Self pushes Kansas to develop killer instinct; plus more national notions
NCAA president Mark Emmert offers strong words on the Enes Kanter decision
Some final thoughts on the Renardo Sidney mess at Mississippi State
My midseason All-America team, a new AP Top 25 ballot and much more
For a guy whose team is undefeated and ranked third in the country, Bill Self sure is in a foul mood these days.
On a recent episode of his television show, the Kansas coach narrated highlights of the Jayhawks' 25-point thrashing of Texas-Arlington. You'd think he'd have lots of compliments, but you'd be wrong. "Here Josh [Selby] misses his defensive assignment, but we still get a breakaway layup out of it. That's the kind of thing that really burns us as coaches," Self said. That was gentle compared to the pique he showed when he learned after a 47-point win over UMKC that his players let slip to the media that Self told the team to try to beat the Kangaroos by 20 points in the second half. "They should never have said that to you," Self said. "As a matter of fact, it pisses me off that they did."
As far as I know, Self has not been spotted standing on his porch in his bathrobe screaming, "You kids get off my lawn!" But he did demote his best player, Marcus Morris, from the starting lineup for two games after Morris was ejected from a win at Cal for throwing a flagrant elbow. He also put the team through a series of run-and-run-some-more practices over the holiday break. "It was very terrible," Morris told the Lawrence Journal-World. "You can't beat coach, you know what I mean? He always has the last word on everything."
This sourpuss countenance is very much at odds with the likable, easygoing, aw-shucks hillbilly fellow we've come to know. So I called Self last week to ask a simple question: Are you really as mad as you seem?
"No, no, not really," he answered. (Aw, shucks.) But the more he talked about his team, the more agitated he became. "We're getting better, but we're not as mature as we should be. It's like we have to get the last word on everything. If someone talks trash to you, do you have to get the last word in? If someone hits you, do you have to hit them back?"
The main problem Self saw was an inability to close out games in dominating fashion. That's why he told his team he wanted them to beat UMKC by 20 in the second half. "When we get a team down, we don't bury 'em. We don't have that killer instinct in us yet," he told me. Right on cue, Kansas almost blew a 15-point lead at Michigan on Sunday before escaping with a 67-60 win in overtime. In much the same fashion, the Jayhawks frittered late leads against UCLA (eight points) and USC (14) in Allen Fieldhouse in December before winning by one and two points, respectively.
"When players win by 25 or 30 points, after the game they leave happy regardless of how we played, and I don't want them to feel that way," he said. "They see the end result. I want them to see the process."
Most of Self's concerns were directed at the players he described as the keys to his team -- Marcus Morris and his twin brother, Markieff. He was especially perturbed at the elbow that Marcus threw in the Cal game. "How can that happen? To me that's a selfish play, a premeditated act, and he deserved to be tossed." Self also told me that his players have been complaining too much to referees. On several occasions the refs have come over to Self to warn him to tell his guys to knock it off. "As many big games as these guys have played in, they shouldn't let little things bother them."
On the other hand, Self had words of praise for freshman point guard Josh Selby. (This was before Selby shot 1-for-10 against the Wolverines.) "He's probably a little further along than I thought he'd be," Self said. "He has done a great job adjusting to everyone else instead of making them adjust to him. He's smart."
Keep in mind that for the most part, Kansas hasn't just been beating opponents, they've been embarrassing them. The Jayhawks entered the Michigan game ranked second nationally in scoring margin (25.9), 12th in rebound margin (plus-9.4), first in field-goal percentage (53.7), second in assists (19.4) and eighth in field-goal-percentage defense (37.1). Self isn't ticked because he doesn't think his team is good. He's ticked because he knows it's good. He wants his players to start acting like it.
"What drives me nuts about this team is, I don't think we grasp yet that we're in the game," he said, referring to the national championship chase. "These guys need to operate more on edge, so that's one reason why I've been harder on them. This team here has the potential to be as good as last year's team, and hopefully better when it counts the most. But right now, we're not there yet."
When newly appointed NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed the non-decision handed down in the Cam Newton case, he expressed ambivalence about what his association had done -- as if he knew the NCAA had no other choice but he still wasn't happy about it. There was, however, no such equivocation when I talked to Emmert on Sunday about Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter. Although the NCAA president has no involvement in the enforcement process, Emmert gave a full-throated defense of his staff's decision to declare Kanter permanently ineligible for accepting more than $33,000 above necessary expenses from the pro team he played for in his native Turkey. That decision was upheld by an appeals committee last Friday.
"The facts are utterly unambiguous, the rule is utterly unambiguous, and the intention of the membership is utterly unambiguous," Emmert said. "The vast majority of people in collegiate basketball knew that this was an issue with Enes Kanter. Kentucky knew it. Everybody who talked with him knew it. So I'm amazed that people are shocked by the fact that he is ineligible."
The main criticism being lobbed at the NCAA these days is that its enforcement decisions have been inconsistent, to put it mildly. Kansas guard Josh Selby and Mississippi State forward Renardo Sidney were also found to have accepted impermissible benefits, yet both were allowed to play after serving a suspension and repaying the loot. On the flip side, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton got off scot free even though his father was caught trying to pimp his son. The biggest travesty of all was the amnesty granted to five Ohio State football players to play in the Sugar Bowl before beginning their five-game suspensions next season.
Emmert didn't disagree with my suggestion that the penalties have been inconsistent, but he said there was good reason for that. "They are all very different cases with very different facts," he said. "You mentioned Selby. Here was an individual who took somewhere over $5,000 worth of impermissible benefits. It wasn't from a professional team. It was from a third party. That wasn't a violation of our rules regarding professional athletics."
I also asked Emmert about the important question of intent. Kanter turned down far more money, perhaps in the millions, to try to come to the States to play college basketball. Unlike Newton's dad, who clearly tried to cash in on his son's talents, Kanter's family appears to have made a good-faith effort to keep him eligible. "I can't describe what a good-faith effort is," Emmet replied. "I don't know the young man or his family. If their intention all along was to have him come play in the United States, then it would simply have been a matter of not accepting pay. We've seen a threefold increase in the number of international athletes coming to college, so it's not right to say the environment is not conducive for them to come here and play. They simply have to not do it for money."
Finally, I asked Emmert about the very serious allegation made by Dick Vitale during ESPN's telecast of the UConn-Texas game Saturday. Vitale asserted that the reason Kanter was made permanently ineligible -- as opposed to temporarily suspended and forced to return the money -- was because he plays at Kentucky for the NCAA's nemesis, John Calipari. Vitale made this claim despite the fact that last season, the NCAA suspended Kentucky point guard John Wall for just two games for receiving impermissible benefits, similar to what it did with Selby. After the game, Vitale wrote on Twitter that he believed if Kanter were playing at Washington instead of Kentucky, he would not have been declared permanently ineligible.
Some background. Kanter turned down lucrative offers from teams in Turkey and Greece because he wanted to play high school and college ball in the United States. But when Kanter came here in 2009, two top prep schools turned him down because of concerns about his quasi-pro experience. He eventually enrolled at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif., and in November he verbally committed to the University of Washington. On the day he committed, the president at the University of Washington was a man named Mark Emmert.