Bill Self’s Backup: Lost Billy Preston, Lost at Oklahoma via Poke-a-Doke

By: Chris O’Brien

I am feeling strangely mellow this morning for it being the day after a loss.

Because, here’s the thing, each year I know the Jayhawks aren’t going to finish 18-0 in Big 12 play. If it’s another conference title year, I know that the end record will be somewhere between 12-6 and 15-3. So you pencil in a loss @ West Virginia, @ Oklahoma or @ Oklahoma State and, depending on the year, maybe a Texas, Kansas State, or Iowa State.

That’s why last week’s win against West Virginia was such a big deal; we won one of the penciled-in losses. Then you add in West Virginia losing at TCU on Big Monday, that essentially gave the Jayhawks a freebie heading into the Oklahoma road test.

By late January/February, I change my mindset from caring about the Big 12 race to thinking bigger picture; evaluating how this team is positioned for the NCAA Tournament. Honestly, I took way more confidence from the loss at Oklahoma than I did from the close win on Saturday against Baylor.

Here’s why

The Oklahoma game was back and forth, but we did take control for most of the second half. I think when Oklahoma finally took their 82-80 lead it was their first lead since like 46-44.

And the only reason Oklahoma had a chance was that they used the Poke-a-Doke strategy.

I’m going to try and contain my soap-box here, but man, this is the worst part about basketball. We have the only sport where penalties can be a strategy to win.

Football: lose yardage. Hockey: lose a player. Baseball: take your base.

Basketball: win the game.

And it’s a coward’s move. Like serving over and over to someone’s backhand in ping pong if you know they don’t have one. Yeah, you still win. Sure, it’s just exposing your opponent’s weakness; if they don’t want to get exposed they should get better at it. But psychologically there’s a difference between being able to say we took their best shot and won vs. we needed to use a gimmick, on our home floor, to barely get the victory.

Macro Decision

As Bill Self’s self-declared back-up, I was scratching my head as to why he didn’t sub in Lightfoot after a few of the empty possessions. But then I thought maybe Self is going bigger picture here. I read Sam Mellinger’s story in the Kansas City Star, and that appears to be exactly what was going on. Bill Self left Doke out there for long-term growth.

Quick detour. In the movie Whiplash, the instructor pushes the main character to the brink because he knows if the drummer has what it takes to be great, then he’s going to be obsessively working on the craft, pushing himself to get better. Drumming 10 hours a day outside of scheduled practice. If he doesn’t “have it”, well, that’s alright. Better for the drummer to find out sooner rather than later the effort required to get from good to great.

It leads to this famous scene below, the instructor saying the two most harmful words in the English language are: “good job.”

Taking Doke out of the game is the “good job” move. Good job bud, hey, you’ll get ’em next time! Probably wins that individual game in January, but doesn’t help this team long-term, and certainly doesn’t help Udoka in his career at Kansas or his overall growth for the NBA.

By letting him stay out there, Udoka got to feel what it was like to miss all of those late game free throws in a row. To feel the disappointment, feel like he let his team down.

Now, if he doesn’t “have it”, he will shy away from ever being in that position again. He may call for the ball less in the post. He may try to never end up at the line again.

But if he has the DNA to be great, which I think he does, this will add fuel to the fire. You could already see it on the bench. Doke looked furious with himself. Not scared. Not about to cry. He was angry. My guess is Doke has already been in the gym twice between the game and the publishing of this post. He’ll be working on free throws obsessively because he can flashback to those Oklahoma fans chanting against him (were they really chanting U-S-A?) and the ball rimming out, over and over again. He can channel that memory as fuel. Hell, maybe he calls up Rick Barry for help or watches some old footage of Wilt Chamberlain’s underhand free throws.

And maybe the free throws never click. They didn’t for Shaq. But Shaq became so dominant in every other aspect of the game that coaches accepted it. Look for Udoka to become even more dominant on the block, better at defense, and maybe even limit his foul trouble so he can stay on the court longer. My guess is Self’s gameplan against Texas A&M will be a steady diet of dumping the ball into Doke. Look for like a 25 and 15 type of game.

