LAWRENCE, Kan. – Midway through the Big 12 Conference race at the top spot in the standings, No. 8/9 Kansas will welcome West Virginia to Allen Fieldhouse for a Saturday afternoon matchup. Kansas head coach Bill Self took questions regarding the upcoming game and an array of other topics in his weekly press conference Friday afternoon.
Q. What are your thoughts on West Virginia?
COACH SELF: Well, they’re obviously playing well. I don’t know, what have they won, four of their last five or something like that? And they got some good wins. A couple of their losses, they could have easily beat Oklahoma State twice, had opportunities both games. You know, they’re probably as explosive as any guard pair with (Juwan) Staten and (Eron) Harris as anybody in our league, so they’re good. They’re quick, and it seems like to me this is the type of team that Huggs (Bob Huggins) likes coaching.
Q. Talk about Staten; he’s only 6’1″ and he’s averaging something like six rebounds a game. I know he plays a lot of minutes.
COACH SELF: He never comes out. It’s hard to average more than 40 minutes a game in league play, but he has. He plays bigger than his standing height. He’s strong, and of course he puts so much pressure on you with the ball coming at you. But he’s a good player. He’s definitely got a great opportunity to be first‑team all‑league.
Q. Big picture, how do you feel about your team and where it’s at right now?
COACH SELF: You know, we’ve gotten quite a bit better. I’m probably more critical of our defense than what a lot of coaches are with theirs because we’re used to being not good, but really, really good, and we’re not really, really good yet. We’re getting better.
I thought obviously against Texas we didn’t guard, and I thought obviously against Baylor we did. A big part of defense is cleaning up your misses, or cleaning up their misses, and we did a good job of that against Baylor against a great rebounding team. I think we’re getting better. I wouldn’t put us against some of the great defensive teams we’ve had here in the past, but I’d certainly put us in a category that we can get really good, and we’re not quite there yet.
Q. Can you talk about how Naadir Tharpe has grown in his game and leadership skills?
COACH SELF: Well, I think he’s a natural leader. I’ve always thought Naadir was that. That’s one of the reasons we wanted him was because I thought he had great intangibles in that area. But his game has grown. He’s become more confident. He’s shot the ball well. He’s done a good job of even being more vocal and running our team.
Since early in the season when I was a little disappointed with him from an intangibles standpoint, I’d say he’s improved 70, 80 percent since then. I think he’s done a great job, and certainly when you worry about the right things, you’re obviously going to shoot the ball better, and I think that’s been one of the residual effects of him providing more intangibles is he’s just relaxed and playing and shooting the ball better.
Q. What surprises you about the league race at the halfway point?
COACH SELF: Well, I’ve said this before. A lot of times when you have everybody with losses in a league, it gives the appearance of mediocrity. When you look at the league race right now (in terms of losses), we have one, Texas has two, and then everybody else has at least four; is that right? But it’s the same way it is in the Big 10. The Big 10 you look at Michigan, Michigan State, and I think I could be off one, but I think everybody else has four or whatever in that league, too.
The reason why leagues appear to be so good sometimes if you have three ranked in the top 10 or something like that is because the bottom half of the league isn’t able to beat the top half, and that’s certainly not the case this year. I think what’s perceived to be ‘not the top-five teams’ in our league can certainly beat the top-five teams in our league, and I think that’s what makes our league more difficult than most, if not all, because everybody is capable.
I still think it’s wide open. I don’t think it’s a two‑horse race at all. I think there’s still some teams with four losses that have a shot. We were in this position last year if I’m not mistaken, 7‑0, and ended up having to come from behind to get a piece of it. It’s still wide open.
Q. Did you predict this kind of balance in the Big 12?
COACH SELF: No, I didn’t, because you look at West Virginia, they lost some key parts, and they’re a lot better. And you look at OU, they lost some key parts, and they’re a lot better. Texas Tech is a lot better. K‑State lost some key parts and they’re good. Texas lost a lot, and they’re a lot better. I think going into it, you think that on paper, us, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, you can make a case saying, well, I can see how they got a chance to be pretty good. I think that’s what’s made our league so competitive and so good is that there are a lot of teams that went into the off season with a lot of unknowns, and those unknowns have proven out to be really quality players that have performed probably better than last year’s quality players did at those respective schools.
