NCAA BK

Self gets No. 500 in classic battle

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self
Bill Self coaxes a comeback out of his Kansas team to get win No. 500.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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AMES, Iowa

The real meaning of the win was simple, so simple that it could be stated in one number: 500, the number of games Bill Self has now won as a college coach. But after the Kansas Jayhawks’ thrilling 108-96 victory over Iowa State on Monday night, a game that showed us much of the best and a bit of the worst college basketball has to offer, it would be easy to get caught up in the moment and lose sight of the real meaning.

The best parts of this high-scoring, back-and-forth affair? Eighteen lead changes. Some of the best offensive play all season in any conference. A 3-point barrage by Iowa State, who made 17 of 41 threes. A feisty home crowd who’d started planning its court-storming only to get repelled in the final minute of regulation. An end-of-game barrage by much-maligned Kansas guard Elijah Johnson — eight points in the final 35.7 seconds of regulation to send the game into overtime, then another 12 points in the extra period, including sealing the 12-point victory with a dunk as the buzzer went off.

Right there, with that dunk, is where a few of the worst parts bared their teeth. As Johnson, buoyed by his career-high 39 points, dashed through the paint and dunked the ball with a couple seconds remaining in overtime, Self gesticulated wildly, trying to puppeteer him back to earth and have him dribble the ball out. But the kid was caught up in the moment. Johnson dunked it, and we saw some of the worst of college hoops: A pardonable bit of showmanship by Johnson, who’d just silenced this hostile Hilton Coliseum crowd. An unpardonable bit of classlessness by the Iowa State crowd, who followed his dunk by raining down cups and plastic cones onto the court, and booing Johnson and the referees with equal gusto. They had reason to be upset — a partial fan could say referees gave Kansas the victory with a no-call on a Kansas charge at the end of regulation — but no reason could be big enough to throw stuff at a kid who’d just played the best game of his life.

This, however, is really all noise. And the noise gets in the way of the real point of this night. This controversial classic was Self’s 500th victory as a college coach, and it came in a fashion that shows exactly why, decades from now, we’ll be talking about the 50-year-old Oklahoma native as one of the finest coaches in college basketball history.

“I won’t remember 400, or 300, or 200, or 100, but I guarantee I’ll always remember this one, because it was a good one,” Self said afterward.

Consider the circumstances: This was an Iowa State team that was 15-0 at Hilton Coliseum this season until the Jayhawks showed up. The Cyclones are one of the highest-scoring teams in college hoops (fifth in points per game, 11th in offensive efficiency), and the tempo of this game played right into their hands. Kansas needed the win to keep pace with Kansas State at the top of the Big 12 standings, which is of vital importance because another Big 12 regular season title would mean a remarkable nine in a row for Self.

That, Self proclaimed after the game, was why this game was really important. It made the Jayhawks 12-3 in league play. He cares more about that number than about 500.

That’s just one reason why his win total and his esteem as a coach will keep going up, and up, and up.

From start to finish, Monday night was another classic Bill Self coaching job. Two minutes and six seconds into the game, the arena was rocking and Self was hopping mad. A ref called what seemed like a pretty normal foul on Johnson. Self exploded. He got in the ref’s face, screaming like a maniac and seeming to lose control. He was called for a technical foul.

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Dumb move by an overemotional coach?

No. Self knew exactly what he was doing.

As Iowa State’s Korie Lucious shot the subsequent free throws, the Iowa State student section razzed Self. “Somebody’s angry!” one student yelled. Self looked over at the student section, caught the kid’s eye — and winked at him.

As always, Bill Self knew exactly what he was doing.

“I told (referee) Mark Whitehead afterwards, ‘I tried to get that,’ ” Self said. “It was too early in the game to get upset. I hadn’t had (a technical) in like three years. I thought that was the best thing to show our team that we came to fight.”

In a game where Iowa State put up three after three — perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Cyclones’ coach, Fred Hoiberg, led the NBA in 3-point percentage his last year in the league — Self’s team kept fighting back. Redshirt freshman sensation Ben McLemore disappeared for much of the night, not making a shot until there were only two minutes left in the first half and ending with only seven points. But in typical Self fashion, it was the seniors who shined.

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We’re in an age of the one-and-dones, when players jump to the NBA as soon as they get a chance, and when the huge talents rarely fully develop under their college coach. But Self’s signature is having juniors and seniors — guys like Thomas Robinson or Mario Chalmers or the Morris twins — who carry the team. That happened again on Monday. Senior Kevin Young dropped 13 points and added nine rebounds. Senior Jeff Withey had 13 points and 10 boards. Senior Travis Releford had 19 points, including five 3-pointers, many of them at clutch moments.

But the biggest senior of all was Johnson. The shooting guard has been forced to play point guard for much of this season, and has been publicly called out by Self for his inconsistent games. On this night, he played like a man possessed.

He’d played an excellent game so far, but with 35.7 seconds left and his team down five and on the ropes, Johnson entered a zone. He nailed a three. Lucious made two free throws and put Iowa State back up four. Johnson nailed another three, this time with 15 seconds left, to bring KU within one. Lucious made one of two free throws. Then came the aforementioned non-call on what may have been a charge by Johnson with 4.9 seconds left. In a subsequent scramble for the ball, Johnson was fouled and hit both free throws to send the game into overtime. Then he scored another 12 points.

“I blacked out. I just blacked out,” he said of getting in the zone. “Me and coach had a conversation, a personal conversation, a locker-room kind of conversation (that) just happened to happen during the game. That sent some fire through my body. And my teammates saw me responding. It felt good, for Trav and Jeff to walk up to me and tell me, no matter what, they’re riding with me tonight … To have that kind of conversation with Coach, it just did something to me.”

It was typical Self: keeping control of a game, coaching his players up, knowing when to push them and when to ease off the accelerator. This Kansas team has had its well-documented struggles this season. Self now calls the Jayhawks’ three-game conference losing streak a blessing, a tough time that made this team tougher. Right now, with Johnson hitting a stride and the rest of the team playing with confidence, this tough team could hardly be sitting prettier.

As for Self? He’s looking at another 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. He’s had enormous success at every stop in his career — lifting Oral Roberts from the dead, taking Tulsa to its first Elite Eight in school history, putting together the Illinois team that went to a national title game under Self’s successor, winning a national championship at Kansas in 2008 and nearly winning another last year. He’s won every award a coach could ever win. The amazing part? He’s only 50, and has a long, long way to go.

After the game, Self didn’t want to be bothered by talk of 500 wins or his legacy. He’s too young for that. And he’s too focused on the next game. Win No. 500 meant something because it took this season’s team one win closer to March. And that is exactly what makes a great coach a legendary coach, and perhaps someday one of the greatest coaches of all time.

Tagged: Iowa, Kansas, Iowa State, Elijah Johnson, Korie Lucious

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