As you might expect, I have a lot of words about basketball today.
A quick note about HS ball. Cathedral’s run as defending state champs came to an end in the regional round of this year’s tournament, losing to #1 Ben Davis by 10. The Irish did have the lead at halftime. I had to run L over to a friend’s and when I got home they trailed going into the fourth. Not sure what happened but it was all while I was out. They tried to make a run in the fourth quarter but, like so many times this year, were just too sloppy to get the job done.
It was nice to have one of the top five recruits in the country on the team. But this season proved that the two D1 guards that graduated last year were more important than a big man who often plays passive.
OK, it’s been a couple weeks, and a lot has happened. So let’s chop this up into parts.
Big 12 Champs
Like so many times in the Bill Self era, KU claimed a title that seemed unlikely in the first week of February. The Jayhawks ripped off a long winning streak while every other contender hit a rough patch. This year’s seven straight wins were especially impressive given the strength of the conference. I never expected anyone, let alone KU, to have the outright conference title clinched four days before the regular season ended.
When the Jayhawks got blown out in Ames on February 4, I looked at the schedule and couldn’t figure out any way KU escaped with fewer than six losses for the season. And then I was also hoping that Baylor, Texas, Kansas State, and Iowa State would all stumble enough to also be sitting at six losses.
So naturally KU won the conference outright at 13–5. Shows how much I know.
The blowout loss in Austin on the season’s final day took a little luster away, but not much. Another notch in the conference championship belt secured.
I was going to have a section dedicated to Bill Self anyway this week. Now it’s going to be longer, and about more, than I expected.
First off, I’m sure I was like most KU fans and freaked out a little when I got my first text message last week saying something like “Self had a heart attack?!?!” and then scrambled to find out more.
Fortunately it looks like Self got to the hospital before he had a proper heart attack. Two stents and a weekend in the hospital are no joke, though. Like most KU fans I hope he’s healthy enough to coach in the NCAAs. But there’s also no reason to risk his long-term health if it’s going to take a month or months for his cardiologists to declare him fit to stand on the sideline again. It sounds like recovery from having stents implanted is generally pretty quick, and many patients often feel amazingly better fast as they suddenly have normal blood flow again.
Originally this section was going to be about how the national media, in the last couple weeks, has suddenly jumped all over the Self bandwagon. There are a lot of reasons for that. Winning his second title last year is a big one. There’s how this team, which lost so much from that championship squad, managed to win the Big 12 and claim another #1 seed in the NCAAs, the 10th top seed in Self’s 20 years. And there’s the fact so many top tier, established coaches have left the game in the past couple years. He’s one of the few elite coaches left, and before last Wednesday I think most people expected him to coach at least another ten years.
When the Jayhawks took over first place, it triggered a flood of reflectional praise from nearly every national writer. He’s always had a great reputation amongst the analysts who follow the game closely. It’s like they all suddenly took a look at his record and realized, “Oh shit, he’s even better than we thought!”
Of those columns and articles, this part of Eamonn Brennan’s recent piece on The Athletic stuck out to me:
College basketball is hard. (Self) makes it look very easy. And he has made it look easy for the better part of three decades. Every little twist and turn of the 2022–23 season, every little in-game adjustment he made to help his team win another close game in another hot gym in this butcher shop of a league, is the same notional stuff he has been coaxing out of his guys — the same one-step-ahead brilliance relative to the other coaches, the same ability to regenerate teams each and every year, even as the specifics change over time — that has created one of the largest sample sizes of success in modern college basketball history. Self does this stuff for months at a time, each and every season. Maybe his team goes deep in the tournament, maybe it doesn’t, but the outcomes of single-elimination games in one three-week span can’t and shouldn’t erase everything that happens around them.
All sports are ultimately judged by how you do at the end of the season. Self is one title away from entering the conversation as the best college coach of all time. But all the terrific elements of that section of Brennan’s column show how he has already firmly established himself as the greatest regular season coach of all time. Coach K didn’t win as many conference titles in twice as much time. Roy didn’t. Boeheim didn’t. Jay Wright didn’t. Izzo and Calipari haven’t.
It’s been a remarkable run.
Suddenly I think we are officially on the clock for the end of the Bill Self era. Last week I would have said he would coach into his 70s. Today? I would imagine sometime in the next five years he walks away to give himself a nice, hopefully long window to just be a grandfather, dad, and husband.
Maybe I’m wrong. Self is noted as being a bit of a psychopath when it comes to being competitive. I think he knows how many records are out there for the taking if he wants to coach another decade. Maybe that, combined with this heart issue, is enough for him to change the way he takes care of his body. Maybe he comes back next fall having dropped 20–30 pounds and is full of energy and feeling better than he has since he turned 50 and does coach for another decade-plus.
