Confession time: Over the last few winters, I’ve developed a bit of an uncomfortable habit. Two hours a day, twice a week, I hole up in the bedroom, lights off, oblivious to the world around me. I turn off the cell, stop checking e-mails, and if the dog needs to use the bathroom well, shoot, he better find a nice potted plant to relieve himself on. I’m stuck, hooked, obsessed, can’t function properly unless I get my fix.
My obsession? Well, don’t worry, it’s nothing bad. Not drugs, alcohol or even a Kardashian-based reality show (well, not in this instance anyway). Nope, my obsession isn’t what any normal person’s vice is. Instead, it’s Bill Self and Kansas basketball.
This confession probably comes as a bit of a surprise to many, and frankly, I can’t blame you. Yes, I’m still a UConn “fan” first, and that’ll never change. I also really enjoy writing about Kentucky, if only because no team weaves coaching, talent and intrigue together quite like they do in Lexington. But Kansas? They’re an acquired taste, the cute brunette in the corner of the bar I’d rather stare at all night, than approach for fear of rejection.
And really, I think the “cute brunette” is a perfectly analogy for Kansas basketball. There’s nothing flashy about what the Jayhawks do, no caked on make-up, low-cut tops, or hoop earrings. They’re not for everyone. But if you love basketball- I mean really love the complexities of the sport- there is no one better to watch on a nightly basis. Carolina and Kentucky are beautiful in their own way, the definition of “controlled chaos.” But Kansas is literal poetry in motion. Nobody runs a better half-court offense. Nobody has five players moving, cutting and screening with a greater sense of purpose for 40 straight minutes. Everyone seems to know exactly where they’re supposed to be, on every possession. And because of it all, Kansas is simply a basketball machine. If we kept made-up statistics like “wide open, uncontested jumpers” and “swished three’s,” Kansas would lead the country in all of them.
The architect of it all is Bill Self, a guy who simply has no peer in college basketball coaching right now. Sure some guys might be better recruiters. Others, better in the final few minutes of a game. And some better tournament coaches. But give me a ball, a random group of average basketball players, and six months to turn them into a quality team, and I’ll take Self over anyone in the game right now.
First, let’s start with the numbers. We all know that they’re simply staggering, but it’s one thing to hear them repeated on television, and quite another to see them written down on a screen in front of you.
Here are the basics… and I hope you’re sitting, because they’re simply overwhelming. Over the course of a now 19-year coaching career (which has included stops at Oral Roberts, Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas), Self has averaged 25 wins per season. He’s won 75 percent of all games he’s coached, and 84 percent since he’s gotten to Kansas. In five of his last six seasons, his teams have won at least 30 games. Damn, not bad.
But oh, it gets better.
By now you probably know about the insane Big XII title binge Self is on at Kansas. He’s won eight straight regular season titles, and five tournament titles in that stretch too.
What’s incredible though aren’t just the numbers, but the group of players and coaches he’s had to go through to get them. Self’s conference title run spans the Kevin Durant era at Texas, the Blake Griffin era at Oklahoma, and the Michael Beasley era at Kansas State. It spans coaches like Kelvin Sampson, Rick Barnes, Frank Martin, Bobby Knight, Pat Knight and Gladys Knight (well, ok, not the last one), not to mention two separate Billy Gillispie eras, with two different schools. The players have changed, the coaches have changed, heck, the Big XII itself has changed. Self just keeps winning.
The winning didn’t start at Kansas, and really, my favorite Self stat comes partly (but not entirely) from the days before he came to Lawrence. You ready for this? Did you know that spanning three different coaching jobs, Self’s teams have finished either first or second in their regular season conference race every single year for…the last 14 years? Are you KIDDING me?? That includes nine seasons at Kansas yes, but also three at Illinois and two at Tulsa as well. The last time one of Self’s teams didn’t finish first or second in their conference was in 1998, when his Tulsa club finished third in the WAC’s Western Division. To which I ask, do you have any idea how long ago 1998 was? Heck, when’s the last time Tulsa even played in the WAC? (The answer? 2005)
Of course numbers can lie, and in Self’s case they’re a bit deceptive… if only because they actually undersell just how good his actual coaching has been. There isn’t a guy in college basketball that can take a nobody on the court, and turn him into somebody quite like Self can.
Now that’s not to say that Self hasn’t had talent, because he has. He famously recruited Deron Williams and the entire Illinois club that made a run to the Final Four in 2005, and his 2008 title team had more McDonald’s All American’s on its roster than John Calipari has in his rolodex.
