|For non-Kansas fans it's hard to remember that Bill Self was on a perpetual hot seat. (US Presswire)|
Picture this; I know you can. It's Bill Self on the sideline, coaching in the Big 12, not even in the thick of the conference race -- because his team's steamrolling to another league title. But he needs one more win in late February to clinch it. He does, and gets it, naturally, at historic Phog Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. It's another trophy for the glass case and another top-seed on the way for his program. He's an active legend.
As the coach of his alma mater, the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
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That's what's happening in an alternative universe. That's what could have happened in this one for Self and Kansas had Davidson's Jason Richards not missed this potential game-winner on March 30, 2008. (And that's a great trivia question to stump your friends with; most would guess Stephen Curry had the final say of that epic Elite Eight game.)
Then came the on-target miracle from a man named Mario eight nights later. A national championship four and a half years ago permanently changed Self's legacy and Kansas' history. He was rid of the March voodoo he'd inherited by way of a few too many early exits as a high seed with the Jayhawks. You remember them -- Self lived them. The walls were closing in and it was no guarantee a guy who was even then considered a top-10 coach in college hoops would last much longer in one of the game's best gigs.
For non-Kansas fans it's hard to remember that Self was on a perpetual hot seat, thanks to a lot of talent and no Final Fours between 2003 and 2007. The strong regular seasons and high tournament seeds came down the conveyor belt, but a select group of schools consider those accomplishments empty if they're not backed up by a few Final Fours and a national title or two. Of course, Kansas is one of those places. For KU fans, Self wasn't getting it done. Until he did. And now he's a Sunflower State legend, owning a third of Kansas' national titles (yep, the school surprisingly has only three), and certain to become an all-timer within the game.
We were reminded of his status as one of the game's best on Friday when Self signed a new deal, a contract extension that pays him $3.857 million per year instead of $3.376 million, and goes through the next 10 years instead of the next six. The deal comes as a natural coda to a season that was arguably Self's best coaching job. His team was picked fourth in the Big 12 last fall, and plenty thought KU would miss its first NCAA tournament in years thanks to what was foolishly seen as an inferior roster.
Instead, you know what happened. All the way to the sport's ultimate night, when the Jayhawks lost to one of the best teams of the past 10 years. It was the second time Self took KU to a Final Four, and if he's there another 10 years, mark it down: at least two more appearances are on their way. The new contract sets him up to be a Kansas lifer, which should mean Kansas will continue to be Kansas: one of the game's five best historic and contemporary programs.
Upon the release of the news, Kansas AD Sheahon Zenger said Self was "among a very small number of elite basketball coaches in this country." And he's right. In fact, Self has to be considered top five, and the case to make him top two or three is strong. Consider that Kansas has won (outright or shared) eight straight regular-season Big 12 titles. That's unprecedented. Additionally, Self has coached the team to a college basketball-record 197 wins in a six-year span, from 2006 to 2012.
You want more? He's got more. Since he arrived in 2003, KU has has averaged 30 wins a year. Just a ridiculous number, even in this modern era of hoops where Final Four teams will play just shy of 40 games in a season. What else? Well, Kansas has never earned less than a four seed under Self, and he's brought the team to five Elite Eights in nine years. Finally, allow me to free my tempo here; since he got to Kansas, Self's teams have been seventh-best in defensive rate nationally over the course of nine years. All, not most, coaches can only dream of being that consistent on defense while continually having All-American options on offense -- because Self has no equal in efficiency over the past five or 10 years.
Get ready for more, starting with this season -- which begins in less than two weeks. Kansas is easily a top-10 preseason team. There's a load of new talent coming (get to know the names Perry Ellis, Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor) on top of guys like Jeff Withey, Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford, the elder statesmen who will help Kansas stay afloat atop the league and bring Self yet another one, two or three seed on Selection Sunday.
Yet it so easily could have been that most of those guys would be wearing orange and black instead of white and blue in the upcoming year. I'm amazed at how chance results in big moments change things forever. Self at Oklahoma State. Weird to picture, but it absolutely was a possibility. As the years go on and Kansas remains a behemoth, Self's road not taken could become one of the classic what-ifs of the sport, like Kobe going to Duke or Roy Williams nottaking the UNC job, effectively preventing the Self Era at Kansas from happening.
I'd rather not know. The sport is better this way, with one of the game's best coaches at one of its best programs. The unpredictability of sports is what forever lures us to it, familiarity and dynasty in college basketball are integral to the sport's identity and relevance. Kansas has its man, its next legend, the one who's likely to retire with more national titles than any coach in that program's history.