Self sold Jayhawks on winning it all
NEW ORLEANS -- Of all the players scattered throughout the Kansas locker room, perhaps none is more qualified to offer insight to Bill Self than Niko Roberts.
The deep reserve has known the coach practically his whole life, dating back to 1996 when his father, Norm, began an eight-year run as Self's assistant and a lifelong friendship.
Midway through the season, Niko picked up the phone and practically gushed to his dad.
"He said, 'Dad, Coach is back,'" Norm Roberts remembered. "'He's having so much fun. He's still getting after us but he's having a blast.' This is how I remember him."
This national championship pits the two winningest programs in college basketball against one another, a battle royale of the game's finest.
Kentucky trots to the Superdome fitting the bill, carrying the burden of expectation of not being the favorite but also, as John Calipari constantly reminds everyone, "The Commonwealth of Kentucky's Team."
Kansas saunters to Monday's title game like a poser, wearing the uniform of a blueblood and the pressure of a mid-major.
No one expected the Jayhawks to be here.
No one expects the Jayhawks to win.
And that is exactly why Self is having so much fun.
"He likes these guys and I know probably some of it is because everyone views them as overachievers," Norm Roberts said. "He likes that. That suits him."
It suits him because it took Self a while to get his own due. He succeeded everywhere he went but until he won his first national title at Kansas in 2008, plenty wondered if he was in over his head.
Now he's in the opposite position, with people tripping over themselves to laud him as a terrific coach for getting so much out of this particular team.
On Sunday, Self was named Naismith Men's Basketball Coach of the Year.
He knows as well as anyone that the fickle nature of his business will likely turn and spit him back out in a few weeks but there is no arguing he has earned the hardware this season.
"He's done a great job with that team, with all the turnover they had," Calipari said.
Self called Calipari "the best salesman that our sport knows," pointing out how well the Kentucky coach promotes his program.
The fact is, Self has done a pretty good sales job, too.
His pitch, however, has been in house.
The Jayhawks admitted, after they eliminated Ohio State that when the season began, they didn't even believe they were good enough to make a national title game.
Only one person, in fact, believed in them.
And that was Self.
"He kept telling us he believed in us," Jeff Withey said. "He'd tell us all the time that we were good enough to be one of the best teams in the nation, that we could play with anybody. Early on, I'm not sure we believed it, when we were losing to Duke and Kentucky."
"With little else to cling to, the players followed Self like dribbling lemmings, absorbing not only his teaching but also his faith.
Basketball people like to call that "buying in," but the buy in only comes if the sale is a good one, and Self's was pitch perfect. He found the perfect mix of religious revivalist, disciplinarian and comedian to unearth unseen talent from this Kansas mine.
He cajoled, prodded, screamed and cracked wise, mixing and matching his mood to suit his team instead of asking his players to convert to his.
"You know his personality this year has made us what we are," Robinson said. "When you look over and your coach is smiling, even when things aren't going too good, that gives you such confidence. You believe you're going to be all right."
That's not really new for Self. His personality lends itself easily to being a master manipulator of the moment.
He can be combative if he needs to be, but has won over even a crusty media with his self-deprecating charm, dry wit and occasional brutal honesty.
Ask him to assess his team and he will be downright cutthroat.
"After the Davidson game, I was a little frustrated because I thought that we were underachieving, underperforming,'' he said. "I thought we were a stale team. I thought we were slow. I thought we didn't play with great energy. I thought the things we had to do to be successful we weren't committed to doing them. I thought we were a little full of ourselves coming off the Ohio State win. Anything else I thought?"
Yet Self didn't just berate guys for their mistakes. He encouraged them to be better, somehow finding the delicate fine line between being too hard and too soft to coach this team just right.
"He challenges guys to be good," Norm Roberts said. "He's not going to pat them on the back. He'll tell that you can do it, you can make that shot. If he sees Thomas Robinson starting to relax, believing the hype, he'll crush him and remind [him] he's not as good as he thinks. He keeps guys on edge but also builds up their confidence."
And that's what prompted Niko Roberts to call his dad.
"We'd be in practice and he'd ask someone to crack a joke, make fun of him," he said. "He wanted to lighten the mood. I don't know, he was just laughing, having fun all the time. I remembered him being like that when I was a kid. He keeps saying we're playing with house money. That's how we play. That's how he coached us."