LAWRENCE — There are worse things than getting older, of course. And on Thursday afternoon, as he celebrated a rather monumental birthday, Bill Self tried to take that reasonable approach.
“When you get to be on the downward half, or spiral,” Self said, “I guess birthdays are great because it means you’re still having them.”
Truth is, Self has never been high on birthdays. At least, not his own. But Self couldn’t avoid the topic much on Thursday. He was turning 50, but couldn’t even say the number.
“I turned 40 this year,” Self said, joking. “It’s embarrassing to say; but I turned 40. I used to be a young coach. Now I’m one of the older coaches around.”
It’s important to note that things could be a whole lot worse in Self’s world. On Thursday, the sixth-ranked Jayhawks (10-1) were still five days removed from a signature nonconference victory over Ohio State in Columbus. And after a few days off for Christmas, KU reconvened at Allen Fieldhouse for a night practice on Wednesday before working out again on Thursday morning and then holding an annual holiday clinic in Lawrence.
The holidays provide some time for reflection. And although Self knew this Kansas team would be solid, he does admit to being pleased with the progress to this point.
The Jayhawks have won eight straight, including four games in December by an average of 25.3 points.
“I’d say I’m a little pleasantly surprised,” Self said. “I thought we could have a good team, and I’m still not sure that we’re terrific. I think we’ve caught some people on some nights where they didn’t shoot the ball well.
“But we’re further along … our first-shot defense has gotten pretty good; and we’re sharing the ball pretty well; and guys are starting to understand where they’re gonna score from. So that’s fine.”
Still, Self said he wasn’t expecting to wake up on Thursday and see that his team was No. 2 behind Duke in the latest Ratings Percentage Index.
“That’s a shocker to me also,” he said. “But it’s still early. It’s not even the new year yet, so it’s still too early to put too much stock in any of that.”
The Jayhawks will return to the floor against American at 7 p.m. Saturday before closing out their nonconference slate with a home game against Temple on Jan. 6. The light schedule, combined with the semester break, should give the Jayhawks plenty of time to flesh out problems and install more offense over the next two weeks. It will also give Self an opportunity to see if his team can handle success.
He’ll know more soon, he says, but he’s mildly concerned that this may be a group that could become complacent after so many strong performances.
“I would say, probably yes, because we’re young,” Self said. “And they may start thinking they’re good, which is OK to think it … but not to forget about why they are (good).
“I haven’t been yet, but I think this is probably a group I’m gonna have to be tougher on the more success we have.”
Chasing Coach K — Self’s birthday — and the fact he’s 14 victories away from 500 for his career — led to a question Thursday about the possibility of him someday approaching Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s record for career wins by a Division I coach. Krzyzewski, 65, is at 938 victories and counting, and a recent Sports Illustrated story suggested that Self may have the best chance among current college coaches.
“Zero,” Self said. “Whoever wrote that, doesn’t know me very well. I don’t think that I’ll want to coach near that long.”
Self averaged 29.8 victories during his first nine years at KU after 207 wins at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois. If he continues on this pace, he would surpass 900 victories right around his 65th birthday.
Wesley recovering — Junior forward Justin Wesley has returned to non-contact practice after suffering a broken little finger Dec. 13. Self said Wesley, who is averaging five minutes, should return to contact practices within a week.