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Bill Self, Roy Williams, and the Eerily Reminiscent 12th Year Kansas Crossroads

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Just as Roy Williams did in 2000, twelve years in as Kansas' coach, Bill Self finds himself in a rut of early tournament exits. For Roy, year thirteen at Kansas proved to be a turning point in the coach's career. In his thirteenth year at Kansas, is Bill Self's second wind about to kick in as well?

It's always a bit sad and uncomfortable when the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament starts and your school didn't make it out of the first. It's kinda like seeing someone you were in a long relationship with walking around town with a new person. Even though you may have come to terms with the end of things, seeing them moving on brings with it a confusing cocktail of emotions: regret, envy, etc. Ultimately, you wind up comparing yourself. What do they have that I don't?

So it was Thursday evening. West Virginia, a team who has trouble scoring against anybody, was doomed going up against the best team in the country. 'Tucky took one look at that press and said, "that's so cute," and then blew right by it.

Then of course there was Wichita State. The Shockers were so pleased with themselves for getting their shot against the Jayhawks and cashing it in that they had the appearance of mentally checking out of the tournament against a very suspect Irish squad.

As a Kansas fan you had to watch that and say, we could have put up a better performance than that. Right? What do these guys have that we don't?

Of all of last night's matchups though, the one where the sting of a past relationship partner moving on analogy was most apt when applied to the North Carolina vs Wisconsin game. Roy Williams' Tar Heels just about took down the 1-seed Badgers to earn a spot in the Elite Eight.

Since the spring of 2003, Bill Self and Roy Williams have been inexorably tied to one another, their successes and failures constantly measured and compared. Whether this is fair or not to both men is irrelevant. It's the blessing and curse of stewarding one of the few blue-blooded college basketball programs in the country.

It's been twelve years since Roy returned to Chapel Hill and Bill made his way to Lawrence. The move was a good one for both schools, with Roy restoring the respect and prestige to UNC and winning as many titles (2) in six years as the great Dean Smith won in thirty-six. And at Kansas Bill won a title, doing in five years what Roy could not do in fifteen.

Still, when Bill's Jayhawks bit it in the first round of the 2005 tournament, the same year Roy's Tar Heels won it all, it was a jarring experience for 'Hawk fans. First, because Roy never (and still hasn't) lost an opening game in the tourney. Second, because when last the Kansas fans saw Roy leading their team he took them to within four points of winning a National Title.

When Bill followed 2005 up by losing in the first tournament game again in 2006, Kansas fans were pining for Roy and suffering from buyer's remorse with the coach they had.

Bill exercised a lot of those demons two years later when his Jayhawks destroyed Roy's Tar Heels on Kansas' way to winning the most loaded Final Four in tournament history.  2008 was, and still remains, the only Final Four where all four #1 seeds made it. All four of those 1 seeds were loaded with enough future NBA draft picks to craft three full starting line-ups.

In sports though, seven years ago is ancient history. Unfortunately, on a night when Roy's Tar Heels were still alive and very much kicking in the tournament while Bill's Jayhawks are watching from home, that old comparative itch flamed up with renewed strength.

Bill's twelve years at Kansas is a significant milestone when it comes to the story of Bill and Roy and the current state of Kansas basketball. Twelve years in, Bill seems to be experiencing a lull that has put a dent in his reputation when it comes to his ability to win games when they matter most. Given the heights of success that Bill had experienced since he got the Jayhawks program up and chugging along from 2007 through 2012, it's only natural that there would be a bit of a dip from that success. However, given how much basketball means to students and fans of Kansas University, it's enough to start the grumblings.

Roy found himself in a similar predicament following his twelfth year as Jayhawks' coach (2000). In 2000 he'd just lost in the Round of 32 for the third straight year. Since Paul Pierce and Raef Lafrentz left after 1998, his teams had been distressingly low on productive talent. When Dean Smith's successor at North Carolina, Bill Guthridge, announced he was retiring after just three seasons the Tar Heels made Roy Williams their number one candidate to replace him. We all remember the widespread hurt and outrage so many in Lawrence, KS felt over Roy's departure in 2003. Well, the thought of him leaving in 2000 was met with a fifty-fifty split. There were plenty of Jayhawk fans who felt maybe it was time for Roy to move on, that his success had plateaued and both parties needed a fresh start.

