Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Elite Eight is biggest nemesis for Kansas coach Bill Self

Bill Self: Elite Eight game is most difficult in NCAA Tournament

Kansas coach Bill Self and Oregon coach Dana Altman spoke during press conference on Friday, March 24, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City.
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Kansas coach Bill Self and Oregon coach Dana Altman spoke during press conference on Friday, March 24, 2017, at Sprint Center in Kansas City.

With 623 career wins, 13 straight Big 12 titles, 43 NCAA Tournament victories, a ninth Elite Eight appearance and a national championship on his ledger, Kansas coach Bill Self is destined to be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

As a finalist in this year’s prospective class, in fact, Self could well be named to the Hall on April 3 — the day of the national title game in Glendale, Ariz.

That’s regardless of how the top-seeded Jayhawks (31-4) fare against third-seeded Oregon (32-5) in their NCAA Tournament Midwest regional final on Saturday at Sprint Center.

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Even so, Self’s profile would be nicely enhanced if he purges one of the few smudges on his resume:

His teams at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas have won nearly 71.6 percent of their NCAA tourney games overall (43-17) … but are just 2-6 overall (and 2-4 at KU) when it comes to this lightning-rod round of his career.

Self has dwelled on this invisible fence at times, and he’s learned to tell himself and his teams that he’d rather reach this game than not and all that.

But he acknowledges it’s the one that’s burned the most to lose.

“You know, if you lose in the first round, it stinks,” he said. “It stinks, especially at Kansas, but you were in the tournament.

“If you lose in the second round, at least you won a game. If you lose in the Sweet 16, we got to the second weekend.

“But the one you can’t rationalize is the Elite Eight game.”

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Challenge that it will be to beat Oregon, losing this one might supplant whatever else occupies the most tortured losses Self has known — a group of games that surely includes prominently the 64-59 regional-final loss last year to eventual national champion Villanova.

The Jayhawks, after all, looked unstoppable Thursday with a 98-66 win over Purdue on Thursday.

They also are playing on a virtual home court with a versatile and strong-willed team that has demonstrated a penchant for the comeback and winning tight games.

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It features both the national player of the year as selected by many outlets, senior Frank Mason, and a certain top five pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, freshman Josh Jackson.

If this isn’t the year to shed the albatross, when will it be and what would it take?

In answering another question, about how the pain of a final loss might change over the course of his career, Self spoke to the urgency of every opportunity.

“When you are young and dumb, you think, ‘We’ll just get back there.’ Then you realize how hard it is to get back,” he said. “Then, as you get older, I think the finality is, ‘Oh, we put ourselves in such a great position; how many more opportunities will we get?’”

Considering how it evolves through the shorter term of a player’s career, he added, “How many more chances will we get like this one? To me, that’s the biggest thing.”

Of course, there’s ample reason both logical and psychological that this barrier is the steepest of the tournament.

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The degree of difficulty of the opponent is at its near-peak, if for no other reason than the road each team navigated and momentum it had to amass to make it this far.

Then there’s the mental barrier for all. Many good coaches never quite reached the Final Four — including Oregon’s Dana Altman, whose Ducks, like Kansas, lost in the Elite Eight last year.

“All the games, we feel the pressure to move on, to advance,” Altman said. “This one, a little bit more, because that Final Four is the goal of everybody.

“You get into college basketball as a player, I think, and as a coach, you always dream of going.”

So this is what Self calls “the hardest game of the tournament,” and his argument makes sense beyond just the fact of his record in the game.

“There’s so much emphasis on (the) road to the Final Four,” he said. “It’s almost like the Final Four could be the equivalent of the national championship 30 years ago, with the type of intensity and type of publicity that it gets. …

“The goal is to win a national championship, but certainly all of the hoopla around it is (reaching) the Final Four.”

To crack the code, Self says he’s always, well, “self-evaluating” and trying to find better ways.

Kansas senior guard Frank Mason III answered questions on Friday about the Jayhawks' Elite Eight game against Oregon on Saturday night at the Sprint Center. The winner advances to the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz. KU lost to Villanova in this roun

As he considers the most recent example, he recalled making notes about his team’s state of mind last year against Villanova.

He thought the Jayhawks were at their best mentally, both “on edge” and loose.

“But we weren’t a confident offensive team down the stretch in that particular game,” he said.

This team is nothing if not confident in all phases of the game, at least entering play Saturday, reflecting one of Self’s mantras that expectations at Kansas are easier to handle “if you embrace them.”

So you can figure he’s applying that to this situation, too.

He’ll try not to put “any more emphasis on it than what it is,” though it’s hard to escape that there’s obviously something more riding on this one than other games.

And he’ll joke about how every year he gets “looser and looser,” which evidently is partly true but also seems partly a matter of convincing himself it’s time to “let ’em go” and trust his team and its preparation.

“This biggest thing is to just go play,” he said. “Don’t play the game like … you’ve got to win to go to the Final Four. Play the game like you’ve got to go compete because you have a chance to win a regional championship. Not look ahead.

“Look in the moment, and enjoy the moment.”

Because even a Hall of Fame-bound coach never knows when it will come again.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian