NEW ORLEANS — The Self image has more than evolved in the past few years, it has transformed. Bill Self used to be a TV-ready salesman with a nice smile, a warm handshake and a friendly little drawl. If he meets you today, he will remember two years later what you were wearing, and ask about specific family members.
He could land great recruits, but then couldn’t win big with them. It was a classic coaching category: Great recruiter, can’t coach.
Now, he is a coaching guru, a genius. Did Self change, or was it just his image? Is it just the way we label coaches and athletes, everything so black and white?
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This is fact: Self has lost early in the NCAA tournament with great teams. The title he won? Five of his players were selected in the next NBA Draft. Who can’t win a college title with a pro team? Whatever, this much is also true: This Kansas team is not loaded. The one time Self’s recruiting let him down, he has had to rely on his own wits and skills.
And now, he’s in the national championship game, playing No. 1 Kentucky Monday night. How is Self doing this? What has he learned?
“I don’t know what the secret it,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate. We’ve been healthy. We’ve gotten good kids that like each other. Guys get better. … Getting the pieces to fit has been real important.”
Kentucky vs. Kansas is the ultimate title game for college basketball. They are two of the ultimate blue bloods in the sport, with North Carolina, Duke, Indiana and UCLA. Kentucky is the winningest program in history. Kansas is second.
But despite the names, this game is actually a big boy vs. a little guy. Kentucky has the best player in the country, Anthony Davis, and maybe half a dozen more who will be first-round draft picks. For Kansas, forward Thomas Robinson will be a first-round pick, and maybe guard Tyshawn Taylor. But after that, the KU roster could very well be, say, Butler’s or Tulsa’s, or some other mid-major’s.
Self missed out on some of the big recruits he wanted. A few players didn’t go to Kansas until after playing, or at least committing, somewhere else. There are only three usable players on the bench, and the sixth man, Conner Teahan, is a fifth-year senior who came to the team without a scholarship.
This is the team that should be defining Self. He had to assemble a team with four new starters. At Kansas, the tradition is to play man-to-man defense; our man is better than yours. But Self, who finally won the Naismith Coach of the Year award Sunday, has thrown in zones and other junk defenses this season, to try to ugly things up.
Self said that if it had been a pretty game against North Carolina in the final eight, then KU would have lost. The goal Monday, he said, will be to “muddy it up a little bit.”
“If we make other teams not play well, then we have a chance to win,” he said. “If we allow other teams to be comfortable, play well, we don’t.”
So has Self learned the X’s and O’s by not having superstars?
The thing is, while this should be Self’s defining team, it isn’t. The 2008 championship team is. It is the one and only way we label coaches.
“I don’t think I’m a better coach because we won that game,” Self said. “We had some guys make some plays and that kind of stuff. But I do think the fact that since we’ve been there, we’re in the game to play in the game. I mean, we are one of the teams that have a chance. And I take pride in that. You know, if you’re in the game, sooner or later, things are going to fall your way.”
Before winning the title, Self had never reached the Final Four at KU. As a No. 3 seed in 2005, Kansas lost to Bucknell in the first round. In 2006, as a No. 4 seed, KU lost to Bradley in the first round.
Then, in 2008, came the championship year. The narrative was that Self had learned.
But in 2010, as a No. 1 seed, KU lost to Northern Iowa in the second round. And last year, again as a No. 1 with a clear path to the title, KU lost in the final eight to Virginia Commonwealth.
His tradition of losing to the little guys continued.
Maybe there was no learning curve. Maybe part of winning a championship is having the circumstances line up right, and being in the right spot when they do. Get to the NCAA tournament every year with a talented team, and after a while, a batting-average effect kicks in.
You come to the plate enough times, and keep swinging, and you’re bound to hit one eventually. (Unless you are the Chicago Cubs.)
North Carolina coach Roy Williams fought the label, and even labeled himself, when he was the coach at Kansas. He kept reaching the Final Four, but couldn’t win the title with great players. One year he would decide the team wasn’t muscular enough, and made everyone bulk up. The next year, he’d decide they were too bulky.
It was a constant search, which you can respect. But it doesn’t seem that theory finally won him the title at North Carolina, other than what Self said: Sooner or later, things are going to fall your way.
Kentucky coach John Calipari is fighting the great recruiter/bad coach label now. He has such a dominant roster that he has to win it this time or, or what? Or come back next time.
Self said that this has been an easy team to coach. When you don’t have a bench — my words, not his — then there are no disputes over who the starters should be. Egos aren’t a problem, he said.
It’s the same thing you hear from coaches at the mid-majors. They don’t have to deal with trying to get superstars to play like teammates.
Self talked about the benefits of recruiting players who are hungry and work hard. It’s as if he’s learning that it’s better to not have high school All-Americans. Is there a new recruiting philosophy?
“No,” he said. “You’ve got to go get the best players, period.”
Kentucky has them for this championship game. But it also has a recruiter who can’t win, right?