Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bill Self Built Kansas into Winner

He isn’t such a bad coach, after all. He shook the hand of North Carolina’s Roy Williams and, with a smile, celebrated on the floor with his players. For once, Kansas head coach Bill Self had something to be proud of — overjoyed with his team’s accomplishments amid all the adversity and scares.

So ecstatic, and deservingly so, he climbed the ladder to cut the final three strands of the net, following an impressive 80-67 win over North Carolina on Sunday. He was thrilled, grinning, exactly what he needed, and when it ended, the victory sent Self to a second Final Four in nine years with Kansas. The emotions were tangible, the victory cured souls and Self’s players jumped around like fidgety kids at the end, erasing the horrifying memories of tough losses, battling through hard times and overcoming so many bad breaks to make amends. It was a moment of redemption, and more importantly, a real test for Self and the Jayhawks.

Given the program’s history, while the winner is on its way to college basketball’s biggest stage, Self can easily be considered the most decorated coach with eight consecutive Big 12 titles, the 2008 national title and the craft to beat Williams twice in the NCAA tournament at Kansas. So now, it’s all right to make an assumption he’ll win it again someday, if not this year. But he’s only two wins away from the reward, joining the big dance in the Big Easy with eyes on the trophy.

It’s been nine years ago since Williams fled Kansas, and by the time Self accepted one of the hardest jobs in America, he was right away in the shadows of one of the finest coaches ever in Kansas’ basketball program. By any measure, beyond all the doubts that he is extremely overrated after only winning one championship in his nine-year period at Kansas, Self is almost in the company of basketball’s elite coaches, especially if and when the Jayhawks dreams of another championship becomes a reality.

The Jayhawks, favored to raise another championship banner and party wildly in New Orleans once it’s all said and done, will meet East Region champion Ohio State in the semifinals. For much of the game, Kansas engaged in a tight contest to stay alive in likely its most hard fought and dominant game in this year’s NCAA tournament, for once not frightening the hearts and souls of crazed Jayhawks’ fans or believers with busted brackets, no doubt. It was a very fulfilling win, but at the same time, it was also a sign of relief for a team that had already been through it all, from the ups and downs to the good times and the bad times.

And, in a sense, Self has fueled and shaped the Jayhawks into fierce competitors overnight, and Self-motivated his players to have Self-assurance, Self-belief and Self-discipline. That’s sure to draw much attention, with all the heavy talk surrounding Kansas and Self. For now on, he probably won’t have to answer questions about Williams during press conferences, and could strictly focus on his team’s improvement.

This is the most battled-test team to ride to the Final Four, and again, will be relentlessly challenged by Ohio State next Saturday, even if Kansas is not within realm of possibility as exposed to danger as the Jayhawks have been in the past, relying on comebacks and luck to avoid potential letdowns. It is, however, no matter if the Jayhawks struggled and teetered constantly in the tourney, Self’s most remarkable season at KU. In light of the well-accomplished run with Kansas, close to capturing his second championship, Self’s Jayhawks beat a No. 1 seed for the school’s 14th Final Four appearance.

In short, he’s made Kansas even more relevant and has reestablished a storied program with his stubborn, soft attitude. Self’s mighty Jayhawks, now considered the most dangerous program behind Kentucky of course, is finding a basketball identity. Prior to this year’s extraordinary run, each year ended ever so miserably — early exits to low-seeded teams before abruptly leaving for home empty handed and with teardrops slowly draining down the faces of saddened Kansas’ players.

But now, there is reason for hope — and even Self knows that — nurturing and breeding the boys for a chance at a title. It was one of those games that Kansas’ defense stifled and trapped North Carolina, holding the Tar Heels to 22.6 percent shooting in the second half, the lowest percentage in a half for a school in an NCAA tournament game. That’s impressive, given that Self’s players play the most deadly and relentless brand of defense. And simply, it’s what defines a team with some of the best talent in the nation.

They are winners — rightfully so — by playing solidly on offense, for once, and dominating as aggressors defensively. It’s all enough to manipulate every opponent it face, enough to hinder the opposing team from turning into tenacious scorers. The star in the middle of it all is Kansas’ All-American Thomas Robinson, yes, the 6-foot-9 junior forward whose dream turned into a reality on D.C. playgrounds before arising into a physical athlete to be one of the top five picks in this year’s NBA draft.

Two years ago, Robinson wasn’t nearly as proficient as he is now and possibly is the national player of the year, dealing with disheartening tragedies and family issues that have truly been inspirational. So it’s amazing what Kansas has accomplished, and with all the joy and confidence, Self told his players that he’s enjoyed coaching this team more than anyone he’s ever directed. And with that said, this Kansas team has exceeded all expectations. The story of this contest was the reemergence of Tyshawn Taylor, who had 22 points in an eye-opening spectacle, helping Kansas to a 12-0 run in the closing minutes.

He developed into the kind of scoring guard that had been missing in this tournament, ending a scoring drought, such as thoughts of any struggles. Midway in the second half, it was a one-point game and the pressure was on for Kansas — with a chance at the Final Four. Along the way, they gained momentum and it brought fans to their feet as the crowd roared louder and louder in a neutral site that felt as if it was a homecoming for the Jayhawks, with the vast majority of their supporters in the stands.

It took exactly a second half for Kansas to realize it could outperform, outsmart and outplay North Carolina. And on the court, Taylor was the man who couldn’t be stopped, the player the Tar Heels couldn’t close in on -- stealing the ball from John Henson, one of North Carolina’s superstars, and racing down the floor for a dunk.

It was all Jayhawks from there, and so Jeff Withey, who was the blocking machine at the basket, tipped in a shot, off Taylor’s ill-advised three-point attempt. Within that span, the Tar Heels just had six points during eight minutes. The rest of the night Taylor forced turnovers and the highlight play came on Elijah Johnson’s three-point shot.

But the bigger story here is Self, of course, in search of a second championship. And yet that’s exactly why he chose to coach Kansas, hoping to be crowned. With Self’s incredible feats as opposed to his recent achievements in March, he can move into the company of top college basketball coaches.

By now, Self is more proud of a team than he’s ever been.