LAWRENCE — Among his favorite Christmas gifts ever received, Bill Self on Thursday listed two specifically: his granddaughter, Ella Jane, born last December, and a far different present from his youth.
“I remember shooting a BB gun a lot on Christmas Day,” Self recalled, “which was pretty cool.”
Now a grown man — and, of course, the Hall of Fame head coach of the top-ranked Kansas basketball program — Self acknowledged his priorities have shifted in terms of his holiday season desires, which are more straightforward these days.
“As an adult, I really think the best way to have a good Christmas is to win your last game before Christmas,” said Self, whose Jayhawks (10-0) face No. 18 Arizona State (8-2) at 8 p.m. Saturday in Tempe, Ariz. “We’ve done it both ways. Christmas is much more pleasant doing it the right way.”
KU has made a habit of sending its head coach home happy for the holidays, dropping just three pre-Christmas contests across Self’s 15-year tenure — a 75-61 defeat at Nevada in the 2003-04 season, an 84-67 setback at Arizona in 2008-09 and a 77-52 dud versus Temple in 2014-15. Riding a three-game winning streak in games ahead of the break, KU has played its last four on the road and 10 of the total 15 away from Allen Fieldhouse.
Saturday’s clash represents the first true road tilt of this season for the Jayhawks, who have navigated the nation’s toughest nonconference schedule flawlessly to this point, at least in terms of record. Self indicated he’ll be looking more to how his squad plays against the Sun Devils rather than simply relying on the game’s outcome.
“Just because you go on the road and win doesn’t mean you conquered it, of if you don’t win, you lost it,” Self said. “I think the statistics show it’s harder to win on the road, but usually hard road games bring a tighter huddle, (and they) certainly bring a focus that is a little bit sharper than what it is when you think you’re comfortable, even though you’re never really comfortable.”
Despite the unknown, there’s reason for optimism for KU fans, who are expected to be a large contingent of the capacity crowd Saturday at Wells Fargo Arena. The Jayhawks already boast neutral-site victories over No. 3 Tennessee, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 20 Marquette.
Self expects to learn a thing or two about his group before everyone heads separate ways for the holidays.
“We need to play with a free mind and with a sole purpose,” Self said. “I think it will be a great test for our guys to play a quality team like this.”
The Sun Devils feature one of the nation’s most surprising freshmen in 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard Luguentz Dort, a four-star recruit out of Montreal averaging 19.8 points and 5.5 rebounds. Self likened Dort to a football safety and praised his physicality and scoring ability both beyond the arc and at the rim.
Dort, Self observed, could be an NBA Draft lottery pick by the time his college career ends.
“He’s like a, and don’t take this the wrong way, a Marcus Smart with skill,” said Self, referencing the former Oklahoma State standout and current Boston Celtic. “I mean, he’s a tough cat. I mean that in a sincere form of flattery, because I love Marcus Smart. (Dort’s) competitiveness and strength and those things, I think there are some similarities like that, but I do think he can shoot the ball at a pretty high clip, especially if he gets on a roll.”
While Dort is an unfamiliar face on the new-look Sun Devils, the Jayhawks should remember several others from the team that came into Allen Fieldhouse last December and left with a shocking 95-85 victory — “The rise, in large part, we contributed to that, so that's not any good,” Self said of ASU and coach Bobby Hurley’s elevated profiles after that outcome.
This go-round, it will be two “totally different teams” squaring off.
As Self indicated, the outcome may not matter to the coaching staff as much as how hard the Jayhawks play in their first taste of a hostile environment. Drawing from past experience — the 14-point drubbing at Nevada in Year 1 — the KU coach used an example to explain how a perceived lack of effort or focus can linger and make for an awkward holiday.
“I remember how much I dreaded calling all the players and their families, wishing them a Merry Christmas, just because I didn't want to talk to them at all and I knew they didn't want to talk to me,” Self recalled. “It's more fun calls whenever you win."