LAWRENCE — Listening to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird talk at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Kansas City on Sunday night, Kansas coach Bill Self's thoughts naturally turned to his own team.
"They made passing the basketball cool in an era when guys were pretty much hungry to score," Self said. "Our guys don't think selfishly, I just don't think they understand how much fun this game can be when nobody cares who gets the credit."
With Magic and Bird's contributions to the game fresh in his mind, Self was eager to talk about the creation of team chemistry on Monday. The Jayhawks are the No. 1 team in the country, they have second-teamers capable of leading them in scoring any night, but the ball has not moved as freely as it should have in Self's eyes. After three games, KU has 49 assists compared to 40 turnovers.
The lack of fluidity early on has led Self to latch onto one of his many catch-phrases: When the ball isn't moving from player to player with enough purpose, Self likes to say it is "sticking" in players' hands. Allow him to explain, because if this issue sticks late into the season, the Jayhawks may struggle to reach their potential by early April.
"This is probably getting too complicated," Self said, "but the way we play, the whole thing about scoring from the post is scoring before you catch by positioning. If you score before you catch, the ball has to move, so the defender is at a disadvantage. So every time you pass a ball to somebody and it sticks, it allows defenders to adjust. So you never get that easy basket opportunity.
"It's the same way with perimeter players. Before you catch it, you know if you're open or not. You shoot it, you drive it, you pass it, but the ball doesn't stick. That's the type of stuff we have potential to be a lot better at."
Every team develops this free-flowing nature at a different rate, and some teams never quite get it. Self said his 2000 Tulsa team, which made it all the way to the Elite Eight, was the best he's had at sharing the ball. That's saying something for that group of players, considering Self's 2008 Kansas team brought home the national championship with no player averaging more than 13 points per game.
"That ball moved," Self said. "I told our team this the other day: We played Nebraska in '08. I remember this vividly. There's 10 minutes left in the game, and Mario (Chalmers) hadn't taken a shot. This is our most clutch guy. I told Mario, 'Hey, look to score.' He said, 'Coach, it's not me tonight.' That was the mind-set. It didn't matter. That is the potential I see for this team."
KU point guard Sherron Collins was a key member of that title team, and he appears to be making an effort to spread the production this season. He has taken just seven shots in each of the last two games.
"It's sticking a little bit too much," Collins said. "I don't think it's people being selfish or having selfish thoughts. I just think everybody wants to make a play."
Or, as center Cole Aldrich explained it, "Kind of the baseball term of hitting singles and doubles instead of hitting the home run all the time. Coach Self talks to us a lot about that, just making easy plays."
Self already knows one thing that will help the Jayhawks: the return of guard Brady Morningstar from suspension in late December. Only during the past few practices has Self played Morningstar with the first team.
"Just to see how much better the offense flowed when he was out there," Self said. "The offense does flow because he knows how to get guys the ball in certain areas, he only takes wide-open shots and the ball doesn't stick."
Morningstar has experience on his side. For young players, it just takes time.
"Passing and moving is contagious," Self said, "just like selfish play is. When that ball moves, it's a pretty thing to watch. Guys enjoy playing that way as long as they trust it will come back to them."