LAWRENCE — It’s not often a Kansas basketball squad wows Bill Self this early on.
But when it comes to at least one key aspect of these far-from-normal times, this group of Jayhawks earned that valued distinction long ago.
"I’ve been amazed at how they’ve handled things and how they’ve also handled being a college student in today’s time since they’ve been back (Aug. 1)," said Self, speaking at a news conference ahead of his team’s first official practice Thursday. "It doesn’t guarantee success and it certainly doesn’t guarantee we’re not going to have some issues moving forward or positive (COVID-19) tests or whatnot, but I think our guys are extremely excited to play."
KU appears to have as solid a foundation as any program ahead of what could be a college basketball season contested in choppy waters.
The NCAA on Sept. 18 announced several tweaks to its 2020-21 schedule, with officials pushing the start date back to Nov. 25 and reducing all teams’ maximum number of regular season contests to 27. Once set to open against fellow power Kentucky at the annual Champions Classic, the Jayhawks will instead tip off at one of several early season tournaments to be held in Orlando, Fla., Self confirmed Thursday.
Those games will be contested "without fans totally," Self said, and when KU returns home to historic Allen Fieldhouse it may find itself in a similar situation — university officials have yet to announce any capacity plans for men’s and women’s basketball contests.
Furthermore, the Big 12 has yet to roll out a modified conference schedule that will include a pair of atypical December matchups, creating a "kind of screwy" situation for deputy athletics director Sean Lester and others within the program tasked with filling out a non-league slate while still accounting for things like finals week.
Through all of that, though, Self has been impressed with his players’ poise.
When players returned to campus in early August, Self told them they needed to be "very smart" regarding COVID-19 best practices and protocols. With November on the horizon, the head coach said those within the program need to be "as bright as we’ve ever been."
"Our guys have taken it serious because they would rather play than enjoy the benefits of what (being) a college student is, and that’s have the freedom to come and go as you please," Self said. "So I think we’re pretty fortunate on that front."
Examples of protocols already facing Jayhawk players include a ban on all visitors at their dorms, mandatory mask wearing outside of their rooms and a 15-minute limit on time spent inside the locker room, where masks are mandatory everywhere except the showers. Players aren’t even allowed to eat in groups, Self added, and are only spending time around one another.
Despite those restrictions, the players are "really in a good place right now," Self said.
"I think every coach is concerned about, you know, you want your kids also to have fun. You want your kids to wake up and go to class and be social and see others and enjoy each other in practice and this and that," Self said. "But the way it’s kind of set up now, hey, they do their school online for the most part and they play ball, and that’s it. So we hope that that’s fun, but I do worry about college students obviously getting a little anxious to enjoy what college is all about, and certainly we’re not getting any chance to experience that, nor is anybody else on any campus."
Upperclassmen like Mitch Lightfoot and Marcus Garrett have set good examples through "excellent leadership" throughout the pandemic, Self noted, with young players following their lead, at least for now.
"This is dangerous and we’ve got to understand we’ve got to take it serious," Lightfoot said. "(KU coaches and trainers) have done a great job of doing that. Our freshmen and younger guys have done an exceptional job. When you think about it, this is so different from what my freshman year was like when I got here to school. It’s just such a different social environment. ...
"It’s rough, but they’re growing, they’re doing a great job. Being one of the older guys and having other great veterans on this team I think has been a benefit to everyone. They’re doing a good job of helping the young guys understand that, yes, while this stinks now, we’ll get through this together. We’re going to focus on basketball and we’re going to keep each other safe."
KU has tested its players once a week since Aug. 1. While Self wouldn’t reveal if any of those results came back positive, he did say the program is "extremely pleased" with what has transpired from a testing standpoint. As the season draws closer, Self expects testing will be ramped up significantly, though how often those tests will take place remains undetermined.
"Weird," isn’t really the right word to describe the state of things at the moment, said Lightfoot, who eventually landed on "different" as the best descriptor.
"We all have come here to play basketball and we’re getting to do that right now, thank God," Lightfoot said. "We’ve all grown over this time away. We’ve all realized how much it means to be together as a team and have our coaches with us to help us to learn and to grow together."