KU's success starts with Self
The first time he rode to the Final Four, Bill Self was at the wheel of an Aston Martin, the envy of the lot. The Jayhawks had Darrell Arthur up front and Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush in the back. He'd built a Kansas team that was sleek, sporty, and went from zero to 60 in about two seconds flat.
Four years later, Self is back in the promised land. Only this time, he's in a Honda CR-Z. Kansas 2012 runs on defense, chemistry and chutzpah. Also, ethanol. What it lacks in horsepower, it makes up for in mileage.
George Washington and the Delaware River was a good coaching job. Bill Self getting this Kansas team to New Orleans was a coaching masterpiece.
"I will say this: I don't know if I ever enjoyed coaching a team more than this one. I love them," Self said recently of his 31-6 Jayhawks, who'll meet Ohio State on Saturday night in the second of two NCAA tournament semifinals. "We fight — it's combative sometimes, all those things. But I love coaching these guys."
If 2008 was Self's vindication, 2012 is sweet affirmation. They're a dysfunctional family turned unlikely champions, old money turned underdog. Kansas finds itself in an unusual position this weekend; to paraphrase Dante Hicks, from the movie "Clerks," the Jayhawks weren't even supposed to be here.
It's old news, but it bears repeating: Kansas returned one starter from the 2011 bruiser that won 35 games and reached the Elite Eight. The Jayhawks lost 68 percent of their minutes, 71 percent of their points, 78 percent of their 3-pointers and 69 percent of their rebounds. Only a single player, senior Tyshawn Taylor, had averaged more than eight points per contest for Kansas prior to this season; only Taylor and forward Thomas Robinson (7.6 per game) had ever averaged more than seven.
The first guard off the bench was a former walk-on. The first forward was a transfer from Loyola-Marymount. A pair of incoming freshmen who'd been earmarked as contributors were ruled ineligible just before the season began.
They opened the season ranked 13th in both polls. One of Self's mentors, Larry Brown, was in Lawrence for a coaching clinic last fall and sat in on a couple of practices. Self joked Thursday that he remembered Brown walking away with more than a little trepidation. When the Jayhawks lost to Davidson in Kansas City on Dec. 19, dropping their record to 7-3, it seemed as if those fears might be validated.
"Sometimes, they say teams that have like one or two really good scorers and know, 'Hey, this is our go-to guy,' they're sometimes the most dangerous teams," offered senior Conner Teahan, one of the many who've contributed in a supporting role. "And I feel like that's what we have here."
As the calendar turned, the pieces started to fit. Usually at a blueblood program, the formula's simple: Pile up as many studs as you can, then figure out a way to convince them to share the rock later. Self switched gears, selling moxie, hustle and trust. Everybody bought in. Taylor was the catalyst; Robinson was the rock. In time, the rest would fall into place.
The Jayhawks nobody saw coming are 6-0 after a loss. They're 5-1 in contests decided by four points or fewer. They're two stars and one heartbeat. That's coaching.
Some rosters can slice through Bracketville on auto-pilot; this wasn't one of them. When Purdue's Robbie Hummel was doing a pretty fair Pete Maravich impersonation in Omaha two weeks ago, Self pulled out a triangle-and-two zone defense to try and stem the tide. Kansas escaped. When it seemed as if North Carolina couldn't miss in St. Louis, Self tried the same trick again. Kansas rolled.
"Our mindset is, 'If the other team can't score, you can't lose,'" Teahan explained. "That's kind of how we play, and that's kind of how Coach Self coaches. And I think that's a great philosophy."
It starts at the top and trickles into the pores. They don't see themselves as a collection of pros, the way that '08 team was, or the way Kentucky is now. They see themselves as grinders, a lunch pail gang that can't afford to overlook a soul. All of which would explain the 16 wins in 18 Big 12 regular-season games. All of which would explain why they're still dancing.
"I give Coach Self all the credit, but I think it's a team effort of the coaching staff," Taylor said after the win over North Carolina. "And so I think Coach Self gets a lot of credit for that, which is well-deserved. But I think it's a team effort with those guys. Our coaches do an amazing job getting us prepared to be in big games."
They don't come bigger than Saturday. Kentucky brought six McDonald's All-Americans to the Big Easy. Ohio State brought five. Louisville brought three. The Jayhawks? None.
They brought Self, though. And this March, that's proved to be more than enough. It's not the car. It's the driver.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org