Q. With Joel Embiid, since you’ve had him at least, what areas have you seen that he’s picked up that have been easy for him, and then what areas have you seen that have been difficult for him, just given that he’s been playing the game such a short time?
COACH SELF: Well, I think it’s easy for him to pick up scouting report. I think it’s easy for him to pick up feel. Joel is one of the brightest guys. He can tell you what all five guys are supposed to do on every play. Point guards are supposed to be able to do that, but I’ll guarantee you Joel does it as well as anybody.
His IQ has really impressed me. He’s got to get stronger. His lower body strength, he gets knocked off a spot too easy. There’s a lot of things that he has to do that I think, which makes him a prolific scorer.
The other thing, sometimes I think he defers too much. I don’t think he realizes what a presence he is offensively, and he tries to maybe make passes out of the post as opposed to just going quick and scoring. He’s got to get used to double teams and everything. But he’s actually done a pretty good job with it for the most part.
You can improve in everything. He’s just scratching the surface on everything, but I do think his aggressiveness to score would be one area I would like to see him get better at.
Q. I know you said there’s not a lot of sense in looking ahead to see what a guy is going to do after the season, if he’s going to leave after a year or whatever, guys like Joel. But from a coaching standpoint do you want to talk to them during the season to get a feel for it to know what you might need in recruiting?
COACH SELF: I have talked to them. Regardless of what they tell us, we’ve had kids tell us for sure they’re positively coming back and leave. We’ve had kids say they’re positive staying and they transfer. A lot of times what they say really doesn’t have much bearing on how you should prepare. I guarantee you if Joel says that he’s leaving or staying, it makes no difference, we’d better have one ready in case he does decide to go.
It does not really keep us from moving forward from a recruiting standpoint unless the available guys have already committed to other schools. But we’ll figure it out.
To be honest with you, I like the guys we have coming back. Whether all the guys stay or not stay, we’ll have a chance to be really good next year.
Our staff has done a good job, our assistants have done a good job recruiting good players into our program, and there are some guys just waiting for their opportunities, guys like (Travis) Releford and (Elijah) Johnson and (Jeff) Withey that I think can step in and have similar effect, they just haven’t had a chance yet.
Sure, I’d like to have it all spelled out knowing what we should be doing, but that’s not the way it is at high‑level programs, and it’s not the way it is across America at high‑level programs. You’ve got to be prepared for ‑‑ hope for — the best and prepare for the worst, I guess.
Q. Is it different with potential one‑and‑done guys? You’ve had guys leave early before, so it’s not like you’ve never had guys thinking about it during the season.
COACH SELF: The one‑and‑done guys are the easiest ones to replace. Ben (McLemore), last year, we had no idea he’d be a one‑and‑done guy. We were fortunate we were able to have a great recruiting class. But I’m not sure we would have got Wiggs (freshman guard Andrew Wiggins) if he would have stayed.
The hard ones are the ones that basically come out of nowhere and end up leaving early. Those are the tough ones. So the guys that are potentially pros, but we probably project to be a two‑ or three‑ or four‑year guys and they end up having the opportunity (to leave) after two years is where that really sets you back recruiting‑wise.
Most of the players that we recruit, if they’re a high level guy, they know your roster, and so they know if guys are projected to be leaving after the year. It’s the ones that aren’t projecting that can really screw you up recruiting‑wise because you haven’t been able to replace them. Kids aren’t as interested in your school because you have a junior that’s a two‑year starter already there.
So what makes it difficult is those guys that come out of left field and have great years and leave when they’re probably not expected to, late January, early February.
Q. Texas head coach Rick Barnes, on a conference call last week, said this is the time of year where a lot of times kids start thinking forward.
COACH SELF: Yeah, it’s true.
Q. How do you guard against that?
COACH SELF: I don’t think it’s the kids doing it as much as the people around them are helping them do it. Hopefully the parents have a pretty level head, and certainly the people that influence them the most understand that them making decisions or speaking for their kid in January or February really have no bearing at all on what he should do in April. None. Nor does it help him in any way, shape or form make more money.
