OMAHA, Neb. — Welcome to the Elite Eight, or as it’s known here in the great Midwest, Bill Self Memorial Weekend.
Seriously, now, you expected me to pass up a joke that easy?
This is the third consecutive season in which Kansas has reached the Elite Eight. It is the eighth time Self has gotten to this level as KU head coach, and the 10th in his career. He is 2-7 in those games to date.
So to some people it does not matter that he is enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, was the coach of the 2008 national champions (who happened to conquer the greatest Final Four ever assembled), has won 71.9 percent of his NCAA Tournament games and has won 14 consecutive Big 12 conference championships.
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Did I leave anything out? Oh, yeah, he was the Sporting News Coach of the Year in 2009. And 2000.
It does not matter to Self’s critics that being 2-7 in the Elite Eight equates to being a two-time Final Four coach, which is more appearances in college basketball’s ultimate weekend than such coaching greats as John Chaney, Gene Keady, Mike Montgomery, Rick Majerus, John Beilein and Mark Few. It’s not easy to get that far. And it’s not easy to get this close so often.
It sure wasn’t easy this time, although it wasn’t as challenging as the margin might suggest from Friday night’s 80-76 victory over No. 5 seed Clemson in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region semifinal.
“I think the tournament is so great,” Self told Sporting News. “A lot of times teams going into the tournament playing with house money have the best chance. A lot of times teams that have a great regular season, because of the seeding, have the best chance.
“This was a year where it just seems weird because we haven’t played great yet. We were OK against Penn. We played pretty good, for the most part, against Seton Hall. We played pretty good tonight, except how it closed. But here we are playing in that game.”
This game didn’t require much work until the end. Clemson committed eight turnovers, mostly unforced, in the first 20 minutes and fell behind 40-27 at half. The Tigers had no answer for a healthy Udoka Azubuike underneath, particularly because they were so preoccupied dealing with attacks on the goal by All-American guard Devonte’ Graham and supersonic Lagerald Vick that they left “Doke” alone to grab four offensive rebounds.
Aside from reserve big man Mark Donnal and red-hot guard Gabe Devoe, the Tigers went 3-of-17 from the field before halftime.
The No. 1 seed Jayhawks (30-7) built their lead to 20 points less than 5 minutes into the second half and still were ahead by 18 after Newman, who finished with 17 points, hit a 3-pointer with 7:28 left. But Graham’s fourth personal foul complicated matters, and Clemson put on a full-court press that sliced the KU lead to six with 2:27 left.
“We didn’t really execute down the stretch,” Newman said. “That was kind of on us guards. We’ve got to be better Sunday, in order for us to advance.”
However, getting this team to the point where it could dominate most of the game against Clemson — which just had dominated SEC champ Auburn in the previous round — required an exceptional effort from Self and his able coaching staff, one described by a knowledgeable KU insider as the best of Self’s career.
Now, such proclamations always contain recency bias. No one ever says, Hey, remember when Bill lost six of the top seven players from the 2008 championship team and then won 27 games? That was his best coaching job. But given the breadth of Self’s accomplishments, for someone who knows the game to flatter him in this manner seems worthy of our attention.
This was not the team Self imagined he would have. He thought it would look more like Kansas generally has, with three perimeter players, two big guys and lots of high-low action. Then freshman Billy Preston got himself suspended a game, then he got into a car accident, and then KU began to wonder about the provenance of the automobile. The investigation into that matter lasted long enough that Preston eventually gave up and left KU .
“I take it personal, because I think Coach should get more credit,” KU assistant coach Jerrance Howard told SN. “We were expecting Billy Preston to play our offense, to get back to our old ways. Coach made the adjustment, got guys to buy in quicker than normal: This is how we’re going to play; this is how we’re going to play to win.”
So the Jayhawks always have had to take a 4-around-1 approach, with senior Svi Mykhailiuk as a stretch-4, Azubuike in the middle and three dynamic guards to go along with them. Except the guards haven’t always been dynamic.
Graham, despite a couple of early disappointments that led to non-league defeats, has been every bit an All-American. But Vick endured a stretch of January Big 12 games in which he shot 37 percent and scored in double figures just once.
Malik Newman, now a scoring star averaging 21.2 points in March elimination games, played 31 minutes in a narrow win over Nebraska and was shut out. He needed to accept that defense and rebounding were part of his job, and that scoring would follow. He’s in the Elite Eight, which lately seems a given for those who wear this uniform.
“This is why you come to Kansas, to experience the best of the best,” Newman told SN. “And to have fun doing it. I wouldn’t do it with any group of guys but this group of guys.”
There were multiple times in the Big 12 season when it was presumed Texas Tech would overtake the Jayhawks for the league title, or perhaps West Virginia. KU won the league by two games. It won the Big 12 tournament with three double-digit victories. And here is Bill Self in the Elite Eight again.
“It’s been a great year. I mean, this team to win 30 games and win the league, the league tournament and play in the biggest game of the year so far, on Sunday. It’s been great,” Self said. “But it would be nice to make it special-special. And I think, in order to do that at Kansas, you’ve got to go to a Final Four. I’ve always thought that.
“But we should play free and loose on Sunday. There’s no reason we shouldn’t. Because these guys have overcome more than most of our teams have to get to this point, and certainly did more than most expected out of them.”