Self: "It's Our Time"

DETROIT — Bill Self has been so close for so many years. The KU coach has reached the Elite Eight four previous times, but has never made the Final Four.

Bill Self, one of just four coaches in Division I history to lead three programs to the Elite Eight (Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas), will now have a fifth chance — and his best chance yet — to reach the Final Four when his No. 1 seed Jayhawks (34-3) play No. 10 seed Davidson (29-6) in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

Tipoff is at 4:05 (CDT) at Ford Field.

After KU beat Villanova in the Sweet 16 on Friday night, and after Self finished his postgame press conference past midnight, he spoke with a horde of reporters in the Jayhawks’ locker room about reaching the Elite Eight for the fifth time in his career and his second straight year at KU. (Kansas lost to UCLA last season in the round of eight.)

“It feels good,” he said. “We thought before the season, during the season, during the postseason, there would be a great chance we’d be in this game. I think our players are excited. I know I’m excited.”

The KU players said Self wants to make the Final Four more than anybody in the program.

“I would say it is probably fair to say,” Self said. “(But) that’s not the reason we want to win. We want to win for the players and the program and everything. We’ve been close, and you guys (media) are going to do a great job of documenting that for everyone to know. We’ve been in this game several times, and we feel it’s our time, it’s our turn. But certainly nobody is going to give you anything, you got to take it. We’re going to have our hands full on Sunday.”

The day after the Villanova win and the day before the biggest game of his life, Self spoke more about being in the Elite Eight. He was asked about being known as the best coach to never coach in the Final Four.

“If they’re saying that, at least it’s got ‘best,’ part of it that says ‘best,’” Self said with a smile. “I’m disappointed personally we haven’t been there yet. It’s something that I think about all the time. I mean I think about it every day in some form or fashion. And a lot of times many times a day.

“As a coach, all you can do is prepare your team to be as good as it can possibly be when it counts the most. We put ourselves in position to play some big games and we obviously haven’t finished the job. ... I would like to eliminate that tag (of best coach not to reach the Final Four), so to speak, but not for me as much as I’d love to have these players who have won so many games since they’ve been at Kansas, so many championships. The seniors have won seven out of eight Big 12 championship opportunities, and the juniors are six for six. I would love for them to add this to their resume, because it will be incomplete without it.”

The players would love to win on Sunday for their coach. They talk about it all the time.

“We want it a lot,” said sophomore forward Darrell Arthur. “He hasn’t made that spot yet and we just want to get over the hump. Hopefully, we can get there. That would be a big accomplishment for him and the team.

“He is a great coach. He has led us this far and we are just trying to do it for him. Also, the seniors, we are trying to do it for those guys. We want them to go out with a bang.”

Self knows there are great expectations from KU fans to make the school’s 13th Final Four, but that’s not his or the players’ focus.

“I’m sure our players feel it (pressure), but I don’t know if they feel it that much,” he said. “I don’t think they’re rushing out and buying newspapers or jumping on talk radio very often. I think sometimes when you operate within the eye of the storm, you really don’t feel what’s going on around you. And even as a coach, I feel that way some. I’m sure there’s a ton, a ton of expectations. I do feel that to an extent, but probably don’t feel it to the extent you think it exists with me because we kind of live in our own little world and are totally oblivious to a lot of things.

“Certainly, I want our fans to be happy. But that’s not why we coach, to make our fans happy. We coach to try to do the best we can with our players. And that will be our 100 percent focus.”

And Self’s focus is keeping his players fresh before the big game. KU ran just a brief practice on Saturday. Self said he’s learned over the years not to practice too hard before the Elite Eight game.

“Last year wasn’t the case, but I know when I first started doing this, we would practice every day,” Self said. “Since I’ve been at Kansas, that really hasn’t been the approach. When I was at Tulsa and Illinois, we probably did practice too much the day before.”

“I think I’ve relaxed a little bit in that regard in trying to understand the importance of the game, keeping your minds fresh and your legs fresh,” Self added. “You know they think about it. You know it consumes every thought all day long for an extended period of time. And that burns energy. So you got to be smart not to burn too much (by practicing hard before the Elite Eight).”

Self said this team has the best shot to reach the Final Four.

“I’ve said this before ... from an experience standpoint, from the pieces fitting standpoint, the balance of big guys and perimeter play, depth, I think this is the best team we’ve had,” he said. “I’ve said I would reserve judgment to say that until after this weekend’s games. But if we play like I think we’re capable of playing, then this is the best team we’ve had.”

And the team is driven to win on Sunday.

“Everyone has that hunger and wants to stay on that buffet table,” senior forward Darnell Jackson said.

For Jackson and his teammates, it seems the UCLA loss last year has been a prime motivation this season to reach the Final Four.

“When we’ve had some bad practices this year, coach Self started yelling, ‘This is UCLA all over again,’” senior guard Russell Robinson said. “That charged everyone up and got them focused.’”

The Jayhawks are now one game away from giving Self his first Final Four.

“It drives us,” Robinson said. “We all know coach has been to however many Elite Eights and has never (made the Final Four). You go through those things and you learn from them. Everything happens for a reason, and here we are again with an opportunity to go to the Final Four. We just can’t pass it up.

“Early in the year when we lost to Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Texas, he reminded us that we’re playing for bigger and better things. When he was talking about that, he was talking about this game we’re about to play. The main thing is just to go out and learn from what we’ve been through.”

If the Jayhawks execute the game plan and play well, they may likely be celebrating a Final Four berth and a trip to San Antonio. Robinson wants to make Sunday an indelible moment in KU basketball history and Self’s own memory.

“It would be great,” Robinson said. “He’ll always remember his first Final Four team. Here we are with an opportunity to do it, and we have the team to do it.”

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