LAWRENCE — An unexpected group received a shoutout near the tail end of Devonte’ Graham’s final address to Allen Fieldhouse.
Kansas’ star point guard spoke directly to a once-sizable contingent now dwindling with every Jayhawk victory: the team’s skeptics.
“To my teammates, man, this has gotta be my favorite group right here, just because I feel like the whole year a lot of people doubted us,” Graham said following the No. 6-ranked Jayhawks’ 80-70 senior night victory Monday over Texas. “Losing at home, losing back-to-back (games) — there was a lot of tweets, people saying we didn’t deserve to wear the Kansas uniform.”
Still at capacity well over 30 minutes after the game’s conclusion, the crowd was taken aback by that last remark from Graham. A faint-yet-noticeable gasp came from pockets of the facility.
“Through all of that, through all of that, we battled and we fought and we outright champions,” Graham said. “So for everybody who didn’t believe, we proved y’all wrong.”
That line got one of the night's loudest ovations — though undoubtedly many among those hooting and hollering were just three weeks ago part of that group of doubters.
There’s no real way to quantify whether skepticism, both on social media and elsewhere, made this KU (24-6, 13-4 Big 12) squad better. Asked that very question in a postgame news conference, though, Graham indicated the barbs did just that.
“I don’t know if everybody seen that (uniform comment), but I seen it, and it just kind of put a little chip on our shoulder and helped me go out there and be better and want it more,” Graham said. “I know we all wanted it obviously, but I think seeing all the negative comments and people doubting us made us have a chip on our shoulder.”
One individual who could've once been counted among that group of skeptics? The team's own coach.
Just three weeks before the Jayhawks’ victory over the Longhorns, Bill Self gave a blistering news conference where, among other comments, he blasted “selfishness” among some of the team’s key players. His comments came just two days after an 84-79 defeat to double-digit underdog Oklahoma State, a loss which represented the first time a Self-led KU team had dropped three home contests in a single season.
Effort and poor execution were also part of Self’s criticism that afternoon, and in the team’s subsequent two contests, guards Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman temporarily lost their starting roles. The team looked out of sorts offensively and defensively in a Feb. 10 defeat at Baylor, leading Self to lament the team’s lack of chemistry in postgame remarks. That loss put the Jayhawks one game back of Texas Tech in the Big 12 standings with six contests remaining, threatening KU’s attempt at a record-setting 14th straight conference championship.
Since that outcome, though, the Jayhawks have won five straight — a wild comeback over West Virginia, a 30-point drubbing of Oklahoma and a gritty, league-clinching victory at Texas Tech among those outcomes. After clinching the Big 12 outright with the win over Texas, Self took center court with 14 conference trophies serving as his backdrop. He then made a comment he and few others could’ve anticipated hearing from him just three weeks prior.
“As you guys all know, because you’ve gone through it every step of the way with us, this (season) has been up-and-down, it’s been challenging. We’ve been great, we’ve been not very great,” Self told the crowd. “But the bottom line is this: These guys know how to compete."
“This team winning the league in a year that the league is probably the best it’s ever been, winning the league when we were behind in the league standings just a couple weeks ago and knowing that we had no margin for error,” Self said, “the biggest reason why you do that is because you have great leadership.”
Great leadership? Knowing how to compete? These Jayhawks? Asked during his postgame news conference if he thought midway through the season that he’d be commending this group for knowing how to win, Self gave a blunt response.
“Honestly no, but I don’t think it was midway through. I think it was two games in,” Self said. “I didn’t feel it. There’s been numerous times this season that I haven’t felt it. But when we haven’t played well, we’ve had one or two guys step up in that particular game to kind of carry us or whatever it is.
“We’ve played better here the last two weeks, there’s no doubt about that, the last two-and-a-half weeks, but this is a different team than we’ve had.”
Graham said it “means a lot” to hear the validation Self offered in his address.
“We all like to compete and we want to be at this level playing,” Graham said. “Being called soft is not something you want to be called obviously, so we had to change that and we had to change it as a team. Coming out and not having energy and stuff like that, that’s kind of being soft. We just looked at each other eye-to-eye and said, ‘We have to change it,’ and I think we did.”
As for social media criticism, Self said the coaches live in “a cocoon” and are rarely aware of online public opinion. He did, though, indicate a little bit of adversity can sometimes be a good thing.
“The players obviously are a little bit more privy to it because they’re all on social media, but that’s not the reason why we won. Trust me,” Self said. “But sometimes I don’t think it’s awful to be humbled a little bit and have to kind of grind through some stuff.”