The Kansas basketball team was struggling. Coach Bill Self admits he didn’t have all the answers.
It was late January when the Jayhawks suffered an 86-67 loss at Oklahoma State, dropping to 4-2 in Big 12 play with tougher games upcoming.
“We were laboring,” Self said, “and I really didn’t know what direction we needed to go as far as who would be our fifth starter.”
All along, the coach had maintained a juggling act with his team’s power-forward position, giving guys the most minutes based on how they matched up against a certain opponent. None of the five battling for time next to Perry Ellis were separating in practice, either, with a different person performing best each day.
Because of that, the team’s lineup was a constant jumble. Jamari Traylor started the first seven games, and Hunter Mickelson stepped in for the next 10. Cheick Diallo then took his turn for the Oklahoma State game before Self concocted a crazy idea.
Why not ask his players what he should do?
The thought had risks for sure.
Remember New York Mets manager Terry Collins in Game 5 of the World Series? He was the one paid to make the tough decision, yet he let starter Matt Harvey talk his way back into the game for the ninth inning against the Royals. After allowing a walk and a double, Harvey was pulled; Kansas City scored two runs to tie it, then later won it in the 12th.
Now Self, making just short of $5 million per year to know what was best, was ready to turn to his players in hopes they’d make a tough call for him.
He gathered his team’s four best guys — Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, Wayne Selden and Ellis — into his office on Jan. 22, the day before his team’s home game against Texas.
Once there, he asked them a simple question: Who do you guys think should play at the 5 position?
At first, Graham said no one wanted to speak up. After all, a vote for one player also could be considered a diss to another.
“I definitely had some hesitancy, but I think coach brought it out of us, like, ‘We don’t need to be hesitant about anything,’ ” Graham said. “We were just having a heart-to-heart conversation. It was best for the team.”
Self, always a master of motivation, had another goal in mind as well. By making his four guys give their opinions, he also was letting them take ownership of an important part of the team.
“It was different at first,” Selden said, “but when it comes down to it, we had to find out what was going to work.”
The players came to an agreement: Landen Lucas was the best man to start. Though freshmen Carlton Bragg and Diallo were talented, Lucas had a better feel for the game.
Self called Lucas into his office that same day. He told him that his teammates had confidence in him, and that he was going to start the next day. The coach also told Lucas the team could use two things from him in particular: rebounding and defense.
It’s clear the junior forward listened.
Though Lucas had no points in the next day, he pulled down 10 rebounds in a 76-67 home victory over Texas.
“I do think,” Self said, “that was a turning point for our team.”
Lucas hasn’t left the starting lineup since that Saturday in late January. In the next 13 games, he’s averaged 21 minutes and 8.3 rebounds while ranking as the Big 12’s second-best offensive and defensive rebounder in league play.
“Just like Perry likes to score, I like to rebound,” Lucas said. “It kind of works out. It ended up being a pretty good fit.”
Meanwhile, KU’s starters elevated their play with a more consistent rotation. And Diallo and Bragg, though they had their playing time limited, at least were able to settle into more defined roles, knowing each game they were going to be relied upon as energy guys off the bench.
Since the meeting, KU is 12-1, has moved from a slump to the Big 12 regular-season champion (by two games) and also lifted itself to the likely overall No. 1 seed when the brackets are released Sunday.
Lucas also was named to Sports Illustrated’s five-person “All-Glue Team” earlier this week.
“All any player really wants is to be on a successful team and help in any way possible,” Lucas said, “whether they’re just encouraging people or being out on the court helping them.”
Lucas, for KU’s all-important stretch run, has been on the court a majority of the time. That was partly because of his teammates, who spoke up and said he should play.
It also was the result of a future hall of fame coach briefly turning control of his team over to his players — an idea that easily could have backfired turning into the latest stroke of genius for Self.
“They had input on what we did next, and certainly, it’s paid off,” Self said. “They were right.”
Jesse Newell: @jessenewell
Kansas State vs. No. 1 Kansas
When: 1:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Records: KSU 17-15, KU 27-4
Radio: KQAM, 1480-AM; KWLS, 107.9-FM; KFH, 1240-AM, 98.7-FM