It also gives his teammates a chance to build him up. As a leader, Graham can say, “It wasn’t your free throws man, I screwed up on the switch at the end on Manek. That loss is on me.”

So is this all crazy talk? Am I justifying what was really just a bad coaching decision made by Bill Self? I don’t think so. Here are some of his quotes after the game that are in line with my theory:

“To win one game, I did not do our team any favors.”

Mellinger points out in his story that Self brought up the memory of Texas A&M hacking Sasha Kaun almost a decade ago (coaches never forget). I think half talking about what he told Billy Gillispie, half throwing a not so subtle jab at Lon Kruger, Self said:

“You just told your guys you didn’t think they could guard us.” 

So who knows, maybe this is much ado about nothing. Maybe Oklahoma’s team is pretty pumped about the win, couldn’t care less how they got there. Maybe February 19th in Allen Fieldhouse will be just as close and Kruger will roll out the same move again.

I will say, to Oklahoma’s credit, they can get to the Final Four if they play the way they did in this game. Every night they have the best player on the court in ESPN’s newest man-crush, Trae Young. This was the style Young needed to play with, get his guys involved in the first half, then take over scoring in the second. They need Christian James and Brady Manek to be reliable scorers, it can’t just be the Trae Young show if they want to make the type of run Buddy Hield’s team did a few years ago.

And for Kansas, what will Self do in an NCAA Tournament game if/when the same strategy is rolled out? Did Oklahoma just reveal a pretty clear blueprint for exposing KU’s kryptonite?

Hey, if this is our team’s biggest flaw, I’ll take it. I mean we’re what, 1,000 words in and I haven’t even mentioned the loss of Billy Preston. A month ago we had like 20 different kryptonites. This team is radically improved. Just look at this list of previous weaknesses.

  • Svi is driving to the basket and overall playing awesome.
  • Malik Newman has greatly improved; he won that Baylor game, put up 20 against Oklahoma, his defense looks much better.
  • Frontcourt depth – Mitch Lightfoot has become a formidable big man. He’s leading the team in blocks! Getting his share of power dunks too. And is able to score between 6 and 10 a game.
  • Defense – We went from giving up 75+ it seemed like every night to a three-game stretch of sub-75, two were sub-70. The streak ended with Oklahoma, but OU is the highest scoring team in America (ok, technically it’s Duke, but the difference is 0.5 ppg and “highest scoring team” sounds more dramatic). KU held OU to 79 with a minute to go in their home arena. Not a bad performance at all.

I don’t need to mention Preston because this team has enough pieces, when playing like this, to make a run to the Final Four. It would have helped to add Preston in the mix, he’s a great player, but it’s nice to shed this mythical fantasy land of how he would suit up and suddenly solve all of our problems.

With the stuff listed above continuing to go well, I only see these three glaring weaknesses that KU needs to fix to become elite:

  • Poke-a-Doke – Either Udoka improves at the line or Self creates a secret gameplan for how to combat this in March.
  • Free Throw Attempts – Better, but not quite where we need to be. Even with the Poke-a-Doke, KU only attempted 14 against OU. That number should be at least 20 and given the intentional fouls really should have been 30 last night.
  • Where is Vick? Vick has only scored 18 points in the last three games. It’s not really the scoring that has me concerned, it’s that he’s settling too much for threes. Vick is the most athletic guy on the team, I think he should start playing like Rip Hamilton, just be all-out energizer bunny, wear out the other team’s defender, running baseline to baseline, occasionally getting alley-oops. This would become a nightmare to defend because now you’re trying to stop Svi/Graham/Newman on the perimeter, Doke down low, and this crazy Rip Hamilton 2.0 running around.

So, tough loss. Wish we could’ve pulled it out, wish we were sitting here 7-1 in conference with those two impressive resume wins. But overall I’m optimistic because this team is much better than they were a month ago.

Want to know what had Self more upset than any of the missed free throws? Read Jesse Newell’s story here.  

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