ST. LOUIS – Bill Self has won eight straight Big 12 titles, which is ridiculous. It might be the most impressive ongoing streak in college basketball.
Consistent winning over a long period of time is a wonderful thing, and Self has mastered that. He deserves praise and has earned his lucrative salary. The coach of the Kansas Jayhawks is a winner.
But is he a big enough winner? How much credit does a coach deserve for regular-season success in a sport that defines itself by what happens in March and April?
For all of Self's dominance through the winter months, things get a little trickier come spring. He has won one national championship and been to one Final Four. That's a great accomplishment – plenty of very good coaches would love to own a piece of Final Four net.
And Self may double his Final Four appearances Sunday, when his Jayhawks play the wounded North Carolina Tar Heels in the Midwest Regional final. But until that happens and Self makes a re-entry into the last weekend of the season, he remains a step outside the elite coaches in the game in my book.
Rick Pitino has never won eight straight conference championships. Neither has Jim Calhoun, Tom Izzo or Billy Donovan. Nor, for that matter, has Self's Sunday coaching adversary, Roy Williams. But they are all on a higher plane than Self in terms of career accomplishments.
Self's record puts him in select company. Multiple Final Fours and multiple titles are the separating line between select and elite.
Pitino has won the same number of national titles as Self. But on Saturday he punched his ticket to a sixth Final Four, with three different schools across a 25-year span. That is elite. Calhoun has been to four Final Fours and won three of them; Izzo has been to six and won one; Williams has been to seven and won two. Elite, all of them.
Donovan is where it gets interesting, and it was the focal point of a sports writer debate Thursday night. It basically boiled down to this: would you rather have a coach who is annually good but rarely great, or a coach who can hit multiple high notes while also throwing in multiple clunkers?
Most of my peers took Self. Me, I took Donovan.
He's won two national titles and been to three Final Fours. He's been to the mountaintop more than once. He's won 74 percent of his NCAA tourney games over the years, to Self's 70 percent.
Donovan also missed the NCAA tournament entirely in 2007-08 and 2008-09, the two years following his repeat championships. Those were the relative clunkers.
Self would never miss the NCAA tourney at Kansas. If ever there were going to be a year where the Jayhawks slipped back to the Big 12 pack, this was it – Kansas lost six key players from last year's regional finalists. Yet there were the Jayhawks doing what they do: winning the Big 12, winning 30 games, earning a No. 2 NCAA seed.
Self has had six 30-win seasons in his career. Donovan has had two. But if I had a choice between the two – and I'd feel very lucky to have that choice – I'd take Billy The Kid to lead my program.
Because this is a spring sport.
You need luck to win in the spring. Kansas hasn't had a lot of that under Self, except for in 2008. The Final Four was facilitated by a last-second miss in the regional final by Cinderella Davidson, and the national title was facilitated by a disastrous end-game sequence by Memphis. If it weren't for Mario Chalmers, Bill Self wouldn't have nearly as many supporters in Lawrence these days.
Self is a smart guy. He understands the standard by which college basketball teams are judged.
"Nobody can take away a conference champion from being a good season," he said Saturday. "It's a good season. I don't care what anybody says, media, whatever, it's a good season. But you can't have a great year unless you play well in March."
Kansas has had several potentially great years stopped short under Self in excruciating fashion. There was the stunning NCAA tournament loss to Bucknell in 2005, to Bradley in '06, to Northern Iowa in 2010 and Virginia Commonwealth last year.
Those would be tough losses to swallow anywhere. At Kansas, the third-winningest program in college history, it's even harder.
"Kansas, North Carolina, winning is a relief," Self said. "Losing is a disaster."
Self would like to see a little more celebration of the winning at Kansas. He mentioned the throngs that greeted his Illinois teams at the airport when they won back-to-back Big Ten championships in 2001 and '02.
"It was a huge deal," he said. "Huge. … Hey, we win eight in a row here, we get a T-shirt. And if we're lucky, we get a hat. You know, it's something that I think is kind of good. I mean, it's kind of expected, which is OK."
Expectations are that Kansas will win Sunday. The Jayhawks are the lower seed, but Carolina is trying to piece itself back together after the broken wrist suffered by indispensible point guard Kendall Marshall.
Without him, the Tar Heels were fortunate to wheeze past No. 13 seed Ohio Friday night. Against Kansas, the Heels are doomed if Marshall cannot play.
Funny how it works. In a season that began with low expectations and very little pressure, Kansas overachieved to the point that it now would be a major disappointment not to reach the Final Four by beating diminished North Carolina.
If the Jayhawks take care of business and make it to New Orleans, Bill Self will move into elite company. If they lose, he's still on the outside looking in.
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