By Stewart Mandel
March 24, 2012

ST. LOUIS -- While watching Florida's Sweet 16 win over Marquette at a local watering hole in St. Louis Thursday, a fellow writer posed the following question to the group: If you were an athletic director with a huge budget, which coach would you hire: Florida's Billy Donovan or Kansas' Bill Self?

Without a moment's hesitation, several of us replied with the seemingly obvious answer: Self. The Kansas coach has a national title and seems to win 30-something games every year (in reality, five of the last six), whereas Donovan's program has enjoyed tremendous peaks but also NIT-level valleys.

The questioner seemed genuinely stunned. He would take Florida's coach in a heartbeat, he said, and his case was pretty simple. Donovan: Two national championships (2006 and '07) and a third title game appearance ('00). Self, on the other hand: One shining NCAA moment (2008) ... and a bunch of premature exits at the hands of Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU, et. al.

Self's program has won a staggering eight Big 12 regular season championships and won at a higher percentage (.882) than any program in the country the past six seasons. But in college basketball, with each passing year, regular-season accomplishments are either diminished or forgotten.

"We win eight [conference titles] in a row here, we get a T-shirt," Self joked Saturday. "... Nobody can take away a conference championship being a good season. I don't care what anybody says, it's a good season. But you can't have a great year unless you play well in March."

By most standards, Self has been plenty successful in March. On Sunday he'll coach his sixth Elite Eight game in 13 years (one at Tulsa, one at Illinois, four at Kansas). But he's set the bar so high during the regular season that his postseason record is remembered more for the flops than that one glorious title run. Six times in Self's first eight years, the Jayhawks' season has ended at the hands of a lower-seeded team.

For once, however, the burden of expectation will be heavier in the other locker room.

North Carolina, not Kansas, is the No. 1 seed, the team that nearly every expert predicted to win the national championship when practices began last October. The Jayhawks are still a lofty No. 2 seed, but a team that's indisputably overachieved to get its customary 30 wins this time.

This is not the Sherron Collins/Cole Aldrich-led team that went 32-2 in the regular season two years ago. This is a team that began the year ranked 13th, whose lineup is comprised largely of former role players, including Naismith Award finalist Thomas Robinson, that lost at home to Davidson and made a rare semifinal exit in the Big 12 tournament. The Jayhawks needed last-second escapes just to survive 10th seed Purdue and 11th seed N.C. State the past two rounds.

"That's kind of who we are," Self said of his 30-6 team. "We'll do some remarkably great things, and we'll do some [negative] things that make you think, wow."

That these Jayhawks are yet again knocking on the door of the Final Four may be the biggest testament to Self's abilities, but for once he's not subject to undue pressure (relatively speaking). Last week he made an off-the-cuff comment that his team is playing with "house money," a phrase his players now use themselves.

This time, Self hopes, his team won't come out uptight, the inevitable product of terminally mammoth expectations that come with donning a Kansas jersey, as it did the past two years in crushing tourney defeats to heavy underdogs Northern Iowa and VCU.

"[At] Kansas, North Carolina, winning is a relief, losing is a disaster. Sometimes you've got to find joy in winning," said Self. "A lot of times we have kind of relished in the opportunity to be that team that's chasing as opposed to the team that's [being] chased all the time. You've got to be just as hungry both ways, but I like the thought of our guys thinking that we're the hunter."

Meanwhile, much like during KU's 2008 tourney run -- which included a Sweet 16 win over 12th-seeded Villanova and an Elite Eight date with Stephen Curry-led Davidson -- windows seem to be constantly opening for the Jayhawks.

First it drew a trio of double-digit seeds. Now it gets a North Carolina team that, while indisputably loaded with NBA talent, is dealing with a catastrophic injury to point guard Kendall Marshall. The Tar Heels star participated in shooting drills and the non-contact portion of practice for the first time Saturday since fracturing his right wrist last weekend, but remains questionable to play Sunday. Without him, North Carolina's normally sleek offense went stagnant Friday in an overtime win against 13th seed Ohio.

At worst, Kansas will be facing a very limited Marshall, who as of Saturday said he was struggling most to catch and pass, which "kind of sucks" for a point guard. At best, North Carolina will be forced to again go with little-used freshman Stilman White, who played admirably against Ohio (committing no turnovers) but was a notable defensive liability.

In other words, the opportunity is there for Self to get back to the Final Four, and to do it, of all years, with the least imposing team of his tenure. That's no disrespect to shot-blocking menace Jeff Withey or enigmatic guard Tyshawn Taylor, but these Jayhawks aren't dripping with NBA blood like their predecessors. They do, however, play tremendous defense, and, for all of UNC's future lottery picks, may boast the best player on the floor Sunday in Robinson (17.7 points, 11.9 rebounds per game).

"It kind of takes the pressure off us a little bit more than in the past couple years because we were expected to win every game," said Taylor. "It's a little bit different this year. ... We have come a long way and further than a lot of people thought we would be, so this is the time to just enjoy it and have fun."

"Overlooking people is why we went out early [the past two years]," said Robinson, "but you can't overlook North Carolina."

Of course, the one catch for Self is that he's facing his eternal measuring stick: Roy Williams. Despite the fact that Self has thus far outperformed his predecessor at Kansas (accruing an 83.7 winning percentage to Williams' 80.5), won the national title that Williams never got in Lawrence and beat him the last time they played, in the 2008 Final Four, many Jayhawks fans still hold animosity toward the traitorous Williams and won't take kindly to defeat Sunday, even to a higher-seeded opponent.

Especially since Williams has since won two national titles to Self's one.

"I understand what Bill is going through," Williams said Saturday. "I know the stress and the pressures and the expectations and the feelings and the love and the passion [of Kansas fans]. The passion that they have is good and maybe the expectations aren't good."

Win or lose Sunday, Self's staggering winning percentage won't change by many decimal points. His program will remain the Big 12's gold standard, whereas Donovan's aforementioned Florida Gators now play second fiddle to Kentucky in the SEC.

But to many people, the only measure of success in college basketball is Final Fours. On Sunday, Self, 49, will be going for his second such berth. Florida's Donovan, 46, already has three. On Saturday against Louisville, however, his Gators blew a second-half lead in the Elite Eight for the second straight year. It's not the same as losing to Northern Iowa and VCU, but it shows the fickle nature of the tourney.

"I don't know who would criticize [Self], but if they understood how hard it is to get to the Final Four, they wouldn't be saying that," said Taylor.

A victory over North Carolina on Sunday might render the issue moot.

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