Why Bill Self should be considered the best in his sport.
Bill Self is just like Bill Belichick. No, the Kansas basketball coach isn't going to wear a hoodie on the sidelines at the Final Four this weekend. But the two Bills do have loads in common. Namely, they both just massively overachieved, turning in the greatest coaching performances of their already-impressive careers.
Belichick, though, is universally acknowledged as the best in his sport today. Self isn't. Not yet. That would be Mike Krzyzewski. Self is considered among the best, along with maybe a half-dozen others, including Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, Jim Calhoun, and Rick Pitino. But how the underdog Jayhawks performance in the Superdome could go a long way towards changing that perception.
Yes, you read that right—the "underdog Jayhawks." Sure, that might seem like an odd way to describe a perennial power house. But this was supposed to be a down year for KU—a team that lost three players to the NBA from last year's club, and then had their two top recruits declared ineligible. Just compare the talent on Self's roster to that of his fellow Final Four coaches. Thad Matta's Ohio State Buckeyes, set to meet Kansas in one of Saturday night's semifinals, has five McDonald's High School All-Americans on the roster. John Calipari's Kentucky team features seven of the blue chip recruits. North Carolina, beaten by KU to reach the Final Four, had five—not counting the injured Kendall Marshall. KU? Precisely zero. Yet, just like Belichick surrounded a star named Tom with overachieving role-players and got all the way to the Super Bowl, Self surrounded a star named Thomas with overachieving role-players to get all the way to Final Four.
Even the two Toms weren't supposed to be all that. Tom Brady was famously a sixth-round draft pick. Thomas Robinson's heartrending tale is well-known. The junior forward lost his grandmother, grandfather, and mother in less than a month, but has been able to channel that inconceivable grief into something positive on the court. Less discussed is the fact that Robinson, frankly, wasn't supposed to be this good. He completely remade himself, changing from a wide-body, off-the-bench defender to a surefire NBA lottery pick virtually within a single season.
MORE ON SPORTS
Center Jeff Withey's transformation has been even more dramatic. As a red-shirt freshman, he averaged three minutes of trash time per game. As a sophomore, Withey played 6.2 minutes—the prototypical tall-but-nothing-else, fouls-to-give, skinny white guy. This year, he touched every stair in Allen Field House, got punched in the nose during the Long Beach State game, and exploded into a likely NBA first-rounder. Both players' successes are a tribute to Self and his staff. So is the Belichick-ian number of assistant coaches who leave that staff to run programs of their own, including Danny Manning getting the job at Tulsa, and Barry Hinson, leaving for Southern Illinois.
This year's success is particularly gratifying for snooty KU fans, who expressed profound displeasure in last year's team, as much for the Morris twins' flying elbows as for the tourney loss to VCU. Josh Selby's surly one-and-done season was unseemly, certainly. Too John Calipari-ish, or Pitino-esque, somehow, for the persnickety Jayhawk faithful.
Tyshawn Taylor's ongoing suspensions were especially galling. This year, though, just as Belichick turned around the careers of supposedly troublesome players like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss, Taylor has turned to a leader on and off the court, and KU has been mercifully free of drama. The Jayhawks even won Inside Higher Ed's annual academic performance tournament, which rates teams by graduation rates and academic progress.
Bill Belichick, of course, doesn't have to worry about players' making grades. But there's one more way in which the two coaches are the same. The most important one: winning. Since he replaced Roy Williams at KU nine years ago, Self has won 268 games. Like his New England counterpart, no coach in America has won more in that span. Not Williams, Izzo, Calhoun, John Calipari* or Mike Krzyzewski.
Except for John Calipari, however, all those coaches have championships. Self has won once, famously beating Calipari's Memphis Tigers after Mario Chalmers' last-second shot in 2008. But Williams has won a pair of NCAA titles. Calhoun has three at UConn. Mike Krzyzewski—who looms gigantic as the Don Shula-esque figure in our Self-as-Belichick comparison—has won an incredible four titles at Duke. Coach K also owns the record for most all-time wins, at 927 and counting.
Self? He's at a mere 475 wins. Krzyzewski, though, is 16 years older than the KU coach, so Bill's got plenty of time to catch up. Winning two games this weekend would be an awfully good start.
*Calipari has won 281 games in stints at UMass Memphis and Kentucky, but the NCAA voided 38 of those wins—Memphis' entire 2008 season—because Derrick Rose had an invalid SAT score. Oops!