Bill Self’s Backup: Not a Final Foregone Conclusion

By: Chris O’Brien 

The ACC has a way of owning the NCAA Tournament. If you look at the last 30 years, there have only been seven tournaments where no teams from the ACC have made the Final Four.

Three of those seven years (1996, 2003, 2012) had either Louisville or Syracuse involved, teams that would later join the conference.

The Big 12 has almost the exact opposite story. Only eight out of 30 times has the Final Four included a Big 12 team. That means a Big 12 Final Four appearance comes around about once every three years. It’s only a little bit more frequent than the Winter Olympics.

And, just to pile things on, if back in 1998 you made a bet with a buddy, “Hey, for the next 30 years you can take the Big 12, and I’ll take teams seeded Number 8 or higher, whoever gets the most Final Fours wins,” you would have won.

It all leads to this ugly thought that creeps into my head right around this time of year:

Is the Kansas streak of 14 Big 12 titles really not that impressive? Have we secretly been dominating a mid-major conference?

I immediately shake off the thought. No, come on. That’s ridiculous.

And then another Sweet 16 comes with only one or two Big 12 teams. Another Elite Eight with zero or one. Another empty Final Four.

The thought starts to gain some more traction.

Bill Self in the NCAA Tournament

No one can dispute Bill Self’s success during the regular season at KU. Fourteen Big 12 titles. Nine thirty-win seasons. Landed a Number 1 seed eight times. Number 1 overall seed twice.

Only once since 2007 has he entered the NCAA tournament lower than a Number 2 seed (and that was a No. 3 in 2009, the year after winning a National Championship. A year where Self needed to replace eight guys who accounted for 86 percent of the scoring from the year before).

This dominance continues into the first round of the tournament. Self had those painful back-to-back appearances in ’05 and ’06, with Bucknell and Bradley, but since that time he’s been a perfect 12-0.

The Round of 32 has been a little bit shaky, who can forget those recent losses to Stanford and Wichita State, but for perspective “a little bit shaky” still means 10-3.

And the Sweet 16 has been almost as sweet as the first round. Self is 13-2 in the Round of 64. He’s 8-2 in the Sweet 16. This is a crazy stat: Eight out of 15 years he’s taken KU to the Elite Eight.

But now enter Bill Self’s biggest nemesis.

“The Elite Eight.” Call it a boogeyman, a monkey on the back, a giant shadow. It’s the one area where Self and the Jayhawks have not been very elite. Before the Duke game, Self was just 2-5 in this dreaded round. If you add on his trips at Illinois and Oral Roberts, the record falls to a brutal 2-7.

That ugly thought starts to regain traction.

Maybe we keep losing in the Elite Eight because we’re not in the same league as Duke, North Carolina, UCLA, and Kentucky. And that’s ok. They are history’s “Final Four.” The real Blue Bloods. UCLA with 11 titles, Kentucky with eight, North Carolina with six, Duke with five. And there we are with our humble three. Hell, Indiana and UConn even have more titles than us. Villanova could catch us this year. Or look at Tom Izzo. He doesn’t have these same Elite Eight woes. He has seven Final Fours to compare with Bill Self’s two (before the Duke game).

We are the Blue Blood that can’t win the big boy games… 

Whew. Shake it off. Think positive. Think positive.

In the last post, I wrote that we are spoiled as KU fans. And it’s true. I don’t expect other fanbases to send us flowers after another Elite Eight loss.

But Kansas fans know that our “plight” is continually making it to the doorstep of the Final Four and suffering these heartbreaking losses. And yeah, I get it, we should be grateful to be that far year after year. Other schools wait decades in between trips, sometimes more than half a century. I mean it’s been 55 years for Sister Jean. We should be printing out Elite Eight t-shirts and wearing them proudly.

But I do think there’s a little extra pain in being so close to the promised land. To achieve so much but still not quite be the best. Kansas is kind of like the multimillionaire who has moved in next door to billionaire neighbors; we can’t buy the same yacht as Duke and Kentucky.

Kansas vs. Clemson

The Midwest Region became a miniature ACC Tournament. To make the Final Four, we’d have to take out Clemson then either Duke or Syracuse. A Clemson team who just demolished Auburn by 30 points. And then Duke or Syracuse, Coach K or Jim Boeheim, those two coaches combine for over 2,000 wins and have rings as well as Olympic Gold Medals.

Prior to the Thursday and Friday games, ESPN ran an article re-ranking the Sweet 16 teams. They put Villanova at No. 1, Duke No. 2, and then Clemson at No. 3.

How about Kansas? We were all the way down at No. 10, just one spot ahead of Syracuse.

