Editor’s note: As part of our college basketball preview, Eagle beat writers are projecting what the state’s basketball programs will be like in 10 years.
LAWRENCE — It’s hard to believe now.
Just 10 years ago – back in 2016 – there were questions about Kansas coach Bill Self’s ability to win the NCAA Tournament.
This was back when it was just Allen Fieldhouse (Allen-Self Fieldhouse was only a dream at the time), back when you still had to charge your iPhone batteries (remember that?) and back when there were really people who believed Tim Tebow might be able to play baseball (his political career has treated him much better).
But it was also at a critical time in KU’s program. Many fans didn’t see the NCAA Tournament for what it actually was – the toughest contest to win in all of sports and a crapshoot even for great teams – but instead perhaps part of a character flaw for the then-53-year-old Self.
And, to be honest, Self had some of the same questions. At that point, he was just 2-6 in Elite Eight games during his coaching career, which included a 64-59 defeat in that same round to Villanova the previous season.
“I think about it all the time,” Self said of his team’s Elite Eight struggles back then.
If only he knew then what we all know now.
It started with that 2016-17 team, the squad that tied UCLA’s all-time regular-season conference title streak at 13. KU’s loaded backcourt of Frank Mason, Devonté Graham and one-and-done freshman Josh Jackson sailed through the Big 12 with a 16-2 mark, and though an upstart Texas team would end “The Streak” the next year, the Jayhawks still had quite a celebration at the Fieldhouse for ring No. 13.
That was only the start, of course.
Though the previous postseason losses were mostly bad fortune, Self showed an evolution starting in 2016-17. He tinkered with a different offensive lineup, consistently playing with four guards for the first time in his KU career while utilizing more of an NBA style.
There were more adjustments that came after that. Though earlier in his career he often spoke about three-pointers with disdain – calling them “Fool’s gold” was a multiple-time-a-year-occurrence – Self finally came around to believing the shot should be utilized more after a long chat with then-Spurs general manager and longtime friend R.C. Buford. The reality was this: The three-point line in college basketball was too close back in 2016, and teams not taking advantage ran the risk of dismissing an edge that could be exploited.
So starting in 2016-17, KU fired away from deep. Self’s offense evolved to more penetrate-and-pitch with the dynamic Jackson leading the team in assists and Graham taking advantage by topping the conference in made three-pointers.
And Self was in perfect position to transition quickly when the NCAA moved the three-point line back more than a foot to adopt the FIBA standards in 2020. The coach quickly adapted back to a recruiting philosophy that had served him so well in previous years, picking off the nation’s most talented big men and wings and meshing them with shorter, less-heralded point guards who developed in his system and stayed for four years. Though the recent addition of one-and-done point guard Jerrance Howard Jr. broke the mold for a year (Jerrance Sr. remains as Self’s top recruiting assistant some 13 years after he started), Self had developed the blueprint to succeed year after year in the Big 16 Conference.
That didn’t mean a conference title every year, though. After the addition of Arizona to the league and Texas’ rise to national power under Shaka Smart, KU won Big 16 titles every other year from 2021 to 2026, which remained the top mark in all of college basketball among the four superconferences.
The real success, though, started to come in March.
Once KU was able to push past that Elite Eight barrier in 2017 – defeating second-seeded North Carolina at Kansas City’s Sprint Center – the Jayhawks became the NCAA Tournament’s perennial power. Though KU couldn’t close with a national championship that year, Self led his team to four more Final Fours and two more titles over the next decade.
And that kind of success didn’t go unnoticed. Self has spurned a few NBA offers – Las Vegas being the latest – though KU fans all knew the biggest obstacle for Self remaining in Lawrence came with the retirement of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in 2019.
Self had long been rumored for the job, and analysts had long speculated about his desire to coach at the highest level.
Buford did call Self, but the conversation was brief. Self was stayin’, even if – in true Self fashion – he underplayed the momentous decision by revealing it in a text message to longtime KU beat writer Gary Bedore.
Self has said repeatedly since then he made the right choice … and who can argue? After his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 2021, Self has solidified himself as the best coach at a school which previously featured the inventor of the game and the “Father of basketball coaching” on its sidelines. Though he won’t allow the statue to be unveiled until he retires, Self already has gotten a look at his eight-foot bronze likeness, which will be placed next to Phog Allen at the entryway of the Fieldhouse.
Not bad for someone who, just 10 years ago, couldn’t diagnose himself if KU’s postseason issues were more signal or noise.
When his car drives him to work each day, Self says he reflects often on that 2016-17 season, a turning point in not only his philosophy but also his coaching career.
It was the last time fans could cling to the belief that Self might have been incapable of winning the most important games of each season.
Maybe those people could be forgiven. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.
And living in a world without Apple Smartglasses probably didn’t help either.
Jesse Newell: @jessenewell