|Tyshawn Taylor on Bill Self: 'I haven't been the easiest guy to coach. He found a way.' (US Presswire)|
NEW ORLEANS -- Inside the biggest venue, on the biggest stage, during one of the biggest weeks of his career, Bill Self turned to the only person who could hear him.
"It's amazing this team is here, isn't it?" the Kansas coach said as he took the raised-court steps up to that stage for a Final Four practice.
The question was as bare as the Superdome is large in this football configuration that makes the site perhaps the largest in Final Four history. An answer hung in silence among 75,000 empty seats before a shot being launched.
Of course it's amazing Kansas is here -- except that few, beyond the coach, are going to say it. In a Final Four full of powerhouses, it's hard to label Kansas a Cinderella. This is the program's 14th Final Four. Self has guided the Jayhawks to at least a share of eight consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles. No one has done that in a major conference since John Wooden.
But when the coach doesn't expect to be here, you know there's a story. That's why I was the last guy Self spoke to before he took the court Thursday. I wanted to see what was left in the tank after he had gone through the media car wash. They asked him every conceivable question except how he did it. How he did this.
"Taking a team with lower expectations and performing pretty well gives the appearance you're doing a better job coaching," Self said during the media scrum.
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He's right. This team did have lower expectations. He's also self-deprecating. This is not another Final Four appearance, it is a coronation. This was the year Self went from recruiter to coach. Sounds absurd. The man has won a national championship while succeeding everywhere he has been.
That 2008 title team was loaded with future NBA talent. This one has a big man -- Thomas Robinson -- who averaged less than 15 minutes and eight points a year ago. The gunner point guard -- Tyshawn Taylor -- did way too much gunning.
Seven-foot Jeff Withey had one career start and 80 total points in 41 career games coming into this season. No one would ever speak ill of fourth-year junior Travis Releford, but they never praised him for much of anything either.
No, this wasn't a great Kansas team -- compared to other Kansas teams. The Morris twins -- Marcus and Markieff -- left early after last season's Elite Eight loss to VCU. They were both first-round choices. Texas A&M was picked to win the Big 12 in one preseason poll.
When Kansas takes the court against Ohio State on Saturday night, it will have one starter (Taylor) who scored in that VCU game.
Sports are full of full-of-it labels. College basketball's are as worn as any sport. For ages, coaches have been divided into two categories. You're either a recruiter or a tactician. Kentucky's John Calipari is a recruiter. And a damn fine one, getting all those one-and-dones to mesh. Louisville's Rick Pitino is a mastermind. This is possibly the least talented the six teams he has taken to the Final Four.
Self, for better or worse, was perceived as a hoarder of talent. He recruited the guts of the 2005 Illinois team that Bruce Weber got to the Final Four. Dee Brown, the inspirational guard. Deron Williams, now an NBA star.
The history and tradition of Kansas allowed Self access to more top-level talent. He has had seven NBA first-round draft choices in Lawrence. That '08 championship team alone featured three guys drafted in the first round.
"I think he's both," Taylor said when presented with the two coaching labels. "He's definitely a slick talker. He's a good recruiter for sure. I don't know anybody better."
Sometimes the labels mesh. North Carolina and Kansas were 47-47 at halftime Sunday in the Midwest Regional final. The second half became a defensive chess match. In the final nine minutes or so, Self switched to a triangle-and-two to stifle Carolina's inside game. Asked afterward, Roy Williams said he may have noticed it for a possession or two. Uh, Roy? You may want to check the tape.
Sometimes the labels mesh. Taylor has been a knucklehead at times. In 2009, he was involved in an ugly altercation with the KU football team. On campus, in public. It was stupid stuff, arguing over campus supremacy. Last season, he was suspended two games for violating team rules and again this season for an exhibition game.
"I haven't been the easiest guy to coach," Taylor admitted. "He found a way."
Within the context of this season, Taylor has evolved from shaky liability at times at point guard to playing at an All-American level coming into this Final Four. That's coaching.
So is this: Taylor played with a torn meniscus against Ohio State on Dec. 10. Afraid to extend himself on the knee, Taylor became a facilitator that day and had 13 assists. Kansas won.
"Coach Self, he can't treat every player the exact same way. Sometimes guys are having bad days," Taylor said. "It could be because something is going wrong off the court. He won't be as aggressive or scream. He understands how to coach us."
Last week before the Midwest Regional, Self spotted a moody Taylor coming into practice. The two chatted for five minutes while Taylor shot free throws.
"He kind of laid off me that practice," Taylor said.
In the regional final, Taylor scored 22 points and had five assists against the Tar Heels.
Withey blocked 13 shots in the two regional games, solidifying his rep as one of the best defensive players in the country. Releford is a reliable defensive stopper, maybe the best in the Big 12. Robinson? He was expected to step up with the loss of the Morris twins. But going from backup forward to national Player of the Year candidate?
This is how we should know Self has changed that label. His coaching tree grew a bit taller. This week, two of his top assistants got head-coaching jobs. Ops guy Barry Hinson went to SIU. Kansas legend Danny Manning is going to Tulsa.
"This isn't a hard team to coach," Self said. "It's a lot easier coaching a team when everybody in your program agrees on who the five starters should be, everybody in the program wants those starters to play 30 minutes a game. ... That's not a hard team to coach. When a team cares a lot, it's pretty easy."
This team cares. Self says the problem comes with managing egos. These guys aren't divas. That might have been the problem when Kansas was losing to the likes of VCU and Bucknell and Bradley. A school that recruits five-star players and goes to McDonald's for its All-Americans didn't respect the opposition. Or at least that's the way it seemed.
Ignore the brand name on their jerseys, then. These Jayhawks are Cinderellas in a Superdome full of powerhouses. It's amazing that this team is here, isn't it?
Not so much anymore. Not with Bill Self.