Travis Releford, Bill Self

Kansas’ player development is nation’s best because Bill Self is selfish?

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John Calipari has built the Kentucky program into the HOV lane for high school prospects. To avoid the traffic jam that the one-and-done rule has turned college basketball into on their road to the NBA, those that are good enough simply take Coach Cal up on his offer. Spend one season in his hardcore, high-intensity training program disguised as two semesters as a “student-athlete” and you’ll be shaking David Stern’s hand in no time.

Kentucky is the place to go if the only thing standing between you and the first round is that pesky age limit.

But along those same lines, Cal’s greatest skill is as a salesman. He convinces these kids to play for Kentucky, and he gets them to buy in to a team concept for seven months and some 30-odd games. And while there’s no doubt that those superstar freshmen have gotten better under his watch, let’s be honest: I could have coached Anthony Davis or John Wall for a year and they still would have been the top pick in their respective drafts. Cal’s most impressive feat coaching Demarcus Cousins was controlling him between the ears, not between the lines.

My point?

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Kentucky has become a factory for first round picks because of the brand that they’ve built more than as a result of the program’s ability to develop talent. In other words, they’re the nation’s best NBA holding tank; they’re not the nation’s best NBA breeding grounds.

That title belongs to Kansas and Bill Self.

Since 2007, Kansas has had 13 players drafted, eight of whom have gone in the first round. That’s before you factor in Ben McLemore, who is projected to be taken as high as No. 2 this year, and Jeff Withey, whom Draft Express currently has going late in the first round. Two more players — Sherron Collins and Russell Robinson — have spent time playing in the NBA despite going undrafted. Do the math, and 17 players from Self’s first nine recruiting classes have played in the NBA.

Not impressed yet? How about this for a stat: since Bill Self’s first recruiting class in 2004, there have only been five rotation players that he’s brought into the program that didn’t play in the NBA and that didn’t transfer out of Kansas — Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed, Mario Little, Rodrick Stewart and Connor Teahan.

Now, Self hasn’t exactly been recruiting D-III athletes and magically turning them into first round picks. He’s landed 10 players that Rivals has rated as five-star recruits, and Kansas always ranks near the top of the annual recruiting class rankings. Hell, he’d have the best recruiting class in the country this season — headlined by Andrew Wiggins, who will be flanked by two other five-star recruits — if it wasn’t for Kentucky.

But when you look at the numbers a little closer, six of those 10 five-star recruits entered the program between 2004 and 2006. Only two of those ten were considered one-and-done locks, and both of them — Josh Selby and Xavier Henry — ended up having disappointing seasons in Lawrence.

If Kentucky has built their brand around being the NBA’s premier layover destination, Kansas has become defined by its ability to turn those that are overlooked and underhyped into NBA players; the top 50 and top 100 recruits that don’t get at much attention nationally until they have spent a year or two in Lawrence. The Cole Aldrichs, the Morris twins, the Thomas Robinsons, the McLemores and the Witheys.

“That’s something that we take great pride in, our individual development,” Self told NBCSports.com by phone this week. “We base everything off of what NBA teams are looking for and the things that they put their players through, and our assistant coaches do an unbelievable job with that program.”

The way Self sees it, all of this success can be traced back to one, simple fact: that he’s looking out for himself?

“I’m a very selfish coach and a very selfish person in that I want to win, just like all coaches out there want to win,” he explained. “The best way you win is to put the best team on the floor, and in order to put the best team on the floor, your players have to get better.”

“The biggest thing with our program, when guys get here, they’re not good enough. They’ve gotta get better. No matter how fast you are, you’re not fast enough. No matter how quick you are, you’re not quick enough. No matter how high you jump, you don’t jump high enough. No matter what you shoot, you’ve gotta get better. The whole deal is getting better.”

Self is arguably the best coach in all of college basketball. His staff is as good as any staff in the country, and that includes a world class strength and conditioning coach. All of that makes a difference. It gives his players the best tools to develop their craft and the best teachers to learn from. But in the end, it’s really not all that different than what every program in the country is doing. There’s only so many variations of squats; how many different drills do you really need to learn how to shoot a pull-up jumper going left?

What sets Kansas apart is that the players in the program have bought into what Self is selling them.

