The Kansas basketball flame burns hot. White hot. So hot that when Bill Self was hired as coach 12 years ago next month, he touched his chair at his introductory news conference and joked that his hands burned.
This is a place where the coach works on a $50 million contract and the players will soon live in a $17 million apartment complex and the other teams are sometimes beat just by watching that pregame hype video.
But this is a tempestuous beast. The energy and power are always there, and when the results aren’t, the monster can turn on its own. You can see elements of that in the reaction after another early exit from the NCAA Tournament, this one made worse because it came against an in-state school with a smaller budget and historical profile. There is anger.
This isn’t unlike other places with high expectations. Kansas basketball plays with a stacked deck, and when it loses a hand, the consequences tend to be harsher than what’s in the pot.
In this case, that means some misinformed talk about Kansas’ place among other elite programs in terms of recent NCAA Tournament performance, and even some over-the-top and misguided slams on Self.
The truth is much more complicated and boring than that. The boring part is that KU is a lot more like Duke, Michigan State and North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament than a lot of people realize.
The complicated part is unwrapping what went wrong this year.
Let’s start there.
The temptation is to oversimplify, but the reality is that this down year for Kansas basketball had many causes.
Potential national player-of-the-year candidate Joel Embiid turned into a star a year earlier than the coaches originally anticipated, which meant they were behind in both recruiting and playing this season.
On the other side, Wayne Selden was the most notable of a group of players who haven’t developed as quickly as expected. Selden was supposed to be a draft candidate after this season, but instead will need to clear his mind and improve for his junior year.
Among the inherent challenges of coaching college basketball is that even the best prospects have unpredictable rates of progress, but there is more to it than that in this case.
The coaches did a poor job of recruiting pieces that fit. Frank Mason is an excellent player but would probably be more effective with a pure point guard next to him. Devonte Graham can be that player, and probably will be soon, but that was a big ask for him as a freshman.
Also, the Jayhawks didn’t have a low-post scorer to run offense through, and didn’t have enough shooting to make up for that deficiency.
Some of that can be traced to the transfer of Conner Frankamp and an extended slump by Brannen Greene, and it’s worth noting that the best KU played this season was the part of the conference schedule before Perry Ellis got hurt and when Cliff Alexander — who played essentially the entire season with nagging injuries — had improved. The Jayhawks were able to suck defenses into the paint a bit, opening space on the perimeter.
This might sound like a small thing, but the coaches also struggled to get their points across. The team’s focus went in and out, and they didn’t always play with enough energy. This particular problem was best symbolized by the team’s rotten defending of ball screens in the NCAA Tournament loss to Wichita State.
That was an issue all season but hadn’t been given a voice or attention until Mason repeated a few times in his postgame interviews that some of his teammates forgot they were to trap in certain situations.
Kelly Oubre was the team’s most talented player but had to cope with needing to make the mental and physical adjustments you’d expect of any freshman. He was the team’s best player for stretches but needed more experience around him to cover the other times.
Execution on defense was particularly troublesome for this team, which lacked the caliber of individual defenders of past teams.
One of the great successes of this team was its vast improvement defensively from the beginning of the season to the end. KU’s strength there came in guarding opponents’ sets, and by the end of the season its defensive-efficiency ranking had climbed into the top 10 nationally. KU led the Big 12 in field-goal percentage defense, and was second in three-point field-goal percentage defense.
But its weakness in individual defending was exposed in each of the last two losses, when Iowa State and Wichita State essentially went to organized streetball with players taking the Jayhawks off the dribble. Kansas had no answer and blew leads in each game.
There are root causes here that the coaches need to fix. Self is in charge of building the roster, and when the pieces don’t fit that’s on him. The players themselves have to share in the blame for mental lapses like trapping Wichita State’s ball screens, but the coaches are the ones being paid, so they wear the brunt of it.
In the bigger picture of college basketball, these are all addressable and high-level criticisms. There are no perfect teams — well, maybe outside of Kentucky — and a lot of this will fix itself as Mason, Graham, Selden and others mature and improve.
Oubre and Alexander are expected to enter the NBA Draft. Ellis was thought to be a four-year player but is monitoring his draft stock. There will likely be a transfer. But there is enough returning talent, and likely enough on the way through recruiting, to reload for next year.
Funny thing about that, too. The closer we get to next season, the more chance there is for perspective about this past season. And with perspective, it’s actually not that bad.
This is the boring part, where the facts don’t line up with the angry narrative of KU being behind other top programs in NCAA Tournament success.
The coaches aren’t happy. They expect better, and know that feeling is shared by many who look at their program’s history and advantages and wonder why they haven’t won more games in the NCAA Tournament.
Sure, they won a national championship a while back. But that memory is fading, no player from that team is still around, and there are too many years they’ve lost to lower seeds — but enough about Duke.
What, you thought Kansas was the only powerhouse program with bad NCAA Tournament losses? Or that Self had somehow cornered the market on losing tournament games to lower-profile programs?
Duke is still playing in this year’s tournament, of course, but in the last 10 years has made 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, six Sweet 16s and one Final Four while winning one championship and 19 games.
Compare that to Kansas’ last 10 years: 10 tournaments, six Sweet 16s, and two Final Fours while winning one championship and 24 games.
It’s not just Mike Krzyzewski and Duke. No matter what happens the rest of this year’s tournament, over the last decade, Self’s NCAA performance is eerily similar to that of Tom Izzo’s, Rick Pitino’s and Roy Williams’.
Look at appearances, Sweet 16s, Final Fours and championships — compared to his peers, Self is tied or within one either way in each category. He has more total wins than Krzyzewski, Izzo and Pitino; one fewer than Williams.
Each of those coaches has won at least one title that’s not covered in our 10-year look, so knock Self for that if you want, but he’s also at least eight years younger.
The outlier in all of this is John Calipari, whose record and general mastery of modern college basketball has essentially put everyone else in a competition for second place.
Self has made his program into a different kind of outlier, and this is where we bring up the streak. KU’s run of 11 consecutive conference championships is sometimes used as a slam on the rest of the Big 12 or the setup to bring up first-weekend losses in the NCAA Tournament.
But it is also an achievement without modern peer. Krzyzewski, Izzo, Pitino and Williams have finished sixth or worse in their conference in the last decade. Williams, Pitino and even Calipari have coached in the NIT.
Final Fours are more important and valued than league championships, of course. Winning conference titles does not shield Self or the program from fair criticism after early NCAA Tournament losses.
But it does mean that Self has pushed Kansas basketball to the point where a league championship and No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament can mark a down year, which is something everyone involved should take pride in, even as they work to correct their mistakes.