhouse as heavy underdogs after dismissing Esa Ahmad and Wesley Harris on Monday for a violation of athletic department policies. With a week to prepare for the Jayhawks, though, WVU may pose a stiffer challenge than one might expect from simply glancing at the conference standings.
“Sometimes those are hard to come back from in a short amount of time,” Self said of WVU’s roster upheaval, “but usually when you have some time to practice and do some things, you know, sometimes those can become advantages for you too, to make the team closer.”
That certainly appears to be true of at least one team in Saturday’s matchup.
“I feel like we’ve just been doing what Coach wants (from) us on the court,” said freshman guard Quentin Grimes. “Practices have more energy. I feel like we’re kind of a little bit closer, just talking more and making sure we bring a lot of energy. Going into that road game (at TCU) we had to create our own energy, just following what we did at home. ...
“(Self) has told us that we’re not freshmen anymore. ... So (we’ve) definitely come a lot closer as freshmen with the four (freshmen) starters. It kind of brought us closer, definitely, for sure.”