In their infinite wisdom, the doubters got to thinking that the title was the fluke. That the 2008 championship was great, sure -- beating John Calipari and Derrick Rose, and all that -- but that it was just one exception in a half-dozen years of Bill Self's Jayhawks being the NCAA tournament's most obedient Goliath. Who could forget the loss to 14th-seeded Bucknell in the first round in 2005? And then 13th-seeded Bradley in the first round again in 2006? And ninth-seeded Northern Iowa in the second round in 2010? And 11th-seeded Virginia Commonwealth in the Elite Eight in '11?
Self -- who was already criticized for needing nine straight NCAA runs at Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas before finally making his first Final Four -- remembers them all. And in the bowels of San Antonio's Alamodome late on March 27, 2011, as I watched him tread a funereal path to the idling Kansas bus, he seemed lost, like he might never get over that 71-61 shocker by VCU. About 60 feet ahead of him in that hallway strolled the Rams' wunderkind coach, Shaka Smart, wearing the shorn regional final net around his neck. And soon there would be more pain. Eighteen days later, his Jayhawks would also lose five of their seven rotation players, with three of them going early to the NBA. "We had the pieces," Self told me last October, still vexed. "That's the thing that's bothered me more than anything."
No, the coach should not be bothered anymore. Not by the nightmares of upsets past, and not by any of those cynics who've cited them, clinging to March performance as the alpha and the omega. This season has not merely been Self's masterpiece, a yearlong coaching clinic played out on a national stage, climaxing against Kentucky in New Orleans Monday night. It is an enduring reminder that we never should have doubted Bill Self -- the best coach in the country, with a staggering 269-52 record in his nine-year tenure in Lawrence -- in the first place.
Here is a coach who has won a Kansas-record eight consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles since arriving from Illinois. (In his first season with the Jayhawks, 2003-'04, Self committed the grave sin of going 12-4 and finishing second.) Here is a coach who has not allowed his team to suffer two defeats in a row since Jan. 14 and 16, 2005, the longest active streak in the NCAA. (That second loss, at Missouri, was 89-86, in overtime.) Here is a coach who has averaged 32.8 victories since 2006 -- more wins total, 197, than any other coach in the history of college basketball over a six-year span -- while ensuring that every four-year Jayhawk, from Jeremy Case to Tyshawn Taylor, has played in at least one Final Four.
Self, 49, has also sent 17 Kansas players to the NBA -- not yet counting any of the players on this current team -- including six lottery picks. What's more, his Jayhawks have produced 25 Academic All-Big 12 selections (about 2.8 per year), a mark that leads the Big 12. Not bad for a coach who'd stressed about daring to replace his outsized (and since outclassed) predecessor, Roy Williams. "I called dad and said, 'I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can take that job,'" Self recalled in St. Louis, the day before beating Williams and North Carolina, 80-67, to reach the Final Four. "'Roy won so much.'" Now Self has a higher winning percentage in Lawrence, 83.8, than any of his seven predecessors, from Phog Allen to Ol' Roy.
And yet Self has always known that few sports are as oddly constructed as college basketball, a yearlong endeavor which judges participants by just three weekends of single-elimination games. The regular season matters insofar as you get to March; an aspiring champion -- Kansas this year, for instance -- plays 33 games in order to win six more. At Kansas, the birthplace of the game itself, November to February matters even less. Eight Big 12 titles? "We get a T-shirt," Self said. "And if if we're lucky, we get a hat....You can't have a great year unless you play well in March."
Now he has his second great year, a magical season that stands as his finest coaching job of all. Last year Self had perhaps the finest collection of pieces in the nation, as he says, to the point where he was bringing NBA draft picks off the bench. This time around, having lost 65.4 percent of his points from 2010-11, he looked up and down his depth chart -- beyond Thomas Robinson and Taylor were a series of question marks both large (7-foot Jeff Withey) and medium (6-4 Elijah Johnson) -- and figured that he needed to beat Ohio State last Dec. 10 in order to make the tournament at all.
That fear, of course, proved unfounded. Self's trademark has always been defense, dating back to his first head job, at Oral Roberts, when he was all of 30 years old. Six straight Jayhawks teams had ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency; this squad, the seventh, wound up finishing fourth while holding opponents to 39.8 percent shooting on two-pointers, the best percentage in the country. Offensively, Self, the son of a high school coach, preached a simple philosophy: "The pie is big enough for everybody." And it was: on a team that once appeared starved for depth on paper, three players average double-figures, and five average 8.6 points or more.
Against Ohio State -- in Saturday's national semifinal, this time -- Self took his team into halftime at the Superdome, down nine, and won a heart-stopper, 64-62. As Kansas celebrated, setting up Monday night's title match and certifying the unlikeliest tournament run in Self's career, I thought again of the coach walking down that hallway a year earlier. We should've known he was going the right way, after all.