NCAA Tournament 2013: Kansas Jayhawk Players Talk Michigan

USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas Jayhawk players sat down with the media after Thursday's open practice to discuss Friday night against Michigan.

Kansas arrived in North Texas Wednesday and started preparation for its Sweet 16 match-up with Michigan by conducting media interviews and practicing in Cowboys Stadium Thursday. The Jayhawks tipoff against the Wolverines Friday night and talked about the match-up in the press conference transcript below.

THE MODERATOR: Kansas student-athletes Travis Releford, Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson.

Q. Travis, is there much advantage to having been here on this stage pretty frequently, whereas Michigan it's been a while?

Travis Releford: No, I wouldn't look at it as an advantage because Michigan is a great team. We're not going into it thinking that, we've been here more times than them. We're just going in knowing that they're a great team and we've got to come ready to play.

Q. Jeff, Trey Burke was talking about how the Michigan offense is predicated on getting -- the guards getting into the paint. And he says that you're the one they're worried about the most. Do you feel like you can have a profound impact on them the way they run their offense?

Jeff Withey: I can definitely have a big impact. Our whole defense of this game will be not letting them get in the paint. I'll definitely be in there.

I know they're probably going to try to attack and they're not going to change anything. They're going to try attacking the paint, probably try getting me in foul trouble and stuff like that. We've been preparing for them. We know what their offense is like. We're going to do whatever we can to try to keep them away from the paint.

Q. Elijah, it's your job and the guards' job to keep them from getting to the paint. Who is the hardest guy you faced all year keeping them out of the paint, whether it's Pierre Jackson or whoever, and who does Trey Burke remind you the most of who you've guarded?

Elijah Johnson: Well, in my opinion, Pierre Jackson, a small, explosive guard, real low to the ground. I can't compare Trey's game to anybody else's. Honestly, he has a different kind of feel for the game. He looks like he's moving in slow motion to me. I've been looking at films, seeing how he plays, but I can't compare him to another guard.

Q. Coming out of the game on Sunday, it's difficult to have a game with two more different halves. Do you guys focus on what happened in the first half in fixing that or do you focus what went right in the second half and continuing that during your preparations this week?

Elijah Johnson: Partially both. You've got to see what you're doing wrong. And you've also got to see what you're doing right to fix it or to keep rolling it. We looked at the first half in the North Carolina game. We saw where we went wrong. We plan on fixing that.

It shouldn't be like that every game. We're confident in what we've been going over. It's not too much of a hassle to us right now.

Q. Travis and Elijah, I heard of a lot of teams that played you guys, after the game will say, we got a lot of open shots, they just didn't fall. Why is it that teams get open shots against you guys, supposedly, and they don't fall?

Elijah Johnson: Well, our coaches do a great job of scout report. They know so much about other teams, you know, and we listen. I feel like we're real coachable.

Even if we give people shots, it's not shots that they're used to taking. We try to get them in different spots or try to get them to go to a different rhythm or rotation or something that we know they're not 100 percent comfortable with.

If you're going to get shots, we're not going to give you the shots you want. We have good defenders on the wings. Travis, I feel he's the key to all that, in my honest opinion, most of the time you make it hard for them to get that and when they get it, it's a tough shot. They know they worked for it, so they probably deserved it.

I think Travis would agree with me, I know he probably don't want to toot his own horn, but I give all of that credit to Travis. He's the head for the guards on defense. He's talking to us and telling us constantly what's going on and what we shouldn't be giving up and what we should be paying attention to.

Travis Releford: Elijah said it all. But I give credit to the coaches on the scout report and just telling us what guys are uncomfortable doing and taking those type of shots, open shots, and like you said, they're not making them. That's probably our game plan. Give a lot of credit to our assistant coaches.

Q. Jeff's blocked more shots in the tournament than anybody outside Tim Duncan historically. What kind of luxury is it having him in the center and how does that enable you to maybe gamble a little bit on the outside in the defense and kind of bring everything together?

Travis Releford: I think it's a huge key knowing that Jeff is behind us and alternating shots. So that gave us the confidence to pressure a guard further out. And if we get beat, we know that we've got Jeff back there to block the shot or alternate it. That gives us a lot of confidence.

Elijah Johnson: I think that it's so much confidence having Jeff behind us, because we don't feel pressured into being back-doored, you know. A lot of people fear being back-doored, but when you back-door, you're going with a head of steam. And you're going with a head of steam towards a brick wall.

