Kansas beats Providence 66-61 to put Bill Self back in the Elite Eight. So what else is new?
“We’re ecstatic,” Self said. A blue-blood coach with a lifetime contract ought to be.
Bill Self would have us believe he experienced “buyer’s remorse for a while” after leaving Illinois to take the job of basketball coach at Kansas in 2003. No, really. He said as much a day before the Jayhawks’ 66-61 win against Providence in a Sweet 16 matchup at the United Center.
“Because you never know,” he said, “because the situation we left behind was pretty good.”
It was better than that, as evidenced not only when Self’s successor, Bruce Weber, took a team of Self’s recruits to the national title game in 2005. No, long before Self joined Phog Allen in Kansas’ 500-win club, long before he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, he landed a plum job in Champaign at the tender age of 37. And he inherited such a strong team from his own predecessor, Lon Kruger, that season one of a brief Self era — three little years — ended with the Illini in the Elite Eight.
But lingering second thoughts? About leaving Champaign for Lawrence, Kansas? About leaving for the cradle of college basketball, for all that tradition, for all that wealth, for “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” and instant blue-blood status? That just sounds like a schmoozer doing his thing on a visit to Chicago all these years later.
“When I was in Champaign and we came to the city a lot, every time driving up and seeing the skyline, I used to think, Man, there’s some stuff getting done in this city,” he said. “This is where action happens.”
Yeah, well, often it is. Especially if Kansas is here for a Sweet 16 game. Who pretty much never loses in that round? Self and the Jayhawks. Together, they are 9-2 when advancement to the Elite Eight is on the line and have come through each of the last four times — in 2016, 2017, 2018 and now, in an NCAA Tournament that couldn’t seem more wide-open for all the teams left in it.
“We’re ecstatic,” Self said afterward. “Couldn’t be happier that we get a chance to play on Sunday.”
Illinois, on the other hand, hasn’t been to a Sweet 16 since 2005 and hadn’t won or shared the Big Ten title since then until this season. But Kansas? Goodness gracious, it has finished first (or tied for first) in the Big 12 a hard-to-believe 16 times under Self. It all goes into the same privileged pile with Self’s three Final Fours and his 2008 national championship.
Oh, and there’s this: The win against Providence was Kansas’ 2,354th, breaking a tie with Kentucky for the most by any school. Details, right?
Kansas has averaged fewer than one home loss during Self’s tenure, a mind-blowing stat. The way its fans travel in the postseason, a game at the UC might as well have been in the Jayhawks’ backyard. All those blue-and-red-clad fans hoping to witness a Midwest Region title this weekend first saw their team win an offensive clunker, with first-team All-American Ochai Agbaji held to five points as the Jayhawks went 2-for-15 from the arc.
But this time, a No. 1 seed managed to avoid going down. While Gonzaga, Arizona and Baylor lick their wounds, Kansas will play on. That reality was thick in the air when Agbaji — unspecial as he was — rose to the rafters to dunk a lob from Christian Braun for a 57-50 lead with three minutes to go.
“They made a great play,” Friars coach Ed Cooley said. “That’s what they do.”
How good does Self have it? Put it this way: His program was caught up in the same college basketball FBI scandal — it bubbled up in 2017 and still is being sorted out — that ensnared a bunch of other big-time programs and, among other incidences of major fallout, cost Arizona coach Sean Miller and Louisville coach Rick Pitino their jobs. The NCAA categorized Kansas’ violations as “egregious” and “severe.” So what happened to Self?
He was given a lifetime contract, that’s what. His old deal was supposed to expire this month. Nope. A full year ago — with the controversy swirling around Self more than it is now — he was confirmed as the basketball equivalent of a Supreme Court justice.
What a lifetime appointment. What a life.
“Absolutely, Kansas will always prevail,” Self said in 2019, when those investigations were hot as fire. “Always. I’d like to think I will as well.”
Illinois has gone through Weber, who didn’t recruit well enough, and John Groce, who yelled about “effort” and “toughness” a lot but couldn’t put a team on the court that could score. And now it’s Brad Underwood, who is winning a lot but not in the Big Dance.
Kansas’ guy will turn 60 this year. Can you believe it? It has been that long, and still he doesn’t have a thing to worry about.