Maybe This Time, Self Won't Be Denied

Jayhawks deep with young pro prospects


March 19, 2007

Talented teams are a given with Bill Self.

He lucked into them taking over jobs at schools like Tulsa, Illinois and his latest stop, Kansas, but Self never leaves a bare cupboard behind, either. The man knows how to recruit. And if the national championship was decided on letter-of-intent signing day, he might already have that elusive title that's so tantalizingly within reach this year.

Self possesses the quickest, arguably deepest, most NBA-ready squad left in an NCAA tournament that is running very close to form. By the close of business Sunday, no double-digit seeds had advanced into the round of 16, something that happened only once before since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Say what you want about talent trickling down to the mid-major ranks in recent years, but the NBA age-minimum forced a few impact players to show up for their freshman seasons, and they've made their presence felt at some of the name programs. College basketball may never be as much a coach's game as it was when Self started in the business at Oral Roberts in 1994. No program can stockpile the kind of talent the Dukes, Arizonas and Connecticuts of the world did year after year.

But there's some evidence the one-season-and-gone to the NBA rush that devastated North Carolina's national championship roster two years ago may be slowing. Defending champ Florida returned all its underclassmen, and Gators coach Billy Donovan isn't the only member of the profession with a chance to do some real teaching.

Kansas' two studs - Julian Wright and Brandon Rush - are both sophomores, as is do-everything guard Mario Chalmers. But freshman Sherron Collins is the first backcourt player off the bench and classmate Darrell Arthur, already 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds, usually isn't too far behind. In a testament to their development as a squad, the Jayhawks pounded Kentucky into submission 88-76 by mastering a trick even Self wasn't certain they had learned.


 

 

"From an offensive standpoint," he said, "that was probably as good as we've looked playing in a half-court game."

With all that talent - Wright is projected as a lottery pick, Rush a first-round pick and as many as five current Jayhawks could eventually land in the NBA - opponents rarely choose to run against Kansas. Kentucky's Tubby Smith certainly didn't want to, no doubt remembering how Bradley and Bucknell parlayed patience and experience into first-round upsets against Kansas the last two seasons.

And if foul trouble hadn't forced him to bench guard Ramel Bradley for a stretch in the opening half, the Wildcats might have reached the intermission trailing by even less than 36-30. But barely 3 minutes into the second half, Kentucky big man Randolph Morris went to the bench with his third foul, Rush started raining down 3s - he was 4-for-4 in the half and 6-of-7 for the game - and Kansas lured the Wildcats into an up-and-down game. Faster and better at finishes, it didn't take the Jayhawks long to crack the game open after that.

Self's teams are going to win just about every matchup decided by talent, but the knock on him has long been that his teams aren't tough enough. And still standing between Self and the national title that eluded him in the past - he's taken Tulsa, Illinois and Kansas to the regional finals - is a North Carolina team that might be as talented, as well as deep Florida and UCLA squads with a big edge in big-game experience.

"Each team is different in how they play you. Southern Illinois," Self said about his next opponent, "will be totally different from the way Kentucky played us.

"They're as tough as any team in America. They love grind-it-out games and the shot clock will go really deep for both teams many, many times. They're as sound defensively as any team in country, very, very quick and they're similar in quickness to what Bradley had last year."

Self acknowledged he had plenty to learn about the Salukis in the coming days, but added, "I know enough to know they make it hard to score."

Chicago wasn't an easy stop for the Jayhawks, with Illinois' campus being a short ride down the interstate and so many alumni still bitter over his departure for Kansas in 2003. So while there might have been a little bit of added satisfaction over shedding his first-round loser label here, the contentment that crackled through his smile likely had more to do with his team's stubborn defense and the willingness to grind when that was the best available option.

Smith would have loved to try forcing Kansas' hand in a wide-open game, but he knew better. He already has the national championship that Self covets, but a handful of thin recruiting classes made that impractical, and the Wildcats' uneven performance since has landed Smith on the hot seat.

"I think he's probably as classy as any guy in our profession. When you win 77 percent of your games and play the toughest schedule in America over the last 10 years," Self said, "that's pretty good."

But Self also knows that at storied programs like Kentucky and Kansas, where he's won games at about the same clip and produced three Big 12 titles, that's not always good enough.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org