Experience, preparation crucial for Bill Self’s Thursday & Friday NCAA dominance
Omaha, Neb. — Bill Self has spoken about the NCAA Tournament differently than some of his peers. He often divides it into weekends, speaking as though it's three miniature tournaments rather than one big one.
The first weekend has the first two rounds. The next one has the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. The elusive third weekend, at least for the last five tournaments, has the Final Four and National Championship games.
Since the Bucknell and Bradley upsets, though, one thing has remained a constant for Self. He doesn’t lose the first game of the mini two-game tournaments, almost completely without fail. As the higher seed, Self has only been defeated one time in the Round of 64, Sweet 16 or Final Four in a streak that dates all the way back to the 2007 tournament.
“Our preparation has always been detailed from strengths and weaknesses to player personnel,” said KU assistant Jerance Howard, who also played under Self while at Illinois. “For the guys, they have at least 24 hours to enjoy the win and rest, but for us we’re right back in the office, watching film and getting together a game plan — how we’re going to score, how we’re going to stop them.”
The preparation is evident. Self’s record as an equal or higher seed in Thursday and Friday NCAA Tournament games — since 2006 — is a whopping 20-1. He’s 12-0 in the first round, 6-1 in the Sweet 16 and 2-0 in the Final Four.
And Howard isn’t the only one on the staff to identify it.
Norm Roberts, a KU assistant in Self’s first season and again since 2012, is as well versed in Self’s path as any of his assistants.
“He’s experienced. He knows what it’s going to take to win,” said Roberts. “We’ve been at Oral Roberts, we’ve been at Tulsa when we were lower seeds. He tries to get our guys to understand that those are very, very good teams and they’re very, very excited about playing."
Self learned that the hard way early on.
In his second season at Kansas, Self’s No. 3 seed Jayhawks were bounced in the first round by Bucknell, 64-63. The next year, Self’s fourth-seeded squad lost to Bradley, 77-73.
Since then, Self’s teams — the non No. 1 seeds — have gone 4-0 in the opening game, winning by an average of nearly 14 points per contest. All four wins have been by double-digits, while his 1 seed teams have won by an average of 23 points.
Only once has a Self-led 1 seed won by fewer than 16 points in the first round of the tournament.
“I think he just makes sure his team is focused,” said Roberts. “Coming out of a league like the Big 12, you’re playing against the best teams in the country, different styles. So it really does prepare you for when you get to the NCAA tournament.
“There’s probably not things that we haven’t seen. Don’t mean that we can’t falter in going against them.”
Sure enough, the exception to Self’s opening-game dominance came in 2013. Taking on fourth-seeded Michigan, No. 1 seed KU led by 14 with 6-and-a-half minutes left and maintained a double-digit advantage with less than 2:30 to play.
KU was up 8 with 1:22 to play and then five with 20 seconds left. Trey Burke essentially willed the game into overtime, scoring eight points in the final 1:15, including two 3-pointers.
Again, that was the exception, not the rule.
Self had one other Thursday/Friday loss since the Bucknell and Bradley games, but he was the lower seed for that matchup. The No. 3 seed Jayhawks lost to No. 2 seed Michigan State in a season the Jayhawks had to replace all five starters.
That aspect may have had more to do with it than you might think.
Asked about the team’s focus level headed into a new weekend, Howard offered up an idea outside of the coaching staff.
“I think it starts with our older guys, with Devonte’ and Svi. They understand, they’ve been here, they’ve been in Elite Eight games, and they know how it works,” Howard said. “Everybody else falls in line. It’s just the way it is here. Our culture that we have set: Once we prepare, everybody needs to be locked in.”
Graham learned that lesson early. His instructors were past Bill Self favorites like Jamari Traylor and Perry Ellis.
“Freshman year, definitely,” Graham said. “When you come in and it’s your first tournament and you just see how locked in the other guys and seniors are.”
As for the underclassmen on the team, it hasn’t taken long for them to get the message from the older players.
“We come out there and we prepare so well during the week,” said sophomore forward Mitch Lightfoot. “We listen to the scouting report, we understand what (the coaches) want us to do, we understand the other team’s tendencies. I think we come out here and we play like we practice.”