‘Hard hats win’ – How a simple gesture between player and coach helps remind Kansas what wins in March

Kansas forward Jalen Wilson (10) takes the court before tipoff against TCU on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. (AP Photo/Nick Krug)

Des Moines, Iowa — It’s a simple gesture that lasts no more than a second, and if you’re not watching closely, you’ll miss it.

It happens every game, during the starting lineup introductions, and has for all 35 Kansas basketball games this season and the final 10 or so a season ago.

After hearing his name called by the public address announcer and racing out to mid-court to shake hands with his opponent, KU junior Jalen Wilson returns to the Kansas bench, where assistant coach Fred Quartlebaum is waiting.

After a quick hug, the two take their fists and tap their heads with them. From there, it’s game on and Wilson knows exactly what he needs to do.

“That’s just a little symbol between Jalen and I that hard hats win,” Quartlebaum told the Journal-World on Friday, inside the KU locker room at Wells Fargo Arena, where the top-seeded Jayhawks (28-7) will take on No. 8 seed Arkansas (21-13) at 4:15 p.m. Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on CBS.

“It’s just the whole hard-hat mentality and how you have to do the gritty things, the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet, to make winning plays,” Quartlebaum added. “So, that’s just our indication that we’re aligned, that we understand that what needs to be done. Not only with him, but with his teammates, as well.”

In addition to the pregame head tap, Quartlebaum said he routinely sends the hard hat emoji to the Kansas players in their group text thread.

“To all the guys,” Quartlebaum said. “But Jalen more than others because that’s what he embodies.”

KU’s latest consensus first team All-American absolutely loves it because it puts him even more in the right frame of mind to go out and attack the game.

Wilson, who has dealt with everything from injuries and suspensions to slumps and self-doubt during his four years at KU, said the hard-hat mentality that the two men share is something that comes from going through adversity.

It’s not something he could have handled or even understood when he came to KU as a freshman in 2019. And it’s something that he credits a ton for the success he has had along the way, from helping the Jayhawks win a national title last season to his masterful encore performance this season as the Jayhawks’ unquestioned leader.

“With all the ups and downs that I’ve had, that’s the perfect example of what it’s all about and he’s the perfect guy to represent that,” Wilson said of the hard hat gesture. “We hold each other accountable as far as what we’re bringing to the team and that’s my guy. It’s cool to have that little something that we can do before every single game to remind each other this is the time. Whenever you get out on this court, it’s kind of like being in a construction zone and you put your hard hat on and you’re ready to work.”

Wilson is not the only Kansas player with whom Quartlebaum has a unique pregame routine during the player introductions.

After their hug, Coach Q and sophomore forward KJ Adams chest bump one another like Sumo wrestlers and there’s a specific message behind that one, as well.

“KJ and I, we hug, but we hit chests pretty hard, just to symbolize are we ready to go be physical,” Quartlebaum shared Friday. Watching him workout with (strength coach) Ramsey (Nijem), I may want to be careful.”

Given Quartlebaum’s own physique which many say resembles The Rock, Adams laughed at that suggestion. Asked if he had ever been hit too hard by his coach during those moments, Adams smiled and said, “No. Never, never, never, never.”

Asked if he had ever injured Quartlebaum, Adams smiled and squirmed, ‘No. Never, never. We’ve got it down.”

“It’s just a good reminder, when you have someone like coach Q that’s always positive who reminds you of stuff like that,” Adams said. “Just something little like that can have a big impact right before the game.”

So much of the consistent success that the Kansas basketball has enjoyed in the past two decades has been about establishing a culture, committing to it and never wavering.

Anyone associated with the program will tell you that Quartlebaum is the biggest advocate and creator of the KU culture, and Wilson said that role, among other things, is what makes their pregame moment so special to him.

Never did that hit home more than after KU’s home win over Texas earlier this season, when Quartlebaum went to the office of equipment manager Larry Hare and returned to the locker room with a white hard hat.

“I brought it into the locker room and just kind of threw it into the middle of the floor so everybody got a chance to see it,” Quartlebaum recalled Friday.

Wilson, who said he actually put the hat on his head that night, absolutely loved it.

“It was great, man,” he said. “It shows what he brings to this team. Everybody has a role, and his role is super important, just the mindset he brings to the guys and the confidence. He’s always smiling, but he does get serious.”

Keys for Kansas:

• 3-point D with a twist – Arkansas is not known for its 3-point shooting, so the Jayhawks would like to see the Razorbacks take as many 3-point shots as they’d like. That’s not to say KU won’t contest them. They will and must. Even for a team that shoots just 31.6% from downtown (305th in the nation per KenPom.com), an open 3-point shot is still a pretty easy shot. So, KU point guard Dajuan Harris Jr. said the Jayhawks want to contest the Razorbacks’ outside shots while still forcing them to take them. To do that, Harris said KU can go under ball screens, switch everything on the perimeter and keep the Hogs from attacking the paint off the bounce. In their last 10 games, Eric Musselman’s team has averaged just five 3-point makes in 16 attempts, which is right at their season average. In that stretch, they shot better than their season average three times and went 1-2 in those three games. Overall, the Razorbacks were 4-6 in those 10 games, with five of those losses coming in games when they attempted 16 of more 3-pointers.

• Be strong with the ball – One of the easiest ways for Arkansas to score points — especially against a team that’s trying hard to dictate how and where they can do it — is to create havoc with their defense and get easy baskets in transition. The Razorbacks scored 32 points off of 17 Illinois turnovers in their Round 1 win on Thursday, and Musselman’s team ranks 63rd nationally in turnover percentage, forcing teams to cough up the ball on 20.4% of their possessions. That includes a 12% steal rate, which ranks 23rd nationally. The Jayhawks’ offense is in the top third of Division I in turnover rate, giving it away just 17.4% of the time — nearly a full point below the national average. And Kansas will have to be good in that area in this one, at all five positions, to give itself the best chance against a tough 8 seed.

• Poise & experience – Three of the top six players in Arkansas’ rotation are freshmen. Three of the top six players in KU’s rotation played in the national championship game last year. The experience and championship mettle edge that Kansas carries is an advantage for the Jayhawks in nearly every possible matchup. But it could be magnified in this one given the rookies that the Razorbacks are counting on. Add to that the importance of poise on the sideline, where KU assistant Norm Roberts has proven to be cool, calm and collected while Musselman is wound a little tighter, and it’s clear that staying under control could benefit the Jayhawks.

Probable Starters

No. 1 Kansas

G – Dajuan Harris Jr., 6-1, 175, Jr.

G – Kevin McCullar Jr., 6-6, 210, Sr.

G – Gradey Dick, 6-8, 205, Fr.

F – Jalen Wilson, 6-8, 225, Jr.

F – KJ Adams, 6-7, 225, Soph.

No. 8 Arkansas

G – Davonte Davis, 6-4, 185, Sr.

G – Ricky Council IV, 6-6, 205, Jr.

G – Nick Smith Jr., 6-5, 185, Fr.

G – Anthony Black, 6-7, 198, Fr.

F – Kamani Johnson, 6-7, 230, Sr.


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