J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Monday, February 23, 2009

Bill Self is enjoying the 2009 KU team after leaving last season behind


By J. BRADY MCCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

LAWRENCE | Ridiculous, Bill Self called it. Why in the world are NCAA Tournament brackets being projected in December? The tournament hype is out of control, and the focus should be on winning the league.

 

"We shouldn't worry about seeding at all," Self said.

 

***

 

It is the day before.

 

Bill Self walks into the basketball office at Allen Fieldhouse on a brisk February morning, says hi to his secretary, takes a phone call from a player's grandfather and then starts talking ball with a visitor. Within five minutes of sitting down at his desk ...

 

"Keep talking," Self says. "I'll check our RPI."

 

The RPI is the Ratings Percentage Index, a mathematical formula that helps determine tournament seeding.

 

"Sixteen with a 38 strength of schedule," Self says. "That's pretty good. We might be able to get our strength of schedule down to about 30, 25. We've got some good games coming up. We're OK. We just lost to UMass. That's the bad thing."

 

***

 

Welcome to Bill Self's tug of war. On one side is the 2008 Self, the guy who coached five NBA draft picks to a national championship and became a little too comfortable standing on a ladder with scissors in his hand. On the other side is the 2009 Self, who is still coming into focus.

 

The 2009 Self knows who he's supposed to be. He is supposed to accept losses as a part of eventual team growth. He is supposed to relish teaching again - he didn't have to do as much of that in 2008 - with a team that returned no starters from last season.

 

People keep asking Self: Which is more fun: Coaching last year's team or this year's team? It would be easy for him to say that this year's team is more fun. Hey, what are coaches but molders of men? But the truth is that Self wasn't having very much fun at all during the first few months of this season.

 

"It's one of those things, in your mind, you initially think, 'Well, we know this year is going to be a struggle, we know this year is going to be different, it's going to take time. But hey, everybody will be patient,' " Self said. "But when you get down to it, nobody is patient. I'm not patient. One reason why I was less patient is I want it to happen again."

 

The 2007-08 season was the biggest thrill of Self's life. After experiencing basketball on the grandest scale, it was hard to take pleasure in the little things. He couldn't stomach a mediocre season dedicated to rebuilding, so he yelled, he threw his hands in the air, he picked up two technical fouls, one of which contributed to that loss to UMass. Self thought he had to coach every possession and ride the officials on every call. His young team had to win.

 

People commented to Self about his sideline antics. Where was it coming from?

 

"Obviously, I need to improve that my animation," Self said. "It's OK to argue a call or whatever, but I went overboard. I realize that, and that's probably because, you know, you want your team to be good so bad. Sometimes, you get a little carried away."

 

Of course, the Jayhawks are good - or at least their 22-5 overall record and 11-1 mark in the Big 12 says they are. Entering tonight's showdown at Oklahoma, there's a feeling that Self has willed KU back into contention for a fifth straight league title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

 

"You know, is he the best coach in the country? I don't know," Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said. "But I can promise you this: When you talk about the best coaches in the country at any level, college or pro, his name is going to be mentioned."

 

***

 

Two plays connect Bill Self's two selves, turning the tug of war into a momentary stalemate. View these plays one after the other and it seems that, maybe, 2008 and 2009 don't have to be so different.

 

In KU's victory over North Carolina in the national semifinals last year, Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur both dived for a loose ball and earned a tie-up with North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson.

 

"There's a picture," Self said. "They have no body parts, no hands, no feet, no knees, no nothing on the ground when they both dived at the same time. For me, that's about as good as it gets."

 

Self was convinced of that - until he witnessed what he affectionately calls "the scrum play" on Feb. 2 at Baylor. In the second half of a KU victory, Sherron Collins drove, and his shot was blocked. There were two or three scuffles for the ball, and Markieff Morris and Collins each missed put-back attempts. Collins dived, got the ball back and passed it to Morris. Mario Little emerged from the floor, and Morris faked a shot and passed it to him underneath the basket for a layup.

 

Self, of course, loved every bang and bruise. In a 2009 burst of animation, he punched at the air with both hands. The coolest thing about it, though, was that Self wasn't alone in his appreciation.

 

"That was the best play of the year, hands down," Self said. "And if you look at the bench, everybody knows it's the best play all year. But they may not have thought that before. I think they're starting to see things through the same eyes."

 

By that, he means his eyes.

 

"To him," KU assistant coach Joe Dooley said, "it wouldn't matter if we made the shot or not. It all came together. That was the type of possession he was trying to get our guys to be involved in."

 

***

 

It was a long time coming. If Bill Self thought 2009 could be anything like 2008 after his team's 10 practices in August leading up to their Canadian exhibition tour, he was in denial.

