Self was leaning back against a cinder block wall in a Kemper Arena hallway Sunday evening, talking with reporters after his team had defeated upstart Pacific, 78-63, to secure KU's fourth sweet sixteen trip in a row. He looked very comfortable in his own skin, self-assured and confident in what he was doing.
During this conversation, something important happened. Someone asked Self if his team was finally playing the way he had wanted them to all year. Without missing a beat, Bill Self said the magic word: "Yes."
And with that one word, I sensed a great disturbance in the basketball cosmos. This program belonged to Bill Self.
Don't get me wrong. He's been the coach all season long. Bill Self has been the men's head basketball coach at the University of Kansas for almost a year now.
But to hear some tell it, Self was simply keeping the chair warm until his predecessor realized the error of his ways and returned to Lawrence. Thanks for coming, kid. Can I get the keys back to the coaches' rest room, please?
I supposed it's understood that you don't just step in and fill the size 16- or 17-EEE shoes of a legend and future Hall of Fame coach whose teams had won 81 percent of their games, played in four Final Fours and in two national championship games over the course of 15 years.
But this was big. This was the first time all season, he didn't say, "We did some nice things." He said, simply, "Yes." Then he smiled a satisfied smile.
Many fans and a considerable number of the media have sensed a palpable change in the team and the program.
This weekend, the change didn't really show up on the scoreboard. Kansas scored 78 points in both games. That's solid, but it's not going to make the Loyola-Marymount sports information staff break out the erasers.
Their shooting was average – literally. The Jayhawks have shot 46.6% this season. They shot 48% against the University of the Pacific and 47% against the University of Illinois-Chicago.
But some other statistical categories -- and perhaps more importantly, what people saw going on on the floor -- reveal that the Jayhawks are buying what Bill Self is selling: rebounding, defense and energy.
- KU out-rebounded UIC and Pacific 81-53.
- Kansas had 11 steals against Pacific, including a personal-best five by Wayne Simien.
- Illinois-Chicago managed just 8 second-chance points Friday night, Pacific just 5 on Sunday. Pacific had a ton of one-and-done's during the crucial second-half stretch in which KU turned a tie game into a 12-point lead. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, KU managed a combined 28 second-chance points.
This weekend was the culmination of a month-long change in the team's attitude and complexion, said Greg Sharpe, sports talk radio host and nationally-known sportscaster.
"I watched the game Sunday with my father-in-law. In the second half Sunday, Pacific tied the game and KU came down court and scored. Then Pacific tied it again and KU came right back and re-took the lead. I turned to him and said, ‘This game's over. Pacific just tried to make their run, and KU told them that it just isn't going to happen.'"
"Mentally and physically, I saw no signs of a team that looked tense, and for the last 10 years, except for the last two, KU teams really tightened up in the tournament. I didn't see that at all this weekend. I saw a team that was loose, was fighting hard, and I thought, ‘This Jayhawk team has taken on the personality of their coach, Bill Self.' And that toughness and grit made them easy winners in some respects and has them prepared for a strong run to the final four this weekend in St. Louis."
Mark Davidson of WIBW-TV in Topeka has been covering KU all season. "Over the last month, things have really been coming together, and Sunday, all aspects of their game – playing hard, playing defense for 40 minutes, rebounding – were there. I know Coach Self wouldn't say they were perfect, but for the first time this year, I think he would say that they were competitive in all areas that are important to him."
Where did this new-found team toughness come from? Sharpe thinks it's a different mindset, particularly on offense, from years past.
"Coach Self has tried to teach (the team) that you have to win at different speeds sometimes other than winning at the speed you want to. They haven't always played like that in years past. In the last 10 or 12 years, there were a lot of losses, some in March, where that unwillingness to play at a different speed really came back to haunt them."
And the players have bought into it, too. After both games this weekend, words and phrases like "run" and "transition" and "easy basket" were joined by new ones like "defense" and "rebound" and "execute." In fact, they were dropping in the KU locker room as fast as back ribs and fries at Arthur Bryant's. If Wayne Simien's NBA career doesn't work out, his post-game remarks from Sunday should get him the gig as Self's publicist.
"It just came down to rebounds and loose balls. We did a great job the whole game, especially the last five minutes, getting it one-and-done at their offensive end, and then coming down and executing at our offensive end," said the 6-9 junior from Leavenworth.
Coach Self has said it himself time and time again over the last three months, and he said it again Sunday: "I think that if you look at the times when we really performed well, our defense and rebounding's been good. I fully believe that's the key. If we take care of the basketball, defend and rebound, even if you don't execute perfectly, you can certainly be in the game. When you guard and rebound, you've got a chance to neutralize other people. You don't have to be a great offensive team. Look back at the games we lost and haven't played well. It comes from energy, and energy's usually evident more at the defensive end of the floor."
So, no, this team no longer scores 90 points as often as it used to. No, this team doesn't rip the ball out of the bottom of the opponent's and score five seconds later like it used to.
But the sleek greyhound KU fans got to know is now being trained to win a dogfight. It's being taught to act more like a pit bull, courtesy of a coach who has always been known to have more than just a little bulldog in him.
Make no mistake: this greyhound can still run – fast – when it has the opportunity. But like a pit bull, it's learning how to grab hold and never let go, not letting the other dog win, no matter what you hit it with or how ugly the fight gets.
And nobody wants to face a greyhound that fights like a pit bull. Especially in March.