The pattern repeats itself with uncanny regularity. Kansas basketball coach picks the time to crank up the public criticism of his team in a specific area, hammers it home behind closed practice doors and the players respond to the challenge in impressive fashion.
First-year Texas Tech basketball coach Chris Beard saw it play out repeatedly with Self’s teams over the years, many of them coming when Beard was an assistant at Tech under Bob Knight and then Pat Knight.
“I knew we were going to play against an inspired Kansas team,” Beard said after his Red Raiders lost to Kansas, 83-68, Saturday night in Allen Fieldhouse. “As a competitor, I would have much rather Kansas play better against TCU and Kansas State. I knew what I was getting into. I know coach Self and I know (assistant) Norm (Roberts). I could just imagine what their practices were like the past couple of days.”
Beard knew it, so he shared it with his players, making them understand how hard they would have to work to score on Kansas.
“We did everything we could with our players to explain, ‘You’re about to play not only against a great team, but you’re about to play a team that’s motivated to play great defense.’ I thought they took us out of a lot of our stuff,” Beard said. “The first pass in our offense was difficult tonight. They changed up their ball-screen coverages on our shooters, so I give them a lot of credit for how they played defense tonight.”
So nothing has changed in regards to Self’s ability to reach his players in a way that makes his wishes their commands.
Even so, plenty has changed as to how difficult it will be for this team to defend up to KU’s normal defensive standards under Self. Udoka Azubuike’s season-ending wrist injury left KU with a seven-man rotation and without a traditional rim protector.
The lack of depth means smothering fouls near the rim to make opponents earn their points at the free-throw line, Self’s preferred way of doing business, won’t be as available a strategy this season.
“We've had teams before where we had enough big guys if it wasn’t a hard foul that would be reason for guys to get their butts jumped in film session,” Self said. “I’ve said many times, ‘Like we care if you have two fouls. It makes no difference to us because we have somebody who is just as good or close to as good that we can put in.’ So that’s how you keep guys minutes’ balanced.”
That approach worked in many ways with the typical Kansas depth.
“That’s how you keep guys happy is you basically play aggressively so when they foul, they have to come out,” Self said. “So nobody can be mad at the coach because you pulled them out. But we don’t have that this year. I do think Landen (Lucas) especially has to be a little bit more cautious down there.”
Lucas committed just two fouls against Tech, so he was able to play 31 minutes. His help defense was a huge factor against Tech. When he played, KU outscored Tech by 23 points. When he sat, KU was outscored by six points.
It will be tougher for Kansas to stay out of foul trouble on the road because that’s the way it goes in college basketball.
The potential for foul trouble altering how aggressively Kansas defends near the hoop ranks as the top negative to a seven-man rotation. The fatigue factor is a little overrated.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who uses a 2-3 zone that doesn’t require quite as much movement from his players and does not put them at as high a risk for foul trouble, used six players in a 77-66 victory vs. Pitt, and three of his starters played 40 minutes.
On those nights that Lucas encounters foul trouble, Carlton Bragg Jr., whose confidence is hiding somewhere at the moment, will need to answer the challenge better than he has so far.