As Kansas coach Bill Self strode through the locker room door, forward Travis Releford braced himself for a scathing tirade.
The final game in the 107-year history of the Border War was slipping away from the Jayhawks after a sloppy first half rife with rushed shots and careless turnovers.
It was February 25, 2012, the day Missouri visited Allen Fieldhouse for the last time before it left Kansas behind and bolted for the SEC. Eternal bragging rights were at stake between the two fierce rivals, as was first place in the Big 12 and a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The showdown was close for the opening 15 minutes before Missouri staggered Kansas with a 13-1 surge entering halftime. Sensing that his shaken players needed a confidence boost, Self resisted the urge to hurl a folding chair to the ground or rattle the locker room walls with bursts of profanity.
“Everybody expected him to come into the locker room yelling because we were down so many points, but he was so calm,” Releford said. “He just said we need to calm down and believe that in 20 minutes we’ll be in this locker room celebrating. We were all like, ‘OK, if he believes that, maybe we should too.’ ”
If Kansas’ thrilling comeback from a 19-point deficit that day was extraordinary, the Jayhawks’ one-point margin of victory was far more commonplace. No college basketball coach has been more masterful in close games this century than Self.
Over the past 18 seasons, Self has college basketball’s top winning percentage in games decided by four or fewer points, according to a study intended to identify which coaches have been the sport’s kings of clutch. Data scientist Jordan Sperber only considered coaches who have participated in 50 or more close games since the start of the 2001-02 season because he felt that was the minimum sample size necessary to draw meaningful conclusions.
Of his 111 games decided by four or fewer points during the course of Sperber’s study, Self has won an impressive 64.9 percent. He’s also 22-9 during that timespan in overtime games, most of which were not considered by Sperber since the final margin was five or more.
Injuries and off-court issues have sent Kansas tumbling out of the national title picture this year, yet Self has still managed to win more than his share of close games. The Jayhawks are 4-2 in games decided by four or fewer points this season, a stat that doesn’t even include four five-point wins and a 3-0 record in overtime (against Tennessee, Stanford and TCU).
Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim was second to Self in close-game winning percentage (64.3) over the past 18 seasons, according to Sperber, followed by Robert Morris’ Andrew Toole (64.2) and Gonzaga’s Mark Few (63.9). Further back in the pack are luminaries such as Kentucky’s John Calipari (55.3) and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (53.6). Among the notable coaches who are near the bottom of the list are UConn’s Dan Hurley (39.7), Utah’s Larry Krystkowiak (41.0) and Iowa’s Fran McCaffrey (41.5)
Sperber cautions that he set out to find an interesting piece of trivia when he began his research, not to conduct the definitive study on who is college basketball’s best late-game strategist. He admits that a more nuanced approach might also take into account factors that impact a coach’s win probability such as the quality of opponent, the site of the game and the score with a certain number of minutes to go.
“My study is very binary,” Sperber said. “Did you win or did you lose? It’s a fact those coaches have won x percent of games decided by less than five points, but it’s what happened in the past. It doesn’t necessarily mean that going forward you would expect that trend to continue in exactly the same fashion.”
When Self learned he has the best track record in tight games among his coaching brethren, he insisted it caught him by surprise. He quickly rattled off a list of painful one-possession NCAA tournament losses his Kansas teams have endured, from Bucknell in 2005, to Northern Iowa in 2010, to Michigan in 2013.
Pressed to explain why his teams have fared so well in games decided by four or fewer points, Self cited a combination of thoughtful preparation, savvy guard play and good fortune. Former Kansas players also credited Self for being a skilled communicator who instills confidence in his teams and instinctively knows when to demand more and when to back off.
The roots of Kansas’ late-game success are planted during Self’s annual September boot camp. He fosters toughness, camaraderie and determination in his teams by having players wake up at dawn every morning for an hour’s worth of timed sprints, conditioning drills, defensive slides and backboard touches.
“It starts in boot camp,” former Kansas guard Aaron Miles said. “You’ll be like, ‘30 suicides? I can’t do that.’ But you push through. By the time it’s over, you’re more connected as a team and mentally and physically tougher.”
