Jayhawks coach hoping to shed 'no Final Four' tag
Posted: Saturday March 29, 2008 7:21PM; Updated: Sunday March 30, 2008 12:55PM
DETROIT -- Standing outside his team's Ford Field locker room on Saturday before practice, Kansas coach Bill Self smiled and joked with reporters, as relaxed as a guy fresh off a two-week Caribbean Cruise. You never would have noticed the gargantuan monkey firmly affixed to his back -- the one that comes from having fallen short of the Final Four in each of his previous four seasons with the Jayhawks and losing all four Elite Eight games he's coached in this decade.
Asked whether he'd feel joy or relief if the top-seeded Jayhawks finally get over the hump Sunday against upstart Davidson, Self quickly replied, "I would say joy." Then he paused, and for a brief instant, his face turned slightly serious. "Probably a little bit of relief."
Don't let him fool you: There would be a lot of relief.
All tourney long, all season long, Self -- whose 34-3 team returned 12 of 13 letter-winners from last year's top-seeded squad that lost to second seed UCLA in the Elite Eight -- has been wearing the unwanted tag of "best coach never to reach a Final Four." It's hard to argue: The guy has a .812 winning percentage at Kansas -- higher than that of predecessor Roy Williams -- not to mention four Big 12 regular-season titles, three conference tournament titles and three Elite Eight appearances (2004, '07 and '08).
At a school like Kansas, however, that's not enough. Not when that school's reached 12 previous Final Fours. Not when Williams took the Jayhawks to five of them in his 16 seasons in Lawrence (though he once carried his own dubious distinction of failing to win a national title). And not when Self's previous three teams lost earlier in the tournament than their seed should have dictated.
"It's something that I think about every day in some form or fashion -- a lot of times many times a day," said Self, who also reached the Elite Eight at Tulsa (2000) and Illinois ('01). "I would like to eliminate that tag, not for me as much as these players who have won so many games since they've been at Kansas, so many championships. I would love for them to add [the Final Four] to their resume because it will be incomplete without it."
And yet, should the Jayhawks fend off Stephen Curry and the Wildcats on Sunday, there will be many who still feel they haven't done enough. The bracket has fallen so favorably for Kansas that it can reach San Antonio without beating a single opponent seeded better than eighth (UNLV). A rash of upsets in the Midwest region left the Jayhawks with a 12th-seeded Sweet 16 foe (Villanova, whom they crushed 72-57) and now a 10th seed in Davidson.
Anyone who's watched Davidson take down Georgetown and Wisconsin knows they're far better than a 10th seed -- they're ranked in the top 25, for crying out loud -- but still, should the Jayhawks prevail, the record books will show they took the easiest path to the Final Four since fellow top seed Michigan State in 2001 (which beat No. 12 seed Gonzaga and No. 11 seed Temple in its regional).
A more applicable comparison, however, might be that of Jim Calhoun's 1999 Connecticut team. Much like Self, Calhoun, a recent Hall of Fame inductee who to that point had coached numerous highly ranked teams without reaching the promised land, finally landed a "break" on the way to his first Final Four, drawing then-unheralded Gonzaga -- like Davidson, a 10th seed -- in the Elite Eight.
Those Richard Hamilton-led Huskies wound up stunning 37-1 Duke in the national title game.
"We prepared all year for this," said point guard Russell Robinson. "Now the time has come."
Robinson, a senior and three-year starter, is one of several veterans who have endured seemingly perennial heartbreak each March. As a freshman backup in 2005, he watched accomplished seniors Wayne Simien, Keith Langford and Aaron Miles endure a humiliating first-round upset at the hands of Bucknell. The next year, 2006, saw the arrival of heralded freshmen Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright, who themselves suffered a first-round exodus against Bradley.
With the addition of power forward Darrell Arthur and speedy guard Sherron Collins last season, the nucleus for the Jayhawks' dominating run these past two seasons (67-8) began forming. Wright was the only significant player to turn pro last offseason (Rush likely would have if not for a knee injury last spring), yet his presence has barely been missed due to the improvement of sophomore Arthur (12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds) and the dramatic ascension of career backup Darnell Jackson (11.3 points, 6.7 rebounds)