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“We're excited to be here. You know you've been coaching too long when one of your former players is in the media and looks older than you do. We're excited to be here. There were times early in the season when people wondered if we were going to be in any tournament. Right now you have the post season NIT and 13 other tournaments. We didn't know if we would be in any of them.
“We have a great group of guys that throughout the course of the year tried to get better in each and every practice. It was our goal when we started, when we went to practice a little while ago over at Rockhurst [High School], was to try to get better. Down the stretch we won eight of our last 10, and nine of those games we played pretty well. Last home game against Duke, didn't play well. They whacked us pretty good.
“Our team is excited about being here. They've never really been in this position where they're major contributors for a team in the NCAA tournament. Reggie [Bullock] started for us last year after Dexter [Strickland] got hurt, but everybody else, this is a first time experience for them. We're excited about being here and hopefully we'll play well.”
All the years you were at Kemper, what do you think of the Sprint Center? First time here?
“I've never been out on the court. I hope it looks a helluva lot better than this part does. There's not very many great media rooms in the world, but there's some beautiful facilities. I've heard great things about it, but I literally have not walked out on the court yet. Watching the tournament on TV, some things that have happened the last two or three years, everybody says it's a great venue. The locker room looks great. My guess is it will be fantastic when we get out there.”
I'm sure for a coach it's a privilege to get here, whatever the path. You did take a different path this year. Normally in your career you've coached a lot of inside out, big men. Has it been an interesting challenge to coach this way with the four guards, more much a perimeter team?
"That's a good way to put it. It's been interesting and it's also been scary because it's not something I have been comfortable with. Most coaches develop a philosophy, a style that they stick with most of the time. If you've done it for 25 years as a head coach, you're probably not going to change very much because you dance with who brung you kind of thing.
“It was a major change for us, it was something I was not comfortable with. I'm still not comfortable with it. Your job as a coach is to just not let things go. You have to keep trying things to become more successful. At Miami, they whacked us about 150 points or something like that. We spent a lot of time in the locker room when the guys were in with the media, the next day on Sunday. We felt like we needed to do something because it wasn't working.
“P.J. has really added a great deal to us offensively. He's a good defensive player as well. He's just not as big. Our rebound numbers early were good, but the most important, W’s and L’s, were not very good. But going small, we've been able to spread the floor a little bit more, open up some things offensively. Other teams have turned it over a few more times than we were earlier. That's helped us getting the break going.
“We have not done a very good job of rebounding the basketball last 10 or 12 games, however many it's been. We added some things in one area, but gave up some in another area. It has been interesting, but scary, too. It's probably been good for all of us, including the coaching staff.”
Does it become easier in college basketball to win with a freshman point guard than it used to be?
“I don't know that it's ever easy to win, period. I know it's not easy to win with a freshman point guard because there's so many things he hasn't seen.
“Last year halfway through our season we knew we would have Marcus, Kendall Marshall, it was going to be a great scenario. Marcus would learn from him. Be able to do some things, be able to avoid the extreme highs and lows that a freshman goes through so much more than anyone else.
“I've played a lot of freshman point guards. Greg played with us at Kansas. Jacque Vaughn, coach for the Orlando Magic, played a heck of a lot and started as a freshman; Aaron Miles started as a freshman; Jeff Boschee started freshman; Kirk Hinrich started as a freshman; Ty Lawson started after the first five games as a freshman for us at North Carolina.
“It's been done, but it's not easy by any means. We're a little more complicated than other people. I give the point guard more responsibilities than other people. I knew with Marcus that I had a kid who was very intelligent to begin with, but had great basketball savvy. It was probably easier for him than it would be a lot of other people.”
You mentioned a couple familiar faces that you've seen. Have you given any thoughts to what kind of reception you expect tomorrow?
“I really haven't. We've been a little busy trying to win a game. For me, University of Kansas and Lawrence was a great 15 years of my life. I've said it this way before: I gave my heart, body, and soul for 15 years, and I loved it.
“When I went back to North Carolina, it was a very emotional thing. It's a very emotional thing when I didn't go the first time, and it was when I did go the second time.
I'll use this analogy. A guy stopped me in the airport, said, Coach, I just wanted to say hello, but I wanted to tell you I'm a big time Jayhawk fan.
I said, I am, too. He walked off. Went down a couple gates, came back a few moments later and said, You surprised me.
“I said, I was there 15 years, had wonderful players that I loved, it was family and always will be. It's not immoral to love two institutions.
When I was a coach at Kansas, it was my favorite school. North Carolina was my second favorite school. I happen to be coaching at North Carolina now, and it's my favorite school and Kansas is my second favorite school.
“I realize some people were upset when I left. Hopefully time is going to cure a lot of those problems. College basketball, we’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about whether they're going to clap or boo when I come out. 19,000, I'm all right then. First time we went and played at Kentucky, I was booed by 24,000. Regardless of how bad it is, it's not going to outnumber that.”
You had pretty good luck for quite a while in your career having guys stay around maybe an extra year. That has not been as much the case recently. How hard an adjustment has that been for you?
“It has changed the whole culture of college basketball. We lost 11 guys to the NBA draft in the last eight years, early, not counting some of the seniors. It's very difficult.
“In 2005, we lost basically the entire starting club. Won the national championship, came back the next year, we were still okay. In 2009, we lost four of the five starters. The next year we were not very good. We kept getting guys hurt that year, too. So it added to it.
