Keegan: KU's Self top coach in Big 12

Monday, February 13, 2006

Raise your hand if you thought Bill Self was crazy back in the days he was playing Christian Moody and Jeff Hawkins ahead of Julian Wright and Mario Chalmers. (Man, is it hard typing with one hand).

OK, now put your hand down. Raise your other hand if you still think Self is crazy, as in crazy like a fox. (This is going to take twice as long as it usually takes to write a column).

What on earth was Self doing when Kansas University was losing to the likes of Arkansas, St. Joseph's and Nevada?

Preparing his young team for Big 12 play and beyond.

Usually, that means playing the young players so they can develop. In this case, it often meant not playing them so they could develop. He intensified their hunger for more playing time by withholding it.

"When you are playing freshmen, you don't coach to win games in November and December," Self said recently.

He couldn't have said that in November and December because a fan base that demands a victory every game would have freaked out.

He can say it now. Obviously, the approach of making the freshmen earn their playing time has worked so well that with another month of improvement time ahead of them before the NCAA Tournament, the three most productive players already are the three remaining freshmen. Micah Downs didn't have the toughness and/or patience to stick it out and is practicing with Gonzaga. A highly skilled talent, Downs hasn't been missed. With his departure, the circle grew tighter.

The remaining players trust their coach knows how to make them better, even if that means getting an earful. Nobody gets yelled at more passionately than Chalmers and Wright, the two most improved players.

They all have something else in common: They're playing to win, not to showcase their talents. How else could a team that starts three freshmen and two sophomores win 14 of 16 to barge into the Top 25 as KU will today?

The shaky opening months of the season enabled a stealth improvement. National attention has been late in arriving. In a sport in which media coverage tends to focus too much on coaches and not enough on players, the most unheralded performance has been that of KU's coach.

The Jayhawks are playing the way Self demanded they play if they wanted to get off the bench, which is to say they're playing aggressively yet sound defensively (except when they leave three-point shooters to reach in on a nearby driver and get burned for a three-pointer) and are picking up the pace. It's all falling into place the way Self envisioned, including even reducing the rotation to eight men, basically, with ninth-man Christian Moody getting limited time.

Glue guy Russell Robinson, Brandon Rush and Chalmers are backed up by Hawkins, who's thriving as a defensive energy booster and a spot-up three-point shooter. Wright is getting 30 minutes a game now, and Self can pick and choose among Sasha Kaun, revived C.J. Giles and Darnell Jackson in the pivot and backing up Wright.

Win or lose tonight in front of a fired-up Oklahoma State crowd, the truth is Self is front-runner for Big 12 Coach of the Year honors.