Bill Self is generally regarded as a living legend in Lawrence. After years of frustration under Roy Williams' first weekend flameouts and championship near-misses, Self finally brought a title back to KU in 2008, which gave him hero status, and Kansas' return to the title game in 2012, with what was considered at the time to be possibly the thinnest roster Self had worked with in Lawrence, cemented his place in Kansas lore. The run of eleven consecutive Big 12 titles hasn't hurt, either.
It wasn't all smiles and adulation for Self from day one, though. Roy, despite never bringing a title to Kansas, had a lot of success and left enormous shoes to fill. Things looked good out of the gate, taking the team to an Elite Eight in his first year on the job, but back-to-back first round exits to unknowns Bucknell and Bradley had fans irritated by the end of year three. The narrative began to build that Self was a solid in-season coach, but didn't know how to get it done in March.
The tides turned in the 2006-07 season, when Self's Jayhawks twice knocked off the Kevin Durant-led Texas Longhorns to win both the Big 12 regular season title and the Big 12 championship game. Kansas made it all the way to the Elite Eight again, but an unfortunate pairing with a lower-seeded UCLA team in California and an ugly game stopped them just shy of the Final Four. Faith was restored, at least to an extent, in Self's ability to lead the Kansas Jayhawks to where fans wanted them to go.
As we all know, it took only one more year to get there. Self's 2008 team was, until last year, the highest rated team of the KenPom era, and won the National Title. Concerns over KU's first-round exits in years two and three seemed like distant memories as Lawrence celebrated. The following year, after losing the entire starting lineup, Self and point guard Sherron Collins won yet another conference title and went to the Sweet 16, generally viewed as punching above their weight.
The 2010 team was loaded with talent, but a first-weekend lost to 9 seed Northern Iowa started a new concern amongst finicky fans, that Kansas had an issue with mid-majors. These concerns spread the following year when another immensely talented Kansas team was within a game of another Final Four appearance, only to have their hopes dashed by a hot-shooting VCU team.
Once again, Self was able to quell the swelling discontent in 2012, when a team that started Kevin Young and relied heavily on former walkon Conner Teahan off the bench was able to put together a great late-season run that took Kansas all the way to the National Championship game. Two championship appearances in four years, combined with three Elite Eights and an increasingly impressive streak of dominance over the Big 12 had shut up all detractors. Bill Self was the man in Lawrence.
Today, it is plainly evident that achieving "untouchable" status in modern-day sports is nigh impossible. 2013 was fine overall, with some seemingly magical late-game heroics sinking the team in the Sweet 16, but also planted a sense of irritation within some fans, as the season featured a three game losing streak (the first under Self). In the middle of the streak was the most mind-boggling game of the entire basketball season, in which Kansas was held to just 55 points in Ft. Worth and lost to a TCU team that would only go on to beat one other Big 12 team that season. This type of upset was unheard of in the Bill Self era.
The following year seems to be when mild irritation started to become something more amongst a contingent of Kansas fans. The Jayhawks brought in Andrew Wiggins, one of the most hyped recruits out of high school since Lebron James. Despite Wiggins putting up good numbers and some incredible performances, and despite the rapid emergence of star center Joel Embiid, many seemed disappointed by Wiggins' inability to live up to impossibly high expectations, and an injury to Embiid, combined with offensive struggles that limited Kansas throughout the season, led to yet another early tournament exit for Kansas, one in which Wiggins scored just 4 points. Bill Self was still revered by the majority of Kansas fans, but an undercurrent of disappointment was forming, seemingly a combination of frustration over Wiggins inability to be Superman, and the fact that tournament performance, despite two national championship game appearances, continued to make itself a topic in Lawrence.
For the second straight year, the Jayhawks had occasional problems scoring. Ken Pomeroy ranked Kansas as the 14th best offense in the country, but the season was marred by a sub-30% shooting performance against San Diego State that led to one of two home losses for Kansas. Prior to that, Kansas looked almost totally incapable of putting up points against Florida, managing just 21 at halftime before some Wiggins-led heroics pulled them to a total of 61, despite shooting just 43%. That had come on the heels of a 59 point performance against Villanova. When Kansas mustered just 57 points in their first-weekend exit to Stanford, it felt like more of the same, even if the team had overall scored efficiently over the course of the year.
Last year, many considered Kansas' roster to be the weakest since Self's arrival in Lawrence. Guards Frank Mason and Devonte Graham had been headed to mid-majors before getting offers from Kansas. Wayne Selden clearly wasn't the player he was though to be coming out of high school. Freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander got off to very slow starts (more in that in a minute), and aside from Perry Ellis, the remaining post players were relative unknowns. Kansas won the Big 12 (again), but blew a double-digit lead against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament, and was embarrassed by Wichita State in the round of 32.
