University of Kansas

Inside KU’s player huddle before tipoff — and how it set the stage for Thursday’s win

The Kansas starters were ready. TNT was not.

After getting last-minute instructions from coach Bill Self in the huddle, five KU players — with zero combined NCAA Tournament games among them — took the floor anticipating it was finally time for tipoff.

Referee James Breeding took a step forward, though, and held up two fingers. The TV producers were not set.

KU’s players had two minutes to kill.

As Northeastern’s guys circled back to the bench, the Jayhawks decided to huddle up. What followed was an animated conversation, with Ochai Agbaji gesturing his hands to make a point before David McCormack raised his voice as well.

“We were just making sure we knew every defensive coverage that we wanted to do,” point guard Devon Dotson said. “Really just talking.”

It was a good omen just before KU’s 87-53 victory over Northeastern on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

This has never appeared to be Self’s closest team — and definitely not one of his most talkative ones.

Still, before the biggest game of the season, players were over-communicating ... even in a moment they didn’t have to.

Agbaji said the five went over a quick “refresher on everything” defensively. They spoke about the first play, what their assignments were on switches and the importance of getting out on shooters.

“A lot of guys bought into talking,” Agbaji said. “We needed to.”

The result was a masterful defensive performance, with KU holding Northeastern to its worst point-per-possession mark (0.78) in the Huskies’ last 77 games.

“I thought our guys were as locked in as they have been in a long time,” Self said.

Agbaji sensed a change even before the game started.

When he glanced around the locker room, he noticed most guys were quiet, listening to music while visualizing what needed to happen later.

“Everyone was focused. I could see everyone — everyone — was locked in,” Agbaji said. “Looking at that, it was kind of different, but it was cool to see.”

From there, it was all about executing the specific defensive gameplan that Self and his coaching staff had implemented.

KU would go mostly to a four-guard lineup, switching often to make sure shooters didn’t get additional daylight. With many of the Huskies, there also was a rule to never go under a ball screen, with the hope being that Northeastern’s guards would have to dribble instead of getting spot-up threes.

Assistant coach Norm Roberts believed Marcus Garrett played a key role, sticking close to point guard Vasa Pusica early while giving him no additional space. The Huskies’ leading scorer managed just seven points on 2-for-13 shooting — his worst offensive effort since before Thanksgiving.

K.J. Lawson also showed his versatility, playing defensively as a guard even after being utilized as a forward most of the season. He was able to slide his feet to cut off driving lanes while also serving as one of KU’s best communicators, seamlessly switching screens on the perimeter to leave no openings.

“I just thought everybody was on the same page today,” Roberts said, “which was great.”

The Jayhawks forced shot-clock violations. They contested a few threes that resulted in airballs.

In short, following a season when they didn’t always dictate their will defensively, they came through with one of their best efforts of the year.

“It’s a great sign,” Dotson said. “It shows when we’re turned up and locked in, I feel like we can defend anybody.”

For Self, it had to hold extra significance because of what he values most.

All season, one thing in particular had bugged him about this year’s team. In the past, when things got tough — or shots wouldn’t go in — he always had players that seemed to embrace persevering in difficult circumstances.

When KU failed to win the Big 12 regular-season championship this season, Self spoke about this area again. The loss that officially ended the Jayhawks’ 14-year run of dominance — an 81-68 defeat at Oklahoma — was a good example, as KU did little to fight back after an initial Sooners run.

“We had to make them play poorly (in order to win). That’s what this team has not done,” Self said on March 7. “It’s not so much how we play, it’s how we make other teams play. That’s probably the reason why we didn’t have a better opportunity to win the league this year, to be quite candid.”

Four days later, Self brought up the same point again.

“We’ve had too many games where people have had career nights against us shooting the ball,” he said just before the Big 12 Tournament. “That’s what we need to eliminate. We’ve got to make other people play poorly.”

A week and a half later, this looked like an old Self team. The Jayhawks were in control on the defensive end, manipulating Northeastern’s shot selection while also taking away the team’s top strength.

“Their defensive scheme turned our team, which is typically an elite teamwork philosophy, into a one-on-one game,” Northeastern coach Bill Coen said. “And that certainly favored Kansas.”

When Self gathered his players in their final huddle after the win, his first words perhaps shouldn’t be surprising.

Lots of Jayhawks had played well, and the team also had dominated offensively, scoring 50 of its 87 points in the paint.

This win was about something more, though. With their hands raised in the center of the room, Self spoke up.

“Hey guys, seriously, I’m proud of you,” he said. “You guys defended, played hard.”

It’s a formula that’s worked in so many other KU postseason runs.

Self sure had to be happy to see it again.

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Jesse Newell — he’s won an EPPY for best sports blog and previously has been named top beat writer in his circulation by AP’s Sports Editors — has covered KU sports since 2008. His interest in sports analytics comes from his math teacher father, who handed out rulers to Trick-or-Treaters each year.