Bill Self did a lot of things right this year on the way to winning the National Championship. One of his best moves was how he handled his two point guards.
Dajuan Harris Jr. was a redshirt sophomore who averaged 2 points and 2 assists as a freshmen. He’s a solid floor general not known as a great shooter who is a good defender and gets his teammates the ball in the right spots.
Remy Martin is a scoring point guard, a transfer from Arizona State who scored close to 2,000 points in his career there. He came in with a big time reputation and was expected to have a huge impact – he was chosen as the pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year. He’s a big time scorer and playmaker. He got hurt midway through the year, but even prior to his injury wasn’t having the impact many expected.
Self went with Harris as a starter and it seemed like he was the guy he really trusted. After his injury, Martin came off the bench and was used as a game-changer, a microwave type who could come in and get buckets. The contrasting abilities and approaches gave self a tough decision in close games. He could stick with Harris, a guy who really trusted to make the right play, or go with Martin, the guy with 2,000 points but more of a score-first mentality. Two guys he knew could help him win in different ways. Not an easy decision to make.
In the second round of the NCAA Tournament Kansas matched up with Creighton, a team who will scheme their defensive game plan to the scouting report as much as any team in the country. They will usually find one player on the other team they feel is a non-scorer and leave him open most of the game, staying in the paint with his man and making him a rover/help guy. They did this with Dajuan Harris, daring him to shoot (he stepped up and made a 3 in the first half). Creighton was fine letting the point guard try and beat them. Self went with Martin pretty early in the half when Kansas was struggling to score, and Creighton didn’t really adjust. Martin made two 3s (it looked like Creighton was daring him to shoot as well), and finished with 21 points in a very close game. Martin was the difference between winning and losing.
In the Sweet 16 against us, although we couldn’t score in the first half, we defended Kansas well enough to stay in the game. Seeing his team having trouble scoring, Self went to Martin early again and he changed the game, scoring 7 straight points in the first half to break the game open. Seeing that we were trying to help off Harris as well in the second half, Self had him attack off of ball screens and get down hill. When we went under the ball screens, they’d re-screen to get Harris in the paint, and he was able to finish over our guards at the rim. Both players played a key role in getting Kansas past us, in a game we led by a point with 5 minutes to play. Martin played 26 minutes and had 23 points, while Harris played 20 and had 6 points and 2 assists.
Against Miami in the Elite 8, both guys played and played well, scoring 9 points each in 20+ minutes in a game Kansas won going away. Against Villanova in the Final Four, Harris played 31 minutes and drilled three 3s, while Martin played 20 minutes and didn’t do much, going 1-5. Harris was a key guy in their blowout win.
So, what do you do in the final? Harris played 21 minutes and wasn’t at his best with 4 turnovers. But Martin came off the bench, played 27 minutes and made some huge 3s during a key stretch of their comeback in the second half. He finished with 14 points in 21 minutes and arguably was the most important Jayhawk on the floor.
Playing two guys who play the same position a lot of minutes, and sometimes together, when both guys expect to play a lot, isn’t easy. Throw in the fact that they have very different skill sets, and it’s even harder. Deciding who you want on the floor for key minutes down the stretch is one of the toughest decisions a coach has to make. Getting the most out of both of them is your goal, but often times the result is the opposite – you don’t get much out of either.
Remy Martin had the reputation as the better player, and was supposed to have a bigger impact. But he came off the bench. He was the better player in the Creighton game and the Providence game, and they don’t win those games without him. In the Villanova game, Harris was the better player and Martin not much of a factor. But Martin came back and had a huge impact in the final, fueling part of their great comeback that led to a national title.
How do you find the right balance when you have two guys sharing minutes at one position, and you want to play them both? Keep in mind, Kansas had a first-team All American in Ochai Agbaji at the other guard spot. And a double digit scorer in Christian Braun playing the wing. It’s a nice problem to have, I get it, but not an easy balance to find. One of those four players was going to be on the bench. I give Bill Self a ton of credit for how he handled that dynamic.
I’d be willing to bet that Bill Self had direct conversations – maybe on multiple occasions – with both Martin and Harris. What I’ve learned is that communicating directly and consistently, while sharing some of the issues I’m having figuring out who to play with the players involved helps in a couple of ways. It creates transparency first and foremost, so the players always know what you are thinking, even if they may disagree. They know where they stand. Secondly, you show your players some vulnerability, which I think helps them accept your decision a little easier. It’s okay to tell them that you are struggling with who to play, and you won’t always make the right decision. You want them to know that.
Look, there are going to be times when you both play a lot of minutes and play together. But there will also be times where one of you is sitting watching the other one in crunch time. I’m always going to make the decisions based on what gives our team the best chance to win. I won’t always make the right choice, but that will always be my thinking. I need you guys to buy in to that for us to be as good as we can. This is about the team, and you two guys are both going to be a huge part of our success.
In communicating with them directly and showing some vulnerability, you are asking them to take on some of the responsibility of handling the situation. While they might not like it all the time, I think most players enjoy the responsibility they have in helping the team win. It becomes a shared trust, not something they are being told they have to do. They’ll take some ownership of the situation, and try and make it work as much as you will.
I don’t know exactly how Bill Self handled the situation with his two guards. But I do know he handled it very well and got a lot out of both of them, sometimes on the same night, and they are hanging another banner in Phog Allen Field house. I’m sure that dynamic was not an easy one, it never is. He’s in the hall of fame for a reason.