Bill Self will never forget his gritty 2011-12 Kansas University basketball team — one that went 32-7, won the school’s eighth-straight Big 12 title and placed second to Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament.
“For me personally, there’s never been a team that cared more, tried more, liked each other more, allowed us to coach them more,” said Self, thankful for the effort not only in a 67-59 loss to Kentucky in Monday’s national championship game, but throughout the entire season.
“That team (Kentucky) has six first-round draft picks, three lottery picks. We’re out there fighting our butt off. I love this team.”
It’s a team that had precious little depth. Self used seven to eight players in his rotation most of the season.
“We caught a couple breaks this year. We were healthy. We did not have a lot of depth so it was important to stay healthy,” Self said of a team that he said had a lot of “fight.”
“As a player, you could always say, ‘Could I give 5 percent more or 10 percent more?’ I don’t think the kids on this team can say that,” stated Self, convinced they gave it their all.
Junior guard Elijah Johnson concocted a nickname for the national-runner-up squad.
“We’re the Comeback Kids,” Johnson said after KU sliced an 18-point deficit to five in crunch time.
It’s an appropriate moniker considering the Jayhawks led at halftime in only one game in the NCAAs — against No. 15-seed Detroit Mercy. The Jayhawks, who were ahead of Detroit by 10 after 20 minutes, trailed Purdue by six, North Carolina State by one, was tied with North Carolina, trailed Ohio State by nine and Kentucky by 14.
“I wouldn’t feel right if we just blew a team out,” said Johnson, heir apparent to Tyshawn Taylor as starting point guard next season. The 6-4 junior from Las Vegas said he’d definitely be returning for his senior year following the game.
“I never give up on our team. I feel I know our team. I know we’ll always go on a run. I feel I can predict it. Ask Niko,” Johnson added, referring to sophomore guard Niko Roberts. “I always tell Niko to relax, that we’re going to come back. Go ask him. He’ll tell you.”
Roberts, a 5-11 walk-on out of Huntington, N.Y., backed Johnson’s claims.
“Every game it seems we go through one or two rough patches,” Roberts said. “Elijah says, ‘Trust me, we’ll be fine.’ It seems like he’s always calm. He knows we’ll come back.”
KU will return Johnson and two other starters next season — 7-footer Jeff Withey, who like Johnson on Monday said he’ll return for his senior year and 6-6 junior forward Travis Releford. The Jayhawks will lose senior starter Taylor, a possible late-first-round/early-second-round draft pick; senior sixth-man Conner Teahan, and junior forward Thomas Robinson, expected to be a certain top-five draft pick. Robinson has yet to officially declare his intentions, though Self has said for months not to expect the big man’s return.
Bookend reserve forwards Kevin Young (6-8 junior, Perris, Calif.) and Justin Wesley (6-9 sophomore, Fort Worth, Texas) return, as does backup freshman point guard Naadir Tharpe (5-11, Worcester, Mass.).
Ineligible freshmen Ben McLemore (6-5, St. Louis) and Jamari Traylor (6-8, Chicago), who were cited for their effective play on the scout team second semester, will be eligible next season.
Also back: Merv Lindsay (6-7 freshman, Moreno Valley, Calif.) and walk-ons Roberts and Christian Garrett (6-3 freshman, Los Angeles).
KU has a batch of recruits coming in. They are: Perry Ellis, 6-8, Wichita Heights; Landen Lucas, 6-8, Portland’s Westlake High; Zach Peters, 6-9, Prestonwood Christian High, Plano, Texas; Anrio Adams, 6-3, Seattle’s Rainier Beach High; and Andrew White, 6-6, Miller School, Chester, Va.
Ellis, a McDonald’s All-American, is ranked 24th by Rivals.com, White 56th, Peters 144th. Adams and Lucas are unranked. Self has said he still could add a player or two in recruiting.
Manning’s big day: Tulsa will introduce KU assistant Danny Manning as the school’s head basketball coach during a 2:30 p.m., news conference today. The news conference will be streamed live on www.TulsaHurricane.com. Manning was named Tulsa’s 29th head basketball coach last Thursday.