At the same time, Self has hardly done it with high school superstars alone, and one could argue that over the last couple years the high school All-Americans have hurt him more than helped. Xavier Henry was plenty talented on the court, but a headache before he even committed to Kansas in the spring of 2009. And Josh Selby? He fit in with last year’s club about as well as Dick Vitale would at a silent auction. If this year has proven anything, it’s that one-and-dones aren’t really what Self is about, and if anything, he might be better off without them.
As a matter of fact, let’s play a game just for fun. I’m going to give you 30 seconds, and I want you to go ahead and name every McDonald’s All-American on Kansas’ roster this year. It’s ok, I’ll wait… Go!
Done yet? You should be, because the list of Kansas’ McDonald’s All-Americans doesn’t exist. They don’t have a single one on the 2012 roster. In a Final Four where Kentucky will take the court with six, Ohio State five and Louisville three, Kansas is screwing up the bell curve for everyone. Not a single player on their current roster was considered a can’t miss high school prospect.
Instead, Self is doing something that’s considered crazy in the modern era of college basketball: Hide the women and children… Bill Self is developing his talent from scratch! Oh, the insanity!
Except it’s been happening for years, and this year is the best example of the confluence between Self’s ability to both develop players and then coach them up. Looking at the 2012 roster, Elijah Johnson is the only player who was a Top 30 recruit out of high school, and Tyshawn Taylor is the only returning starter off last year’s team. Heck, not only is Taylor the only returning starter, he’s the only guy who averaged over 15 minutes per game last year. Everyone else, and every piece of Kansas’ success this year has been cobbled together with duct tape, rubber cement and the guile of Self.
Just for fun (well, it’s fun for me anyway), let’s break this down further, because again, Self isn’t getting nearly enough credit for what a masterful coaching job he’s done in 2012.
Here are the facts on some of Kansas’ key contributors this season: Last year Johnson averaged a meager 13 minutes a game, this year he’s playing 32. Last year Travis Releford averaged 10 minutes a game, and now he’s playing 30. Last year Jeff Withey played a total of just 162 minutes the entire season… he’s played that many just since the start of the Big XII Tournament earlier this month. And Thomas Robinson? Yes, some projected him as a future NBA guy even when he was coming off the bench last year. But did anyone project him as a National Player of the Year candidate? Nobody that I know of.
If anything, Self’s calling card has always been his development; having the next guy ready to play when the last one leaves. It happened in 2008 when Darrell Arthur left and he made way for Cole Aldrich, who eventually made way to the Morris twins, who eventually made way to Robinson and Withey two years after that. And guess what? I fully suspect that when those two are gone, some other, obscure big guy will step up and fill in their shoes. That’s just the Bill Self way.
And if you think what Self has done with post players is impressive, check out what he’s done on the perimeter. Remember when I said “there isn’t a coach who turns nobodies into somebody” quite like Self does? Well, they don’t get less obscure than Brady Morningstar, Tyrel Reed and Conner Teahen (and to a smaller degree, guys like Releford), right? None of those guys had any business playing in your local adult league, let alone starring in the Big XII. Yet all three were key contributors on conference title teams throughout their careers.
And really, the more I look at Self, the more I realize that the only real hole on his entire resume is his tournament failures… except wait a second, he’s not a tourney failure at all!! Yes, in years past his teams have been on the wrong end of a few upsets, but what coach hasn’t?
At the same time, let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story, and well, here are the facts on Self’s last six NCAA Tournament appearances: In the last six years, Self’s teams have made the second weekend of the tournament five times, made it to the Elite Eight four times, been to two Final Fours, and won a National Championship. Yes, six years is only a sample of Self’s career, but it is a large sample size none the less.
To which I ask, is there a single college basketball coach that would trade their last six years for Self’s? I can’t think of one. John Calipari has better overall tournament results, but doesn’t have an NCAA title to his name. Roy Williams has won the same number of titles, been to the same number of Final Fours and has one more Elite Eight over that stretch…but he’s also been beaten by Self twice in the tourney as well. Over that same stretch, Duke has lost in the first round of the tourney twice, and the second round twice, and UConn has missed the tournament all together twice as well. Again, I ask, over that stretch who has been better?
The answer is no one.
Now, does that make Bill Self the best coach in college basketball?
I don’t know.
But does it make him the most underappreciated?
I’d say so.
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