If there's one thing KU fans can believe by now, it's that Bill Self's teams will compete for Big 12 championships and Final Four slots. Every single year.
Two things first:
One, I've been obsessed or semi-obsessed with Kansas basketball since 1984, when I decided to attend KU.
Two, I'm generally clear-eyed when it comes to my favorite teams. As proof of that, I offer two opinions, neither of which are likely to gain me any favor in this space ...
Of course we're all thrilled that our Jayhawks have potentially assumed the No. 1 spot in the polls. However, I'm not convinced that this team is actually the best basketball team in the land. While I do believe the 'hawks are a legitimate Top 10 team, maybe even Top 5 if everyone's healthy and well-coached, I just don't see the talent this season of a true No. 1 team.
Okay, pissed at me yet? If not, here's another ... I do not think KU's oft-noted streak of eight straight Big 12 championships is completely legitimate. As you probably know, the Jayhawks are actually listed as co-champions in three of those seasons: 2005 (with Oklahoma), 2006 (Texas) and 2008 (Texas). In those seasons, KU tied for the best record during the conference season. But the league does employ a tie-breaker; it has to, for conference-tournament seeding. And in all three of those seasons, Kansas lost their single game against those teams, thus falling to the No. 2 seed in the tournament.
Granted, there was little shame in those losses. In all three cases, the Jayhawks lost to their rivals on the road. The 2006 game in Austin was a blowout, but the other two were tightly fought. Still, in my mind -- and yes, I know my mind doesn't matter to anyone but me -- Kansas has won five of the last eight conference titles, and come oh-so-close in the other three years.
Wait, I really do have something nice to say.
Obviously, the conference championships and co-championships are quite wonderful for the fans. The ridiculous success against K-State is pretty sweet. And we'll always have The Shot.
But it occurred to me recently that the single greatest pleasure that Bill Self has given us is this: The Jayhawks are really good every year. I mean, every year. Or so it seemed to me. So I decided to check.
I believe that Ken Pomeroy's basketball ratings are about as good as any you'll find. Sure, you can quibble with his methods, and nobody's perfect. But they're generally fair, and over a number of seasons most of the systemic biases -- assuming there are any -- should basically cancel out. And Pomeroy's ratings go back to the 2002-2003 season ... which allows us to evaluate Bill Self's entire tenure as the Jayhawks' coach.
Another happy circumstance: This is Self's 10th season at Kansas and we all like big round numbers.
So here's what I did. First, I made a list of what I consider the top college programs over this last decade; almost by definition, this automatically gives us the most successful coaches. Here were the programs (and coaches) I chose:
Louisville (Rick Pitino)
Florida (Billy Donovan)
Syracuse (Jim Boeheim)
Duke (Mike Krzyzewski)
Michigan State (Tom Izzo)
Connecticut (Jim Calhoun)
North Carolina (Roy Williams)
I also threw in an amalgam of Memphis and Kentucky, because John Calipari belongs in this discussion.
Now, before going any further I would like to stress something ... I am not trying to identify the best coach. That might be Mark Few, who does wonders every year with Gonzaga. What I'm trying to identify is the coach who, year in and year out, has put his team in a position to win a championship over the last decade.
So I've got my programs and my coaches. Next, I just entered each team's season-ending ranking, per Ken Pomeroy. Once that's done, there are any number of ways to parse the numbers, but the most obvious is simple: adding the seasons together. If a team finished No. 1 at the end of each season, it's number would a perfect 10.
Nobody's done that, of course. Nobody's come close. But the lower the number, the better.
So here's that same list of coaches, ranked by composite season-ending rankings:
60 Bill Self
67 Mike Krzyzewski
124 John Calipari
150 Roy Williams
162 Rick Pitino
185 Billy Donovan
191 Tom Izzo
205 Jim Calhoun*
215 Jim Boeheim
* This counts the current season, even though Calhoun retired last September.
The thing about Bill Self is that his teams essentially never have a down year. Roy Williams is a great coach; we know that as well as anybody. But the Tar Heels finished 60th in 2010, and at the moment they're just 46th. John Calipari is a great coach -- well, a great recruiter for sure -- but it took him some time to build his program at Memphis, and his Kentucky team this season might be worse than any of Bill Self's Kansas teams.
Another way to measure consistency is with standard deviation. Since Self took over, the standard deviation from one season to the next has been just 4.3, easily the lowest in the group. Really, in terms of consistency, Self's only competition is Krzyzewski; like the Jayhawks, the Blue Devils never seem to have a down season (except sometimes, like the Jayhawks, when March Madness arrives). There's a small gap between Self's teams and Krzyzewski's in both aggregate ratings and standard deviations, and then a huge chasm between Krzyzewski and everyone else.
Getting back to the Big 12 ... Everyone in the world would agree, I think, that Rick Barnes has been a fantastic coach. Over the last decade, the worst the Jayhawks have done in Pomeroy's ratings was in 2004 and 2005 -- Self's first two seasons -- when they finished 13th and 12th. Those same 10 seasons for Barnes' Longhorns have included finishes of 14th, 18th, 21st, 23rd, 26th, and 31st; this season they're really down, currently rated 83rd.
That's the sort of thing that can happen to a good program, even a really good program.
But it's just never happened to Bill Self's Kansas program. A few months ago, I sorta figured this would be a down season, especially after watching the first few games. I was wrong. Someday it probably will happen, because it does seem to happen to every coach, every program eventually. But I'm going to stop expecting it to happen to the Jayhawks. Until it actually does, or Bill Self leaves.