KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Fred Hoiberg smiled at the question.
When a reporter asked the Iowa State men’s basketball coach what he’d most like to “steal” from Kansas coach Bill Self, the answer flowed naturally.
“I’d try to steal how he wins all the time,” said Hoiberg, who saw another Big 12 media day at the Sprint Center come and go Wednesday with the Jayhawks picked to be league champions and his team pegged for eighth. “They lose one group of talented players, they bring in a new crop and he finds a way to get those guys to buy into their roles. You look at (former Kansas forward and NBA Lottery pick) Thomas Robinson. He was a role player two years ago then he’s the best player in the country the following year. So you find a way to get your guys to accept roles and if a team like Kansas can do it, your guys better do it as well.”
Kansas’ perpetual role: Favorite.
And for good reason.
The Jayhawks have won at least a share of eight consecutive conference titles.
Self said “seven puppies” — as in freshmen — could play pivotal roles as his team reaches toward its typical perch.
“I think it will be a good team in time,” said Self, who has won at least 11 conference games at three different schools each of the past 13 seasons. “I don’t think that we’ll be great early.”
“It’s good to go through some crap,” he added.
Kansas’ consistency draws lavish praise from rival coaches — who predicted Baylor would finish second, Oklahoma State third, Texas fourth, and Kansas State, West Virginia, Oklahoma, the Cyclones, Texas Tech and TCU would be destined for fifth through 10th.
“I think there is one guy really responsible, and that’s Bill,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, who counts Kansas State among his previous stops. “He’s a great coach.”
Then Huggins paused for effect.
“Of course having all those players doesn’t hurt anything, either,” he added. “Just in case you were wondering.”
Hoiberg likes his players, too.
“They’ve got a lot of pride,” Hoiberg said. “They want to go out there and prove people wrong and I think our guys will do that. I really do.”
Just like last year, when they finished in a tie for third in the Big 12?
Maybe, but without that team’s top three scorers — including larger-than-life Royce White.
“I think it could be a better team,” said ISU junior swingman Melvin Ejjim, the conference’s second-leading returning rebounder at 6.6 per game. “Our team last year wasn’t just Royce. There were a lot of guys that contributed to winning besides Royce. We have some talent and we have some guys that are committed to winning, so I would expect for us to finish higher than eighth.”
Don’t bet against it, Self said.
The Cyclones’ offense will flow through the hands of 5-11, 170-pound transfer point guard Korie Lucious, instead of the 6-8, 270-pound White.
“I remember (Lucious) because he made some plays to beat us in a Sweet Sixteen game in Indianapolis a few years ago,” said Self, whose team split with ISU last season. “He’s a good player. Fast, can shoot, and has led a team to the Final Four.”
Hoiberg guided the Cyclones to their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2005 last season.
It’s hallowed ground ISU reckons to stand on again, sooner rather than later.
And finishing eighth in the Big 12 doesn’t jibe with that internal expectation.
“We look to feed off of that,” said Cyclone guard Chris Babb, who Hoiberg calls the most underrated defender in the country. “But we don’t want to look too far ahead. That’s when you start forgetting about the little things.”
That, and Kansas.
Not to mention Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia ...“We’ll go out and prove ourselves again,” Ejim said.