Vahe Gregorian

With upset alert in air, Self’s past helps him try to brace KU against first-round farewell

Bill Self on NCAA Tournament, Jayhawks’ first-round matchup against Northeastern

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self met with the media on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, ahead of his teams opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies.
Up Next
Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self met with the media on Wednesday, March 20, 2019, ahead of his teams opening round NCAA Tournament matchup against the Northeastern Huskies.

From about the instant Kansas was assigned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional and aligned with Northeastern for its first-round game on Thursday at Vivint Smart Home Arena, KU became a fashionable upset candidate.

The ever-astute likes of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas (“Kansas may not get past Northeastern,” he said during the bracket selection show) and the Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy (Northeastern is his sleeper pick for the region) questioned taking a KU win for granted, and basketball pundits from around the nation have scrawled in a Kansas loss.

And it’s natural enough to scoff at a team that took a long time to meld, suffered lapses even since seeming to coalesce (see: Texas Tech and Oklahoma in the last month and Iowa State in the last game), will start five players who’ve never played in an NCAA Tournament … and will be matched against a veteran team that specializes in one of Kansas’ vulnerabilities, the three-point game.

This remains a volatile, vexing team. One that could as easily win twice here to get to the Sweet 16 in Kansas City — that’s what I’m putting in my bracket — as it could lose in the first round in its first game as a No. 4 seed since the 2006 opening loss to Bradley.

It’s actually pretty much like coach Bill Self put it after KU’s regular-season finale as he looked toward the postseason, referencing a movie: “It’s ‘50 First Dates.’ Drew Barrymore could star with our team ... because it’s something new every day. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited to see whatever happens.”

If you’re a Jayhawk fan, you might be indignant about the perceived lack of respect for a team that largely surged down the stretch as the freshman quartet of Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji and David McCormack made strides and found their place and gelled.

If you’re Self, though, you appreciate that a clear and present danger always lurks in NCAA play. And that possibility is not to be dismissed but girded for and guarded against, especially when you’re not a 1 or 2 seed for the first time in a decade.

That perspective comes from a coaching lifetime of experiences, ranging from knowing what it’s like to be the overlooked other guy (Tulsa) to being on the wrong end of unfathomable upsets like Northern Iowa (9 vs. 1 in the second round in 2010), Bucknell (14-3 in 2005, KU’s first first-round loss in 27 years) and, of course, Bradley.

Whatever angst there was then about Self’s capacity to thrive at Kansas after his second straight first-round loss (something he’d never suffered before or since) has long since been refuted. You might even make the case that Bradley was the pivot point.

Consider the 2008 national title among three Final Fours, as well as four Elite Eights (to go with his three earlier ones) and the stunning streak of 14 straight Big 12 titles that ended this season.

Now, only seven men have more NCAA Tournament wins than Self, whose next victory will be his 48th and move him past legendary UCLA coach John Wooden. Sure, it’s a different era, but …

Self’s a Hall of Fame coach now, one of the most successful men ever to do this. Most of his players haven’t been here before, but he sure has. And this season to date has been one of his finest jobs whisking his team forward, particularly considering the loss of Udoka Azubuike, the oddities of Lagerald Vick and the lingering matter of the FBI’s Adidas investigation.

For all the success since 2006, Self has joked over the years that the very mention of Bucknell still makes him start twitching and Bradley doubtless remains emblazoned in his mind.

So he is on high alert as he tries to get his team mentally ready for Thursday, cognizant of the extra challenge inherent in having a squad dominated by players who’ve never had this experience.

“I think it’s pretty easy all week-long to be excited, to be enthusiastic, to have your mind in the right spot,” he said. “But then when you get down to absolute playing, (to not have or) feel that extra pressure and tense up, I think there is a balance. And experience does help with that.

“We are doing all we can to make sure our guys are as loose as they can be and it should be a reward to play in the tournament and to go on and have fun.”

Have fun, yes, but also take nothing for granted.

Because Self knows what it’s like to be on the “flip side,” to use one of his favorite terms, and have the chance to up against an elite program that may or may not be as locked in for one reason or another.

“Let’s just be totally candid and honest: When teams watch certain teams play on TV … like (when) we were at Tulsa, we got tired of seeing those schools and you could name every player one through eight, even their substitution patterns …” he said.

Noting that even mispronouncing the name of an opposing player on one of the less-glamorized teams can “light a fire more,” Self added, “So you come into a situation where obviously there’s mutual respect but there may be a bit more of a chip on somebody else’s shoulder and that is what you have to negate. It can’t mean more to one than it does to the other … (because) that is how upsets occur.”

Any chance of that also depends on the mindset of Northeastern, which lost 88-60 to then-No. 16 Virginia Tech in its only game against a ranked team this season and can be downright porous defensively.

And it’s not like any of the Huskies have played in an NCAA Tournament.

So as natural as it might be to wonder just where Kansas is headed, the same might be said for how Northeastern views KU.

“Certainly, I think it’s natural when you look at Kansas, and you look at the program and the history of that program to get overwhelmed,” coach Bill Coen said.

As Coen considered the opportunity of the moment, though, he said, “There’s a great saying: ‘Whether you think you can and whether you think you can’t, you’re right.’ Why not choose to believe?”

And as much as the burden of proof is on Northeastern to do the unexpected, Self knows it’s also on his team to be immersed in the moment to avoid allowing a trendy upset pick to come true.

Don't have a KC Star subscription? Help support our sports coverage

If you already subscribe to The Star, thanks for your support. If not, our digital sports-only subscription is just $30 per year. It's your ticket to everything sports in Kansas City ... and beyond, and helps us produce sports coverage like this.

Related stories from Kansas City Star

Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.