The CBS team had the same sentiment on Friday night. What’s the most likely upset? Everyone agreed, Clemson over Kansas. You could add this to the growing list of KU doubts; this team can’t win the Big 12, they can’t win the Big 12 tournament without Udoka, they might be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16.

The biggest positive right away was seeing Udoka back in the starting lineup. He still didn’t look 100 percent, but definitely steps above the Penn or Seton Hall games. Kansas controlled the first half, going into the locker room up 40-27.

The lead got to be 62-42 and then Clemson came clawing back. With about two minutes left, that 20 point lead had shrunk to around six. It felt similar to the Seton Hall game; just hold on, and wish the clock would move faster. KU ended up winning 80-76.

The biggest thing to note about this game was both Doke and Devonte` were in serious foul trouble. With Doke that’s nothing unique, but playing without Graham, for even two minutes in a game, is rare. Graham sat out for five against Clemson, and for some added perspective, Devonte had sat out a grand total of 11 minutes since January 15th (!) And five of those 11 minutes were against Oklahoma in a 30-pt romp.

The Jayhawks, who have developed this “next man up” mentality since the Big 12 Tournament, turned to their other guys. Malik Newman went for 17 points, hit four threes. Vick continued his solid tournament run with 13 points and eight rebounds. Svi chipped in nine, De Sousa another big game off the bench with nine points and six rebounds.

And Graham still managed to get a 16-5-4, Udoka logged a double-double with 14 and 11. For the third straight year, we made it past the Sweet 16.

Elite Eight

Survive and advance. Now here we were facing our biggest challenge of the year (Duke) in the dreaded round that Devonte and Svi had never been past. A round that served as a brick wall barrier to former great players like the Morris Twins, Perry Ellis, Frank Mason, Josh Jackson.

Devonte`, Svi, here’s no shame in being a part of that list… 

“I think about it all the time,” Devonte` Graham said prior to the Duke matchup. “I just told the guys in the locker room… this year, we’ve got to get over the hump.”

In 2016, Graham was having a great game against Villanova but was whistled for a controversial fifth foul that sent him to the sidelines for the final minutes. Last year, it was the Oregon game. Devonte` had his worst game of the season finishing without a made field goal, just three made free throws to his name.

And those things can haunt you. Basketball is so mental and it can become pretty irrational. Just like a player can convince themselves that a pair of socks is the secret to their winning streak, the downside of that superstitious logic is a player can also get too into their head about a venue or a specific round in the tournament. I can’t play in the Elite Eight. 

Was all of that going through Devonte’s head? We’ll never know. The play on the court wasn’t his best game, but he still controlled the tempo, played all 45 minutes, ended up with 11-6-6. He hit a couple of big threes, one of those in the first half beyond NBA range.

I guess my point this: it would be human nature for Devonte and Svi to want that game a little too badly, not be able to get into a flow. Not be able to play loose. And, once again, KU would need other guys to step up to carry us over the finish line.

Well, look no further than Malik Newman. 

Newman has had an up and down year. Self benched him multiple times trying to get through to him. Apparently Self gave him a really hard time after the Oklahoma State loss to end the regular season. Since that loss, Newman has been a new man. All leading up to this absolute gem against Duke.

Newman finished with 32 points. He hit five threes, went in and grabbed seven rebounds amongst the Blue Devil trees. Even more impressive, 26 of those points came after halftime. He scored all 13 of KU’s overtime points. He wanted the ball in his hands down the stretch, confidently stepping up to the free throw line. He was the sidekick Devonte` needed to push us one round further, but this performance was hardly sidekick at all. Newman was the alpha dog, Kansas was his team.

And the thing about this game, I mentioned it in the last post, it was like this year’s team finally facing the type of KU teams they had been compared against. “They’re not a traditional Bill Self team.” “They aren’t as talented as previous Bill Self teams.” Duke fit that mold. A team with size and tons of NBA talent. I mean look at this from a projected NBA Mock Draft:

  • Marvin Bagley – No. 2
  • Wendell Carter – No. 7
  • Gary Trent Jr. – No. 16
  • Grayson Allen – No. 24
  • Trevon Duval – No. 25

Kansas highest projected pick? Devonte` Graham… in the middle of the second round.

Duke was the No. 3 rebounding team in the country, No. 1 in offensive rebounding. Our biggest weakness was their biggest strength. Plus, they played a perplexing 2-3 zone that has stifled teams for the second half of the season.

And yet, somehow we outrebounded the Blue Devils 47-32. Svi, who’s really a three playing as a four, pulled down ten rebounds and held Bagley to just nine shots. We won the offensive rebound battle 17-10. We never win the rebounding battle. And we were doing this with a hobbled Udoka who looked injured, and winded, and battled foul trouble.

