There is a framed photo that hangs on an exterior wall in Bill Self’s plush office, and there is a story that goes along with it. Self likes to say it’s his favorite photograph of all time, and when you hear why, you begin to understand something deeper about Self and basketball.
The picture is from Kansas’ victory over North Carolina in the 2008 Final Four, and the image features four future NBA players — Kansas big men Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur and North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson — all stretched out, diving for the same loose ball.
These are the kinds of basketball moments that Self loves more than anything in the world — a loose ball, players sprawling on the floor, nobody caring about anything other than making a winning play. Self craves these moments. He desires them. He believes these moments, more than just about anything, can lead to championships.
“They kind of develop an identity for yourself,” Self says.
On Sunday afternoon inside Allen Fieldhouse, as Self’s current Kansas team was in the midst of a back-and-forth battle with UNLV, the Jayhawks gave Self one of those moments. Here was the play: Loose ball, Kansas leading by a point, two Jayhawks hitting on the floor, and junior forward Jamari Traylor diving and throwing the ball toward the sideline.
The ball appeared destined to sail out of bounds unabated, to create a lost possession in a close game. And then, out of nowhere, there was sophomore guard Wayne Selden, diving nearly 12 feet across the floor and batting the ball back to Traylor. Moments later, Kansas point guard Frank Mason finished the sequence with a layup in transition. The Jayhawks led by three points with under 16 minutes left, erasing a four-point halftime deficit. And if this wasn’t the most pivotal play in an eventual 76-61 victory over UNLV, it was the play that Self wanted to talk about in the moments after the game.
“We haven’t had many plays like that this year,” Self said. “That was great.”
“We need more of that,” Selden said, echoing his head coach. “We didn’t have that much of that last year.”
On Sunday afternoon, the 13th-ranked Jayhawks improved to 11-2 entering their Big 12 opener on Wednesday at Baylor. Kansas procured this nonconference record against the toughest nonconference schedule in the country — at least according to some metrics — and on this front, Self is very happy. In some ways, though, this season has been very hard. This team, Self will say, is unlike any Kansas team he has coached. They lack dominant big men. They don’t score easy baskets. They have twice lost games by more than 25 points.
“The reality is,” Self said, “I don’t think we played as well as our record was.”
So maybe this can’t be a perfect Kansas team. But on Sunday, the Jayhawks showed why they can still be a team that Self can love. In addition to the game-changing hustle play, Selden finished with 16 points while hitting four-three-pointers. Mason, meanwhile, looked like a vintage Self point guard, controlling the game with a line that featured 18 points, seven assists and four rebounds in 38 minutes.
“His line today was ridiculous again,” Self said.
Put it another way: Selden makes the kind of plays that Self loves, and Mason plays the kind of gritty point guard that Self relishes. Together, they helped Kansas outscore UNLV 47-28 in the second half and hold the Runnin’ Rebels to 34.5-percent shooting after the break. Kansas also dominated the boards, grabbing 17 offensive rebounds and outrebounding UNLV 45-31.
“That was fun,” Selden said.
After Selden’s final three-pointer, which gave Kansas a 66-57 lead with more than 5 minutes left, he bounced back on defense and mouthed the same words over and over: “That’s what I do.”
“But I feel like our defense is what got us having fun,” Selden would say later. “Getting on the floor is what got us really having fun.”
In recent weeks, Self has cajoled his team to play with more energy. This Kansas team will not dominate inside, so they must make up for deficiencies in other ways. They must play faster, Self says, and they must play with toughness and energy on defense. They must accentuate their strengths, like a point guard (Mason) who scored in double figures for the 10th straight game.
“He’s been incredible this whole year,” freshman wing Kelly Oubre said. “He’s been our heartbeat, and that’s what we expect out of him moving forward.”
On Sunday, the Jayhawks shot just 32 percent in the first half, and they trailed 33-29 at halftime while the long and athletic Rebels blocked six shots in the opening 20 minutes. Self cut down the rotation, with six players playing all but 10 of the minutes. It was a sign, perhaps, that the conference season is close.
The Jayhawks are about to begin their hunt for an 11th straight Big 12 regular season title, and the Jayhawks must begin to forge their true identity. On Sunday, it looked like this: There was Selden diving across the floor; there was Mason finishing at the rim.
“Just being dogs on the court,” Oubre said, before adding: “Coach stresses that. That’s what wins championships, plays like that.”