As we know Roy chose to stay at Kansas in 2000, and over the subsequent three years Roy's Kansas teams took off to make three consecutive deep tournament runs culminating in back to back Final Fours and a crack at the 2003 National Title. It was the greatest concentration of tournament success Roy had during his fifteen years as Jayhawks' coach. Not surprisingly, that type of three year tournament run was followed by Jayhawk fans begging Roy to stay.

Bill Self just finished his twelfth season for the Jayhawks. Grumblings from students and fans are starting to grow concerning his ability to win big games for Kansas. He's coming off of back to back Round of 32 losses. His 2015 squad appeared to be his least talented and productive roster.

If we're following such an eerily redundant suit here, should Jayhawk fans expect that  Bill is on the edge of another upswing in success at Kansas just as Roy did following his late '90s dip?

What caused the dip for both coaches in the first place?

When you look at Bill and Roy's first twelve legitimate seasons at Kansas they look remarkably similar. I say first twelve legit seasons, because for this comparison I've dropped Roy's first actual season (1989) due to the fact that Kansas was serving a postseason ban, of which Roy had no part in bringing about. As a result, it's a more fair juxtaposition to start with Roy's 1990 season. Roy didn't leave the cupboard bare at Kansas going into the 2004 season the way Larry Brown left it going into 1988-89.

Roy's First 12 Seasons (non-probation) at Kansas (1990 - 2001)

  • Win Loss Record: 336-77
  • Average wins: 28
  • Conference Crowns: 7 (1991 - '93, '95 - '98)
  • NCAA Tournament Bids: 12
  • Round of 64 Record: 12-0 (Roy remains unbeaten in this round as of this writing)
  • Round of 32 Record: 7-5
  • Sweet 16: 3-4 (Roy's most problematic round while at Kansas)
  • Elite 8: 2-1
  • Final Four: 1-1
  • National Title Game: 0-1
  • Total Tournament Wins: 25
  • Average Length of Tournament Run: 2 wins (Sweet 16)

Bill's First 12 Seasons at Kansas (2004 - 2015)

  • Win Loss Record: 352-78
  • Average wins: 29.3
  • Conference Crowns: 11 (2005 - '15)
  • NCAA Tournament Bids: 12
  • Round of 64 Record: 10-2
  • Round of 32 Record: 7-3
  • Sweet 16: 5-2 (Even before he was at Kansas, if Bill reached this round he was usually nails)
  • Elite 8: 2-3 (Bill's most problematic round)
  • Final Four: 2-0
  • National Title Game: 1-1
  • Total Tournament Wins: 27
  • Average Length of Tournament Run: 2.25 wins (basically Sweet 16 with a slightly better shot of advancing)

Roy's First 12 Seasons at North Carolina (2004 - 2015)

  • Win Loss Record: 332-101
  • Average wins: 27.67
  • Conference Crowns: 6 (2005, '07 - '09, '11 - '12)
  • NCAA Tournament Bids: 11 (went to the NIT in 2010)
  • Round of 64 Record: 11-0 (unbeatable here)
  • Round of 32 Record: 7-4
  • Sweet 16: 6-1 (Once Roy's weakest, the Sweet 16 is now his 2nd strongest round. He was undefeated until last night)
  • Elite 8: 3-3 (Roy's new problematic round)
  • Final Four: 2-1
  • National Title Game: 2-0
  • Total Tournament Wins: 31
  • Average Length of Tournament Run: 2.82 wins (Pretty much an Elite Eight run, just a little under)

Looking at the above, Bill appears the better regular season coach, especially when you look at their time at Kansas. However, the ACC is a much stronger basketball conference than the Big 12 and so when you see Roy and Bill's last twelve seasons set side by side you see that Roy has held up just fine in the regular season. You still need to give Bill a slight edge since he's not had a team wind up in the NIT like Roy has.

As far as tournament records go, both coaches' time at Kansas seems like a mirror image of the other. Same number of appearances. Almost same number of wins. Almost same average run in the tournament. Same number of Final Four appearances. The main huge difference, obviously, being that Bill brought home the trophy from one of his two Final Four visits.

During Roy's time at Carolina it's not even a question. He's clearly been better in the tournament, grabbing more wins in spite of the fact that his Heels went NIT-ing once. He's averaged a deeper tournament run than Bill, he's made it to one more Final Four, and won one more Title.

