KU 'lucky' to stay on right side of line
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sitting down after winning the Big 12 conference tournament title Saturday night at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Bill Self enumerated why his Kansas team is in position to win another championship.
According to Self, there are a variety of factors that have the Jayhawks well-positioned to capture their second national title in three seasons, including a new attitude forged from the experience of winning their first title in 2008, a better-than-expected bridge season a year ago and a little bit of luck.
A season ago, Kansas faced the task of replacing all five starters from the previous season's national champion squad. The Jayhawks did return two key reserves in that title run in Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. But there were still plenty of holes to fill.But unlike UCLA, North Carolina and Connecticut this season, the Jayhawks didn't skid off the NCAA tournament bubble. Instead, they won the Big 12 with a 14-2 record and reached the Sweet 16. "That's the key to us being a 1-seed this year and ranked No. 1 for most of the year," Self said. "That gave us confidence, that bridge year."
Kansas fell in the first round again that season, this time to Bradley, but the foundation for the next deep tourney run had been laid, and the Jayhawks reached the Elite Eight in 2007. That might have been it for them, had Rush stayed in the NBA draft as he intended. But Rush returned to school after tearing his ACL during NBA draft workouts. He was back on the court by winter and by March, the Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed on a collision course with Memphis for the national championship.
"We got lucky," Self said. "Brandon Rush, we didn't even know he was eligible. We had never talked to him. Then we got lucky again, [though] I hated it for him to tear his ACL."
Without the assurance of being a high pick, both Collins and Aldrich opted against entering the NBA draft, returning to school to give the Jayhawks one of the most formidable one-two combinations in the country. Kansas already had impressive depth, but the final piece of the roster was one no one saw coming a year ago: Xavier Henry.
Henry originally had opted for Memphis and John Calipari over Self, who was not pleased when the announcement was made on ESPNU. But by early April, Calipari was on his way to Kentucky and Henry chose to go with his brother C.J. to Lawrence, following the lineage his family had at Kansas."This allows me to keep it in perspective," Self said. "We've done a decent job. But we've been lucky and fortunate." When asked to compare this year's team with his title team from 2008, Self described the latter squad as more of a highlight team. "This [year's team] is more of a grind-it-out team," Self said. "We've got warts, and we do camouflage them. The important intangible we have is having the toughness, and we're battle-tested."
Winning a national title has changed Self. He no longer feels any self-imposed pressure to get to the Final Four. He doesn't put that on himself or his team. His entire mental preparation is for those two games in April.
"It revamped our thinking," Self said. "Before, it was we've got to get to the Final Four and we did and we won it in the same year. Now, the thinking is win the national championship. Before, it was if we get to April we'll talk about these things when we get there. Now, the way we coach the team is to win those two games in April."
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How?"Instead of being ecstatic with wins, we look that that's not good enough," Self said. "We don't leave the locker room jubilant. You see that now [after winning the Big 12]. The guys are focused on winning these tournaments." Self is clearly in tune with how difficult a run Florida has had lately after following its back-to-back national titles with consecutive disappointing seasons. The Gators squeezed into the tournament this season, but they missed in back-to-back years before that. Carolina's major dip after winning the national title last year wasn't expected this season. Former No. 1 seed and Final Four participant Connecticut faded this season, too. "That could happen to us," Self said. "Guys transfer, guys declare and you're not experienced. We've been fortunate enough to handle the losses somewhat through recruiting, but a lot of it has just been luck." Self has never been a huge ego guy. He's not about to change his attitude simply because he has won one title, and soon possibly two. He said he won't be surprised if any of the elite teams in the field get knocked off before the Final Four, either.
"It looks like there's separation, but there isn't in terms of talent," Self said. "It wouldn't be a major upset if a top-30 team beats Syracuse, Kentucky or Kansas."After this season, the Jayhawks will lose senior guard Collins. They likely will lose Aldrich and possibly Henry and face a rebuilding situation next season. "Next year could be a totally different deal," Self said. "We're fortunate. Our transition years, the guys have played better than we thought. I mean look at Billy Donovan's teams. If Marreese Speights doesn't leave [2008 draft] and then if Nick Calathes doesn't leave [last year], there may be no talk of them missing the NCAAs. We know it's a fine line. We've just been on the good side of that line."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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