With that being said, it's real confidence having Jeff back there, we know we can push them out. And if they want to catch the ball at half court we're cool with that, or if they want to back-door, which a lot of people don't try, just seeing Jeff down there, you know, we don't appreciate it as much as we probably should, because we've been playing with him for four years.

But we definitely feel better about going out there and pressuring on defense and doing our job, knowing we've got backup.

Q. Thinking back to when you entered this program, is there any one defensive principle this coaching staff tries to emphasize at the beginning with you and throughout your time here?

Travis Releford: Not really. First of all, they say guard your man. And if we do that, then we'll be fine.

But then they go into breaking down every little thing that the opponent does and what they don't like to do and that plays a big role in how we defend as a team.

Elijah Johnson: The coaches always tell us, like Travis said, guard your man. That's something we hear them say a lot, guard your man. And the way that we play, if you're an offense player, when we're on defense, you're not playing against one person, you're really playing like one and a half, maybe two, because we have such strong help, because we play so hot on the floor. And we're not afraid to pressure.

They always tell us guard your man, and don't be afraid to get beat. You can't be the one timid. So I think we feed into that and we try to do it as much as we can.

Q. Jeff and Travis, you're playing a lower seed but you've heard all year about how tough the Big Ten Conference is. A lot of the national analysts are picking the lower seed, Michigan. Does that get you extra excited, a little extra fuel in your tank?

Jeff Withey: We heard that a lot last year, also. Everybody never had us going to the Final Four or doing what we did last year. We don't really look at that. If anything, yeah, it will give us extra incentive to go out there and win.

But I don't buy into what all the experts have to say about any of that. We're just going to go out and play basketball the way we do.

Travis Releford: I really don't pay attention to the seedings, either. We take pride in people going against us. We get fuel for that. And we're just looking forward to playing this game.

Q. Jeff, Mitch McGary has been playing so well for Michigan. When you watched tape of him this past week, what impressed him the most, what stood out?

Jeff Withey: Just how physical he plays, how hard he plays. He loves to dive after loose balls. He loves to screen people, that -- he enjoys him to hit somebody.

And so I know he's going to be a tough guy to play against. He's going to be physical. I'm not going to change my game plan. I'm not going to change the way I play. I'm going to try to match his effort and be fine.

Q. Ben struggled the last ten games or so. Do you guys talk to him at all, how do you think his head is coming into the Regional here?

Elijah Johnson: Yeah, we've been talking to him. But right now, I mean, I'm not an expert at this, but right now I feel like he's probably hearing a million things, different opinions from family, friends and the coaches. I feel like right now that's the coaches job to really get to him and help him calm down.

The biggest thing that we've been saying to him constantly is we support you, no matter what. You've carried us a long way, you've helped us a lot. And we know you'll be there when we really need you. When you're struggling, we're not going to stray, so keep the confidence. And I think he has.

I don't think he's dropped his head too much. I know he's been a little frustrated. He's a great teammate. In the North Carolina game, I didn't see anybody on the bench more excited than him, jumping up and down and being happy. He'll brush it off, I think he's stronger than that.

Travis Releford: I think Elijah said it all. Ben's the key to our team. We're going to need him moving forward. Like he said, coaches can get to him and just help him relax. We're out there, we tell him that, just keep playing. We got his back. Good game or bad game, we're going to help him out.

You've got to look at he's young. He's new to this, he's never been out in this type of environment. So for him to struggle those first two games like that, it's not a big deal or surprising. We had other guys that stepped up. We're looking for him to have a great weekend.

Q. Jeff, just talk about the journey it's been for you. From starting out in Arizona and coming here and paying your dues at Kansas, behind Cole Aldrich and the twins and going against Tom in practice. A lot of people point to the Baylor game last year as when the light switch flipped on for you.

Jeff Withey: It's a long journey. Started out at Arizona and transferred because of some personal issues and family issues. And Kansas is a spot where you've got to pay your dues to really shine, I think. Only the special get to play as freshmen, like Ben. You've got to be really good to do that.

I took my time. I got stronger, like all of us did. We all didn't play right away. When you're in the system you get better, you play against great players. I was lucky enough to play against Cole and the twins, like you said, and that just got me better.

And last year just finally being able to step out on the floor, I just kept on getting more and more confidence while the season went on. Baylor definitely gave me a lot more confidence after that game, getting 25. Just kept on building off of that. It's just been a great journey.

Q. When you were in this place last year, you knew there was one more year for you guys ahead. Now there's not one more year. Do you guys carry that into the games at this point, thinking if we don't get it done, then we're done playing together?

