Joe Posnanski
Wednesday March 11th, 2009

Kansas coach Bill Self does not poor-mouth much. Of course, all big-time coaches poor-mouth their own programs and teams just a little bit, they can't help it. That's how it goes. They just have to make their own little problems sound large, their plainly pedestrian opponents seem unbeatable*, their own gifted team of All-Stars sound like the Bad News Bears before Matthau found Tatum O'Neal and Kelly Leak.

*The Kings of the Poor-mouth, without any doubt, were Vince and Bill Dooley. The Dooley boys grew up in Mobile, Ala., where they learned to fear God, run the football and make next week's opponent sound like a combination of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the 300 Spartans who fought at Thermopylae. The highlight moment came when one of the Dooleys -- probably Vince, though there is some debate -- faced a team that was so bad it defied even the Dooley power of exaggeration. This led to the classic line: "Temple has quality personnel. We noticed on film that they have one of the finest snappers in the country." This quote has also been attributed to Bill, though his is the more poetic: "William & Mary has one of the the finest long snappers I have ever seen."

Self, though, tends to avoid the worst parts of poor-mouthing. He knows -- from his own challenges as coach at Oral Roberts, then Tulsa, then Illinois -- that he's got it awfully good at Kansas. He can recruit the best high school players in the nation and point to the Kansas players in the NBA like Paul Pierce and Kirk Hinrich. He can point to a basketball history that goes back to Danny Manning and then back further to Wilt Chamberlain and still further to Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp who played for Phog Allen who played for James Naismith, the man who invented basketball in the first place. More or less, every living room in America is open to the basketball coach at Kansas.

There are other built-in advantages. Kansas almost never loses at Allen Fieldhouse. There are so many great home courts in college basketball, but I would say none of them match Allen for the home-court advantage formula which I just invented:

Intimidating crowd + history of the building + ghosts of players and coaches past + referee proclivity for giving home team at least two suspect charge calls + effective fan chants + eerie tendency of opponents key shot rattling in and out = home-court advantage.

The Jayhawks have won 40-consecutive games at Allen Fieldhouse, and there are two ways to look at that. One, that is the longest streak in the nation. Two, it is just the third-longest streak at Kansas in the last 25 years.

Bill Self never denies any of these Kansas virtues. He rarely falls into the poor mouth trap. Last year, when his Kansas team was absolutely loaded, he was pretty blunt about it, both publicly and privately. "We're really good," he would say, and he did not hide from the pressure that came with it. They were really good. In the Final Four, his Jayhawks obliterated a spectacularly talented North Carolina team, and then pulled off the greatest comeback in NCAA finals history against Memphis.

All of which takes us to this season. Kansas lost all five starters from last year. And in November, Self was blunt again. "We're terrible," he told me. "I mean it now. We're awful. I mean, we have some talent. We have a chance to be a good basketball team, maybe. But man, we're really bad."

Yes, it sounded like some old-fashioned coach talk*, but Self insisted that he was just being honest. And, it turned out, he was right. In the first half of the season, the University of Missouri-Kansas City played the Jayhawks to a draw. In short order, Kansas blew a big lead against Syracuse, got edged by Massachusetts, got pounded at Arizona and outclassed at Michigan State.

*Another great poor mouth bit from Bill Dooley when he was coaching at Wake Forest: "The field isn't level when you're coaching at Wake Forest. Your guys are running uphill, and their guys are running downhill. And even when we switch sides at the end of the quarter, it's still the same thing."

Self's excellence as a basketball coach generally comes down to three things. One, of course, he's a top-notch recruiter, and he was even before he represented Kansas. He has an amazing knack of remembering names and attaching those names to interests. He knows when to talk academics, when to talk Final Four banners, when to talk NBA futures. It's natural charm. People always have liked Bill Self.

Two, he was a hard-nosed player at Oklahoma State and, because of that, he has a good sense for building hard-nosed teams. Everyone wants their players to crash through screens and be physical inside and play like every rebound belongs to them. But Self's teams generally do those things with a little bit more intensity.

It's interesting, but it was Self's coaching toughness that made the transition to Kansas tricky. He followed Roy Williams who -- even though he will deny this to his grave -- has always built finesse basketball teams. That's not to say that Williams' teams do not play tough; he has won more games in his first 18 years than any college basketball coach ever and taken his teams to six Final Fours and you don't do that without some toughness. They just don't play as tough as Self wants.

And there was a philosophical clash between Self and his classically-trained players when he first arrived. For a while, Self talked about getting his players to practice while wearing shoulder pads and helmets, just to toughen them up. The Jayhawks reached the Elite Eight in Self's first year, but it was a stormy season. And they won the Big 12 in 2005 and 2006, but lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament both years. Nobody was especially happy. Then, Self got his own players in place, got his team to buy in, and they won 33 games in '07 and a national title in '08.

Self's speech to the players after the '08 championship game spoke to his beliefs about playing tough. He told his players that the best thing about winning the title was that they knew how hard they had to work to get there.

The third thing that makes Bill Self successful is that his teams really play crisp half-court offense. It is something that even a basketball novice can pick out. His teams really move the basketball quickly, in and out. And for that reason, though they do not run the floor the way Williams' teams did, they still shoot a high percentage, from the field and three-point range.

All these things have helped Self win at every stop, every year. He took over a dreadful program at Oral Roberts and led that team to the NIT in his fourth year. His teams improved each year he was at Tulsa, finishing with a 32-5 squad that made it to the Elite Eight and still, in many ways, is the team that Self feels came closest to his basketball ideal. His Illinois teams won 25 games in each of the three years he was there. And so on.

This year's Kansas team came together too. Guard Sherron Collins averages 18.3 points a game and, when he's on, he's one of those players who can carry a team. Sophomore center Cole Aldrich has a good feel around the basket and he can be a defensive presence. Freshman Tyshawn Taylor is raw -- he is the guy Self seems to push harder than anyone else -- but when unleashed he might be the best pure scorer at Kansas since the young Paul Pierce.

And when the Big 12 season started, the Jayhawks rolled. There is a sense that the conference is down a bit -- and Kansas' schedule worked out so that they played Oklahoma without the national Player of the Year Blake Griffin, and Texas in Allen Fieldhouse. Still, the Jayhawks went 14-2 in the conference, won it outright, and with a good Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City they have a reasonable shot at a No. 2 seed. All these things would have been considered preposterous in November. Self will probably win numerous national Coach of the Year awards for the work he has done this year, which is funny considering he did not get any of those when he won the national title last year. That's how it goes.

"I'd say from beginning to end, this team has improved more than any team we've had, no question," Self said. "I thought we could be good, but did I see this coming? There's no way. Not even close."

There's a feeling among many that even with all the success, this Kansas team is suspect. When Collins is good, as mentioned, he's very good. But when he's bad, the Jayhawks are in trouble. I ask Self about that, just to see if he's ready to pull off a Dooley. He does not.

"You know what" he said, and there is surprise in his voice. "We're really good."

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