Yet I also believe that he’s very good at seeing the big picture. He knows his place in the history of the game is secure. If he begins to think that coaching is taking years off his life, I believe he’ll walk away.
Big 12 Tournament
Man, how did KU beat Texas once this year? That’s just a bad, bad matchup. I can’t figure Texas out. When they are good, they are really freaking good. But they’ve had some bad slip-ups. I’m notorious for jumping on the Longhorn bandwagon in March. Two years ago, most recently, I was sure they were on their way to the Final Four. They lost in the first round. I’m not sure I’m ready to this year, but I’m close.
I’m not normally a big, rah-rah Big 12 guy. It would be nice, though, if the conference sent 4–5 teams through to the Sweet 16. The league got a lot of hype this year, all deserved based on the regular season. It’s always a pisser when conferences fall on their collective face in March. See the Big 8 in 1990 for one of the best examples.
I resolved a few months ago not to get worked up about KU’s eventual seed and path in the NCAA tournament. That national championship glow has to last at least a year, right? Also, I’m getting old and have less energy to devote to such things. Play who they tell you to play and it will all work out. The tournament is a complete crap shoot anyway. Sometimes things break your way. More often than not, the luck will be against you.
I expected KU to get sent West. I figured the NCAA, whether out of malice (as some suggest) or just because that’s the way the numbers worked out, would keep Houston in the Midwest. So I wasn’t surprised when the bracket revealed exactly that.
I do not understand why the NCAA always sends out the committee chair to talk to CBS, and that person is woefully unprepared to talk about whatever glaring issue the people in the TV studio bring up to them. As a KU fan I can name at least three times that the chairperson, when asked a KU-related seeding question, said something profoundly dumb or factually incorrect. I’m guessing fans of other schools have their own lists.
Sunday the dumb comment was that Houston got the nod over KU because, paraphrasing, “they were more competitive in their losses.” OK. If you’re looking at raw results, strength of schedule has to come into play, right? And KU (#1) played a much more difficult schedule than Houston ( #96). Being more competitive in losses against worse teams makes no sense.
Listen, there are lots of perfectly reasonable justifications for putting Houston above Kansas. Houston was higher in the NET and most other predictive measures than KU. If the committee chair, who was speaking from beautiful Carmel, IN, had used one of those evidence points, I think there were would have been a lot less bitching.
Much of the problem is that there are just too many metrics to use when evaluating teams, the NCAA seems to adjust their thinking every year without preparing the public, and the Joe Lunardis of the world are always applying this year’s data to last year’s NCAA logic. We’ve been told for several years that Quad 1 wins were perhaps the biggest determining factor in separating teams. That clearly was not the case this year. So next year’s predictive brackets will probably adjust accordingly and we’ll get surprised again on Selection Sunday.
Or maybe the NCAA is just pissed that KU won the title last year, Bill Self is still coaching, and it looks like the school is going to escape the hammer of massive penalties the organization was hoping to drop over the five-plus years they’ve been investigating the program.
But I said I wasn’t going to get worked up about it, or buy into conspiracy theories.
I’m more worried about the draw than the location where KU will be playing. The West is loaded; five of the top 11 Ken Pomeroy teams are in the West. Six of the top 20. That’s a gauntlet for everyone in that region, not just KU.
At first glance, I think a potential Arkansas game in the second round is a brutal matchup. Arkansas is basically Texas without the experience and discipline. Long, athletic, disruptive, and super talented although very young. They seem like a team that KU could either handle by playing even for 30 minutes then overwhelming late with their experience, or that could dominate KU from the opening tip and get an easy win.
Of course Arkansas has kind of sucked for the past month, so while KU fans stress about that, it may be Illinois lining up against them on Saturday. And the Illini are a whole different kind of wild-mood-swing opponent.
Getting out of Des Moines isn’t a given. Especially if Kevin McCullar’s old man back doesn’t cooperate.
While KU indeed claimed the outright Big 12 title, the last week of the season wasn’t the most convincing. Narrow wins at home against West Virginia and Texas Tech, each of which came down to one possession that KU was fortunate on, followed by the blowout loss in Austin. Comfortable wins over WVU and Iowa State in Kansas City helped, but a second spanking by the Longhorns raises more questions.
I worry that this year’s Jayhawks are one of those teams that put so much emphasis on winning the conference championship that they’ve worn themselves out for the Big Dance. Over the last month they are one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country, often a sign of weariness. Fortunately their defense has been one of the five best in the country over the same stretch. Defense might win championships but you’re not winning two, four, or six games in March if you can’t hit shots.
So my expectations are low. I would not be shocked if the Jayhawks only have one more win in them. I am hoping for two so I can at least leave for spring break with them still alive.
Picks to come later this week after I spend more time looking at the bracket.
- Unless you have Kemba Walker. ↩