There it was. Bill Self's Jayhawks running Purdue off the court in Kansas City.
All the hand wringing. All the sweaty, sleepless nights of Kansas fans earlier in the week. The dire predictions right here at RCT. Kansas wasn't supposed to match up well with Purdue and all that size.
Really though, Kansas fans needed not to worry. Any team, anywhere, at anytime. When it comes to the regional semi-final round of the NCAA tournament, Bill Self is Mr. Sweet Sixteen.
Counting this year's tournament and going back to his last year at Tulsa, Bill Self has led his teams to 12 Sweet Sixteens in 18 seasons. Of those 12 appearances, he's won nine. And of the two Sweet Sixteen losses he's had while at KU, honestly, both games he should have won – letting late leads slip away in 2009 and 2013 to Michigan State and Michigan, respectively. He owns the Sweet Sixteen.
The Elite Eight though?
Well... For Self's decorated career, the Elite Eight is where most of his tournament runs have smacked into a brick wall. The Elusive Eight. The Uneasy E.
Nationally, Self is regularly disrespected. Villanova's Jay Wright and Duke's Mike Kryzewski both have choked harder and more frequently in the tournament over the last decade than Self, and yet they are media darlings. Wright, Coach K, and Self have all won titles during that time, yet people are quick to peg him into a lower caste of coaches. Frequently ignored, though, is the fact Self is the only one of the three to get his team deeper into the tournament at a more consistent rate. Perhaps that is part of the problem. It's more painful to get so deep and come up just short than it is to just flame out in the first weekend, apparently.
Still, it is a bit perplexing, for those of us who know and appreciate how good of a coach Self actually is, that Self's teams seem to play tight and run out of gas in the Elite Eight so frequently.
Self's 30-win Golden Hurricane squad made Tulsa the mid-major gem of the 2000 NCAA Tournament. After playing their way into the Elite Eight, the only thing standing in the way of Tulsa and the Final Four was a mediocre 8-seeded North Carolina team on a crazy run in Bill Guthridge's final season in Chapel Hill. By virtue of being the 7-seed, Self's Tulsa team even got to bust out the white jerseys for this one. But the game was ground down to an ugly slug fest with neither team even cracking 60 points.
In Self's first year at Illinois, he won a Big 10 title and earned a 1-seed in the 2001 NCAA tournament. His team rolled through the first three games. That run included beating up Roy Williams’ Kansas squad in the Sweet Sixteen. Self's front court of Brian Cook, Robert Archibald, and Lucas Johnson pushed Nick Collison and Drew Gooden around like they were nothing but children. But in the Elite Eight it was Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcats who set the pace and flow of that game, and the Illini were sent home.
In Self's first year at Kansas, his Jayhawks were a Keith Langford foul out in overtime (on a bogus offensive foul, in which the Georgia Tech player flopped like an Italian soccer player) away from making a Final Four.
In 2007, Ben Howland's UCLA squad uglied up the game against Kansas. The painfully slow pace was made worse by the fact that Julian Wright and Sasha Kaun missed so many dunks, layups, and put backs that it looked like they were trying to play the game with a medicine ball.
In 2011, KU went ice cold from the perimeter in the Elite Eight against a VCU team that was shooting out of their minds from behind the arc.
And last year, KU lost a brief second half lead against an experienced and hot shooting Villanova squad on a dream run to a title.
Had Self made it through just one or two of those regional final games and doubled his Final Four trips on his resume, he would get more of the credit he already deserves. Even if he immediately lost in the Final Four he would get more love.
It should be noted though, that each of the last two Elite Eight losses for Self ('07 & '11) have been immediately followed up by a National Title run the very next season. In both instances, Self's team received significant improvement to its starting line-up.
In 2008, Julian Wright left Kansas for the NBA, and Sasha Kaun was shown the bench. Kansas' front court became Darnell Jackson and Darrell Arthur - stronger, faster and more athletic.
In 2012, the Morris' twins exodus to the NBA opened the door for Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson to start in the front court. Immediately, Kansas’ low post defense was improved with Withey's rim protection and Robinson's strength and heart, both far better than what the twins offered at any point in their careers at Kansas.
And then there's this year. The loss of Perry Ellis removed a chunk of career scoring for the Jayhawks, but out of necessity this season, Josh Jackson has been thrust into playing Ellis' old 4-spot in the lineup. As beloved as Ellis was during his time at Kansas he was not that strong in the paint and not nearly as dynamic of a scorer as Jackson has showcased this season, and specifically during this tournament. Ellis absolutely no-showed in last season's Elite Eight loss to a small Villanova team. He scored four points and grabbed just five boards.
Kansas wasn't supposed to be able to board up against Purdue's size. Kansas out rebounded the Boilermakers Thursday night. In addition to throwing in 15 points, Jackson battled for 12 boards. That's almost as many as Purdue's imposing front court trio of Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards, and Isaac Haas had COMBINED (13).
Following the Elite Eight disappointment in '07, Darnell and Darrell became the one two punch of front court talent Kansas needed to become one of the most balanced and statistically impressive National Champions in the modern era of the NCAA tournament.
After the loss in the Elite Eight in ‘11, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey became the back end anchors of the grittiest and hard fighting defensive team Self has ever put on a court. When that '12 team didn't want you to score, you didn't, with Withey setting an NCAA tournament record for blocks and Robinson grabbing every board.
It appears now that Self has yet another improvement to push him over the Elite Eight hump as Jackson is a major upgrade at the power forward spot.
As someone who has followed Self's career since 2000, I can't go into an Elite Eight game he's involved in without a nagging concern for whether or not his team will come out flat. However, his Jayhawks have clearly been the best team in this year's tournament so far. And this season, I believe, has showcased Self’s best coaching job of his already stellar career. He’s been flexible, not only on offense (in running a four guard set) so alien to his past, but on defense in utilizing a variety of zones throughout the year when his team needed it. His set plays and late game management have been nails as well, owed in most part to his trust and belief in his warrior of a point guard, Frank Mason III. After so many nail biter finishes during the season, this team has shown a refuse-to-lose attitude reminiscent of Self's 2012 squad, but world's better on offense than that team ever was. Most teams usually go about 50-50 in a given season among games decided by two possessions or less. This 2017 Jayhawks squad has gone 12-2 in such games.
The biggest problem Kansas showed all year was an inability to fully put teams away after getting slim leads, making for dramatic endings throughout. Kind of felt like that bug was biting them again in both of their last two tournament wins against Michigan State and Purdue. But in both of those games, Kansas punched it into another gear and blew past their opponents. I thought they would beat Purdue. Yet, I still cannot believe just how quickly that game turned from being tight to Self calling off the dogs so Kansas didn't score 120. It was unreal.
For the seventh time in 14 seasons at KU, Self has the 'Hawks one step away from a Final Four. That's impressive in its own right, but with that many times knocking on the door, it's Final Four or bust now, and it's time for Self to kick it in for the third time.
If Self and Jayhawks get through the Oregon Ducks on Saturday, Self will be playing in the only round of the tournament where he is as-of-yet undefeated at 2-0.
And if that happens, to all of Bill Self’s haters there’s only one thing left to be said.