University of Kansas

Bob Lutz: Bill Self manufactures another Final Four contender

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self smiled during his team's practice on Thursday, March 15, 2012 at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., in preparation for Friday evening's game against Detroit. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star
Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self smiled during his team's practice on Thursday, March 15, 2012 at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., in preparation for Friday evening's game against Detroit. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star DAVID EULITT

Those who have a say in the preseason college basketball polls didn’t confidently put their reputations on the line picking Kansas to have another strong season. They picked Bill Self to have another strong season.

And is there a safer pick than Self?

It’s not like KU belonged at No. 13 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll, especially not after losing the Brink’s truck full of players the Jayhawks lost from last season’s Elite Eight team. And if you ask Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn what in the world made him slot Kansas at No. 12 in his preseason rankings, it’ll take him a nanosecond to mention Self.

Here’s what was returning to KU this season: A player with unlimited potential in Thomas Robinson, but potential is all it was; a point guard who had taken years off of Self’s life in Tyshawn Taylor; a 7-foot center Jeff Withey, who looked good until he got on the floor; a kid from Bishop Miege, Travis Releford, who appeared content with a limited role; a guard from Las Vegas, Elijah Johnson, whose grasp on how the game should be played was loose; a career walk-on, Conner Teahan; and two transfers — Kevin Young and Justin Wesley — neither of whom looked like a good fit in Lawrence.

What everybody knew, though, is that Self would figure out a way to maximize what he had, limited as it looked to be. So those preseason rankings? They were done with a wink and a nod, toward Self.

He is near the end of his ninth season at Kansas and his record is 266-52, including 123-23 in Big 12 games. This ain’t the MEAC the Jayhawks are killing every season.

Self will be the first to tell you he has coached one gifted player after another at KU. But it’s this season we’re talking about and before it started there were no sure things on the Jayhawks’ roster.

Robinson was close, yes, but we didn’t know he had this kind of game. Taylor had shown flashes, but he was always blocking his path to stardom with sloppy play that made Kansas fans crazy.

After those two, what was there?

Self went to work with this group and has produced another Sweet 16 team that will take on North Carolina State on Friday night, with a potential showdown with North Carolina, and that former Kansas coach whose name shall remain anonymous, to get to the Final Four next week in New Orleans.

Has this been Self’s best coaching job?

I’d like you to tell me of one better. Time’s up.

This KU team has flaws. Even with a national player of the year candidate and a dynamic point guard, there are games in which Kansas fans have to close their eyes and hope for the best. Their third-round NCAA Tournament victory over Purdue on Sunday night was the latest example. The Jayhawks shot poorly in that game and dug a hole for themselves early. Even when their defense clamped down on the Boilermakers, it didn’t appear Kansas was going to be able to generate enough offense to pull it out.

But a late surge, led by Johnson, pulled the Jayhawks through. Self has hammered home that even though Kansas doesn’t have as many McDonald’s All-Americans or five-star recruits as some past teams, there are ways to win games. He has been able to instill confidence in players such as Withey, Releford and Teahan, showing the ability to take make-believe players and make them real.

Withey’s confidence has exploded as a shot blocker and rebounder. Same for Releford, who lists an ability to defend high on his resume. And Teahan, who looked for the world like he was going to finish his KU career where he started it — on the bench — has morphed into a spot-up shooter and a rugged defender.

Even Young and Wesley, who came to Kansas from Loyola -Marymount and Lamar, have been good enough to provide some valuable minutes off the bench. Self has taken an eight-man rotation, including three or four who would have never seen the light of day on a typical Kansas team, and made it a legitimate Final Four threat.

When incoming freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor were ruled partial qualifiers and deemed ineligible for the season by the NCAA the day before practice started in October, it looked like a fatal blow. Not that McLemore and Traylor were going to be superstars, but the depth they would have helped provide has been sorely missing.

Turns out it just wasn’t that big of a deal. Self pieced together the remaining pieces and produced a quilt of which your grandmother would be proud. The man can stitch things together, all right.

So all of you prognosticators who are proudly thumping your chest about the season Kansas has had can stop now. You put your faith in a coach, not a team, and the coach came through.

Like he always does.

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