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CBSSports.com National Columnist

Self merely highest-profile victim of game's evolving chipmunks

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I come here to praise Bill Self, not to bury him. Not even in that creepy, metaphorical way that Bruce Weber once buried Bill Self at Illinois. That's not me. For one thing, I'm not creepy. For another, I'm not here to bury Bill Self at all. Not literally. Not figuratively.

Not for losing to VCU on Sunday.

And Northern Iowa last year.

And Bradley in 2006, and Bucknell in 2005.

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Not for any of that, because Bill Self doesn't deserve the national knee-jerk reaction of the past two days, when he has been labeled on blogs -- seen 'em, like here -- and on radio shows (heard 'em) as a choker. It's not fair, or right, and the reaction says more about the reactors than it does about Bill Self.

Hey, I've been there. I've misunderstood -- or completely missed -- a trend that was right in front of my eyes. That was June 2009, when I renounced an Internet fad as "the dumbification of America." I was referring to Twitter. More than 25,000 belated tweets later, allow me to say: Oops.

People ripping Bill Self right now? People calling him a choker? That'll be you in a few years. You'll be saying: Oops. Because in a few years you'll understand what I understand right now, that being this:

What we have in college basketball is a new food chain, and while the biggest, baddest animals on that chain remain the same -- Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina and, yes, Kansas -- the rest of the chain has evolved. Even the animals in the middle of this food chain are vicious predators. In real life, VCU would never beat Kansas. That would be like a chipmunk eating an alligator. But this isn't real life.

This is college basketball.

And college basketball has changed over the years, most importantly cutting scholarships from 15 to 13 but also expanding the NCAA tournament from 48 to 64 (now 68) and putting teams of all sizes on television. Add all of that together -- the additional access to players, exposure and March Madness -- and a school like VCU is no longer a normal chipmunk. Now it's a chipmunk with 6-inch incisors.

And they're all over the forest.

It didn't happen overnight. The tournament field expanded from 48 to 64 in 1985. The scholarship reduction from 15 to 13 took place in 1994. And the television exposure continues to grow, even today. It took time, but the accumulated effect, today, is obvious.

Look at the number of chipmunks in the Elite Eight or Final Four or even the national championship game. Four chipmunks have reached the Final Four in the past six years -- George Mason in 2006, Butler in 2010 and '11, and VCU in '11. Davidson had a shot at the buzzer to get to the Final Four in 2008. Butler reached the title game last season, and Butler or VCU will play for the title this season.

Here's some news for Bill Self and others coaching college basketball's elite: The have-nots have more headaches in store. (AP)  
Here's some news for Bill Self and others coaching college basketball's elite: The have-nots have more headaches in store. (AP)  
With very good Division I players now feeling free to roam about the country, and with the absolute best Division I players leaving the biggest programs for the NBA after a year or two in college, we've never seen talent spread so far and wide. What I mean is, these aren't loaded mid-majors crashing the Final Four. This isn't Gonzaga with Adam Morrison or Saint Joseph's with Jameer Nelson or Navy with David Robinson, all highly rated teams that entered NCAA tournaments with high expectations.

The year George Mason reached the Final Four, the Patriots were an afterthought, possibly unworthy of their at-large bid. The same was said this year of VCU, only more harshly. VCU did not deserve to be in this tournament, according to most Selection Sunday analysis. Whether the Rams had a bid-worthy résumé is a matter of opinion, but since getting that bid the Rams have demolished some of the most highly regarded teams in the country, including -- yes -- Kansas.

So Bill Self choked? I don't see how. In addition to what has been happening around college basketball in the past decade, look at what happened Sunday to Kansas. Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed are seniors who simply had a horrible shooting day. It happens. It's not a reflection on coaching that Reed and Morningstar missed 9 of 10 generally open looks on 3-pointers. It's not a reflection of coaching that Marcus and Markieff Morris played volleyball on the offensive glass, missing more than they made from point-blank range.

Don't make me out to be a Bill Self apologist, either, because I'm not. In February 2005, when Kansas lost three consecutive games, I called Self the anti-coach of the year. A month later when Kansas lost to Bucknell, I howled some more. That stuff reached Self's ears, because when I met him for the first time in June 2005 at the Nike camp in Indianapolis and stuck out my hand, he shook it without a smile -- and proceeded to quote from my stories from February and March. Verbatim. That has never happened to me, before or since.

What I didn't know in March 2005 was that college basketball was changing. Gone are the days when the biggest schools make like the Morris twins on the offensive glass and play volleyball with Final Four appearances -- sharing them, hot-potato-like, while the little guys craned their necks and watched.

The little guys aren't craning their necks anymore. They're stepping on necks. In the past six years, UConn has lost to George Mason and San Diego. Syracuse lost to Butler and Vermont. Pittsburgh lost to Pacific and Bradley. Ohio State? To Siena. Some of those teams haven't reached the NCAA tournament every year, though, which means they've avoided the appearance of choking in one game by failing over the course of a whole season. Better, right?

Mock Self for some of Kansas' season-ending losses if you like, but consider this your own personal Twitter moment. The game is changing, changing to the point that 30 years from now, when we look back on Bill Self's career, we'll care only about the national title (or titles) he won. We won't dote on the losses that seem so glaring right now, because by the year 2040 we'll understand: College basketball evolved during the Bill Self era. Chipmunks eat alligators. They eat alligators all the time.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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