Elijah Johnson: Well, I personally feel like you shouldn't think like that. What if I don't or this or that. You've just got to relax and play. And we've been preparing for this for four years now. So it's nothing too much different that we can do that we haven't prepared for. If it's meant to happen, it will happen.

We've been preparing every damn practice, every practice, extra trips, extra talks, all the video sessions, everything, I think all that plays out right now. You sort of want it to happen right now in the last run, but you can't just wish for things to happen, you've got to kind of go make it happen.

THE MODERATOR: Coach Bill Self. We'll let the coach make a statement about getting here first.

COACH SELF: Well, we're obviously fired up and excited to be here in Arlington and have the opportunity to play in the Sweet 16. And certainly looking forward to the challenge. We've had a good week preparing for a terrific Michigan team.

Q. The offense that Michigan runs, how would you describe it? They've got some nice numbers, lead the fewest turnovers in the nation, and assisted turnover ratio. What is it they do so well?

COACH SELF: Well, they've got good players, that's what they do best. They put good players in good positions. And they're very well coached, obviously John is a terrific coach. But their numbers are good. You only turn the ball over nine times a game as opposed to a team like us that could turn it over 14 or 15. There's six extra possessions, there's an opportunity to score 18 more points, potentially -- 12 to 18. That's something that we have to do a good job.

And we need to force them to make mistakes, which they don't make many. And then we have to do a great job against their defense, where we don't give them easy baskets off of our offensive miscues. And we've got to make some extra possessions off the glass.

They do a lot of things well. And they've got terrific personnel, and when you have a point guard like that, he can make the game easier for everybody else.

Q. You've had an interesting year coming off the championship game last year. At times great, as good as any team in the country, and then at times some of your worse losses with TCU. How have you struggled to figure out what team you've got and to get them to have the identity you want?

COACH SELF: Well, that's one thing I think that is a goal of all coaches is for their team to develop an identity. And I think it took us a while to develop an identity. But we were also 19 and 1 trying to develop it.

And we have had some games where we didn't play very well, without question. But I'm not sure there's many teams in the country where they haven't had games they didn't play very well. It's one of those years.

To have a record like we have, I think far exceeded what our expectations would be of a record. But sometimes your record is a little misleading on how well you play. And we probably haven't played as well as our record. And I think that's probably what you're getting to.

So I think when we finally kind of hung our hat on what we were and how we need to play and bought into it and enjoyed playing that way, I think we got a lot better. And I think that's happened about the last month of the season.

Q. Michigan went through a 6 and 6 stretch at the end of the season, but they've played maybe as good as anybody in the tournament. Is that something when you're showing scout to your team you can kind of use both, we can make them play like this or this is what they do when they're not playing well; is that anything you can do?

COACH SELF: Well, I think when you scout an opponent, it would be nice to be able to say we're going to watch them from this game and watch them from this game and this is when they're good and this is when they're not. You don't really do that. You try to condense it as much as possible and make it easy for the guys to comprehend and remember. We'll show Michigan when they're playing well, without question, to our guys.

The reason they're 6 and 6 or 6 and 5 over that period of time is look at who their losses were, and the majority of them were on the road. They've got one loss that you would think: How did that happen? Like we've got one loss, how did that happen? And it happens.

The biggest reason why their record was 500 or the last ten games is Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin, back to back to back to back. Those are hard teams, especially when you're playing away from home. So we don't put much stock in that at all.

Q. You guys were able to play in the Superdome last year, a lot of your guys coming back, are back. Is there any advantage to having played in these football stadiums and Michigan hasn't?

COACH SELF: I don't know. Last one we played in St. Louis, also, we got a chance to play in a dome in the Regional and in the dome in New Orleans. We've got four dome games under our belt, and what that means is absolutely nothing. But you never know.

I think both teams are going to shoot today and shoot in the same building. I've never been in the building. I'm really excited to get out there and see it. I know our players will be fired up, as well.

I don't see how something that happened last year, with a totally different team has any relevance this year.

Q. What have you guys hung your hat on over the last month?

COACH SELF: Well, I think we've defended pretty well. And I think that we've rebounded the ball better than what we were rebounding it. Our offense has been inconsistent, but when it's been good, it's been very good. There's been periods of a game that we can look as good as we've looked all year long offensively. And there's periods of a game where we can really not look very good at all offensively.

But no matter what it seems to me like our defense has been pretty constant.

I think that this team can score, but I think if our mindset is we're going to outscore folks, we're going to get beat. So I think we've tried to make it where no matter what the situation is, we can't allow our opponent to play well and get rhythm.

