OMAHA, Nebraska -- It is not breaking news to fans of Kansas basketball that this season has at times seemed like one of the most trying seasons in recent memory. Kansas, a program that had lost only 10 games at home since Bill Self took over in 2003, lost three games at home this season. The team was too reliant on guard play due to a total lack of frontcourt depth. Fans waited for freshman big man Billy Preston to become eligible, but that never happened. The team could shoot it but could not get to the rim. For much of the season, Kansas has ranked at or near the bottom of college basketball in the percentage of its point that come from the free-throw line, an indicator of an imbalanced roster.
Worse, their coach found them soft.
As the Kansas City Star's Sam Mellinger detailed this week, Self using the word "soft" is the worst thing he could say about one of his basketball teams. "No single word better embodies everything Self despises," Mellinger wrote. "In practice, if Self screams the word, that's all the players and coaches need to know they have to run the play again, only better, or else they'll be there all night."
"Softest team that Kansas has had since I've been here," he said.
On Friday night in the Sweet 16, during a frenetic Clemson run that turned what appeared to be a blowout into a suddenly intense game with two minutes left, Kansas proved to its coach that this team is not soft. The biggest play of Kansas' 80-76 victory came not off a Malik Newman stepback three-pointer or a Silvio De Sousa dunk -- but an offensive rebound by point guard Devonte' Graham in the final 2 minutes.
A hustle play -- and not soft in the least.
Clemson came ready to play, and didn't give up when it seemed completely rational for them to give up. Gabe Devoe scored a heroic 31 points, but Kansas simply shot its way to victory, going 10-for-22 from 3 while Clemson made only six of 20. The game was another indicator that what Self has done with this Kansas team -- with a flawed roster and an uncertainty that hovered over them for months -- has been one of the greatest coaching jobs of his career.
Here's what Self had to say before Friday's game about his "soft" comment from December.
"Probably (meant it) 100 percent literally," Self said. "And a lot of it probably was emotional, too, and probably trying to send a message. We're not a soft team…but we haven't been a tough team either. And whenever you're not very big and you're playing four guards, and guards have to rebound the ball at a level that a four-man would rebound them and things like that, you could make a case that you look pretty soft. We're still not doing great, but we're doing a lot better than we did earlier in the season."
Make no mistake: Despite the fact that the Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed in this tournament, despite the fact that Kansas extended its remarkable 14-season streak of winning the Big 12 Conference regular season title, despite the fact that Kansas now stands one win away from a Final Four, this is not a great basketball team.
But the best teams don't always make Final Fours. The best teams don't always win national championships. Kansas can absolutely make a Final Four, and can absolutely win it all – especially considering the way this March Madness has gone.
"I think of all the teams that we've had here, this would be the team that everyone would have thought would not be in this game," Self said. "And so, hey, we're in this game. We've got a legitimate shot to go to San Antonio.
"I told the guys after the game it's not a guarantee. You prepare the whole year to play in this game. So I think we'll play with no what-ifs."
If Self can make a Final Four with this flawed group -- and certainly if he can win an unlikely national title with this flawed group -- this will go down as the greatest coaching job of his career, perhaps one of the best coaching jobs we've seen in quite some time.
Nothing soft about that.