One year ago, at the Final Four, Bill Self became a hall of famer. He was named as one of the inductees to the Naismith Hall of Fame Class of 2017. Arguments can be made against active coaches earning a hall pass (looking at you, Rick Pitino) but Self, then 54, had earned his inclusion.
Self was without his team in Phoenix a year ago. The Jayhawks, for the second consecutive season, had failed to live up to their No. 1 seed and had lost in the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year. Since losing in the 2012 national championship game to Kentucky, KU had remained dominant in the Big 12, winning 13 consecutive regular-season titles but failing to survive and advance to the last weekend of the season.
Self’s 15th season in Lawrence was sewed with doubt that lingers in Saturday’s semifinal with No. 1 seed and championship favorite Villanova. Your Veteran Scribe has, for the last three seasons, written that the Jayhawks’ streak of consecutive league titles would end. Despite a limited roster that lacks an NBA lottery pick, Kansas won the Big 12 for a record 14th consecutive season, surpassing UCLA. In a league that sent nine teams to the post-season and had two other teams reach the Elite Eight, Self’s team finished on top with a two-game cushion.
After Kansas won the Big 12 tournament title in Kansas City – cruising to three victories by an average of 13 points without its best low-post scorer – YVS congratulated Self and informed him of a trio of predictive columns gone wrong. “Keep writing that,” he said with a smile.
Making sense of a sport as volatile and unpredictable as college basketball is a fool’s errand and YVS is fully qualified. But this season in particular it made perfect sense to question Kansas’ ability to stay on top of a deep, talented league that plays an 18-game round-robin schedule.
Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson, who has known Self since 1982, told Jenni Carlson of The Oklahoman that the doubters only stoked Self’s competitive flame. “Everybody was jumping on the bandwagon – ‘Not this year. Not gonna win the Big 12,’” Hinson said. “That’s like pouring kerosene on fire.”
Coming into the season, the Jayhawks had to replace consensus player of the year Frank Mason III, lottery pick Josh Jackson and steady/savvy big man Landen Lucas. Self prefers to play two post players and last season basically played with Lucas around the basket. The 6-8 Jackson was a perimeter player but was a strong leaper who could defend in the post and help with rebounding.
Self’s off-season plans included Udoka Azubuike, a 7-foot, 280-pound sophomore who missed all but 11 games of his freshman season with a fractured wrist and, figured to provide KU with its most powerful post presence since Joel Embiid. Slender 6-8 sophomore Mitch Lightfoot, 6-9 four-star freshman Billy Preston and Jack Whitman, a 6-9 graduate transfer from William & Mary would provide a four-man rotation at center and power forward.
But less than two months after deciding to attend Kansas, Whitman left school. And Preston became embroiled in an NCAA eligibility issue. He never played in a regular-season game and in early January left school to try professional ball in Europe.
Self had no choice but to play a true four-guard lineup. Senior Devonte’ Graham took over for Mason at point guard. Svi Mykhailiuk, a 6-7 forward who had spent his first three seasons as a reserve specializing in perimeter shots, became a starter and raised his all-around game. Sophomore Malik Newman, who sat out last season after transferring from Mississippi State, and junior Lagerald Vick rounded out the starting lineup. Lightfoot and 6-5 freshman Marcus Garrett rounded out a seven-man rotation.
“There’s less margin for error but these guys have certainly rallied around that,” Self said last week. “I’ve never played like this. I’ve never [played] four little guards around one big. It just goes against the grain from the teams we’ve had in the past.”
Playing four guards meant that Kansas was a poor rebounding team and below average defensively. Those are two toughness factors that Self had to grit and accept. After losing in Kansas City to Washington and at home to Arizona State, Self called his team “soft.” It was a true statement and psychological ploy.
The Jayhawks went from a two-game deficit in the standings to their two-game margin. Yes, KU benefited from Texas Tech’s losing streak that occurred when second-team All-American guard Keenan Evans suffered a toe injury. But Kansas won when it needed to and Self was pushing the right buttons.
One of those buttons showed up unexpectedly. Silvio De Sousa, a 6-9 forward, was attending IMG Academy and had signed with Kansas for 2018. He was able to graduate high school early and once cleared by the NCAA he was able to join the team this season for the second semester. Making the high school to college jump in mid-season is unique and Self hoped De Sousa would be ready to contribute by Feb. 1.
That proved overly optimistic. In a loss at Oklahoma on Jan. 23, De Sousa played one minute and committed three turnovers. In his first 12 games, he was DNPed three times and in the other nine played a total of 39 minutes. Instead of giving the rookie playing time he hadn’t earned and wasn’t prepared for, Self allowed De Sousa to acclimate.
Over the last eight games – seven in post-season play – De Sousa has become a major contributor as a reserve, averaging 15 minutes, 6.7 points and 6.5 rebounds. Azubuike suffered a sprained knee and missed the Big 12 tournament but in the championship game against West Virginia De Sousa made all eight of his shots and finished with a career-high 16 points.
Kansas benefited from Graham’s transition to point guard and team leader. He had been Robin to Mason’s Batman but this season Graham earned consensus All-American honors with his production and steady leadership.
Graham is the only Division I player averaging more than 17.0 points per game, 7.0 assists per game, 1.6 steals per game and fewer than 3.0 turnovers per game. And because Kansas doesn’t have another floor leader, during a stretch in Big 12 play he played 40 minutes in 12 of 13 games.
“I think it’s every coach’s dream to have somebody on there that can be an extension of you and an extension of the staff,” Self said. “And Devonte’ is certainly that. He has a unique way of getting his message to everybody without talking down to anybody. He’s a terrific player. But his intangibles are what make him special. And he certainly has more of those than anybody I’ve been around.”
Despite being the higher seed, few expected Kansas to beat No. 2 seed Duke in the Midwest Regional final. A third consecutive loss in a regional final appeared inevitable because of Duke’s freshmen twin towers – Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter. The Blue Devils were tops in the country in offensive rebounding and that figured to be a losing match up for KU’s inability to board.
With one day to prepare, Self schooled his players on doubling the post – a defensive strategy they had rarely used. Mykhailiuk was given the assignment of guarding Blue Devils’ 6-11 freshman Marvin Bagley III.
Newman, who had spent the first half of the season in Self’s doghouse, scored a career-high 32 – all 13 in overtime – while limiting Grayson Allen to 3-of-13 shooting. The Jayhawks had an eye-rubbing 47-32 edge on the boards. At 0:00 Self thrust both fists in the air and he was teary in the post-game locker room. The coach knew what his team had accomplished.
“We didn’t play to go to the Final Four,” Self said. “We played to beat Duke. So many times when you get on this stage regardless of how you tell your players to be loose, you play because you want what’s after. This wasn’t one of those games. Our guys know their guys. Their guys know all us. We played to try to win that game, and the ramification of winning that game is going to San Antonio.”
Kansas last won the national championship 10 years ago in San Antonio’s Alamodome – so making a return trip to the same venue is evoking karmic flashback memories for Rock Chalk fans. “I can unequivocally say without hesitation or reservation (this season is) the best coaching job he’s done in his career,” Hinson said.
No doubt. A hall of famer doing a hall-of-fame-worthy coaching job.