“I would say coming from high school into Kansas, I didn’t really expect myself to be in this position of being a lottery pick, a top five pick,” McLemore told NBCSports.com this week. He was in a unique position, however. A top 50 recruit, McLemore had good enough grades to get admitted into Kansas but he didn’t qualify to play as a freshman. That meant that the entirety of his first year in Lawrence would be spent hitting the books and hitting the gym, all without the reward of playing in front of a packed Phog Allen Fieldhouse.

McLemore credited his “stick-to-it-iveness and hard work” for his success, saying that the Kansas staff not only taught him what skills he needed to work on to improve, they taught him how hard he had to work to do it. “They helped me mature a lot,” he said, “helped me better my game, each and every day. You want to learn so much in Coach Self’s system and the Kansas system. That’s what I did, I wanted to learn so much. It helps a lot, on and off the court.”

More than anything, work ethic is what is valued at Kansas. But to hear Self tell it, work ethic is one of the hardest things for him to evaluate on the recruiting trail. “When you put kids in certain environments,” he said, “then their competitive spirit will start to shine. When you put them around other people that enjoy doing the things that they’re being asked to do, it becomes more of a habit.”

It’s that environment, as much as Self’s coaching, that has fostered the development of so many Jayhawks over the years. “The names change,” he said, “but the expectations don’t.” And those expectations are what fuels the program’s fire.

Kansas has won at least a share of nine straight Big 12 regular season titles. They’ve won six Big 12 tournament titles during that stretch. There’s not a single player in the Kansas program that wants to be associated with the infamy of being on the team that snaps that streak. It’s the perfect motivational tool.

“There’s never a lackadaisical day,” Self said. “The attitude is, ‘Hey, let’s get to work’, whether it’s for 20 minutes or three hours, it makes no difference. We’ve gotta get better during that time.”

It’s a perfect storm, really.

The best coaching, the best training and a culture that’s defined by a ‘you only get out what you put in’ mentality.

That’s the secret to Kansas’ success in player development.

And to think, it all stems from a selfish head coach.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

Weekend Preview: Villanova tested by Notre Dame, bounce-backs for Xavier, Butler

Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 23 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This is a fascinating matchup for a couple of reasons. For starters, this is the first real test that undefeated Notre Dame is going to be getting this season. We honestly have no idea how good the Irish actually are, and you wouldn’t be alone in needing to see a team starting Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson prove it before buying in.

But we also haven’t see Villanova tested in a while, either. They won at Purdue earlier this season and, since then, have more-or-less coasted to their undefeated mark. This will not only be a nice gauge game for Villanova, but it will also be a chance for them to pad an NCAA tournament résumé that will need to be strong for them to get a No. 1 seed this year.

The other part of this that’s fascinating? Both of these teams play small ball. There are going to be times on Saturday where 6-foot-5 Bonzie Colson is playing center and being guarded by 6-foot-5 Kris Jenkins, who will be at center for the Wildcats.

No. 22 Cincinnati at No. 16 Butler, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: Butler could really use this win. Coming off of a road loss to Indiana State during the week, the Bulldogs will be playing back in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But here’s the thing: Cincinnati could really use this win as well, and that Bearcat program already owns a road win over Iowa State.

The matchup here will be intriguing as well. Butler plays a more open, run-and-gun style than they did under Brad Stevens. Tyler Lewis is a show-man in transition, as is Kamar Baldwin, and getting Kelan Martin spotting up or attacking a close out is always a good coaching maneuver. Cincinnati is tough and big and physical. They try to wear you down. They pound the glass. They really, really defend. How does Butler handle it?

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FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Marquette, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: In one of the more under-appreciated rivalries in college basketball, Marquette will be looking to land a marquee win to bolster the non-conference portion of their NCAA tournament résumé. Will
    Nigel Hayes continue to play like an all-american?
  • Utah at No. 13 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: The Musketeers have lost back-to-back games and are really struggling to shoot the ball from the perimeter. Utah has struggled this season as they have a young roster waiting on a pair of transfers to get eligible.
  • Michigan at No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: UCLA is now a week removed from their win over then-No. 1 Kentucky in Rupp Arena. This will be the first time they see the floor since then. Michigan had the look of a tournament team earlier in the season, but they’ve lost a pair of winnable games in recent weeks.
  • Hofstra vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sun. 3:00 p.m.: The Wildcats will square off with Hofstra on Sunday, a game that is only really notable because it will be played in the Barclays Center.
  • No. 21 Florida at Florida State, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: The Gators looked the part of an NCAA tournament team when they lost to Duke in New York City on Tuesday. Florida State is more talented, however, but it’s difficult to trust them. This will be a big win for whoever gets it.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is officially a concern: The Wildcats are currently shooting 32.2 percent from beyond the arc, which is 254th nationally. The only real threat they have from three in their starting lineup is Malik Monk, and he’s streaky. They can play Derek Willis at the four, but Willis is such a step-down on the defensive end of the floor from Wenyen Gabriel that it may not end up being a net-positive to play him, not when the Wildcats rely so heavily on their defense to create offense in transition.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I’m not even sure there is an answer. This is just what Coach Cal has to work with this season. Can they improve? Probably. The great thing about being a bad shooting team is that shooting is the easiest thing to develop. Teams without size can’t get bigger. Teams without athleticism can’t get more athletic. The only problem? There are just four months left of the season. How much better can Kentucky really get?

