Bill Self made up the term years ago and he can’t help but smile any time he repeats it. Kansas math is the idea that a team loses more than it adds but should still somehow be better.
It is nonsense, of course, the annual demand that a team be better now than before, and again be better when now becomes before. But this is Kansas basketball, the monster with 11 straight Big 12 championships, so logic has very little to do with it.
All of which has to be in place for this absurd grouping of words to be true — KU is at the point where winning another league title outright and earning a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament is not nearly enough.
Expectations are so high that this team is looked at by many fans as uninteresting, and this tournament as unworthy of investment, because the Jayhawks are such underdogs to make the Final Four.
“That’s true — of course it’s true,” says Self, the KU coach. “I also think getting our (backsides) waxed by Kentucky to start the year screwed everything up from an expectations standpoint.”
It’s a good point. KU was so exposed in that game — they lost by 32, shot 19.6 percent from the field, and had 11 shots blocked — that the extremists wondered if the Jayhawks could even make the NCAA Tournament.
KU got better, because KU always gets better, and what might be Self’s least-talented team in 12 years won its 11th straight Big 12 title. There is a good case to be made that this is Self’s best coaching job, but that case is mostly drowned out by Cliff Alexander drama and Kentucky hype and highlights on KU’s flaws.
It wasn’t always like this, you know. There was a time when the expectations were more reasonable, when KU could have a year where the Final Four felt like a long shot.
Ryan Robertson remembers those days. He’s been on both sides of this, actually. He was a guard for Kansas in the late 1990s, and helped win 98 games his first three years. The Jayhawks finished fourth, first and second in the final AP poll those seasons.
His senior year, they lost 10 games and did not win the regular-season conference championship for the first time in five years. KU was a No. 6 seed in the NCAAs, and here’s where the story gets really weird: Robertson doesn’t remember the fall being that big of a deal.
He thinks it’s because the year before, Raef LaFrentz graduated and Paul Pierce went into the NBA Draft.
“This is never a good way to look at it at Kansas, but I kind of felt like that team was playing with house money,” Robertson says now. “No matter what we accomplished, people were going to look at it like, ‘Hey, pretty good. This team lost two lottery picks, wow, what a great year.’
The connection is obvious. This Kansas team also lost two lottery picks from the year before — one of whom was a surprise, unlike LaFrentz and Pierce — but still won another league title and planted a flag in the top 10 of the national polls.
And now there is a general feeling among fans of, yeah, so what?
“I don’t want to be critical of our fan base, because I’m not,” Robertson says. “I don’t mean this to be critical at all, but unfortunately the ‘given’ that we will win a conference championship isn’t good enough anymore.”
The relationship between Self and these expectations is complicated — hot and cold. The support and resources at Kansas are what drew him to this program in the first place, and he knows the advantages of his job come with expectations to take advantage. He’s working on a $50 million contract, after all, and a brand-new apartment complex is being built for his players mostly because Self asked.
The fire burns thick, though, and away from news conferences and sound bites, there are times he lets on that the every-year demand at KU can feel like a bit much.
But — and this is a key difference between Self and Roy Williams, the man he replaced — Self embraces all of those pressures with a bear hug and a smooch on the cheek.
He has figured out a way to make it all work for him, instead of against him. The demands of KU are part of his recruiting pitch, presenting it like a challenge, with the inference being that if you’re not up for people expecting you to be great, then this might not be the place for you.
It’s also part of how he coaches, a constant push fueled by verbal reminders of what’s been done in the past and expected for the future.
Self has found an unlikely comfort in the midst of the chaos, in other words, and here it’s worth mentioning that sometime after coming up with Kansas math, Self coined another phrase that defines his life running one of college basketball’s giants:
Faces change, expectations don’t.
“That’s a little bit about what has happened with this team,” Self says. “Even though maybe we don’t look as visually pleasing as what some of the teams have in the past, I don’t think you can tell our guys that.”
The Jayhawks were picked by the Big 12 coaches to win the league in the preseason, but blowout losses to Kentucky and Temple have made it easier for them to hear doubts.
They have been occasionally spectacular this season. The game that KU played at Texas was good enough to beat anybody, Kentucky included. They’ve also been terrific for halves against Oklahoma, Utah, Florida and West Virginia. Twenty-six wins against the country’s toughest schedule don’t count for nothing.
But we are long past the point where bright flashes like those are appreciated more than dull moments like Kentucky, Temple, at K-State and at TCU. The drama with Cliff Alexander, and the knee injury to Perry Ellis, have only inflamed the concerns.
So this is a strange place the Jayhawks find themselves in. They are flawed enough to worry and good enough to dream, all of it in a program that’s grown used to many more dreams than worries.
There used to be seasons where a league championship would’ve sounded like a success on its own. Someday, that will be true again. But that day is very clearly not today, because it’s been a while since the Final Four felt like such a reach for Kansas.
Self came to Lawrence in part because of KU’s standards and has maintained a national power by selling those standards to the best recruits he can find. Now comes the part where they’re expected to live up to those standards.