It's coaching in its truest sense.
The job KU Head Coach Bill Self has done this season is not about numbers. It's about coaching and every meaning that comes along with it. Instructor, leader, mentor - Self has been all of those.
If you want it to be about numbers it could be, because there are amazing ones attached to Self's growing legacy - more Big 12 regular season titles than home losses, a higher winning percentage than any in college hoops coach in the last 6 seasons (nearly 90 perecent), 14 seasons in a row with 23 or more wins - including 30 or more in the last 3, a National Championship, and now a 2nd Final Four.
Plenty of gaudy statistics to wow you and at just age 49, Self doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon.
If there was a reason to mope it would've been after last season's frustrating Elite 8 loss to VCU taking Self's record on the doorstep of a Final Four to 1-5.
It stung. Maybe more than people will ever know.
Self saw last year's Jayhawks, as the NCAA Tournament's number one overall seed, a two-loss team entering the bracket madness, that for whatever reason, never quite played at its ceiling. It was a missed opportunity in his mind. A terrific chance to win a 2nd title was gone.
It's natural to reflect and question what you do. Self is always honest, that includes with himself. Early exits would shake the confidence of the most elite head coaches because no matter what you do it's all about performing well in March. Even after a first national championship, it's not long before people start clamoring for you to get back to the game's featured weekend.
But Self is not just any head coach. He's is a victim of his own success in a lot of ways but that's ok. There's no one better suited to handle the pressures and expectations that being at a program like Kansas can bring. He's never backed down from them and never will.
Shouldn't be surprising really. That's why Self is here at KU. Because he wasn't afraid of the challenge presented by following a beloved legend in Lawrence in Roy Williams. It didn't take him long to carve his own niche at KU.
I've never met anyone who's capable of enjoying his successes and yet still possesses the ability to spin any negative into a positive. For all his great qualities it's one of the ones I've admired most over the years in Self.
I remember Self offering some advice to me once and I can still hear the words, "Everybody's ok when things are going well. That's easy. But it's what you do when things aren't going well that shape who you are." Now to say things have ever NOT been going well for Self is a stretch. This is a coach who hasn't won less than 20 games since his first season at Tulsa in 1997-1998 and is consistently knocking at the door of another title. But losses are tough on coaches and the loss to VCU affected Self. It eventually did nothing but make him work harder.
That's why the goals never changed for this team even after losing 6 players and returning just one starter from last season's 35-3 team. "Big 12 Champs" was the cheer each and every practice during conference play and behind closed doors this group believed, never shying away from expectations, even their own.
"In the beginning," answered Travis Releford asked when he started thinking this team could go to a Final Four. "Coach probably didn't agree with it, but we all came together outside of the gym and were just talking and told ourselves that we're coming together this year and listen to coach and listen to the things that he wants us to do and play the way he wants us to play, then we can get there and we buckled down and we just listened."
It was rough early on. There were no McDonald's All-Americans to help reload. Self was molding redshirt juniors and seniors (Travis Releford, Conner Teahan, Jeff Withey), with one returning starter (Tyshawn Taylor), a bench player used sparingly (Elijah Johnson), and taking his 6th man and making him THE man (Thomas Robinson).
The Jayhawks didn't gel right away. This team was sloppy with the basketball, wasn't up to standards on the defensive end, and had trouble passing the ball. Normally all areas where Self-coached teams excel.
"We're like 8-3, lose to Davidson, and you know, no chemistry whatsoever. I mean just bad," Self admitted looking back.
Self and I exchanged text messages after that Davidson loss and he called this team "a challenge". My response to that text was "you will get them where they need to be in order to be successful, I have no doubt."
If you know Self there was plenty of reason to believe and what has transpired between games against Ohio State alone is amazing. In the first meeting in December Self was thinking that they might need a quality win at home against Ohio State to help MAKE the NCAA Tournament, but when the conference season came this team turned it on. It started with the opening tip of a home tilt with K-State and ended with a 16-2 record in a true round robin Big 12 and an 8th straight regular season crown.
So maybe the rare display of emotion Self showed after KU completed an amazing 19-point comeback at home in overtime against Missouri had something behind it. Self was relishing the challenges, enjoying the experience, his team was finding ways to win, and in his words, operating very close to its ceiling.
"To me it was about this team winning this 8th straight championship," Self said. "For this team to come as far as it has and winning that 8th straight that was kind of like, I'm not the most emotional guy but that was as good as it gets."
So maybe this IS as good as it gets. A 2nd Final Four, Self and his team defying the odds and doing it their way with tough defense, by sharing the basketball, and making the biggest plays when it matters most. Team basketball remaining the focus during a time when individual attention in the sport seems to be at the forefront. Don't get me wrong "individuals" on this team have made great strides - almost every singe one - but seeing that personal advancement fit into the team environment is what's most fun to watch.
"I said before the season, and I meant it, even though I didn't know for sure if I 100-percent bought into it, that for us to be really good this year, Thomas was going to have to play like an All-American and Tyshawn was going to have to be as good as any guard around, and those two things have come true," Self continued.
"And to see how Travis and Elijah and Jeff and Conner and Kevin (Young) has come a long way. To see how they have come so far individually and then fitting into our schemes is pretty remarkable to me."
Make no mistake about it though a big piece of the puzzle and reason this team is still playing at the end of March is because Self has put them in the best position to do so. That's what coaches always try to do and Self has pushed all the right buttons with this group. He's been masterful with his substitutions, practice patterns, and making subtle tweaks to keep opponents off balance. He is on his game, enjoying the ride, he trusts his team and they certainly trust him.
Self's name belongs among the game's elite. It's been a masterful coaching job but you get the feeling he and his team aren't done yet.
"I think this would have been a year if we got to the second weekend, most Kansas faithful would be happy," said Self. "But I don't think those guys are satisfied or would ever think that. I think they think this is our year and I'm certainly not going to tell them differently."
And now in this second go-around against Ohio State this season, Kansas is playing for a chance to reach the title game again. If they should get there and face off against a John Calipari Kentucky team that everyone has penciled in as their national champ, it will be a tall task to defeat the talented Wildcats. But guess what? I've never known Self or this Jayhawk team to back away from challenge. Have you?