Bill Self doesn’t do this.
He doesn’t celebrate much. He seldom emotes.
But after Kansas outlasted Duke in their Elite Eight matchup Sunday, Self was positively giddy. This was different. This was redemption. This gave him another chance to distance himself from a decade of disappointment.
Just why, you might ask, would a coach in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, with a national title on his resume, need redemption? Why should you feel even a little bit of empathy for a man who coaches at Kansas, a program founded by the game’s creator, James Naismith, and where Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith played for Phog Allen?
Because Self coaches a college program that was founded by the game’s creator; a program with direct connections to some of the game’s greatest names. Because postseason failures in Lawrence, Kan., are about as welcome as tornado alerts.
“I’m sure anyone that looks at Bill Self says, ‘Well, I don’t feel sorry for that guy. He’s one of the greatest coaches, he wins all the time.’ But I get it,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, who faces Self on Saturday in the national semifinal in San Antonio.
Self is known less for his 14 consecutive Big 12 titles than for his tournament frustrations. He entered Sunday just 2-5 all-time in the regional final, 1-3 in his last four trips. All three of those most recent losses came as a No. 1 seed, the most striking defeat at the hands of 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in 2011.
Kansas guard Malik Newman, a transfer, said he was brought in to help his teammates “get over the hump,” and Self said he was delighted that his team “kicked the door in” and reached a Final Four after being upset the past five years.
“It was emotional for me because of all the teams that we’ve had,” Self admitted Monday. “You know, we’ve experienced a lot of success but we haven’t experienced Final Fours, things like that, to the level that I think our fans [would hope].”
Wright argues that Self should be judged more on securing all of those high seeds than on what has come after.
“That’s the mark of a great coach,” Wright insisted. “What you do in the tournament is not really a mark of your talent as a coach, but it’s matchups. It’s who’s healthy. You know, it’s a break here or there. It’s a call by a referee.”
Well, that’s the essence of coaching, isn’t it? Adjusting to events beyond your control?
To be fair, getting college kids — often one-and-done — to adjust in the moment can be a severe challenge. One of the strengths of Wright’s recent teams is that they never panic; that the players remain true to the task; that they win or lose playing intelligently.
Self’s most disappointing teams typically don’t lose, as much as they just sort of … wilt. More damning than the Elite Eight ousters are the three second-round losses since the 2008 title. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 overall seed in 2010 when they lost to ninth-seeded Northern Iowa; were a No. 2 seed and featured Andrew Wiggins when 10th-seeded Stanford upset them in 2014; and were a No. 2 seed when they lost to intrastate rival Wichita State, a No. 7 seed, in 2015.
Kansas is steeped in history but not titles. It won in 1952, 1988 and in 2008 — also in San Antonio.
Self’s emotions were charged because this edition of Jayhawks has, in his mind, come far, and it had far to come. After all, following three consecutive losses in the middle of the season, he called it the “softest team” he’d ever had at Kansas. It rallied to earn another No. 1 seed, and then, on Sunday, Self painted a masterpiece against Duke when his team dismantled the tricky zone defense employed by Mike Krzyzewski and his platoon of lottery picks.
“I felt that my team out there performed so well against what is arguably thought of to be as talented a roster as we have in the country,” Self said, which is as close as he’ll ever come to self-congratulation.
Wright would like nothing better than to end Self’s 2018 run on Saturday, but for the moment he feels a kinship with him. Six years ago, Wright’s future was being questioned in Philadelphia. The equity from his 2009 Final Four run was running out. He regrouped and rebuilt his program around players who would give him a long-term commitment. His rebuild has become a powerhouse.
Self has players leave early — both Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid left after the 2014 collapse — but he has cultivated a strong program with all sorts of players.
Which is why Wright respects him so much, and it’s why Wright takes a measure of satisfaction in Self’s run to Texas this year.
“You are going to be evaluated on what you do in the tournament. We all have to accept that. And I think Bill accepts it,” Wright said. “I think that’s part of why he was excited to get to the Final Four.”