One thing worth noting here: The 2010 Kentucky team, the one with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, the one that lost in the Elite 8 because of their shooting issues, finished the season making 33.1 percent of their threes.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Let’s see if Notre Dame is for real: The Fighting Irish are one of nine undefeated teams left in college basketball, but as good as they have been this season, Mike Brey’s club still hasn’t really beaten anyone. The Colorado win looks better after the Buffaloes beat Xavier. Beating Fort Wayne, the team that upset Indiana, is good. Northwestern and Iowa are Big Ten teams.

But none of those four wins – none of Notre Dame’s nine wins – have come against a team we know will be in the NCAA tournament. We know Villanova will be, and the interesting thing about this matchup is how well the two teams matchup, particularly up front. Neither the Irish nor the Wildcats have much size inside. If Notre Dame can pull off the upset, it will be time to start talking about them much more.

3. UCLA’s first action since the win at Kentucky: The last time that we saw the Bruins take the court they put up 97 points on Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s pretty good. It’s also an easy way to get a big head, especially for a team that has so many freshmen on the roster. UCLA will face off with Michigan at home on Saturday. It will be interesting to see how they come out early on in this one.

4. Bounce-back chances for Big East programs: No. 13 Xavier has lost two games in a row now, both of them coming on the road. They were felled at No. 4 Baylor before getting dropped at Colorado on Wednesday. The Musketeers will host Utah, a winnable game that could help them find a rhythm shooting the ball.

No. 16 Butler is coming off of a loss of their home, having been upset at Indiana State by the Sycamores. The Bulldogs will have a bigger test than the Musketeers, as they host a top 25 team in No. 22 Cincinnati.

5. Jonathan Isaac’s health, Florida State’s tournament hopes?: Isaac is the forgotten top ten pick. He’s been terrific this season and has a chance to play his way into the top ten if he continues doing what he’s been doing, but he’s missed the last two games with a hip injury. This is an important game for the Seminoles, as they host Florida this weekend. Will Isaac be available?

UT-Arlington dominates, upsets No. 12 St. Mary’s

Texas-Arlington's Kevin Hervey, left, reacts to a 73-68 NCAA college basketball game win as Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate looks on  in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)
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UT-Arlington made a statement on Thursday night, completely dominating No. 12 Saint Mary’s in a 65-51 upset win in a true road game in Moraga.

Back in October, I ranked both the Gaels and the Mavericks in the top-5 of my Mid-Major Power Rankings. Saint Mary’s was the obvious top choice, one of the nation’s most efficient offenses that returned Emmett Naar and Jock Landale. UT-Arlington, ranked fifth, served as a dangerous opponent. The Mavs had defeated Ohio State and Memphis in 2015, but their season was derailed once Kevin Hervey, a player with serious pro potential, tore his ACL.

With five starters back, including Hervey, who is just now getting back to 100 percent, UT-Arlington looks every bit the part of a March Cinderella.

The Mavericks jumped out to an early lead by forcing the Gaels to play out of character. Saint Mary’s had already committed a season-high 14 turnovers before the midway point of the second half. The Gaels, who entered shooting 40 percent from three as a team, were held to 8-of-27 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.

UT-Arlington did an incredible job of closing out on shooters. And it didn’t matter the matchup, at times we saw Hervey, a 6-foot-9 junior, come out and run a guard off the 3-point line. While those statistics mentioned above up appear in the box score, the amount of deflections don’t. The Mavericks used its length and athleticism to get their hands everywhere on the defensive end of the floor, making it difficult to find good looks.