If you’re in that position, you should just take a deep breath and enjoy it and let it play out as opposed to trying to force feed it because when you try to force feed it, it very rarely plays out the way that you had expected it to.
And the other thing is the people that want him to leave, they’re going to be relentless in trying to convince the player’s people that it’s in the best interest to leave. So that’s why it’s really important that families and people close to the kids understand that there’s no reason to listen to anybody right now. There’s really not. The only thing you should listen to is that I want my son or my guy to finish his college season as good as he possibly can with the least amount of distractions and then we’ll make a decision after we gather information after that.
If you’re able to do that, you’ll probably see kids play better in the NCAA Tournament as opposed to having all the other pressures on their shoulders, which a lot of kids have to deal with.
Q. Were you pretty proud of Wayne Selden, Jr., and how he guarded at Baylor?
COACH SELF: Yeah, I thought Wayne totally gave himself up for the betterment of our team. He was great. He looked like Travis (Releford) out there guarding. We’ve seen Travis do that an awful lot. I thought Wayne was fabulous. The kid (Baylor guard Brady Heslip) made four threes and he made one on him (Selden). He made one mistake in a 33‑minute time period, or a 30‑minute game, in which he guarded a guy that really moves well without the ball. I was really proud of Wayne.
Q. Are there other signs that you see in your defense coming on?
COACH SELF: Well, we did it against Texas. Our field goal percentage against Texas was decent; what did they shoot, 39 percent? I talk about our defense not being very good, and what are we, 40 percent (in field goal percentage defense)? I think we’re just percentage points behind No. 1 in our league. We may be No. 1 in our league field goal percentage defense, I don’t know, and (in conference play) we’re No. 1 in our league in rebound margin and we’re No. 1 in our league in blocked shots. There are a number of things we’ve done well defensively, I just don’t think it’s quite as good as what it can be.
Q. Is it tougher for young guys trying to grasp defensively as a group or individually?
COACH SELF: I have a hard time buying into that because by this time of year, they should have a pretty good feel for what we want.
The thing that’s held us back defensively a little bit, I don’t think that we’ve been turned up and played with the energy all the time that we need to play with in order to be great defensively. It’s not from lack of trying, but it’s that way in anything in life. Some days you’re a little bit more enthusiastic about doing something than you are other days, and it’s amazing the days you are enthusiastic you usually do that job better. I think there have been some days we’ve been lacking a little bit in that area.
Q. How is Conner Frankamp’s health and what have you seen from him this year?
COACH SELF: This year? I think he’s done fine. He and Brannen (Greene) kind of drew the short straw on minutes, kind of being the odd guys out. Conner hasn’t had a great year from a production standpoint in games, but he’s gotten a lot better. He’ll be ready next year when his number is called, and hopefully he’ll be ready if his number is called later on this season because I guarantee it will be, and hopefully he’ll be prepared and ready. But his health is fine; he’s 100 percent.
Q. You mentioned Wayne Selden, Jr., kind of giving himself up for the team and guarding at Baylor. He probably could have gone somewhere else and been ‘the man’ his freshman year, but here he’s sometimes the third, fourth, fifth option on offense. How is he handling that?
COACH SELF: Well, I don’t buy into that because the way we play, it’s equal opportunity, open man take the open shot — so he’s our third leading scorer, which means he’s having a heck of a year as a freshman.
I get it ‑‑ so he goes somewhere else and he averages 14, but the team doesn’t win as much. I think he’s right where he wants to be and right where he needs to be. Don’t think that other places coaches don’t ask their players, ‘Hey, tonight you may need to give yourself up a little bit offensively to make sure you’re the only guy that can guard him.’ That happens everywhere.
I don’t buy into that thinking at all.
Here’s what you should buy into if you’re thinking that about guys like Wayne or whatnot: Would he be playing more anywhere else? The answer would be no. He’s playing 30‑plus minutes a game. So I think he probably picked the right place to go in and have an opportunity to do his deal.
Q. You guys are 8‑1 in conference play. How confident is your team right now compared to maybe other times this season?
COACH SELF: Well, I would think coming off a good road win we’re pretty confident. It was nice to make somebody else play poorly.
