It takes talent to land a basketball scholarship at Kansas University.
It takes toughness to earn a spot in coach Bill Self’s playing rotation.
“Oh yeah … coach talks to us about being tough all the time,” KU sophomore center Cole Aldrich said. “One of the reasons we were so good last year is because of how tough we were.”
Toughness has been discussed much — but rarely defined — during news conferences during the six-year Self era.
So what exactly IS it?
“Guys going to the boards hard, blocking guys out, diving on the ground for loose balls — all sorts of stuff that makes a team look like it is really getting after it,” Aldrich said.
“Going after the ball with two hands, diving on the floor. We show it in spurts. We don’t do it enough,” junior guard Sherron Collins said, expecting some rugged practices to help the team become tougher in the wake of Tuesday’s 84-67 loss at Arizona.
Taskmaster Self gives his players credit for understanding the meaning of toughness.
“Not flinching going after loose balls, two hands on every ball, picking up fumbles not dribbling them, hitting somebody before you release to go rebound, not letting a guy bully through a screen,” Self said in expounding on the concept.
Of course it takes awhile for KU teams to become tough enough to please the Jayhawk mentor.
“Last year’s team was tough,” Self said of the 2007-08 Jayhawks, who proved that by erasing a nine-point deficit with 2:12 to play to catch Memphis and win the national title game in overtime.
“But not the whole season. Last year’s team at Oklahoma State was a soft team,” he said of the Jayhawks, who fell, 61-60, to a mediocre OSU team on Feb. 23 in Stillwater.
“Last year’s team in Manhattan was a soft team,” he added, recalling a 84-75 loss to Kansas State on Jan. 30 in Bramlage Coliseum. “Last year’s team at Texas was a soft team (in losing 72-69 on Feb. 11). Damion James outrebounded our whole team the second half.
“Every team goes through phases where they don’t play as tough as they should. Our team is not where it needs to be. I think we’ll get there. It’s not something that happens overnight.”
Collins, who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Chicago, says this year’s team “is not close” to being tough enough to accomplish all its goals.
“It’s something coach is always stressing, something we need to tighten up. I think he’ll do a good job of getting us ready. He did it last year,” Collins said.
Collins remembers the key moment regarding KU’s toughness quotient a year ago.
“After the K-State game, we knew we had to get tougher rebounding,” Collins said. “The same thing this year. We have to figure a way to get tougher to get in there and battle for rebounds.”
Collins and Aldrich are two Jayhawks who appear to exhibit toughness on a regular basis. KU’s newcomers? Well, they are not quite there yet.
“Coach talks to me a lot about toughness and being meaner,” freshman Marcus Morris said. “It’s something he needs all of us to do, be tougher. We are young and don’t know a lot about the game yet. Other teams are very tough. He wants us to be meaner at practice going against each other.
“Cole is a great person to follow. I can get tougher by doing what he does.”
Aldrich patiently is trying to lead the way.
“Coach always will expect a lot. It’s one of the reasons you come to Kansas,” Aldrich said. “The fans … everybody that is a Jayhawk fan, they expect a lot. It’s tough to always go out there and produce what everybody wants. You have to be tough, give it everything you have every time you step on the floor.”
To be fair, the Jayhawks, 8-3 entering Tuesday’s 8 p.m. home game against Albany, lead the Big 12 in one category in which toughness is exhibited: rebounding.
KU averages 40.5 boards a game. Kansas State is second at 39.9.
“It’s not like we’ve been horrendous numbers-wise. We’ve been horrendous in going after the ball,” Self said “It’s amazing to me we can outrebound Syracuse by five (42-37) and Kent State nine (40-31) and Jackson State … we outrebound them by (only) one (39-38). It’s something we have to work on and emphasize every day.
“We have to do a better job (at practice). If they don’t (take a) charge, run them. If they don’t block out or hit somebody, run them. We have to pay more attention to detail on all defensive possessions. The numbers say we are a good defensive team, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.”
KU ranks third in the league in field-goal-percentage defense (.381), just behind Iowa State (.378) and Oklahoma (.379). KU is ninth in scoring defense (63.8).
“Teams don’t get good shots against good defensive teams. We’ve got to get more disciplined to where we can do that,” Self said.
If it’s any consolation, last year’s team proved it is possible to please Self eventually in the toughness area.
“The way we came back, the toughness we showed (in title game) made us feel good,” Self said of the never-say-die attitude versus Memphis.
Words to describe KU’s performance against the Tigers in Self’s book “At Home in the Phog:” “Perseverance, fortitude, determination, persistence, tenacity, patience, diligence, grit, drive, resolution,” and of course, “tough.”