In the first half, UT-Arlington controlled the glass. Saint Mary’s found more success in that department after halftime, as Kevin Clark’s offensive putback capped an 11-2 run, which cut the deficit to 52-41. However, the Mavs were able to counter each time the Gaels threatened, never letting the lead get to single digits.

Aside from the struggles the typically-efficient Saint Mary’s offense had, the Gaels failed to keep UT-Arlington guards Erick Neal and Kaelon Wilson out of the lane, whether it be on a high ball screen or a handoff. Saint Mary’s never seemed to have a help-side defender there to protect the rim. Neal had 13 points and eight assists (five turnovers), while Wilson had 10 points off the bench. Hervey had a game-high 15 points and seven rebounds.

UT-Arlington is winners of eight straight after losing three straight. One of those wins includes a double-digit win over Texas in Austin. The Mavericks are the clear-cut favorite to win the Sun Belt. Come Selection Sunday, I’d say plenty of at-large teams would not like to be paired with Scott Cross’ team.

Iowa cruises past No. 25 Iowa State

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 20:  Head coach Fran McCaffery of the Iowa Hawkeyes reacts in the first half against the Villanova Wildcats during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Barclays Center on March 20, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Iowa picked up a major win on Thursday night, defeating in-state rival No. 25 Iowa State, 78-64, in a contest the Hawkeyes thoroughly dominated.

Let’s put it this way: the Hawkeyes have played four top-100 teams, according to kenpom. In those games, all losses by the way, their defense has surrendered 91 points to Seton Hall, 74 points to a Virginia team that plays at the slowest tempo in the country, 100 points to Memphis and 92 points to Notre Dame.

On Saturday, on the same floor Iowa demolished the Cyclones, its defense allowed 98 points in a loss to Nebraska Omaha.

This is exactly the sort of win Fran McCaffery and Co. needed to right the ship as we inch closer and closer to conference play.

When the Cyclones went to their bench in the first half, Nick Baer sparked a 10-0 run which helped set the tone for the remainder of the half. Iowa State went without a field goal for more than six minutes during that span.

Iowa kept Iowa State from getting out and running, holding the Cyclones to zero fast break points through the first 20 minutes and limiting them to only 36 percent from the floor as a team. Iowa, on the other hand, shot 47 percent, including 59 percent in the first half, which led to a 15-point halftime lead.

Peter Jok torched Iowa State to the tune of 23 points (4-of-7 from distance).

Monte Morris was held in check with 10 points, while Naz Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas shot a combined 4-of-13 from three (they each hit a three with less than three minutes to play and the outcome all but decided).

Iowa State’s offense is becoming a bigger concern. Just like against Gonzaga, the Cyclones dug a first-half hole they could shoot out their way of. And like last week’s overtime loss to Cincinnati, they struggled from beyond the arc.

Iowa landed a marquee win it needed, while its rival headed home with questions to answer after losing three of four.

 

Alabama wing sidelined due to weight loss

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 29: Head coach Avery Johnson of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at HP Field House on November 29, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Alabama junior wing Nick King will not be with the team for Sunday evening’s matchup against No. 24 Oregon in Eugene.

According to Rainer Sabin of the AL.com, Alabama head coach Avery Johnson said King undergoing a series of tests after losing more than 10 pounds in less than a week and a half.

Johnson told reporters that he is “very concerned” and estimates that as of now King will be sidelined for “a week or two.”

King, who played his first two seasons at Memphis, has appeared in all seven games for the Crimson Tide, averaging 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game.

Damonte Dodd out with MCL sprain

COLLEGE PARK, MD - FEBRUARY 13: Melo Trimble #2 and Damonte Dodd #35 of the Maryland Terrapins react to a call as Alex Illikainen #25 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on in the second half at Xfinity Center on February 13, 2016 in College Park, Maryland. Wisconsin won 70-57.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Maryland could be without the services of starting center Damonte Dodd for the remainder of the non-conference slate, the team announced on Wednesday.

Dodd suffered a MCL sprain in his left knee during practice earlier this week. The injury caused him to miss Wednesday’s 76-56 win over Howard. He will not be available for matchups with St. Peter’s and Jacksonville State. The Terrapins then close out the non-conference slate at Charlotte on Dec. 20 before opening up Big Ten play a week later.

Dodd has started in six of seven games he’s appeared in this season. He’s averaging 5.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Michael Cekovsky started in place of Dodd on Wednesday night. Ivan Bender, who returned to the lineup against Howard after missing the previous contest, should also see an increase in minutes with Dodd sidelined.