Once the regular season approaches, Self carves out time to practice late-game scenarios. Like most well-coached college teams, the Jayhawks work on everything from 2-for-1s, to quick-hitting sets designed to free a 3-point shooter, to baseline or sideline out of bounds plays intended to create catch-and-shoot chances.
For years, the play Kansas spent the most time rehearsing was one Self devised himself and consistently relied on when his team needed a late-game basket. The play became second nature to the Jayhawks and generated some of the biggest buckets of Self’s tenure, none more memorable than Mario Chalmers’ iconic last-second 3-pointer against Memphis in the 2008 national title game.
The beauty of “Chop” is that it unfolds quickly, creates multiple options and can be used to produce a layup or 3-pointer. A point guard initiates the set by zooming down court as fast as he can and handing the ball off to a wing, who can shoot a 3-pointer if he has space or curl around a ball screen set by the trailing big man.
That alone can often create enough confusion to produce a clean look, but the wing has options if a shot isn’t there. The weak-side big man sets a flare screen for the remaining guard and the point guard runs to the corner in case the defense loses track of him.
“There’s a lot of movement to it, and then probably the hardest part to defend is that it’s all downhill. It all happens fast,” former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford told Yahoo Sports last March. “There’s a natural reaction to try to help on the drive. That’s what gets so many people.”
Kansas enjoyed such success running Chop that opposing coaches eventually started warning their teams it was coming in the closing seconds of games or even poaching the play to use themselves. As a result, Self has all but retired his signature play in recent years, preferring instead to use ball screens to create favorable matchups that allow his guards to get downhill in late-clock scenarios.
In addition to figuring out how to alter his gameplan on the fly to exploit mismatches at one end of the floor and hide them at the other, Self is also adept at keeping his teams loose and upbeat no matter the situation. Self might be churning with frustration inside over a series of miscues or a daunting deficit, but what he typically displays to his players in the huddle is confidence, not panic.
“It’s usually something like, ‘Alright, fellas, relax! We’re going to win this game, but we have to do this, this and this better,’ ” said Miles, now the coach of the Golden State Warriors’ G-League team.
“As a young coach, sometimes I think of Coach Self in key moments and try to emulate how he would come into a huddle but do it in my own way. Players want to see that you really believe they can win this game, and he was great at that.”
Of course, a coach’s calm demeanor and shrewd in-game adjustments can only go so far in late-game scenarios. You also need players who are talented enough to create scoring chances and savvy enough to instinctively recognize how time and score dictates strategy.
Luckily Self has coached more than his share of those while capturing at least a share of 14 Big 12 titles in 16 seasons at Kansas. He cites former point guard Sherron Collins as the best clutch player he has coached, but Chalmers, Keith Langford and a bevy of other accomplished guards aren’t far behind.
Way back in Self’s second season at Kansas in 2005, he demonstrated he knows when not to overcomplicate things and put the ball in the hands of a veteran who has earned his trust. Tied in the waning seconds of overtime against Georgia Tech, Self kept his message simple in the huddle.
“He told us, ‘Give the ball to Keith and get your ass out of his way,’ ” Miles recalled with a laugh, adding that Langford came through with a twisting shot in the lane to beat the Yellowjackets.
Five years later, Collins gave Self no choice but to trust him down the stretch of a narrow road win at Oklahoma. He waived off the play Self called from the sideline and called his own number instead.
“He dribbled the ball out for 25 seconds, went 1-on-1 and made a 3,” Self said “Sometimes it’s just having good guys, and certainly he was about as good as we’ve ever had in those situations.”
Kansas doesn’t have an elite veteran playmaker like Collins this season, nor have the Jayhawks had starting center Udoka Azubuike for months, yet Self has only boosted his record in close games. Among the Jayhawks’ victims in games decided by four or fewer points: Iowa State, Texas and Villanova.
That list serves as a reminder to Kansas’ postseason opponents to never count out one of Self’s teams in a tight game. If you want to eliminate the Jayhawks, you may want to blow them out.
“It surprises me we have such a good record in close games, but what doesn’t surprise me is that we’ve been in a lot of games decided by four or less,” Self said. “It seems like to me that every game we play is like that.”
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