The Wait Is Over

Bill Self and his Jayhawks finally reached a season-long goal and are now two wins away from a national championship. Phog.net looks at how playing with the weight of the world on your shoulders is no easy task.

It felt like a no-win situation well before the ball was even tipped.

The Midwest bracket whittled down to one seed Kansas and 10th seeded Davidson - Kansas the heavy favorite – Davidson the feel good underdog. Win the game and it was supposed to happen that way, lose the game and it’s the kind of loss that lights up message boards and sends columnists to their computers.

The pressure was mounting but I don’t buy that Bill Self’s job security would be in doubt if KU failed to come through, not for one second, but I do admit my mind started to wander and think about all the negative publicity this loss would’ve garnered.  

“They don't have the same "wow" factor with the name of their school, not being from a BCS conference or whatever, I think in some ways maybe put a little subtle pressure on you, as well. Our guys didn't handle it great, but we were tough enough to get the win, which is all that matters.”

It would’ve overwhelmed anything Davidson did right and would’ve been all about what KU failed to do. It would’ve overshadowed a terrific season and a great group of seniors. It was unthinkable to most.

Bill Self was college hoops version of the best golfer without a major title and to his credit he never ducked the pressure. He answered questions honestly and never shied away from his goals and desires. But the honor of earning that label - and it is an honor if you’re the “best” anything - wears off very quickly if you’re finding it hard to shed the label. To me for Self it was always a question of when and not if but he was 0-4 in regional finals and possibly set to join John Chaney with the most Elite 8 appearances yet to pay a visit to college basketball’s hallowed grounds.

“We've had a great run. At Tulsa, you get there once. You think, ‘we'll get back’. The next year at Illinois, we got back. You know, it's not that hard, we'll get back. Next thing you know, it's hard. Lot of things have to go your way,” admitted Self.

Things finally did go Self’s way but he had to be thinking here we go again on Sunday in this regional final as his team looked tighter than the brand new rims at Detroit’s Ford Field.

“One thing about doubt entering into the picture with me personally today, I felt good about -- I felt good about the situation because going into the tournament, I thought this was our time,” Self continued. “I thought this was the most prepared team we had, the best team we've had. I just thought this would be our time.”

In the end, Davidson missed open looks that they knocked down the entire tournament and when the final shot bounded off the rim, the gorilla on Self’s back was finally off. Afterward one reporter referenced that there was an 800-pound gorilla running around with his name on it. The always affable and honest Self answered, “I thought it was 1200 pounds. 800 may have been a little light.”
 
“It feels good. Just for him. He's been stuck in the Elite 8 for the last few years. This feels good just to make that push into the Final Four for him,” according to junior Brandon Rush.

But the tough-minded Self certainly did his part to help his team grind through this one and toss that gorilla aside.

What the Jayhawks lacked on offense, they more than made up for on defense.
Knowing his team’s offensive struggles were putting serious pressure on the defensive end of the court Self did his best to outwit a precise Davidson offense – particularly sharpshooter Stephen Curry. The possessions of box-and-one and even triangle-and-two were enough to throw Davidson off its rhythm. The “junk defenses” just used as a strategic change of pace not a constant that Davidson could adjust to. Curry wasn’t nearly as effective without being able to run off those relentless motion offense screens.

He made sure there were four guards on the court during the last possession and that his team understood that defending the three-point line was the most important thing with KU nursing a two-point lead, 59-57.

“I just told them, we are not going to let them shoot a three,” Self told the media, “We're going to make them be drivers. Do not let them shoot a three. From my standpoint, that's the only way you could lose the game.”

Richards may have gotten a three off during what seemed like the longest 16.8 seconds in Kansas history, but KU made it hard enough on Davidson to come away with the win. When that final shot missed wide left you could feel all of Jayhawk nation breathe a collective sigh of relief.

That’s sure that’s how it felt for Self who was on his knees watching the final play.

“I would say instead of jubilation, it was probably more relief,” Self admitted. “You know, you picture the way you picture winning a big game like that, you make a shot, you celebrate, or something happens, you're able to go congratulate all your coaches and your players. This was not one of those deals. I just wanted to make sure that I hurry up and shook hands, and the officials left the court so they couldn't put any more time back on the clock.”

It got me to thinking about Self’s career and the world we have created in sports. A man waited as long as he did to get there and his first emotion was relief – not joy – but relief. This is a man who’s climbed the coaching ladder and won over 340 games and the first reaction was relief. It certainly explains the subdued reaction by Self and his staff. It’s just a shame to me that the pressure we put on winning or losing sometimes takes the joy out of moments like these.  

Self is now a genius but if that shot had fallen he would’ve spent days, and months being the goat. It’s an interesting dynamic. Amazing how missing a shot by two feet makes a mile of difference in how you and your career are viewed. If Davidson’s last second prayers had been answered it doesn’t make Self a worse coach, just like winning this game doesn’t make him a better coach. He’s the same as he was a week ago or a year ago it’s just that now his name will be mentioned among the game’s best without the asterisk.

Now it’s up to KU and Self to continue their quest for a national title. A tremendous burden has been lifted off the shoulders of the players and coaches and there’s something to be said with now being able to play with a free mind. After admitting on Saturday he thinks about making the Final Four everyday, Self was asked afterwards what he would think about now that he had finally reached a Final Four, with a smile he answered, “winning it”.

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