Commentary

With many new faces, Jayhawks prepare for life as defending champs

Originally Published: November 6, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Bill Self watched Kansas' national-title victory over Memphis like many of us might check out a late-night episode of "Seinfeld" before we fall asleep.

The tape ran so often that Self's wife, Cindy, would have to tell him that she had seen enough.

"It got to the point where I didn't even finish the game because I'd seen it so many times," Self said of Kansas' overtime victory against Memphis in the national-championship game April 7 in San Antonio.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBill Self celebrates Kansas' national championship victory over Memphis with his son, Tyler.
"I'd fall asleep before it got to Mario's shot."

Mario's shot, of course, is Mario Chalmers' 3-pointer with 2.1 seconds left in regulation that tied the game and sent it into overtime.

"I still get emotional when I think about what happened," Self said. "Every coach in our profession would like to experience that."

Self's reflection on his national title is genuine. This is a man who, though he wouldn't admit it, was bothered by the constant questioning of his team's inability to win an Elite Eight game. Getting to the Elite Eight is a monumental task. Self got there once at Tulsa, once at Illinois and twice at Kansas before last season.

Getting there again for a third time, in 2008, wasn't enough, not when the opponent was Davidson.

Self had no idea his family was shouldering the burden of his teams falling one game short of the Final Four.

"I didn't realize how much they cared, or how much it meant to them until we beat Davidson to get to the Final Four," Self said of his wife and two children. "To see the relief and jubilation on their face and realize that they had been carrying these pent-up feelings for a long time [was special]."

The Davidson game was the toughest of the 2008 tournament for Self. Davidson had a shot, literally, to win the game on a Jason Richards 3-pointer. He missed. Kansas won.

"It was more of a relief for me," Self said. "I had never been hung up on what people say about me, although it does become tiresome answering the same questions every year.

"Every year we got to the Elite Eight game it was, 'Well, this is the year Self and the Jayhawks break through.' For me personally, I'm happy I don't have to answer those questions," Self said.

Kansas nearly did. Junior guard Sherron Collins was guarding Richards.

"I watched that game one time," Collins said. "I don't want to look at it. It's one of the most nervous points in my life."

Collins said he thought he had a good read on Richards' shot. But Richards got it off anyway over him.

"Everything was in slow motion after that," Collins said of Richards launching the shot. "Once it hit the backboard and it came off, everything sped back up for me."

Like Self, Collins said that the Davidson game had a different feeling. They don't want to disrespect the Wildcats, but it's true.

I think all the new guys understand that we weren't on that team last year, even though we were a part of Kansas. We want our own to be a part of. We want to work hard and get back to where they were last year.

--Tyshawn Taylor

"That game had a different feeling, more than any other game in the tournament," Collins said. "There was something different about that game. I don't know why we were uptight or not loose. But Davidson was the Cinderella team that everybody picked to beat us. Everybody in the locker room felt different. It was relief. I could have played a whole 'nother game after that. It was a relief for us to get to the Final Four, and a big relief for Coach Self, too."

Self said if someone had told him that the Jayhawks could win by two before the Davidson game, he would have taken it gladly and moved on.

"If someone had said against Carolina that we would do that I would say, 'No, let's go compete against them.' Davidson was more of a relief, and Carolina more of a feel-good."

Talking about last season's remarkable run in the final three games, the close win over Davidson, the crushing first-half lead over North Carolina and the thrilling comeback over Memphis after being down nine with 2:12 remaining takes the focus off the reality facing the Jayhawks this season.

Kansas has talent. Don't be fooled into thinking the Jayhawks are devoid of impact players. But they return only two players who contributed last season: Collins and sophomore forward Cole Aldrich.

"I'm not going to lie; we miss those guys, and it's lonely for me and Cole," Collins said.

"Those guys" are Chalmers, Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson and Sasha Kaun. All but Robinson were selected in the NBA draft in June.

Despite the addition of plenty of talented newcomers like Marcus Morris, Tyshawn Taylor, Tyrone Appleton and Mario Little, once he's healthy from a stress fracture, the Jayhawks don't want to turn into Florida.

[+] EnlargeSherron Collins
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesSherron Collins and Jayhawk fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief when the final buzzer sounded against Davidson.
That's Florida from a year ago. The Gators won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07, but then the draft depleted the program and the returnees weren't able to carry the newcomers with them back to the NCAA tournament in March. Self looks at this comparison more so than North Carolina of 2006, which also lost a slew to the draft, but brought in a freshman All-American in Tyler Hansbrough as a major stopgap for a program that could have slid a bit for a year. UNC was able to still make the NCAAs.

"We don't have a first-team All-American like Tyler right off the bat," Self said. "Our pieces are limited. Sherron and Cole return, but we do have good young players."

Self said he should call Florida coach Billy Donovan to discuss how he handled the situation. But he hasn't yet.

Like Donovan, Self isn't going to allow the Jayhawks to drift from their stated goal: be a national player every year.

When the Jayhawks unveiled one of the two national-title banners at Phog Allen Fieldhouse at the Madness event Oct. 17, Taylor said it was "weird to not really feel a part of it."

"I think all the new guys understand that we weren't on that team last year, even though we were a part of Kansas," Taylor said. "We want our own to be a part of. We want to work hard and get back to where they were last year."

"I want to be patient, but I don't want our expectations to change," Self said. "Saying 'If we can get in the tournament …', well, that's not our goal. Our goal is to win championships every year, even though on paper it doesn't look like we will this year."

That's one of the many reasons Self stayed at KU. He had a chance to go to Oklahoma State, his alma mater, just like Donovan had a shot to go to Kentucky after the Gators won the title in 2007. Self stayed because he wanted to enjoy the title, and after leaving every other job at its peak, he wanted to try to win another title at KU.

"I can't imagine being at a better place to coach than at Kansas," Self said. "I didn't want to be anywhere else but Kansas."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com