Final Four 2018: Special season ® for Bill Self and Kansas® can get even better

Maybe you saw Bill Self the other night. As the buzzer sounded to signal the completion of Kansas’ victory against Duke, he threw both fists into the air, leaned back ever so slightly — and then unleashed what seemed to be a loud yell.

The sound was swallowed by the noise in the arena. Self’s demonstration was easily lost in the confetti and chaos. But there it was.

“Sometimes, you can just be overcome with it,” the Kansas coach said later, “and at that moment I was.”

Yeah, it meant something — and probably more than just getting to the Final Four.

That’s plenty big enough, all by itself. Mike Krzyzewski calls it “the biggest bridge you can cross” coaching college basketball, and this is from a guy who’s been there 12 times, who with a win last Sunday would have broken free of a tie with John Wooden for the most by a coach. Instead, Self has crossed that bridge for the third time.

But there was more.

In the 15 seasons Self has coached Kansas, the Jayhawks have been a fixture near the top of college basketball’s hierarchy. You might have heard, they’ve won 14 consecutive Big 12 championships. Their average season record is 30-6, which along with the 2008 national championship is among the reasons Self was inducted last fall into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.  But the glittering regular-season success fed into a theme that his teams were postseason underachievers.

The narrative shifted over the years. Self’s early Kansas teams were upset in the first round by the likes of Bucknell and Bradley, and there was also a second-round loss to Northern Iowa in 2010. Now it’s more about losing in the Elite Eight. But the idea — Kansas comes up short in March — had staying power.

Going into Sunday’s game with Duke, Self’s Jayhawks were 2-5 in the Elite Eight. In four of the losses, including in each of the last two years, Kansas was the No. 1 seed.

“I think about it all the time,” Self said last week, acknowledging those numbers are “etched in the back of my brain.”

And then there’s this team.

But let’s start with last year, when the Jayhawks reached the Elite Eight for the second consecutive season. As the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, they played the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Kansas City, 42 miles from Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kan. With a national player of the year in senior guard Frank Mason and a future NBA lottery pick in freshman forward Josh Jackson, Kansas was as talented as maybe any team in the entire NCAA bracket, and through the first three rounds, the Jayhawks played like it.

But in the Midwest Region final, No. 3 Oregon led by as many as 18 points and won by 14.

Bill Self and the Jayhawks celebrate their Midwest Region championship.

It’s why Self called the Elite Eight the hardest game in the NCAA tournament. And it’s why after beating Clemson last week in the Sweet 16, he noted that a “special, special” season at Kansas had to end in the Final Four.

No one expected special this season, much less a double dose. Their best recruit, power forward Billy Preston, never made it to campus after NCAA eligibility issues, instead choosing to play pro ball in Europe. That left the Jayhawks very thin — they go seven deep, and no more than eight — and with very little size. There’s no surefire lottery pick. For most of the season, Kansas looked like a nice team but nothing special. Even after a late-season surge to win the Big 12’s regular-season title again (helped greatly when Texas Tech guard Keenan Evans suffered a broken toe and the Red Raiders lost four in a row), even when the Jayhawks won the Big 12 Tournament to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament — this No. 1 didn’t seem to resemble those other No. 1s.

But that makes Kansas’ run to San Antonio even better. While some Kansas teams underachieved, this one has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

This being March, there’s an element of serendipity, too. If Duke guard Grayson Allen’s last-second shot — it crawled along the rim, kissed the backboard and then crawled along the rim some more before falling out — had curled in? Kansas would have lost in the Elite Eight for the third consecutive season. Self would have been 2-6 at Kansas in shots at the Final Four (and 2-8 including stints at Tulsa and Illinois). That this team isn’t as talented as some of those other teams probably wouldn’t have mattered to the narrative.

But Allen missed. Kansas won. Here the Jayhawks are.

“When you do get there, there’s somewhat of relief, happiness, but also a relief that you get there,” Krzyzewski said.

All of that was bound up and burst free in Self’s moment at the buzzer. And there was another moment, well after the trophy had been presented and the nets had been cut down, when Self addressed the Jayhawks in the locker room.

“You know I’m not that emotional,” Self began — he stopped for a moment to compose himself, and wiped tears from his eyes with a towel. “This is the best I’ve felt about a group. And you guys have no idea how much this means to so many people. And I said before you’re gonna be loved by this place forever. All you can do is add to it. And you’ve added to it. Now all we can do is add to it (again).”

On a teleconference Monday, Self laughed and suggested it was “just a lot of water in my eye.” But he also acknowledged the obvious — the recent history of coming up short, and then getting there with this team – fed into those moments.

But this is Kansas. And themes are persistent things. On Wednesday, when the Jayhawks arrived in San Antonio, Self foreshadowed what could come next.

“Somebody said yesterday, ‘You’ll be remembered forever for making a Final Four,’” Self said — and given the entirety of the circumstances, that probably is how it should be, but he continued. “No, you won’t. Not at Kansas. You’ll be remembered forever if you win it.”

In crossing that difficult bridge, have Self and Kansas finally shed a label, or just shifted a narrative?

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