How Will Kansas’ NCAA Tournament Flops Affect Bill Self’s Legacy?Posted by Chris Johnson on March 31st, 2014
My 62-year-old uncle said something interesting while discussing the picks he made in his bracket a couple of days after Selection Sunday. He said he considered picking #2 Kansas to lose its Second Round game against #15 Eastern Kentucky. Still, like all but a minuscule fraction of the bracket-filling populace, I picked Kansas. Then I told my uncle that he was crazy, that I had the Jayhawks advancing to the Elite Eight, and asked why he would consider picking the Colonels to upend a team with the likely 2014 No. 1 NBA draft pick in its starting lineup. “I don’t buy Kansas,” he said. I didn’t pay much mind to his comment. Kansas was going to beat EKU anyway, I thought. Then, after the Jayhawks fell last weekend in the round of 32 to #10 Stanford, my uncle called me. The first thing he said was, “I warned you about Kansas.” That he did. His lack of confidence in Kansas is not a product of what he had seen this season from the Jayhawks. It’s a feeling that he has developed over the past 10 years of NCAA Tournaments.
Bill Self was introduced as the head coach at Kansas in April 2003, less than a month removed from his predecessor, Roy Williams, guiding the Jayhawks to the national championship game (a loss to Syracuse). The former Illinois boss came right in and guided Kansas to an Elite Eight appearance in his first season in charge. But since 2005, Kansas has seen five of its 10 Tourney runs end at the hands of a team seeded at least eight spots lower.
- In ’05, #3 Kansas fell to #14 Bucknell in the round of 64.
- In ’06, #4 Kansas was clipped by #13 Bradley in the round of 64.
- In ’10, #1 Kansas advanced past the opening round, but lost to #9 Northern Iowa (thanks, in large part, to a shot and a last name college hoops fans will never forget).
- In ’11, #1 Kansas was undone by #11 VCU in the Elite Eight.
- And the latest upset — #2 Kansas losing to #10 Stanford – came a week ago Sunday.
We’ve reached the point where Kansas’ has flopped so many times in the NCAA Tourney — whether because of bad luck, or running into a team with hot shooters, or the vagaries of a single-elimination tournament, or whatever — that there is an uneasy expectation that the Jayhawks will be upset. There are too many data points to ignore. When people – and not just people who cover and follow the sport year round, but casual fans, like my uncle – fill out their brackets, they are often reluctant to pick Kansas to advance past the first weekend for reasons beyond the Jayhawks’ body of work in a given season. It’s true that certain highly-seeded teams look more vulnerable than others in certain years. This year, for instance, few people believed #2 Villanova could make a deep run (the Wildcats lost to #7 UConn in the round of 32), mostly because Jay Wright’s team didn’t beat anyone of note after November. But with Kansas, the doubts are rooted in the Jayhawks’ Tourney track record over the past decade. This year, for example, if you were hesitant to pick Kansas to make the second weekend, it probably had as much to do with, say, Andrew Wiggins’ tendency to drift out of games or Joel Embiid’s back injury as it did a fear Kansas would unexpectedly be tripped up by a lower-seeded team because that seems to always happen to Kansas. The Jayhawks’ susceptibility to upsets has bred doubt in the minds of bracket-fillers.
None of this changes the fact Kansas has enjoyed more success in the regular season during Self’s tenure than most any other program. The Hall of Fame-bound coach has guided the Jayhawks to at least a share of 10 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships. That is a mind-boggling accomplishment for a number of reasons, the most impressive of which, perhaps, is that Kansas won three of those titles without a single returning starter. Self’s regular season resumé is unimpeachable. But when his college career comes to a close, and we try to assess Self’s placement in the coaching pantheon, there will be a pile of NCAA Tourney upsets weighing down his otherwise stellar credentials. For as successful as Kansas has been under Self, the series of postseason flubs will be part of his legacy. Excuse the cliché, but with Self, it bears mentioning: Coaches are defined by what their teams accomplish in March. The greats are separated into tiers based on their Tourney achievements: Elite Eights, Final Fours, National Championships and the like. Don’t get it twisted: It’s not as if Self is recognized as anything less than ‘great.’ Even if you ignore the ridiculous decade-long regular season championship streak, Self’s CV stacks up favorably to most of college hoops’ most esteemed coaches. Spanning tenures at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas, Self has made seven Elite Eights, two Final Fours, two national championship games and won one. That’s pretty darn good.
An instructive comparison is Mark Few at Gonzaga. The Zags have made the tournament in all of Few’s 15 seasons at the school, won at least a share of the West Coast Conference regular season title 13 times, and notched 11 conference tournament titles. During that span, however, Gonzaga has not advanced past the Sweet Sixteen. Under Few, Gonzaga has developed a reputation of a team that wins in the regular season but can’t get it done in March. And unless the Zags make a couple of deep Tourney runs in the next several years, Few will never be recognized as a great coach. By contrast, Self, a no-doubt-about-it great coach, has a stack – even if not a Coach K-sized one – of postseason accolades to boast. The main knock on Self is that he hasn’t gotten the most out of some of his teams. Few’s teams underperform so consistently that the fear of an upset is even greater than exists with Kansas. Gonzaga is recognized as the team you never trust. I realize this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, mainly because the Big 12 is a much tougher league than the WCC. The purpose was to show that Self has won enough in the NCAA Tourney to distinguish himself from another coach defined by a sterling track record of regular season success – but not enough to disabuse the notion that his teams can be had by lower-seeded opponents.
Considering the amount of talent on some of his teams – and the teams those teams lost to – Self could have accomplished more when it matters most, but the book is far from closed on him. As long as he resists the lure of the NBA, Self will have plenty more opportunities to win big. With another top-notch recruiting class on the way, Self could have the Jayhawks back in the championship game as soon as next season. But no matter how good Kansas looks in the regular season, you may be loath to put the Jayhawks in your Final Four a year from now. I know my uncle will be.