Self-Interest: Can Bill Self Win Big Games?
by Max - 03/28/2007
With the Final Four now just days away, the Kansas Jayhawks will once again be sitting in Lawrence watching basketball instead of playing in Atlanta. The Jayhawks stumbled in their Elite Eight game against UCLA, falling apart in the second half before losing by the score of 68-55. KU scored just 24 points in the second half - a far cry from the team that averaged over 78 points per game during the regular season. But the Jayhawks were flustered and floundering this game and just were not able to finish in the paint.
Normally there is no shame in losing to a No. 2 seed, as UCLA was, in the NCAA Tournament. Especially a team that many experts felt warranted a No. 1 billing. Also, the Bruins had the distinct advantage of playing this game in San Jose, CA in front of a Blue and Gold crowd. But very few people will argue that when looking at each of these team's rosters the talent clearly lies with the Lords of Lawrence.
The Bruins did make the Final Four last year, but lost two key ingredients from that squad in Jordan Farmar and Ryan Hollins. Granted, UCLA has been able to find a replacement for Farmer in Collison, but they still have a big void in the middle with the absence of Hollins. This is the area the Jayhawks should have been able to exploit with their long, athletic big men.
Kansas got off to a solid start in this game and had a six-point lead on a couple of occasions in the first half. But the Bruins hung tough and wouldn't allow that lead to grow any larger. UCLA made a run late in the first half topped by a last second three-point basket by Josh Shipp to give the Bruins a four-point lead. This type of halftime deficit is usually nothing to worry about considering the explosive nature of the Jawhawk offense. But for whatever reason Kansas didn't show up in the second half and UCLA stayed in control throughout the final 20 minutes, never again relinquishing the lead en-route to the Final Four.
So where did the Jayhawks go wrong? How could a team with superior talent once again come up so small in the NCAA Tournament? Herein lies the problem many Jayhawk fans have with head coach Bill Self: he can't win the big game. This has plagued him throughout a coaching career that included stops in Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas. This is the fourth time Self has led his team to the Elite Eight, but he can't cross over that next threshold to the Final Four.
So in four games on the precipice of the Final Four - each game with 50 percent odds of success - you would assume that Self would have found himself in two national semifinal games by now. Or at least one. In fact, the odds of not winning once in those four opportunities are just 6.25 percent. Clearly, the numbers would suggest that Self would have made the fourth time a charm.
Everyone knows that games are not played on paper (wishful thinking for Kansas fans), but Coach Self was favored to win three of his four Elite Eight games. The first was in 2000 when his seventh-seeded Tulsa Golden Hurricanes took on the eighth-seeded UNC Tar Heels. Tulsa played a solid game but fell by a score of 59-55 against a Tar Heel squad that underachieved for much of the season before putting it together to make a tournament run. This was the one time I believe Coach Self was not expected to win because his Canes couldn't match up against Brendan Haywood.
Coach Self then took his show to Illinois and did an outstanding job of recruiting, getting the Illini a No. 1 seed in 2001. The Illini appeared ready to take the next step but fell to Arizona, 87-81. The Wildcats controlled this game for most of the second half and had numerous NBA players on their roster. This was a coin-flip game and could have gone either way, but once again Coach Self lost.
The same can't be said for the next two games, which both occurred while Coach Self was at Kansas. He left Illinois in 2003 and was in his first season with the Jayhawks, an extremely talented group inherited by Self following the departure of Roy Williams. This team struggled during the regular season but really hit their stride during the tournament and could not have asked for a better draw with first- and second-round games being played in Kansas City and the Regionals were held in St. Louis. Kansas crusied through the first three rounds of the 2004 tournament while winning its games by an average of 22 points. Everything appeared to be in line for a trip to the final four, but then Georgia Tech pulled the upset beating Kansas by eight points in overtime. Tech led through most of the second half before a late rally by Kansas forced overtime. One would have assumed Kansas was riding a huge wave of positive emotion and would have easily been able to take down the Yellow Jackets in the extra stanza. But that was not the case and yet again Coach Self was on the outside looking in.
A couple of early round exits occurred the next two years preceding the Elite Eight disappointment in San Jose. If you lose one Elite Eight game you could attribute it to a poor shooting night. But four? For it to happen four times the blame lies squarely on the shoulders of the coach and his preparation for those games. Self is an outstanding recruiter of talent, but he is a terrible game coach that does not get the most out of those players once they arrive on campus. This is what frustrates the KU faithful and why grumblings about their coach have started to surface. Certainly, 95 percent of the schools would love to have Coach Self as their head man because the talent he assembles is able to win 25-plus games each season. But it is winning during the tournament that clearly seems to be the problem, and how much longer will Jayhawk fans be content with simply winning conference titles with no Final Fours to show for it?
Maybe the best thing Kansas supporters could hope for is a similar situation to what happened at Illinois when Self left. Bruce Weber was able to guide the Illini, made up entirely of Self recruits, to a 32-1 record and a trip to the National Championship Game. Weber demonstrated his ability to win big games, something that Self has yet to demonstrate. Expect Kansas to continue to earn high seeds in the tournament, as the talent assembled continues to be top notch, but KU fans will expect at least one of these teams to reach the Final Four - and soon. If that doesn't occur the number of KU fans who dislike Self will continue to grow. I mean, really Bill, is coming through in one big game and making one Final Four with those players too much to ask?
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