 

"We were horrible, ughhh," Self said. "We were just like, good gosh. We had people come and watch practice who were saying, 'This is going to test you this year.' "

 

That was OK, because Self was still living in last year. He'd watch the national championship victory over Memphis whenever he worked out at home.

 

"I probably watched it 30 or 40 times," Self said.

 

Self hasn't watched the tape since Oct. 17, the day of "Late Night in the Phog." Still, when practices stunk and his players weren't responding to his pleas, he showed them tape of the 2008 team.

 

"About effort and positioning," Self said, "which was good. But I think there's a point where you need to put that away. Each team is so different."

 

This team was nothing if not different. They couldn't even do the most basic thing.

 

"They thought they were really trying hard, but they weren't," Self said. "They'd be like, 'Coach, I did. I am.' Well, no, you're not. If you think that's giving effort, you're not going to be very happy here."

 

In those moments, the 2008 Bill Self would emerge. The 2009 team was not progressing quickly enough to meet his lofty standards.

 

"Early in the season," Self said, "I did a poor job coaching the team because I would compare where we're at to where we were last year, which was very unfair to our players. Because there's no way they could be there."

 

KU assistant coach Danny Manning could see that Self was still stuck in '08. So Manning drew back on his experience from 1988, when he led KU to its previous national title.

 

"Danny kept saying, 'Life by the inch is a cinch, life by the yard is hard,'" Self said. "That was the motto they had when they won it in '88 when they got off to such a rough start. I told myself, when I decided to quit comparing in my mind, 'Enjoy the process. Just a little bit of progress daily.'"

 

Sometime in December - Self can't remember exactly when - he left last season's run behind. It's no coincidence, then, that January was so much better. The Jayhawks went 8-1 and began league play 6-0.

 

"The month of January," Self said, "I really enjoyed this team. Really enjoyed them."

 

Winning probably had something to do with that.

 

"The more you taste, the more you want it," Self said. "We had a chance to taste the pinnacle, which certainly makes you hungry for more."

 

***

 

One last look back into 2008. So much happened, it's hard not to reflect even now.

 

"The only thing I think about 'What if?' would be if the shot from Davidson had gone down," Self said.

 

In the Elite Eight, Davidson guard Jason Richards shot a last-second three-pointer that would have won the game for the Wildcats. He missed, and Self dropped to the floor, leaned forward and touched the hardwood. He would coach in his first Final Four. But what if he hadn't? Would he be coaching at his alma mater, Oklahoma State?

 

"You never know," he said. "I still don't think it would have changed anything. But at the time when you're emotional and everything, it probably would have made me study that situation longer and harder, and there would have been a lot of people who would have wanted me to study it longer and harder that are Kansas fans. But I understand that."

 

Self has never seen himself as irreplaceable. He knows that he has to keep winning at the highest level or eventually some other coach will be reaping the fruits of his labor. Those fruits, of course, are a new practice facility and academic center and renovated player dorms and basketball offices.

 

"This is going to be a big-time place," Self said. "Inside Allen Fieldhouse is about as cool as it gets, and everyone thinks that. Now, it's going to be just as cool outside."

 

This is truly Self's home now. He even co-wrote a book called "Bill Self: At Home in the Phog" in case anybody didn't believe him.

 

There are some people around here that believe this season has been Self's best coaching job yet at KU. After two years of having no clue who his leading scorer would be, Self knew that player would have to be Collins most nights. He turned his team over to a 5-foot-11 bulldog in Collins, and he had a feeling that the 6-11 Cole Aldrich would be ready to anchor inside. After that, Self had no idea.

 

He lost junior transfer Little, the preseason Big 12 newcomer of the year, for the first 12 games. He took Kansas kids Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed and made it clear that they would have to play more than anybody expected. Freshmen have played 35 percent of the Jayhawks' minutes thus far. Yet, here they are.

 

To get them here, Self has had to tear them down. He has had to coddle them. Take Marcus Morris. Nobody catches Self's wrath more than Marcus, but Self tells him every day to be more aggressive, that the team needs him. Morris was the key to the Jayhawks beating K-State in Manhattan with 15 points. Self's tough love finally paid off.

 

Collins, the only Jayhawk with true perspective, doesn't see much difference between the 2008 Self and the 2009 version.

 

"He's still all over us," Collins said, "but that's the coach I knew for two years. He's not going to ease up. I'm not looking for him to ease up. He needs to stay on us. Coach said if you're mad at him, then he's doing a good job. Right now, all of us should be mad at him."

 

Collins and the rest of the baby Jayhawks better brace themselves then. In 2009, Bill Self has shown he won't go down without a fight.

J. Brady McCollough - Contact Me