CUT SELF SOME SLACK
The internet is a wonderful thing. Without it, I would be oblivious to the fact that there are those panicking about the KU basketball program because of the team's performance thus far this season and, more specifically, Saturday versus k-state.
Personally, there is little that can happen this season that would make me question Bill Self to this point in his tenure as caretaker of the nation's most historic basketball program. Nothing has happened to this point this season that is particularly surprising. Disappointing, yes. Surprising no.
Nor is there a coach anywhere who would assuredly have this cast of characters in a better position on January 15, 2006, than they currently enjoy. Not Bobby Knight. Not Coach K. Not whoever is the No. 3 coach in America, or No. 4, or No. 5, etc.
Let's take a realistic look at this team.
Winning-especially winning routinely-requires a blend of talent and experience. If you define talent as athleticism plus potential, this team clearly has more than k-state, and, perhaps, the most in the Big 12.
As for experience, the Jayhawks are limited on two fronts: college basketball experience and overall basketball experience. As for college experience, only one KU player has big game experience: Christian Moody vs. Bucknell. Want to hang your hat on that?
As for overall basketball experience, KU has three stout inside players, all of whom could be described as projects, because they are all relative newcomers to the sport.
Here is a breakdown of KU's classes:
1. Seniors: Moody is our most experienced player. He is also a walk-on. Very good for a walk-on, but not the type of talent who will carry you to elite status if you have to rely on him at crunch time. Hawkins is not a walk-on, but had a scholarship promised to him his second year at KU if he would red-shirt and pay his own way the first. He took that offer and made it though his red-shirt year on an academic scholarship. Like Moody, no matter how good a person or student he is, you cannot rely on his level of talent to carry you to glory. As for Vinson-do I need to repeat myself?
2. Juniors: What juniors? Padgett is at Louisville, leaving just days after it was too late to offer his spot to Battista, who is now tearing other teams a new one at Gonzaga. Wilkes is at Cal. Giddens is at New Mexico. And Case is a third year sophomore who sees action as often as a 40 year old virgin.
3. Sophomores: Giles, Jackson, and Kaun will, in time, form an impenetrable front line defensively, and learn to routinely finish within two feet of the basket, as opposed to heaving the ball wildly in the direction of the hoop, and sometimes getting the rebound, sometimes not. And they will learn to occasionally pass the ball back out and reset the possession, rather than simply making what looks like a "closed-eyes heave." At this point, they are still at a disadvantage against smaller, less athletic players who know how to play basketball-and how to compete 40 minutes a game.
Then there's Russell Robinson. He has done as well as anyone could have hoped making the transition to point guard. He is, normally, a tireless and effective defender. Still, he needs time to learn his new craft and to recognize a good point guard decision with the game on the line from a bad one. Actually, with Sheron Collins coming in next year, he might never get there. But he is our best bet at the moment.
In short, our sophs could accurately be characterized as frosh-plus. There are those who will assert that this is Self's fault for not giving them more court time last year. And they have a point. However, there were injuries to take into account, as well as four seniors who deserved to control their own destiny-to have their final game determined by their own efforts, not by the mistakes of one or more "projects."
4. Freshmen: We have the best freshman class in the country. Time will confirm this. However, they are learning to win on their own, with precious little help or leadership from their "more experienced" comrades in arms. And freshmen are, with rare exceptions, freshmen, if left to their own devices at money time.
In fact, in more than four decades of following college basketball, I have never before seen a situation comparable to that with which Self is faced this season: where there are such high expectations by so many fans, yet so little meaningful court time and basketball background by the players.
I am hoping that this team will learn quickly from its losses, including Saturday's, become a consistent juggernaut yet this season, and make the NCAA tournament with a respectable seed (4-6)-then return to the national spotlight next season as battle-tested sophs and juniors. And then stay there on a yearly basis for the next two decades of Self's leadership.
No, there is no guarantee that the program will return to these heights-but I expect it with the talent Self is bringing to KU on a yearly basis, once the current talent is experienced and all future freshman classes come in to complement accomplished veteran players, not to serve as the foundation of the team.
At any rate, I will remain non-judgmental on Self until he has had a fair opportunity to bring his plan to fruition-a plan not about whether Chalmers or Hawkins play more minutes in a few games this season, but about where the program will be when Chalmers no longer has to compete for minutes with Hawkins, but is competing for conference and national honors as an individual and as a member of a highly regarded team.
The result of any particular game this season might sting while we adjust to life with our new coach (I say "new" because this is the first team he can claim as his own). The only two occurrences that will cause me to lose faith in Self before his first class (this year's sophs) has exhausted its eligibility are:
a. If his players (i.e., his recruits) quit on him-which doesn't appear remotely close to happening; or
b. If the team appears to be permanently regressing. Yes, there was some regression against k-state, but that is normal with young teams. It is normal to take two steps forward then one step back anytime you are learning a new skill or a new way to do things-ask anyone making changes to his golf swing. It is also normal for young players period-especially those learning through their own experiences rather than following those who know what the hell they are doing. I will not, therefore, get too excited about a temporary regression-which is what Saturday represents.
So Sail On, Ship of Self!
You have the rest of this year to prepare this young team for the future, no questions asked-even if you somehow fail to make the Big Dance.
As for next year, mediocrity is not an option.
Next year it's Prominence and Dominance.
Or else what?
Or else the internet wolves will be unleashed, and I will not be able to constrain them.