ST. LOUIS – As Bill Self settled into a golf cart at the Edward Jones Dome on Saturday afternoon to be driven off for a CBS interview, he drolly said, "Time to answer more questions about Roy Williams."
Williams has been the topic that won't die for Self. He'd just gotten several Roy questions from reporters during his general interview session the day before his Kansas Jayhawks played Williams' North Carolina Tar Heels in the Midwest Regional final. He has been hearing them for nine years, ever since he succeeded Williams as coach at Kansas. It's a tired topic that should have been put to rest in 2008, when Self handed Williams an emphatic defeat in the Final Four, but it was resurrected here.
Today, it's time to reverse the Q&A. Time for Williams to answer questions about Self. Specifically, it's time for Williams to talk about being checkmated by Self on Sunday with the Final Four on the line.
Self's lockdown of the Tar Heels was so crafty that Ol' Roy literally had no idea what hit him. It was a triangle-and-two defense, playing man-to-man on Carolina shooters Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock and zoning point guard Stilman White and big men Tyler Zeller and John Henson. The junk defense shut down the Heels' prolific offense as Kansas pulled away in the final eight minutes to win 80-67. Carolina scored just three points in the final 8:34.
I asked Williams what impact the triangle-and-two had on his team. His answer was stunning.
"I know they did for one possession, and they may have for another possession," Williams said. "I'm not sure about that."
Williams clearly was unsure because from press row it looked like the Jayhawks played the triangle-and-two for nearly half of the final 20 minutes. The Jayhawks confirmed that they played the combo defense for the final eight or nine minutes.
"It put their guys who are not used to scoring the ball in position to score," Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor said. "It confused them a little bit. … We just switched our defense up a little bit, and it kind of took them out of what they wanted to run."
In the final 8½ minutes, Carolina didn't make a single field goal off its set offense. There was a putback by Zeller and a free throw by Barnes, and that was it. The Heels were shut out for the final 3:57.
For the game, Barnes and Bullock went a combined 1-of-10 from 3-point range. Barnes, in particular, had a nightmare stay in St. Louis – he was 8-of-30 against Kansas and Ohio as we watched the further deconstruction of the 2010 national high school player of the year's game. Zeller and Henson, the Heels' second- and third-leading scorers, combined for just eight points in the second half Sunday.
"We were able to keep the ball out of their bigs' hands and take away their two shooters," Self said.
That only increased the pressure on White, the stand-in point guard who performed heroically replacing injured Kendall Marshall. White had 13 assists and no turnovers in two games, an amazing performance for a guy who was little more than a practice dummy all season. But White – whom Taylor called "Sterling" and KU center Jeff Withey referred to as "what's his name?" – felt the pressure late, taking a couple of ill-advised shots.
"We panicked a little bit out there," Williams said.
There was no more panic on the court than on the bench, where a full staff of guys in suits apparently couldn't identify the defense Kansas was playing. Or adjust to it.
North Carolina may well have won this game with Marshall playing, and the diminished Heels showed admirable fortitude in hanging with the Jayhawks for as long as they did. But in the end, Kansas was the team cutting the nets and Self had his second breakthrough victory over Williams.
The first one, in the '08 Final Four, got the monkey off Self's back – well, that and the national championship victory two days later over Memphis got the monkey off Self's back. The second one elevates Self from the upper echelon of college basketball coaches into the elite class.
He has won eight consecutive Big 12 championships, which is a tremendous feat. But the kings of coaching are crowned in the Big Dance, and now Self has backed up that '08 national title with another royal run.
He is the eighth active coach with at least one national title and multiple Final Four appearances. He joins Mike Krzyzewski (11 Final Fours, four titles), Jim Calhoun (four Final Fours, three titles), Williams (seven Final Fours, two titles), Billy Donovan (three Final Fours, two titles), Rick Pitino (six Final Fours, one title), Tom Izzo (six Final Fours, one title) and Jim Boeheim (three Final Fours, one title). Steve Fisher would make the list, but two of his three Final Fours are vacated.
Making it back to the Final Four with this group marks Self's finest coaching job. Only one of his previous eight teams began the season ranked lower than this one – the 2008-09 group, with five new starters, was No. 24 in the preseason AP poll. This team, with four new starters, was ranked No. 13.
Now it's one of four that still has a chance to win it all.
"I think this team's probably played as close to its ceiling as any team I've had," Self said. "… I don't think you can give 110 percent. I think all you can give is 100. And I think this team has given as close to 100 as any team that I've probably ever coached.
"I will say this: I don't know if I ever enjoyed coaching a team more than this one. I love them. We fight, it's combative sometimes, all of those things. But I love coaching these guys. … It is just remarkable to me to see them cutting down nets out here because this would not be the year that anybody would have thought we would do it. It's a pretty cool feeling."
Here's another cool feeling: Bill Self shouldn't ever have to hear about Roy Williams again. Unless he's being asked about having Ol' Roy's number.
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- Roy Williams