Bill Self screwed up, and he knew it, a flashing neon spotlight shone directly on a fundamental weakness of a team without much margin for error.
That’s on him. That’s his doing, his decision, his choice to let a player he knows is a bad free-throw shooter turn four possessions in a crucial stretch into five missed free throws and zero points.
The culture of coach worship in college basketball means Hall of Famers like Self take more credit and blame (and salary) but in nights like this, when Self’s Jayhawks lost 85-80 to Oklahoma on Tuesday then standard procedure fits.
“Bad decision,” Self said. “It was on me, for this game.”
Udoka Azubuike is a rare force in college basketball. He is 7 feet tall and 280 pounds, with quicker feet than an 18-year-old that size should be allowed. He is not KU’s best player, but he may be their most important, and that was so dang obvious when he scored eight points in a 14-4 run that opened the second half.
He is making 77.4 percent of his shots, mostly because he’s too big, quick, and agile for college defenders to keep him more than a foot or two away from the basket but, gosh, he really is a bad free-throw shooter — 37.5 percent, one of only six players in Division I hitting on fewer than 40 percent more than 50 attempts.
And on this night, Self allowed perhaps his team’s biggest and most obvious vulnerability to be exposed, losing exactly the kind of close game he’s built an empire at Kansas by winning.
Hack-a-Doke, or Poke-A-Doke, whatever. It worked, in part because Self allowed it to work.
“To win one game,” Self said. “I did not do our team any favors.”
This was a bit of a horror show, with a side of dark comedy.
With exactly 3 minutes and 46 seconds left, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger sent Matt Freeman into the game with very simple and specific instructions: foul the big guy.
Nine seconds later, he did, and Azubuike missed the front end of a one-and-one. Twenty-six seconds after that, Freeman fouled again, and Azubuike again missed the front end of a one-and-on. Eighteen seconds after that, rinse and repeat, another Freeman foul, another missed free throw by Azubuike.
The strategy was as obvious as it was cold-blooded and effective, so on KU’s next possession, Azubuike stood in the corner, away from the play to avoid being fouled. Lagerald Vick scored on a cutback, but then one possession later came Freeman again, and Azubuike to the free-throw line again, this time to miss twice.
Freeman fouled out in 2 minutes, which has to be close to a record. He smiled after the fifth, and clapped, knowing he had just provided a valuable service. Azubuike stayed in, visibly overwhelmed and disappointed.
That was four possessions in the last 4 minutes that produced zero points.
“We didn’t really get a chance to run anything,” Kansas guard Devonte Graham said. “But I guess it was smart for them to do that.”
KU’s six conference wins are by a total of 24 points, nearly all of them decided on a razor’s edge, particularly with the Jayhawks scoring big late — they closed on a 9-0 run to beat Baylor by three on Saturday — and Kruger just tilted the tables.
“Kansas is the best at scoring late,” he said. “It worked out fine.”
Kruger sidestepped repeated questions about the strategy, but this is where the game shifted.
“At the end, when they started fouling, that’s when they really got a lot of confidence,” Graham said.
Let’s be clear. Self’s decision and Azubuike’s misses were not the only reasons KU lost. Oklahoma star Trae Young scored 26 points with nine assists on just nine shots. Graham, perhaps drained by serving as the primary defender on Young, made just four of 19 shots.
And even after Azubuike’s last miss, KU still had a one-point lead, the final points coming on two three-pointers by Oklahoma, including a wide-open look on a defensive breakdown.
But coaches are supposed to put their players in the best positions to succeed, and here Self did the opposite.
Azubuike was not made available to reporters, but after what turned out to be his last miss at the free-throw line, he walked toward the end of the bench before being grabbed and encouraged by teammates.
Self used much of the timeout to talk directly to Azubuike. After the game, Self would say he asked Azubuike if he wanted to stay in. It’s unclear exactly when that was, but the answer was affirmative.
Self remembered facing a similar strategy once before, when Billy Gillispie, then the Texas A&M coach, put Sasha Kaun on the line late in a KU loss.
There is a certain amount of machismo at play here. Self referenced that when he said he joked to Gillispie, “You just told your guys you didn’t think they could guard us.” Young may have done the same when he said, “If it’s a close game I want to compete to get a stop or get a bucket.”
Self’s explanation for keeping Azubuike in the game is simple. He said pulling Azubuike would’ve sent the wrong message. A lack of confidence. He admitted it was the wrong decision for this game, but that’s not important now, particularly with the rest of the Big 12 appearing again unable to keep KU from a 14th consecutive league title.
The important thing is what Self will do the next time, because you and he and everyone else knows there will be a next time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s a situation, at least the way I see it, and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent right on it. If this is a tie game and it’s an NCAA Tournament game, you’re not going to have your best players on the floor? So I’d have to wait and see the situation.”
After watching this, how could Self do the same thing?
And after watching this, how could an opposing coach not do the same thing?