Bill Self knew they were quiet. Perry Ellis could go days without spitting out more than a dozen words. Andrew Wiggins is simply a “Call of Duty” guy, a code to designate Wiggins as the kind of player that, in the hours after practice, loves to disappear into the solitude of the popular video game. There are other examples, too, more young Kansas basketball players who display differing degrees of silence.
This is not all negative, of course. For a coach in charge of a much-scrutinized college program, there’s a comfort in knowing you’re coaching a bunch of homebodies. But earlier this week, as No. 6 Kansas returned to practice after an underwhelming week at the Battle 4 Atlantis, the thought hit Self once again.
“You don’t change personalities once they step on the court,” Self said. “If a guy is quiet, more than likely he’s probably going to be quiet. We’ve got some guys that are really, really, really quiet-type guys.”
For Self, who spent the last week talking about playing with the right kind of energy and toughness, the reserved personalities of his young players can be a significant sound barrier.
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The Jayhawks are in the midst of a 29-day stretch without a game at Allen Fieldhouse, a place with a built-in, 16,300-watt energy source. But when Kansas tips off at Colorado on Saturday, Self will insert freshman guard Frank Mason into the starting lineup for Naadir Tharpe, adding another quiet voice to the fray.
“Frank doesn’t talk,” Self said. “But he’s been great.”
The grueling schedule will continue with a trip to No. 15 Florida on Tuesday, the first time KU has played back-to-back non-conference road games during Self’s Kansas tenure. In Boulder, which for years was home to Allen Fieldhouse West, they’re going to great lengths to keep KU fans out of the building. In other words, Kansas’ players will have to grow up away from home.
“Going and beating somebody else in their building where the deck is supposedly stacked against you from a crowd standpoint is what would spur me on,” Self said, “and that’s what we need to make sure spurs our players on.”
Still, in the aftermath of his team’s 2-1 trip to the Bahamas, Self wants to make one thing clear: Nothing is broken. Wiggins may be doing too much thinking instead of playing, Self says, and the KU defense may be allowing the highest field-goal percentage of his tenure (41.7 percent), but some of the issues appear to be symptoms of youth.
“We’re getting the hang of how he wants us to play,” Wiggins said, “and it’s the right way to play.”
Wiggins, who enters the road trip averaging 14.3 points in his first seven games, battled some flu and chest issues during his trip to the Bahamas, never even once venturing into the water. But before practice on Thursday, Wiggins appeared even sicker about his performance.
“Not good at all,” Wiggins said. “I don’t think I played good. I think a lot of people on my team stepped up, especially in those two games that we won.”
It’s been more than three weeks since Wiggins led Kansas (6-1) to a victory over Duke at the Champions Classic in Chicago, and Self wonders if the victory spoiled the Jayhawks. There were always going to be growing pains, and the early success just masked some of the issues.
“Last year we take for granted,” Self said. “That ball moved so good last year, and we didn’t play with unbelievable energy, from chest-bumping and that kind of stuff every game, but we had a focus that ‘this is what we do, this is who we are, this is how we guard, this is how we rebound.’ And this team just hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Earlier this week, Self heard North Carolina coach Roy Williams talking about the relationship between effort and execution, and it sounded rather familiar. If you have to coach effort, Self says, execution won’t matter.
Self believes that freshman guard Wayne Selden can become more of a vocal leader and energy source, but for now, he’s still just finding his way, too. Self, of course, has been here before. Mario Chalmers didn’t talk much. Neither did Brandon Rush. In fact, he was a video-game guy, too.
“That team won a national championship,” Self said, “but they didn’t win it as freshmen. We started out 3-4 and 12-6 and that kind of stuff … until the light kind of came on in a lot of different areas.
“Hopefully this team doesn’t have to lose games to have the light come on. But I do think that that’s something (where) we have to get much more verbal.”