LAWRENCE — As he’s often stated throughout this still-early season, Bill Self likes this crop of Kansas basketball players.
And, as the Jayhawk coach revealed in remarks Thursday, that fondness at least partially comes from the fact that he believes the players also like one another.
“I think that they’re respectful. I think that they’re hard-working. I think that they’re pretty responsible. I think they actually like each other,” said Self, whose No. 1-ranked Jayhawks (9-1) square off with No. 18 Villanova (8-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday in Philadelphia. “I think that they work. I think it’s a good mix.”
“You know, we’ve always had great kids, don’t get me wrong,” Self said. “But sometimes pieces just seem to fit better off the court than other times, and based on what everybody tells me, they’ve said, ‘Coach, we all get along so well and everything.’ They seem to play for each other for the most part.”
A pair of upperclassmen may be two of the most important pieces in bringing the puzzle together.
Senior center Udoka Azubuike is averaging 14.2 points on a nation-best 83.1% shooting percentage, with 8.1 rebounds and two blocks per game. Junior guard Marcus Garrett averages 9.4 points, 4.5 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.8 steals, setting the tone defensively as one of Self’s all-time favorite players on that end.
Beyond those in-game exploits, though, Azubuike and Garrett have both vocally and by example slid into leadership positions that Self indicated are integral in the team’s development and aspirations.
First, consider Azubuike.
A frontcourt force often dealt a bad hand through multiple season-ending injuries across his first three seasons, Azubuike wouldn’t have been mistaken for one of the team's verbal leaders. This year, however, the 7-footer has noticeably worn his emotions on his sleeve, not shying away from issuing in-game instruction to teammates.
That was evident in the Jayhawks’ last contest, a 98-57 victory over Kansas City on Dec. 14. There, Azubuike delivered stern instruction to freshman guard Christian Braun after the latter made a mistake on an offensive opportunity.
“It’s his last go-round,” Self said of Azubuike. “He’s been told for three years about what leadership looks like and that kind of stuff. He’s trying. He’s growing up. People still forget ... he’s still young. But he’s done great. His effort in practice, which is a great way to be a leader also, by example, has just been incredible.”
Also notable from the Jayhawks' most recent victory? Azubuike finished with four assists, more than content to facilitate frontcourt partner David McCormack's 28-point eruption.
“The other thing that he has done is when things don’t go well he speaks his mind, where before he’s always held his own cards close to the vest,” Self said. “I’m proud of him for that. He has improved.”
Asked about his increased chattiness Thursday, Azubuike smiled.
“I’ve been more of a leader,” Azubuike said. “Being a senior on the team, I just have to be vocal during practice, talking to my teammates and just kind of taking that extra step in being more of a leader.”
Azubuike labeled the Jayhawks’ current chemistry “pretty good,” citing the team’s successful three-game stint at the Maui Invitational as a key moment in bringing the group closer together and helping everyone understand one another better.
“The team, we get along with each other. Everybody likes each other,” Azubuike said. “We’re friends off the court. We play around, joke around.”
Next, consider Garrett, a player who sets the tone on the defensive end and, as Self said, with his intangibles.
“All the good teams that we have had here that have had success have had guys that are considered ‘glue guys.’ You know, Travis Releford, Kevin Young — unbelievable glue guys. Landen Lucas — unbelievable glue guy,” Self said. “So we’ve had guys like that in the past, but I think that (Garrett) takes it to another level because as good as others have been defensively, I don’t know that we’ve had anybody that guards like him since I’ve been here.
“We’ve had some good defenders, but I don’t think we’ve had anybody better than him.”
Sophomore Devon Dotson, a player Garrett has backed up at point guard this season, indicated Garrett’s passion for playing good defense has been infectious.
“Marcus, he’s kind of a do-it-all guy,” Dotson said. “He can play multiple positions out there on the court. Very versatile. He’s a guy we can rely on defensively and get energy from. He’s been tremendous for us and added a really good element to this team that can take us far. He’s been great.”
Admittedly, a nine-game winning streak is likely the perfect atmosphere to foster team building.
The team’s next rough patch — whenever that may come — will likely go a long way to revealing the true nature of a player-to-player dynamic that to this point has only been a positive.
Self appears optimistic that, when that time comes, his players will rise to the occasion.
“I think there’s some good qualities that all good teams have,” Self said, “and we’ve got some of those.”