Bill Self took this job only after his father called him soft. There is so much of the coach in this story. Nine years ago, with Roy Williams’ shadow still very much engulfing Kansas basketball, Self was unsure he wanted to deal with all of that.
“Probably not,” his father says, “if you’re scared.”
Those are fighting words to Self, so he decided right then to take the job. And nobody could’ve expected what’s happened in less than a decade since.
That’s easier to see now in the glow of the proudest season he’s had at KU, isn’t it? Self’s Jayhawks beat their old coach’s North Carolina team 80-67 on Sunday for a spot in the Final Four — KU’s 14th, and second with the coach who has kept the program at an absurdly high level while remaking it under his hard-cuss attitude.
The running Jayhawks are now the flexing Jayhawks, the pretty program now the one that likes nothing more thanwinning with muscle
None of Self’s eight other teams had embraced that more than this one, symbolized most by Thomas Robinson’s rise from 2.5 points per game as a freshman to a possible national player of the year as a junior, an inspiring journey through heartbreaking tragedy in between.
Maybe now you understand why Self, the locker room doors enclosing that perfect mix of relief and joy, told his guys he’s never enjoyed coaching a team more than this one. He told them how proud he was, how far they’ve come, this team that exceeded his expectations more than any he’s ever had.
And then he told them the line that best embodies everything he believes and everything he’s turned KU basketball into.
We’ll get to that in a minute.
Maybe it sounds silly for kids at the program with the second-most victories in college basketball history to talk as though nobody believed in them.
In some real ways, that storyline is drastically exaggerated. Robinson could’ve been a first-round NBA draft pick last year, Taylor has rare gifts and four years as a starting point guard under his belt, and these are pretty good pieces to build a team around.
But it’s also true that a referee at one of KU’s preseason scrimmages thought the best player on the court that day was a former walk-on who happened to be there, and that when the Jayhawks beat Ohio State in December, Self’s first thought was that he had a quality win that would help his team just get into the NCAA Tournament.
Before the season, this looked like the least-talented team Self has had at KU. The coach stood in front of a room full of reporters and TV cameras and said that for this group to be any good, Robinson had to play like an All-American and Taylor had to be as skilled as any guard in the country.
Truth is, he didn’t fully believe either of those things would happen, but that’s because he had no way of knowing this group would take on a critical quality best illustrated by an eight-minute stretch against North Carolina.
One-point game, midway through the second half, the pressure of what has become the NCAA Tournament’s life-altering round — Final Four or bust — gaining momentum.
The gasps from more than 20,000 fans are growing louder and louder when, over two possessions, Robinson misses a hook shot, Kevin Young misses two shots and Taylor misses a layup. Robinson misses again; Taylor bricks a three-pointer, and then gets the ball back, drives the baseline, and tries a layup that hangs on the rim for what seems like forever before finally dropping through.
Phew. Then Taylor stole it from John Henson, one of the Tar Heels’ future millionaires, and sprinted down for a dunk. Later, people from St. Louis will say this is the loudest they’ve heard their dome in quite some time.
The next few minutes illustrate exactly what this KU team is. They include a putback by Jeff Withey, a terrible decision by Taylor to take a three-pointer — Self looked like his dog walked into traffic — and hard defense by every Jayhawk on the floor.
The Tar Heels managed just six points during those eight minutes.
From there, it was Taylor’s fifth steal, Elijah Johnson hitting the biggest three-pointer of the game, and blocks by Withey leading directly to a layup for Taylor and a dunk for Travis Releford.
That’s about when Withey and Robinson made eye contact, ran at each other like children, and did what might be the happiest and highest flying hip bump in college basketball this season.
“These guys,” Self said, “nothing fazes them. No matter what the situation is, they just think they they’re going to figure it out.”
Kansas needed this.Self needed this
. Robinson and Taylor and the rest of them, they needed this, too. If you’re a KU fan, you needed this.
You didn’t need this to be proud or to consider this season a success, of course. KU won another conference title, with unmistakable highs like the comeback against Missouri in Allen Fieldhouse andRobinson earning a spot in the rafters
It’s just that for every win and every conference title, there are people who expected more. Coaches and players who expected more. Fans, too. And media. The Jayhawks were ranked second in the nation going into last year’s tournament and first the year before that, and all anyone ever talks about from those teams are NCAA Tournament losses to lesser programs. Sometimes, Self admits, that’s the first thing he thinks about, too.
That’s part of the story today. Part of the joy. This is a blueblood basketball power able to celebrate like a midmajor, a team with modest preseason expectations wearing the road blues while beating a roster full of pros who know their season is a disappointment without making the Final Four.
So, yeah, it felt especially good for the Jayhawks to hear about the guys playing for the other powerhouse muttering things like “so physical” and “so tough” when describing an opponent.
Choosing to coach or play at Kansas usually means choosing to never be able to overachieve expectations. This is that rare exception, a team that Self says has played “closer to its ceiling” than any he’s had in Lawrence. That its crowning achievement came at the expense of the very personification of old March letdowns makes it at least a little sweeter.
Which brings us back to what Self said.
The Jayhawks just got back to their locker room and nobody knows quite how to act. Niko Roberts is nudging Jordan Juenemann and saying, over and over and over, “We’re going to the Final Four, man!”
This is the feeling they came to Kansas for, and it probably feels even better after hearing words from their coach that they’ll tell in stories the rest of their lives.
Self is looking them in the eyes and saying he’s never been more proud of a team. He tells them how much fun he’s had, that he hopes they feel the same way. He talks a little about how good North Carolina’s players are, how eight of them are McDonald’s All-Americans.
And then come the words that best define everything Self believes about basketball — and so much of what he’s built at Kansas.
The players scream when he’s finished.
“The guys in this locker room,” he says, “are better than the guys in their locker room.”