There’s no explanation for the rebounding other than heart. The result made no logical sense. But that’s what this team has been all about.

And had that Grayson Allen shot went in, the one that rolled around the rim twice, looked like it was going down multiple times, then yeah, this team would become part of a statistic. Another chapter in the “Bill Self can’t win in the Elite Eight book.”

But that wouldn’t be the story. Not this year. Bill Self raised his fists in the air, a celebration that looked like we had just won a national title. In the locker room, the emotions poured out in a teary speech that would make even Ol Roy say, “Hey, maybe tone it down a little.”

Self had been harder on this team than any other that I can remember. But Sunday night it felt like the finish line, they had accomplished what so many great teams before them couldn’t quite reach.

“You know I’m not that emotional,” Bill Self said battling tears before breaking into a full cry. “This is the best I’ve felt about a group, and you guys have no idea how much this means to so many people.”

Surek, Monday would be back to work. Begin the scouting report against Villanova. Practices would resume, but at that moment Self focused on what had been accomplished, what could never be taken away from this group.

“I said before: You’re going to be loved by this place forever,” Self said. “All you can do is add to it. And we’ve added to it. Now all we can do is add to it.”

And for anyone who’s followed this team all year and gone through the growing pains, who have heard Self rip into them for being soft, this next quote may be even more meaningful to the guys than the trophy they held up on stage or the nets they cut down.

“I’ve called my team soft. There’s nothing soft about them.”

I think it was this perfect moment of unity because, for one game, the narratives of the coach and the team lined up. He always falls short of the Final Four. This team can’t make a Final Four. This will sound corny but I’m gonna say it anyway, the two were made for each other; Bill Self for these guys, and these guys for Bill Self. I think it was fitting that our Final Four “dry spell” (all of six years) wasn’t ended by a powerhouse KU team with two or three losses and little to no real blemishes on the season but instead a team similar to the 2012 Thomas Robinson squad, constantly outperforming the expectations. A team that makes a name for themselves by their heart and hustle, not their NBA Lottery projections.

It’s funny what a Final Four can do.

One Grayson Allen shot changes the whole knee-jerk narrative. That shot goes in and my creeping thought gains some more ground. Kansas can’t win the big boy games… 

Rims out and suddenly Bill Self has made it to three Final Fours. He has a shot at a second title. Check this out, he’s won his last three games against Coach K, Coach John Calipari, and ol Roy. Four of those games took place in the NCAA Tournament.

And how impressive was winning Number 14 in the Big 12 streak? This year, the Big 12 had four teams in the Sweet 16, three in the Elite Eight. Definitely not a midmajor conference and this year may have been the toughest year of all in terms of the competition.

Bigger picture, KU as a program has been to five Final Fours since the year 2000. That’s more than Duke, Kentucky, and UCLA. Only Michigan State and North Carolina have been to more in that same time frame (6).

Now, granted, we still have some catching up to do in terms of National Championships. And our reward for beating Duke is seeing the No. 2 overall seed. The favorite to win it all.

This is a Villanova team who hasn’t even played a game yet in the tournament decided by single digits. It’s a Villanova program that has won 134 games in four years; an NCAA men’s basketball record depending on whether you vacate the Memphis wins with Derrick Rose. Three of their key guys already have played in a Final Four, Brunson/Bridges/Booth won a national title just two years ago.

The list keeps going. Villanova is the highest scoring team in the country, but they pair that with really good defense. They can beat you in a track meet or win a gritty game in the 50’s or 60’s. They have the National Player of the Year in Brunson and an NBA Lottery Pick in Mikal Bridges. Booth is an elite defender who could bother either Graham or Newman, or both. Vegas has us, again, as the underdog. The line is at 5 points.

Plus the Big East has kind of owned the NCAA Tournament.

Hey, there’s no shame in losing to Villanova… 

But, like Self said, all we can do is add to it. And how sweet it would be to win a couple more.

So I’ll leave you with this, we’ve gone over Bill Self’s record in each round of the tournament from the Round of 64 to the dreaded Elite Eight. Let’s continue. How has Bill Self done in the Round of 4, the National Semifinals?

2-0

Just sayin’… 

I wrote an ebook called 14 that I ended with Senior Night of the regular season. I have since basically written an expansion pack for the postseason, the first post can be read here and then this was the second. I’m not sure if I’ll re-upload everything after the NCAA Tournament together or not, but if you’re looking for a fun nostalgic read check out “14” by clicking on the cover below. Rock Chalk!

Kansas 14

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