Can Kansas win no-bill Prize?
Defending champion Jayhawks will try to repeat without Self, whose return to bench is still a mystery
DES MOINES, Iowa — As if it wasn’t going to be difficult enough for Kansas to repeat as NCAA Tournament champion this season even under the best of circumstances.
Only four men’s programs have managed that in the last 50 years, and none since Florida
— coached by Billy Donovan and with Joakim
Noah creating havoc all over the floor — pulled it off in 2006 and 2007.
Throw in a mostly new starting lineup and longtime coach Bill Self ’s suspension to start the season after an FBI probe into corruption in college basketball, and it was hard to know what to make of the Jayhawks.
It still is — or is anew — even though they’re the No. 1 seed in the West Region and coming off their highest scoring output of the season in an opening-round 96-68 drubbing of Howard. And it’s mainly because of ongoing questions about the availability of Self, who hasn’t coached a game since being hospitalized before the Big 12 tournament.
After complaining of tightness in his chest and problems with balance, Self, 60, received a heart catheterization and had two stents inserted for the treatment of blocked arteries. He was discharged on Selection Sunday and traveled here with the team — and was on the court at Wells Fargo Arena as the Jayhawks practiced a day before Saturday’s date with eighth-seeded Arkansas — but if and when he’ll return to the bench remains a mystery.
“Coach is doing well,” said longtime assistant Norm Roberts, who has been handling all game and media duties. “It’s a day-to-day situation with him and everything, but he’s doing good . . . . We will see what happens.”
In an interview with the team’s radio network that aired before the Howard game, Self said, “I’m doing better. I’m feeling stronger and everything. But I don’t think I’m at the point where I could be very good for our team if I was out there.”
When Self made the trip to Des Moines, many — including his players, judging by their comments before the games began — expected him to be coaching. A secondround meeting against Illinois, his former school, was an enticing possibility until Arkansas sent the Illini packing 73-63.
Of course, Self ’s health is the main thing.
Meanwhile, how long can the Jayhawks — a seasoned group, but far less so than last year’s champs — march on with limited involvement from perhaps the best coach in the country?
“It’s not seamless,” Roberts said, “but I would say our motto at our place is, ‘Faces change, expectations don’t.’ Our guys understand that. The one thing we have is a great coach.”
Roberts and Self go all the way back to the Oral Roberts days. Self was 33 and in his first head job when he hired Roberts, then 30, to his staff. They moved on together to Tulsa and then to Illinois and next, in 2003, to Kansas. Roberts — who was instrumental in landing Dee Brown and Deron Williams in Champaign — had a largely unsuccessful six-year run as head coach at St. John’s before returning to Self’s side in 2012. This is their 21st season together.
Jayhawks guards Joseph Yesufu, who spent two seasons at Drake after starring at Bolingbrook, and Kevin McCullar Jr. described Roberts as a “mirror image” of Self.
“We probably do finish each other’s sentences in basketball terms,” Roberts said. “But, no, I do try to think of what he would want to do.”
Self has been extensively involved since the start of the tournament, according
to Roberts. To an extent, Roberts merely is carrying out Self’s plans. But in-game coaching is its own animal, as followers of every team that plays big games in March know, and we might not have a real feel for what Self ’s absence means until — if such a time comes, maybe against Arkansas — the Jayhawks’ backs are against the wall.
Texas, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, is playing here, too, and living out an example of a team excelling without its coach. Rodney Terry was named acting coach on Dec. 12 after Chris Beard’s domesticviolence arrest and interim coach on Jan. 5 after Beard was fired. The Longhorns went on to throttle Kansas in the regular-season finale and again in the Big 12 championship game. Next up for them is surprisingly dangerous Penn State on Saturday.
Will Self be back? If not, can the Jayhawks handle what’s in front of them? Can Roberts?
One thing Roberts has going for him, apparently, is that he has a little Knute Rockne in him.
“His pregame speeches get you pretty pumped up,” McCullar said. “You want to go out there and run through a brick wall sometimes, he gets you so [fired] up.”
Fired up is good, but one would imagine being whole is even better.