Bill Self’s ‘softest’ Kansas team found a way to win tough at the right time

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SAN ANTONIO — Kansas had just been embarrassed at home for the third time in a season that wasn’t even three months old.

In front of 200 former Kansas players, coaches and staffers and in a game that was broadcast at noon on a Saturday on national television, the Jayhawks were totally and utterly manhandled by an Oklahoma State team that couldn’t even get into the NCAA tournament picture despite sweeping KU during the regular season. They trailed by as many as 19 points in the first half of an 84-79 loss, and Bill Self had had enough.

He had already ripped his team publicly. In December, after the Jayhawks lost 95-85 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the first of three home losses — the most home losses that they Jayhawks have suffered in a season since 1998-99 — Self told reporters that “this is the softest team that Kansas has had since I’ve been here.”

Self knew that the Jayhawks, playing the way that they were playing, didn’t have a chance in hell of getting to the Final Four or winning a national title.

But he wanted to know if the rest of the guys in the locker room felt the same way that he did.

“Do you think you can win a national championship?” Self asked his team. “Raise your hand if you do,” and the way that Devonte’ Graham tells it, every hand in that room went up.

“He was like, ‘Really? You think you can outbound a team six games in a row? Play tough six games in a row? And you haven’t done it two games in a row in the regular season?'” Graham said. “You just had to look at it like that.”

“Coach Self is always going to be 100 with you,” Graham went on to say. “He doesn’t ever try to cover up something. He’s going to tell you how he feels. At the end of the day, you have to be like, ‘yeah, you’re right.'”

Graham, however, never wavered in his belief that this team could get to San Antonio. He knew this team had the pieces to make the run that they’ve made in this tournament, and he knew that they had the ability to be better on the glass and on the defensive end of the floor. The fact that they weren’t doing it didn’t mean that they weren’t capable of doing it.

And Graham was proven right last Sunday.

That’s when the Jayhawks, who were forced to go full small-ball for the second consecutive season after star freshman big man Billy Preston was never cleared to play, went up against the biggest front line in the sport and came away with a win, on the scoreline and in the box score.

With Svi Mykhailiuk, a 6-foot-8 shooting guard that has never been considered the kind of player that would thrive in that small-ball four role, guarding a soon-to-be top five pick and consensus first-team all-american in Marvin Bagley III, this matchup, on paper, was everything that Duke could have asked for in an Elite Eight game.

And Kansas won. They outrebounded Duke 47-32, but that doesn’t even tell the whole story. The Jayhawks kept Duke, the nation’s best offensive-rebounding team, to just 10 offensive boards and allowed them to grab just 25 percent of the available offensive rebounds — on the season, Duke’s offensive rebounding rate was 39 percent — while getting 17 offensive boards of their own was the difference-maker.

“To do it in a way that we haven’t done it all year long,” Self said after the game. “We haven’t beat anybody on the glass all year long. So I couldn’t be happier or more proud.”

Kansas is going to have their work cut out for them again on Saturday night when they take on top-seeded Villanova, who is currently the heavy-favorite to win their second national title in three seasons. The Wildcats had their own toughness renaissance during the regional. Having spent the entirety of the season to date dealing with questions about what would happen if they have an off-shooting night cruised to a win over Texas Tech in the Elite Eight by beating the Red Raiders at their own game, winning a rock fight with defense and effort on the glass. Villanova grabbed a season-high 18 offensive boards in that game, winning by 12 while shooting 4-for-24 from three.

That win came just two days after Villanova survived the physicality and pressure of a West Virginia team that prides themselves on their ability to play press defensively and make their opponents uncomfortable.

So that whole toughness and rebounding thing?

It can’t be a one night show, and the Jayhawks, to their credit, don’t think that it will be.

“This has been an inconsistent and somewhat frustrating team up until about probably three-quarters of the season,” Self said, adding that “verbally I was harder” on this team that just about any other team that he has had in the past. “I told them, you know, if at least when I say what I want to say at least I’ll go home feeling better.”

“Even though they may not.”

“We always are complaining,” Graham said, a wry smile emerging from his Carolinian drawl. “When you don’t want to get yelled and screamed at a little bit, you’re going to complain a little bit. But we rallied around each other.”

“It definitely worked. We wouldn’t be here without it.”