“The landscape has really changed. You almost have to recruit like you're a junior college and understand you're lucky if you have a guy more than one year. I think we understand that. It's still been difficult. Last year mid season I thought we were going to lose two guys, we ended up losing four. There's no way you can replace that at the end of the year.
“It's what it is. It's sad to me because I'm a college basketball fan. I'm a college basketball guy. In some ways college basketball has become just a bus stop for a lot of people. The worst thing is, it's become a bus stop for a lot of families and everybody else that think their son should be leaving. So it has made it difficult, yeah.”
You briefly referenced the '05 game with Villanova. Villanova fans still remember that call at the end of the game. What do you remember about it? Was that your closest call on your way to that '05 national championship?
“I just remember I thought it was the greatest call I'd ever seen, that kind of thing. No. I remember there was one a couple before that that I almost lost it myself. It's typical of what goes on in college basketball.
I remember they played great. We got our point guard in foul trouble. He fouled out. We had our backup point guard that made two big free throws for us. That was a big time game.
“You know, that year in '05, I was trying to think quickly here, we had a big time game with Wisconsin, as well, big time game with Villanova, Michigan State we were down at halftime, Illinois in the national championship game it was tied with four minutes to go.
All of our games that year down the stretch were pretty difficult.
'09 when we won it, we didn't have any close games. Won every game by 12 points. I like that part better, to be honest with you.
“Villanova has been successful. I may miss this, I hope not, eight of the last nine years they've been to the NCAA. Jay does a great job. I tried to call him yesterday, trying to get on his good side. I was going to try to give him a real good restaurant here in Kansas City to eat. But that game was a big time game for us, no question.”
Could you talk when you went to the four guards, you shoot the three very well, rebounding has been affected a little bit. What are a couple strengths with this team with this lineup, and a couple things this team has struggled with, as well?
“Well, the positives: we do have a lineup a lot of times where we have three really good three point shooters out there. James Michael is not a low post player. He's a guy that drives us to the basket and gets the 12 to 15 foot shots. If you have guys that can stretch the defense, you help James. Dexter is the guy who puts the ball on the floor and drives the ball to the basket.
“I think we've also defensively been able to get a few more turnovers with this lineup, and that's enabled us to get our fast break going.
On the negative side, we don't block any shots. We block the same number of shots that I would block, that's about it. We do a terrible job rebounding the basketball.
“It has been good for us. We made the decision to try something to see if the positives outweigh the negatives. So far we think they have. But there's no question that it's give and take. But that's what coaching is. What you're trying to do is put the puzzle together. Sometimes the pieces don't actually fit completely, so you have to change the puzzle a little bit or change the pieces a little bit.
We tried to get our best five basketball players on the court, and thought that would give us the best chance to win.”
Looking at the minutes, could you comment on your bench. I see a lot of games you play 11 guys. Outside of Leslie McDonald, those minutes are limited. Describe what your bench gives you right now.
“It depends from game to game. If they give us something when they get in, they get another chance. I always felt like when you make substitutions, you can help us if you don't hurt us. So give us something positive.
“I picked on Greg [Gurley] there when Greg played for us at Kansas. Greg didn't start, but he could shoot the dickens out of the basketball. As a matter of fact, I said something like that the other day. My players never even heard that. They didn't know what the dickens it was. When Greg came in the game, he gave us something. If he made a shot, I let him play some more. If he missed a shot, Greg, come over and sit beside me a little more.
“Leslie's gonna play. One of the big guys is going to play because we need to go big at some point during the game. I made this statement the other day. I do not care about you personally during the game; I care about our team. I am not going to do something just to please you and not be fair to everybody else. I'm going to play the guys who I think is going to give us the best chance to win.
“After the game, off the court, I do care about you personally. If you go out there and screw it up twice in a row, expect for your rear end to come out. I think I'd be unfair to the other kids if I keep putting you out there and you keep screwing it up. I'm not the smartest guy, but I'm sure not the dumbest guy either.”
You've downplayed your role in this late season turnaround. This is the second year in three years that you've made a switch mid season that was significant and really helped the trajectory of the team. How do you think you've seen your coaching style and philosophy evolve over the years, if you think it has?
“I think it's changed all the time because players change. There's things I believe in that I got from Coach Smith. There's no question about that. But players change, so you got to change your style a little bit.
Hopefully in college you can recruit guys that you can believe that play the style you want to play, but sometimes you're surprised, or sometimes guys get hurt, or sometimes it just doesn't work.
“I think you have to be willing to make changes. It's not comfortable for me. I like to pick five guys and say, You're my guys, these other two or three are going to play a lot. If you want to change that, you got to beat those guys out. But sometimes you do have to make changes.
I'm one of the most stubborn guys you've ever known, but sometimes you need to be a little more intelligent than that.”
In your study of Villanova, what impresses you most about them?
“It's strange, I watched the St. John's game, Marquette game. Steve Robinson's watched five or six so far. We still have some time before 6:00 tomorrow.
“They're a balanced team. They can shoot the ball, but they can also score inside. They can drive the ball to the basket. They can rebound it.
The first part of the Marquette game, they were so good defensively it was ridiculous. That's the thing that jumped out about that right there, how good they were defensively.
“In the St. John's game, they would turn it over. I would say, All right, we have a chance. Then they would make St. John's turn it over as well.
I think the balance of their team, there's not one thing that you can take away that will make a major effect on the outcome of the game. You can't say, I've got to do this to Pinkston or this to Bell, if I do that, the game is going to be ours. I think they're a difficult team to guard, and I think that's part of it, too.”