When comparing the two coaches there is one category that has been all Bill Self. Though the sample size is a small one, when the two coaches have met head to head, Bill Self has owned Roy Williams. The coaches have gone up against each other five times in their careers. In all but one of those meetings, Bill Self's teams have been the stronger, tougher, more aggressive squads, punching Roy's teams in the mouth and leaving them shell shocked by the end of the games.

The first time I ever heard Bill Self's name I was at Abe in Jake's Landing in Lawrence, KS, to watch the 4-seed Jayhawks take on the 1-seed Fightin' Illini in the 2001 Sweet 16. Then I watched his Illini physically dominate the Jayhawks in an 80-64 result that was far closer than the game ever actually felt.

Bill's Illini and Roy's Jayhawks would meet each other the very next year, in the very same round of the tournament. The only difference was that their seeds had been flipped. Kansas' 2002 squad was 32-3, averaging an NBA level 90 points a game, and had Roy's offense humming like it never had before at Kansas. Bill Self's 4th seeded Illini once again slowed the Kansas attack, even holding the lead late in the second half, but Roy's loaded Jayhawks did just enough to move on after a 73-69 victory.

The coaches didn't meet again until 2008 when Bill was at Kansas and Roy at Carolina. No Jayhawk fan can forget this game. On national television, Kansas made absolute fools out of the 2008 tournament's overall #1 seed. It was enough to compel former CBS color commentator Billy Packer to call the game just 13 minutes into the first half.

Bill and Roy met again in a high stakes tournament game in the 2012 Elite Eight. Neck and neck throughout the entire contest, Bill's never say die 2012 Jayhawks grabbed hold of the game for good with five minutes to go. Physically broken, the Heels were unable to even score a single point the rest of the game.

There wasn't a long wait for the fifth, and as of yet final, meeting between Bill and Roy. It came in the Round of 32 of the 2013 tournament. And again, Bill's 'Hawks were just too strong for Roy's Heels. The Jayhawks went on a 35-12 run to start the second half, blowing the game wide open en route to a 70-58 victory. This Heels fan's reaction to Jeff Withey blocking a Tar Heel three point attempt before pushing the ball up the court like a gangly seven foot tall point guard, says more than any commentary could.

During his time at Kansas, Bill Self has been able to saturate his rosters with big time talent far more consistently than Roy Williams was. Self's teams have also demonstrated a greater ability to adapt their style of play if a game isn't going well. Roy's Kansas teams had a tendency to fold if an opponent turned the game into a fight.

I believe that Roy took Kansas as far as he ever could. Ultimately, Bill Self is a better fit as the Jayhawks' coach.

I think the comparison of the coaches' records say less about each other's abilities - they both clearly know how to win - and more about the Kansas program in general.

As blue-blooded and prestigious as the Kansas Basketball program may be, the truth is, given the university's geographic location and the watered down conference it finds itself stuck in, it's harder to win on a national stage at Kansas than it is at Carolina.

There's a reason that there wasn't much difference between Kansas and Kansas State's basketball programs (almost identical amount of conference titles, tourney appearances, Final Four appearances, etc.) before Larry Brown showed up in Lawrence and started the process of turning Kansas into the best program west of the Mississippi.

Since Wooden left UCLA, and more importantly the tournament expanded to 64 teams (29 tournaments), only five schools west of the Mississippi have won it all. Kansas is the only western school to win it twice and the only western winner in the last eighteen tournaments.

What Larry, Roy and now Bill have been able to accomplish in Lawrence demands national respect. The numbers speak for themselves. It's harder to get big time talent to come play out west. Kansas has made itself one of few western schools whose name brand can serve as its chief recruiting asset.. But Bill has taken it to another level. The fact that Bill has yet to coach a Kansas team that has made the tournament as anything lower than a 4 seed, while earning five 1s and averaging a 2 is absolutely sick. As good as a coach as I think Roy is, I don't believe that Roy would have been able to have sustained that kind of success at Kansas.

The only coach I think could have done a better job at Kansas than Bill Self over the last twelve years is John Calipari. That guy is on a level all to his own.

If Bill takes a similar turn in his thirteenth year to what Roy did in his thirteenth season at Kansas and starts earning significant post season success again, maybe win a second title, there wouldn't even be a debate. He'd be the greatest coach in Kansas' history.

To this point, twelve years later, Roy's return to Carolina still looks like it was the best thing for the Tar Heels and the Jayhawks.

The only people who have any true gripe are the Fightin' Illini fans.  Bruce Weber...

Those fans got screwed.