This time, the early exit was one of many gripes heard amongst Kansas fans. Self's handling of Cliff Alexander, which included a short leash and many games with reduced minutes, had led to a #freecliff hashtag floating around Twitter. Alexander was statistically the best post player Kansas had not named Perry Ellis, and many fans were perplexed by Self's unwillingness to led him play signifcant minutes alongside the team's star. When concerns about Alexander's eligibility resulted in the end of his season in February, it only served as a reminder of how thin Kansas' corps of big men really was. An injury to Perry Ellis meant a spell of games where the 4 and 5 spots were occupied by role players like Landen Lucas, Jamari Traylor and Hunter Mickelson.
To pile onto the complaints about Alexander's playing time, analytics enthusiasts were going crazy about Bill Self's comments about the three pointer, considered one of the most efficient sources of offense in basketball by the stats crowd, being "fool's gold." The comment was followed by a sharp reduction in the number of threes Kansas shot, despite them being one of the best three point shooting teams in the country. It would later turn out that their star sharpshooter, Brannen Greene, was playing through a significant injury, which likely caused not only a personal slump for him, but lower emphasis on perimeter shooting for the rest of the team as well. Still, the complaints were there, and as Kansas found themselves struggling to score in numerous games, many fans were losing their minds as Kansas seemed to completely run out of ways to get the ball in the net for long stretches of time.
By the time the season ended, the complaints about the way the team was being run, specifically in terms of personnel and offense, had permeated even some of the more patient parts of the fanbase. Why couldn't Kansas score points anymore? Why weren't there more star players on the team? Was Self getting left behind in the increasingly numbers-driven world of basketball? Why was Cliff Alexander, the team's top defensive rebounder, sitting on the bench as Kansas struggled with teams who crashed the offensive boards? Why was Kansas, once again, looking back at an early tournament exit?
They weren't invalid questions, and criticism of Bill Self, once a ridiculous thought, was the loudest it had been since the Bradley and Bucknell. Now, it's getting louder.
In a vacuum, Monday's loss to Michigan State was no big deal. Fans of teams like Kansas never take losses well, but even KU loses a game or two in the non-conference slate to good teams. The discontent that followed the loss had less to do with the loss itself, and more to do with how it unraveled.
Kansas took advantage of multiple early Spartan turnovers and built a lead that ranged from about 7-11 points throughout most of the game. However, in the second half, Kansas went away from Perry Ellis, a force for much of the game to that point, and once again seemed to be grasping for answers on offense, missing multiple layups (20, to be exact), and hardly going to the three point shot at all. Kansas shot 3-15 from behind the arc, but had attempted just 11 for the game prior to some last-minute desperation attempts. In KU's season opener against Northern Colorado, they shot 15-26 from three point range en route to 109 points. As the Jayhawk's lead was converted to a deficit in the waning minutes of the second half, Kansas fans were being treated to more of the same. It was a team without future NBA talent struggling to manufacture points, and seemingly ignoring the strength of their offense, while adhering to its weakness.
This week, a lot of Kansas fans are angry. As long as Cheick Diallo remains ineligible, this is largely the same team from last year. So far, it's tough to pinpoint improvement. Yes, we're only two games in, but it doesn't take much to get sports fans irritated. A glance around sites and publications who cover Kansas basketball reveals article after article about the reluctance to shoot threes, and questions about KU's offense getting left behind as it seemingly fails to adapt to a game increasingly focused on getting the most efficient shots possible (and making them).
Are these criticisms fair? Has Bill Self earned too much benefit of the doubt? Or are his early tournament exits and drop in recent offensive numbers a sign of a gap in his coaching acumen? Is he failing to adapt, or is Kansas just in a lull? After all, it's not like the Jayhawks have fallen off the map in college basketball. They've been ranked no worse than 14th by Ken Pomeroy, and earned no worse than a 3 seed in each of the last three years. They're currently a top 5 team in both polls (likely top 10 when next week's poll comes out). Kansas fans may very well have built up a standard that no human coach could meet, but that doesn't change the fact that these concerns exist, and they're getting louder. To be clear, Bill Self isn't even close to being on the hot seat. They could lose in the first round this year, and the seat would still stay cool. However, there are some doubts growing once again in the fanbase, and it will be interesting to see if Self can, like he did in 2007 and again in 2012, put them to rest before the doubt spreads into something less manageable.