Of course, that doesn't always happen. There will be periods in the game tomorrow where both teams have rhythm, both teams don't have rhythm, that's the way it always works. We can't allow a team to feel comfortable for 40 minutes.

Q. When guys come into your program or even the 5th year seniors, is there any particular defensive principles you emphasized to them just about any day?

COACH SELF: Well, I don't think -- maybe I'm stubborn as a coach, but I think you can't ever adjust or you don't adjust what your importants are from a core philosophy standpoint when they get there.

From our standpoint, our core defensive philosophy is we're going to give one or less shots up every possession and you can't allow them to get easy baskets, and this is how you stop easy baskets.

That's what we talk about every day, for as long as they're there. Even though the majority of our practices are set up offensively, like probably most schools are, even during offensive drills there's that defensive principle of what we're trying to do.

And there's different ways to guard things, you can scout report different things, but if they believe in that core principle and that mindset it makes the other things easier to do. We don't do anything special at all except just try to emphasize that.

Q. Jeff gets a lot of credit for the job that he does on defense, and rightfully so. Do you think sometimes Travis gets not enough credit for the job he does with on-the-ball defense?

COACH SELF: Well, I think Travis is without question our best on-ball defender. And you could make the case that he could be the best perimeter defender in our league. You could make a case for others, too.

In Jeff, I don't know if you could make a case there would be better interior defenders in our league. He blocks better than anybody in our league in recent memory. I believe Jeff deserves all the credit he gets. I think Travis probably doesn't get as much as he deserves.

But on the flip side, there's other guys that do it very well, also. So I think that's part of the reason why. But if you look at the games where we've been pretty good defensively and the other team has a good perimeter player, the reason we were pretty good is because of Travis.

Q. Elijah commented he was concerned that Ben probably has about a million voices in his ears right now getting through this offensive slump. And he wanted to be careful not to add to that and let the coaches do the job. How do you guys approach that with him right now? Does he need help from you guys now or do you want to let him get his way through this, what's your approach?

COACH SELF: We're not going to give him distractions. Your family -- and I mean the basketball family, we've got to coach him. We're not going to leave him alone. It's not like a pitcher with a no-hitter going into the 7th, nobody talk to him.

So we try to work with him, but not work with him from a situation where, hey, you know, you've got to do this, you've got to do that. He's trying hard. He's tried hard. And he's going to play great this weekend. He's going to play great tomorrow. And I really believe that. And I think he believes that.

And so everybody goes through phases where maybe they don't play their best. Some people can put up numbers when they don't play their best, but still they're playing as poorly, when a guy doesn't play their best, when he doesn't put up the numbers. He doesn't have the ball in his hands when he's not playing his best, to go get assists, drive it. That's not who he's been all year long.

And so it's magnified because he's making shots. Certainly for us to have the best chance, everybody needs to play well, and he's a key part of everybody playing well. We believe he'll play well.

But I don't really believe that there's a million voices. I think there's one voice, primarily, and it's his own. And he needs to understand that he's good. He's really good. When he's really good, he's as good as there is. And that's what I think he's got to believe going into tomorrow.

Q. When you look at those two guards you're going to face tomorrow, exactly what problems do each of them present?

COACH SELF: They're both terrific. Trey, to me, should be the national player of the year. And that's not coach speak, because we play him. I voted for him before the brackets ever came out. I think he's terrific.

And of course Tim is a guy that we played against before. He's a freshman, I believe, when we played him the first time. He's got size and he can shoot over the top of you and he can put it down. He's an athlete.

They're a great combination. Without question I haven't seen a better back-court in the country than what Michigan has. We'll have to obviously guard them well individually but also by committee.

And then you forget about their third guard that may be the better -- best shooter they have. So they've got some nice pieces on the perimeter.

Q. Sometimes when you face a team it's kind of easy for you to figure out who is going to guard who. Is that harder with Michigan? And when you're undecided or there's a decision to be made what's the process? Do you discuss it with the players, with your staff, and how do you reach decisions like that?

COACH SELF: We don't really discuss much with our players. They have say so, like what they want for dessert, but not necessarily on who they're going to guard. But we do talk about it as a staff.

But the way you play Michigan is probably similar to the way you'd want to guard Carolina, because they play four guards. So Michigan is basically playing four guards, Glenn is a big, big guard. But he's still a guy with perimeter skills.

So it comes down to not necessarily how one guy guards one, it's how any of your guys guard that individual when he has the ball, because there could be a lot of switching involved. That's probably something that will take place.

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