Kansas coach Bill Self hasn't let controversies derail Jayhawks' season heading into showdown vs. No. 1 Baylor
Sure, blueblood Kansas has had issues, but Self has made sure his team's performance on the court isn't one of them
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Bill Self's reading glasses rest easily on his nose. The immediate future is clear. No. 3 Kansas will play No. 1 Baylor on Saturday in what qualifies as one of college basketball's game of the year – at least to date.
"I think so," Kansas' coach said in his office this week. "If you look at 1 vs. 3, Saturday, GameDay, interest level at least in this area. It may not carry the same interest level as Carolina and Duke is promoted to have. As far as this year's national scene in late February you're probably not going to see it like this."
Gaze any further past that it's not just another Final Four that Kansas is chasing, it's repairing the program's reputation. Ask the coach.
"We've had three things," Self said. "That's not who we are. We've always represented class. Those things that we've gone through give the appearance that may not be the case."
Those three things rank somewhere between embarrassment and genuine concern, even in the middle of a 23-3 season that includes a current 11-game winning streak that started after its home loss to Baylor on Jan. 11.
The three things that are blemishes on the Jayhawks' season are:
Kansas continues to plow through an NCAA investigation complete with all the uncertainty that goes with the possible outcome.
Before the season started, a Snoop Dogg appearance at the annual Late Night at the Phog celebration went off the rails. Snoop's performance included a stripper poles (complete with faux strippers) and some blue language before the Crimson and Blue fans in one of the most hallowed venues in the sport.
Self isn't just acknowledging those three things, he's dealing with the perception and fallout from them every day.
As for the ongoing NCAA investigation, during it Self was able to land a top-15 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, that included five-star guard Bryce Thompson and the No. 1 junior college player Tyon Grant-Foster.
Still, Self admits in the current recruiting climate, "if it gets down to one of three [schools considered by a prospect], we're eliminated."
"This is what's embarrassing to me," he added. "We are being questioned on how we do business. Everybody that's ever played for us going back to Oral Roberts to Tulsa to Illinois to now, they all know this isn't how Kansas does business.
"It deserves to be investigated. There's no denying stuff happened that was not good and we were connected to that. You look like a whiny baby if you go around defending yourself."
"Did people feel sorry for Alabama when Tua (Tagovailoa) went down? Did people feel sorry for Duke when Zion (Williamson) missed games?" Kansas coach Bill Self
Self opened Big 12 media day in October by saying nothing would take down Kansas' 122-year history and tradition. That includes possible major penalties in that NCAA case.
Thethat, in theory, could lead to a postseason ban and a possible suspension for Self.
"I just want the truth to come out," the coach said. "If that were to happen and it's able to be presented, I'll live with whatever. I've got too much respect for our profession that this has to be investigated. This has to be a pivotal time in the life of college basketball."
The school's aggressive push back to the NCAA's notice of allegations indicates Kansas' desire to ride out the storm with the hall of fame coach. Last month, time-worn speculation once again emerged that Self would eventually replace Gregg Popovich as coach of the San Antonio Spurs.
Self said there was "zero truth" to the report.
As for No. 2, Self was indeed bothered by the tone deaf performance of Snoop Dogg at Late Night at the Phog, just days after the NCAA sent Kansas its notice of allegations.
"I actually am a fan," Self said. "What transpired that night in a public forum concert would have been totally fine. What caught me off guard was the appearance of some things taking place that wasn't vetted with me."
On more than one occasion Self has blamed the "administration," for the way the performance played out.
"It's still my program …," Self said. "That one hurt me quite a bit."
And as for the third "thing", the brawl vs. Kansas State, the Jayhawks are still paying the price with De Sousa yet to return from his suspension.
But in a fortuitous twist, Kansas will get De Sousa back from his 12-game suspension near the end of the season. That's when KU usually peaks under Self. But whatever the junior can contribute on the court has to be measured against what he has cost the program off of it.
Kansas went to extreme measures (and expense) to appeal De Sousa's initial two-year NCAA suspension after a guardian allegedly accepted money for De Sousa's basketball services.
All that for a kid who has averaged three points and three rebounds. Whatever temptation there may have been to kick De Sousa off the team following the fight, Self said his father told him never to make decisions when you're emotional.
"We can all be disappointed in the actions of someone by motives that were basically selfish," Self said of De Sousa. "It was pride, it was ego, it was frustration but that does not in my opinion justify throwing him out with the bathwater.
"He's one of us. I'm proud he's one of ours."
Nearing the end of his 17th season at Kansas, Self has made sure to walk a fine line. He's not looking for sympathy.
"Did people feel sorry for Alabama when Tua (Tagovailoa) went down?" Self said. "Did people feel sorry for Duke when Zion (Williamson) missed games?"
Here's what Self won't tell you: This is one of his best coaching jobs. The Jayhawks don't shoot it particularly well, especially from outside. Guard Marcus Garrett – coming off a career-high six 3-pointers against Oklahoma -- has developed into a national defensive player of the year candidate. Seven-foot Udoka Azubuike's ability to protect the rim is exceeded only by shooting percentage which leads the nation.
It's just a different KU, fifth in field-goal percentage defense and seventh in scoring defense. There is less explosiveness and consistent three-point shooting than in the past.
That's KU at the moment. What used to be a ballet is now sometimes a nightly rock fight.
"We are exactly what I was hoping we could be," Self said. "I thought all along our defense would have to carry us. When we shoot the ball we're pretty good.
"But there's been numerous times we haven't and we won ugly because the other team didn't play well."
As good as the Jayhawks have been, they're staring up at the Bears who have won 23 in a row.
Baylor is No. 1 for the second time in three seasons. Scott Drew scrapped his famous 2-3 zone to play tenacious man. Baylor (24-1) hasn't lost since the second game of the season.
It's hard to believe Self and Drew came to the Big 12 in the same year (2003). Self still marvels that Drew took over a program that had been stained by a murder and near death-penalty NCAA sanctions to become an elite program.
"Baylor, at this juncture in the season, is the best team in our league … since I have been in the league," Self said.
Well, not including Kansas, especially the 2008 team that won it all.
Saturday's game is likely to be a referendum on the state of the game. For those who say there are no great teams, maybe they're right.
But Baylor has already beaten Kansas in Lawrence (for the first time) by 12. The Bears go into Saturday with arguably more scoring depth than KU starting with Davion Mitchell, Jared Butler and MaCio Teague.
Those are three scorers. Kansas would like to be defined by more than those "three things" mentioned by Self.
"To me, the job of a coach is to get their team playing as high to their ceiling as possible," Self said. "I don't think this team has done that yet."
There's no need for reading glasses. The state of the program and its coach remains solid.
"We've taken a step sideways," Self said, "but we haven't taken a step back."
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