Bill Self doesn’t hold his tongue when it comes to his team’s play or lack thereof.
“Everything he says is water off your back,” Kansas senior guard Devonte’ Graham said. “He doesn’t hold grudges. There are times when I’m like, ‘You were just screaming at me, and now you’re trying to hug me?’”
The Jayhawks have heard it all from their coach. He has challenged them privately, publicly and all places in between. He’s called them soft during rough times and complimented them at others. It all leads back to him being the best team pulse reader in the business.
Part of being a successful coach besides W’s — and Self’s 37-13 tournament record and .740 winning percentage are tops among all Kansas coaches — is learning not to take yourself too seriously. Self is about as self-deprecating as it gets but he also sends a clear message in every practice and every game that this is no country club he’s operating.
The Jayhawks are battle-tested, not because of who they have played but because of the man who coaches them.
Self knows the psychology of sports and seems to have the perfect measurement on how much he can push a team, especially when things aren’t going well. Long before the Jayhawks were penciled in as Villanova’s Final Four opponent, there was a sense that Kansas wouldn’t make it here, especially after one of the most non-Kansas regular seasons of Self’s tenure.
OK, winning the Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles — he has a combined 22 — were the most Kansas things ever, but the other parts were anything but. Two home conference losses at Allen Fieldhouse — to Texas Tech and Oklahoma State — and a sweep at the hands of the Cowboys, sent shock waves through college basketball because it felt as if the Big 12 were up for grabs for the first time in forever. Self might have agreed with the noise after his comments following an 84-79 December drubbing in Lawrence.
“We need to be more prepared to play,” Self told reporters. “That’s on me, not getting them ready, and it’s on me for allowing them to be so soft.”
After the Cowboys beat the Jayhawks again — this time in Stillwater in the regular-season finale — he railed against his team.
“They’re better than us,” he said.
Remember how Mack Brown bristled in the early 2000s when the ‘S’ word would come up during that five-year drought against Oklahoma? Well, here’s a guy — former Texas hoops coach Rick Barnes is another — who doesn’t mind calling his team soft when warranted.
“I think it definitely helped, especially after the second loss to Oklahoma State,” said senior guard Svi Mykhailiuk. “I think it definitely changed our routine, how we work, how we work in practices and just how we’re overall acting, in life off the court, on the court.”
When I asked Self on Friday about his well-timed criticisms of his team, he didn’t back off from his earlier comments.
“You know, I guess our society has changed a little bit,” he said. “Stating the obvious, I don’t think, is really calling anybody out, because to be honest with you, everybody could see what I saw.”
The most important part of the Self persona is knowing his personnel. He understands that Graham, the best leader in college basketball, won’t allow his teammates to go off the rails when Self unloads on them. Having a coach on the floor, and Graham is just that, gives Self plenty of leeway.
Graham “is a great player, but his intangibles are so much even better than his playing ability,” Self said. “I’ll bet you there’s countless times — and these guys would know — that he’s handled situations that I’ve thought about that I’ve never talked about with him at all. So that certainly makes it easier when you have leadership like that.”
It’s worked well for Self over time. He gets criticized for winning only one national title, but the ability to keep Kansas in the national conversation on a consistent basis cannot be overlooked. Same goes for his tough-love approach; why don’t more coaches use that method?
“Because they’re scared,” Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said. “You millennials are a bunch of wussies. The game has changed, man. These guys are so sensitive today. I think (Self) is a great coach. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. To win that many championships in a row is incredible.”
In a season that didn’t always go their way, the Jayhawks are here because their coach and elite point guard figured things out just in time for the money games.
It’s what the great ones do.