- When Bill Self's teams have reached the Final Four, they have gone on to play for national championships. But the final step to get there has historically been the hardest for the Jayhawks and their Hall of Fame head coach.
OMAHA, Neb. — On a Saturday afternoon in late February, Kansas ventured into a 15,000-seat arena in northwest Texas to face a rugged defensive outfit with a perfect home record. It was a daunting proposition for the Jayhawks, but they wound up doing what they tend to do at that time of year, edging Texas Tech 74–72 to gain a two-game lead in the Big 12 and clinch at least a share of their 14th consecutive conference championship, which snapped the record set by UCLA from 1967 to ’79. The Streak is a staggering accomplishment whose difficulty will come into sharper focus after it draws to a close, as more and more high-major programs try, and inevitably fail, to eclipse it.
Yet as Kansas has gone about setting and maintaining an impossibly high standard for success in the regular season—Bill Self has won over 82% of his games as Jayhawks head coach and entered the Hall of Fame last fall—it often has come up short in the month that follows. More specifically, under Self, Kansas has had an especially difficult time winning in the Elite Eight. The last two seasons, Kansas has fallen in the regional finals to No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 seed Oregon, respectively. If they cannot beat No. 2 seed Duke at the CenturyLink Center here on Sunday evening, the Jayhawks’ Elite Eight record under Self will fall to 2–6. Taking into account his previous stints at Tulsa and Illinois, Self himself will have posted a 2–8 mark.
Prior to this season, seven Jayhawks teams had earned a No. 1 seed since Self took over at Kansas in 2003. Four bowed out in the regional finals. One was bounced in the regional semifinals (2013), and another was Ali Farokhmanesh’d in the second round (2010), but for the most part, Self’s teams have fared well before and after the Elite Eight: They hold an 8–2 record in the Sweet 16 and moved on to the national title game both times they reached the Final Four. That record is grounds for a sound rebuttal to anyone looking to brand Self a “bad NCAA tournament coach”, though there’s no denying the Elite Eight is a big blotch on his resplendent, 15-seasons-and-counting tenure in Lawrence.
After Kansas held off No. 5 seed Clemson 80–76 on Friday night, Self made plain that at a blueblood program with a roster of former head coaches that includes the man who invented this sport, the bar for success in March is not being lowered, no matter how many wins are recorded from November through February. “It’s been a great year,” Self said. “I mean, this team—to win 30 games and win the league and the league tournament, and play in the biggest game of the year so far on Sunday. It’s been great. But it would be nice to make it special, special. And I think, in order to do that, at Kansas, you’ve got to go to a Final Four. I honestly believe that. I’ve always thought that.”
There were long stretches during the regular season when it didn’t seem possible that these Jayhawks would even put themselves in position to add another data point to the program’s Elite Eight track record. Kansas had to replace three starters from a team that won 31 games and finished sixth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency margin, including National Player of the Year-sweeping guard Frank Mason and No. 4 draft pick Josh Jackson. Then the Jayhawks’ top recruit for 2017–18, five-star power forward Billy Preston, spent the first couple of months of the season sitting in eligibility limbo before signing with a professional team in Bosnia and Herzegovina in January.
In the span of a month, Kansas dropped a pair of home games to Arizona State and Texas Tech, in addition to a not-actually-neutral neutral-site loss to Washington in Kansas City. After a 1–2 stretch in early February that included a home defeat at the hands of Oklahoma State—marking the first time under Self in which the Jayhawks had fallen at least three times at home in a single season—and a loss at Baylor that snapped an 11-game winning streak against the Bears, it seemed possible, if not probable, that The Streak was on its last legs. Instead, Kansas turned around and ripped off five straight wins, locked up a No. 1 seed and rolled into the NCAAs fresh off hoisting its second Big 12 tournament crown in three years.
The next part—getting to the Final Four, and thus crossing what Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday is “the biggest bridge that you can cross”—promises to be more difficult. Kansas employs a small lineup in which two guards (6'2" senior Devonté Graham, 6'3" redshirt sophomore Malik Newman) and two wings (6'5" junior LaGerald Vick, 6'8" senior Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk) surround sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike, who’s been nursing a left knee injury but put in an encouraging 25 minutes of work against No. 5 seed Clemson on Friday. The Jayhawks are the top offensive team left in the field not named Duke or Villanova. They bury opponents in a barrage of three-point shots, ranking fifth in the country in effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the added value of treys, and 41% of their field goal attempts come from behind the arc. Inside, they have Azubuike, a 7-foot, 280-pound bulldozer and productive close-range scorer who leads Division I in two-point field goal percentage (77.5).
“They’re a tough team offensively to stop,” Krzyzewski said of Kansas, which ranks fifth nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric and is less than a day removed from hanging 80 points in 72 possessions against a Clemson squad with the nation’s No. 7 defense. “With the four perimeter players that they have, they put a lot of pressure on you as soon as they get a defensive rebound.” “They have a high-powered offense,” freshman guard Gary Trent Jr, said. “Their guards can shoot the heck out of the ball, and they have a big man down low that’s good, and they have big men that can come off the bench and do work as well.”
Kansas’s potent, floor-spreading attack reigned in the Big 12, but Duke is particularly equipped to pounce on the Jayhawks’ most glaring weakness. Kansas is thin up front, even with Azubuike healthy, and it allows opponents to grab 31.5% of their missed shots, which ranks 295th in the country. The Blue Devils lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage thanks in no small measure to their pair of lottery-bound big men, freshman Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., who excel at generating extra shot opportunities for a squad that ranks second nationally in Pomeroy’s adjusted points scored per possession. Duke also can neutralize Kansas’s offense with a 2–3 zone scheme that has powered its rise into one of the top 10 defenses in the country, according to Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency. “Their zone—you know, it’s been causing a lot of trouble for people,” Graham said of the Blue Devils. “So if we can attack the zone well, I think we should be fine.”
Kansas might be seeded higher than Duke, and its cast of accurate three-point shooters makes it a dangerous draw for any opponent, but the Blue Devils—with a starting lineup made up entirely of future NBA draft picks—are widely regarded as the team with a higher ceiling than any other in the field, and as of Sunday afternoon, they were 3.5-point favorite over the Jayhawks, according to the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. “I know one thing,” Self said outside Kansas’s locker room on Friday night, before Duke had wrapped up its 69–65 conquest of Syracuse in a zone vs. zone battle. “I’m going to tell my guys to let it fly, because whoever we’re playing, you know we’re going to have to shoot thirty threes, because they’re going to play zone.” Self added that his team should play “free and loose” on Sunday.
Getting hot from distance definitely is Kansas’s best shot at taking down the Blue Devils in the tourney’s only regional finals bout between two marquee programs. If they do manage to pull it off, the Jayhawks will have taken a step they’ve repeatedly failed to under Self. Graham has a keen appreciation for the Elite Eight wall he’ll try to lift his teammates over. He played 73 minutes across the Jayhawks’ losses to Villanova and Oregon in 2016 and ’17. “I think about it all the time,” he said. “I’ve been here the last two years, and this year we gotta get over that hump.” Beat Duke, and Kansas would move on to San Antonio, the same city where a decade earlier, as the same seed (No. 1) coming out of the same region (Midwest), it won its last national championship.