I think we got into a situation where maybe we lost our edge a little bit going down to the Texas game. We didn’t play with that competitive edge. But I do think we’re pretty confident. This is a team that you want them to believe they’re good, but you can’t let them act like they are, and they’ve got to stay hungry because they’re so young.
I made a mistake, I probably complimented them a little bit too much when things were going well, and I think they mistook that me being nice to them maybe as me being soft to them, and I don’t think that we need to allow it to happen with a bunch of young kids.
Q. Do you still think this team can get a whole lot better?
COACH SELF: God, yeah. We should be able to get better. There have only been a few games this year where we’ve been hitting on all cylinders with all our main players. We’d better get better or it’s going to end sad. I think every team in America would say the same thing. So yeah, there’s a lot of room for growth and improvement.
Q. There’s a couple other teams that have won 18 or 20 games at the start. What is the challenge of keeping that going and running the table, something that hasn’t been done in a long, long time?
COACH SELF: Well, we’ve never been in a situation where we were close to being in a position to run the table. We got off to some good starts. I think in ’08 we were 20‑0 or something like that. We still had to go to Texas and to Okie (Oklahoma) State and play some really hard games. To me that was never a realistic thing. But with the teams that are presently undefeated ‑‑ Wichita State and Syracuse — it’s easier said than done, but I wouldn’t think about running the table. I’d think about just trying to win the next game and get better the next game.
When you start looking ahead and get out of the thought process of why you are where you are, that’s when you usually slip up a little bit.
My personal opinion, I think it’s hard for teams to be great unless they go through some crap, and obviously those two teams haven’t experienced much of that yet this year. If I was those teams’ coach, I’d coach to win every game as hard as possible, but I would really enjoy any adversity that’s thrown my way while trying to do it.
Q. The second half of the season it would be easy to assume that the preparation for league opponents might be easier. What maybe is tougher about it?
COACH SELF: I think it’s harder to score. I think other teams know you better, and usually when teams scout — and we’re guilty of this — we scout on ‘How do we stop them?’ and then we also scout on ‘How do we score?’ But probably the majority of the emphasis is on how we stop them, and then we may put in something to try to attack what they do to us.
The second time you play a team in the league or in the conference tournament, you know each other so well, it’s hard to score. I think in league play the second time around you rely more on players making plays, where the first time around you can rely a little bit more on running plays. To me, that would be the biggest difference from a scouting standpoint.
Q. Talk a little bit more about West Virginia. I know their turnover margin is really good.
COACH SELF: They don’t turn it over. They play through their guards. They’ve got two little guards that are as quick as anybody in the league. Certainly, (Eron) Harris shoots it as well and scores as well as anybody in the league. They really added a lot of perimeter shooting since last year in (Rémi) Dibo and (Nathan) Adrian. Those guys can stretch it and shoot it from the big spots. I think they’re a real challenge to guard, especially knowing what our strengths are. I think it’s a big‑time challenge, and then they will pressure us. I think that Huggs (Bob Huggins) will have them out there trying to take away the next pass, which he usually does, but they’re good at it. It’ll be a good challenge. It should be a good game. They’re athletic, we’re athletic, there should be a lot of possessions and it should be a fun game to watch.
Q. This is kind of a softball question, but Ben is going to be in the dunk contest. Did you hear about that?
COACH SELF: Yeah.
Q. Who’s the best dunker you’ve ever coached?
COACH SELF: The best dunker I’ve coached? I think Wiggs (Andrew Wiggins) could be if he wanted to be. I’m not sure it interests him that much. It actually takes energy to do that.
But I would say Ben (McLemore) probably. Elijah (Johnson), when he first got here, was off the charts. He lost some of his hop after he’d been here for a while, after we rode him hard for four years. I’m trying to think who else. J.R. Giddens was a good dunker. J.R. could fly.
I don’t know. I would say those guys would probably be the best. But Ben, to me, liked to show off how athletic he was more than anybody we’ve ever had here. He’ll do something funky in the dunk contest ‑‑ he may not win it, but he’ll do something funky that I guarantee will definitely put him in contention.