KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- While other college basketball teams were visiting exotic island locations or playing under the enormous spotlight in New York City, the Kansas Jayhawks were content to make the 40-mile trip from their Lawrence campus to downtown Kansas City this week.
No beaches. No Maui sunsets. No surfboards.
But that seemed just fine for the No. 12 Jayhawks as they loaded the championship trophy from the CBE Hall of Fame Classic on the team bus for the ride home.
“It was great to have a road trip, or kind of a road trip, you know,” Kansas center Jeff Withey said Tuesday after Kansas (4-1) defeated Saint Louis 73-59 in the championship game. “We were right down the street.”
Kansas coach Bill Self viewed the two-game tournament as a business trip in every sense of the term. And the way the Jayhawks took care of their business against Washington State and Saint Louis left Self feeling much better than he had the previous week. Self is in the midst of a serious chemistry experiment, trying to blend the veterans he has back from last season’s Final Four with seven scholarship freshmen.
That’s not as easy as it sounds.
“I think we got better,” Self said. “I don’t think there’s any question about it. There were a lot of good things that happened. We got better over here. That was a big key, coming over here. You’ve got to try to win two games but we need to get better. We accomplished that, I think.”
Jeff Withey once again provides an imposing presence on the inside for Kansas.
The Kansas roster is loaded with talent, but the players are just getting to know each other. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor could be counted on night after night last season and everyone else played their roles.
“We had two guys last year that were assassins,” Self said.
And on the road to Kansas City, Self’s squad encountered a couple of speed bumps. There was the 67-64 loss to Michigan State in Atlanta when the Jayhawks couldn’t close out the Spartans. That was followed by a 69-55 home victory over Chattanooga that came thanks to a 41-19 advantage in the second half. In the first half of that game, the Jayhawks seemed to stray from everything Self stresses in his program.
“We can’t play fast enough,” he said before the journey to KC. “Hey, let’s just call it like it is: We don’t look athletic to me at all. We look athletic in one spot: (freshman Ben) McLemore. The other guys are just average athletes, as far as being able to run. Are they average athletes? No. But they’re playing slow.
“It starts with your point guard. Elijah (Johnson) is playing extremely slow. Our bigs don’t run for a purpose at all. Travis (Releford) isn’t playing fast at all. Naadir (Tharpe) gives us no pace. I’m disappointed in how fast we’re playing. I think we play very, very lazy when we’re changing ends.”
That sounds like a description of a team that shouldn’t even be ranked. But in the next breath Self also compared this team to his 2012 Final Four squad.
“We didn’t win pretty last year,” he said. “There’s no difference. The difference is this team just isn’t quite as tough yet ... That’s the biggest difference.”
Check out Ken Davis' latest college basketball power rankings at FOXSports.com.
Self knows time is a coach’s best friend. And those who have observed Self over the years knows his teams are always ready when it counts. It’s clear these Jayhawks are talented enough to be in contention for the NCAA championship, so Self demands constant progress along the way.
Withey is proof of the developmental process that takes place under Self. His emergence last season as a rebounding and shot blocking force was the single biggest factor in Kansas marching through the NCAA tournament. Now his role has changed too. He is an All-America candidate and a senior captain. Being a vocal leader doesn’t come natural for Withey, but he is trying to guide the newcomers along. He said that takes patience.
“All the expectations are a lot of pressure,” Withey said. “But at the same time I enjoy it. It’s different. I’m a captain. Last year I didn’t have to worry about any of that stuff. Now I’m learning how to talk to the young guys and encourage them and be a leader. It’s something I enjoy.”
Self actually expects the majority of the leadership on this team to come from Johnson and Releford, senior guards who are going to control the ball for the Jayhawks.
“Seven-footers don’t talk,” Self said of Withey. “We know that.”
Bill Self expects senior Travis Releford to play a big leadership role.
If Withey can score 25 points, go 11 for 14 from the free-throw line and block seven shots as he did in the 73-59 win over Saint Louis, he won’t need to talk. Withey was double-teamed by the Billikens in the first half and scored 10 points. That left Releford open for jumpers and the defensive specialist, who had struggled with his shooting until he returned to his hometown, scored 21 in the first half. In the second, Saint Louis turned its attention to Releford and Withey became the scoring threat.
“That’s the problem when you play Kansas,” Saint Louis coach Jim Crews said. “When you plug one hole, another one opens.”
Funny thing is that Releford and Withey are the best defenders the Jayhawks have — and two of the top defenders in the nation. Yet here they were taking on the role of top scorers for the Jayhawks. Releford scored 40 and Withey 33 in the two games.
“I really think if you don’t think about scoring, then scoring naturally comes,” Self said.
Anyone who saw one of Withey’s final blocks Tuesday -- that led to a run-out that ended with a behind the back pass from Johnson to Releford for a rim-rattling dunk -- knows how natural scoring is for these guys.
The Jayhawks had to go all the way to Kansas City to find it out for themselves. But that’s not a problem. Who needs a beach when Kansas City has so much to offer?
“We had a couple of days with really good practices after the loss,” Withey said. “It’s bad to lose, but it’s good because you realize you aren’t as good as you think you are. We were able to focus and buy into Coach Self’s program after that. The team chemistry is not exactly where we need it to be to be a championship team yet. Everything takes time. It’s a process. This is going to be a good team.”