Self belongs at the top of his game
ST. LOUIS -- As Kansas players danced around the locker room with pieces of the Edward Jones Dome net pinned behind their ears, one of the greatest coaches in basketball history was stuck in traffic.
Hall of Famer Larry Brown -- the only man to win an NCAA title and an NBA championship -- hustled up the steps and out of the arena after the Jayhawks advanced to the Final Four by defeating North Carolina 80-67 Sunday.
As the cars backed up on Interstate 70, Brown had time to reflect on what he'd just seen from his former team -- and his former pupil.
When talking about Bill Self, Brown almost seemed in awe.
"I can't imagine how he's done it," said Brown, who hired Self as a graduate assistant at KU back in 1985. "The eight straight Big 12 titles, getting this team to the Final Four, I just can't imagine ..."
"Our game has a lot of great coaches," he said. "But right now I can't think of many who are better than Bill."
That's because there aren't any.
All throughout Sunday's 13-point victory over the top-seeded Tar Heels, and even for a few hours after it, I kept asking myself the same question: Who in college basketball, right now, is better than Bill Self?
Not "Who has the best resume?" Self is more than 10 years younger than legends such as Rick Pitino, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. So comparing his Final Four count to theirs is unfair.
Instead, I tried to think of the No. 1 candidate I would target if I was an athletic director who had been given millions of dollars to start a basketball program from scratch. If I could have my pick of any coach in America, who would I choose?
To me, the answer is obvious.
"There's no one I'd rather play for," Kansas guard Elijah Johnson said. "He's the best coach in the country."
Or at least he has been since replacing Roy Williams at Kansas in 2003-04.
Since that time, no one has been more on top of their profession than Self, who has gone 268-52 in his nine seasons at Kansas. No coach in America has won more games during that span except for Kentucky's John Calipari (281-52). But 38 of those wins were vacated because of NCAA rules violations, so officially, Self is the leader.
Even more impressive is that Self's KU teams have won eight straight Big 12 titles, the longest streak of consecutive league crowns by a major-conference team since UCLA won 13 in a row from 1967-79.
"Year after year, we lose guys and people wonder if we're going to be down," fifth-year senior Conner Teahan said. "Yet, year after year, he finds a way to get it done. He just instills so much confidence in us. He makes us believe we're capable of doing anything."
It certainly helps that Self coaches at Kansas, where fan support and the ability to lure recruits enhance his chances of winning. Still, even the most tradition-rich programs experience dips.
Duke lost to No. 15 seed Lehigh in this year's NCAA tournament. UCLA has missed two of the past three NCAA tournaments. Indiana returned this season after a three-year absence. One season after winning the 2009 national title, North Carolina was in the NIT. That's not as bad as Florida, which won it all in 2006 and 2007 but then failed to earn a bid the next two seasons.
At Kansas, though, there has never been any slippage under Self.
Not even close.
The Jayhawks have never been lower than a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament under Self. They've earned a No. 1 seed the past two years and this season they're a No. 2. That, in itself, was a phenomenal feat for a program that lost four starters -- plus key reserves Mario Little and Josh Selby -- from a squad that went 35-3 last season and reached the Elite Eight.
"A lot of people didn't think we'd be in this situation," point guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "No one knew how good we could be."
Indeed, there's no question that Self has done the best coaching job of his career this season.
He has a fourth-year starter in Taylor and one of college basketball's top post players in Thomas Robinson, who has blossomed into a Wooden Award candidate after averaging just 14 minutes off the bench last season. Otherwise, though, Kansas entered the season with a roster full of obscure players who had played minimal roles. Starters Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford (all juniors) struggled to get on the court last season.
In five months, Self has turned them into stars.
"Guys get better when they come here," Self said. "Guys go from playing 7 minutes a game to being a national player of the year candidate. You've got a guy [in Taylor] who was as criticized a player as there's been at KU since I've been here, and now people are saying he may be the best point guard to play here in a long time.
"It's amazing to me how much these guys have gotten better. I take pride in that."
It didn't happen easily.
After Kansas lost to Davidson in December, Self said he was genuinely worried that the Jayhawks wouldn't make the NCAA tournament. But KU got tougher, found its groove and went 16-2 in a Big 12 conference that featured two other top 10 teams in Missouri and Baylor.
No moment, though, illustrated Self's worth quite like Sunday.
At one point, with KU clinging to a 2-point lead with less than 7 minutes remaining, I counted four future NBA lottery picks [Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo] on the court for North Carolina along with backup point guard Stilman White.
Kansas countered with this lineup: walk-on guard Conner Teahan; Loyola Marymount transfer Kevin Young; center Jeff Withey, who averaged 2.3 points as a sophomore last season; junior guard Elijah Johnson, who averaged 3.4 points a season ago; and former role player Travis Releford, who averaged 3.7 points in 2010-11.
Still, when the pressure was at its high point, the Jayhawks were the tougher team and ended the game on a 12-0 run.
Six McDonald's All-Americans suited up for North Carolina on Sunday.
"It's always more fun to do something," Self said, "when no one thinks you can do it."
The people who have underestimated Self before certainly won't make that mistake again. Even though it's ridiculous to judge a coach solely on his performance in the NCAA tournament rather than his entire body of work, there were those who said Self needed another Final Four appearance before he could be included among college basketball's "elite" group of coaches.
No one can say he doesn't belong in that group now. Not after Sunday.
"The first time we made the [the Final Four], I felt more relieved," Self said. "I was happy for our players, but I was happy for myself, too, because I got that gorilla off my back.
"This time it's more jubilation. I feel so good for our guys. I enjoy being around them so much. I'm so proud of them. It just amazes me what these guys have done and how hard they've worked. This is a time we should love each other and enjoy each other."
Good times are definitely ahead this weekend in New Orleans -- and, as long as Self is in charge, for years to come after that.
Before then, though, Self and the Jayhawks were looking forward to getting back to Lawrence late Sunday night to celebrate their latest feat with their fans.
Once traffic picked up on Interstate 70, Brown planned to make the four-hour drive from St. Louis to toast the Jayhawks, too.
"Bill is tough on his kids," Brown said, "but they know he cares about them. He gets them to respect the game and play it the right way. They defend and rebound and share the ball. It's incredible to watch. I love Bill.
"I love him."
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKingESPN.
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