Best coaching job or not, Bill Self’s building on his coaching legacy at Kansas

OMAHA, NE - MARCH 25: (L-R) Udoka Azubuike #35, head coach Bill Self, Devonte' Graham #4 and Malik Newman #14 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrate with the tropy after defeating the Duke Blue Devils with a score or 81 to 85 in the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at CenturyLink Center on March 25, 2018 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
OMAHA, NE - MARCH 25: (L-R) Udoka Azubuike #35, head coach Bill Self, Devonte' Graham #4 and Malik Newman #14 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrate with the tropy after defeating the Duke Blue Devils with a score or 81 to 85 in the 2018 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional at CenturyLink Center on March 25, 2018 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

With another Final Four appearance on his resume, Bill Self’s building a longer list of best coaching jobs

It’s rare for Kansas head coach Bill Self to visibly celebrate. Most of his team’s games end with a stoic, stone-faced walk and a handshake with the opposing coach as if he’s almost indifferent to the outcome. Few finish like they did last Sunday.

As the buzzer sounded on the Jayhawks’ 85-81 overtime win against Duke in the Elite Eight of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Self’s fists shot into the sky.

“I’m not the most emotional guy. But sometimes you can just be overcome with it,” Self told the media after the game. “And at that moment I was.”

The victory propelled Self to the third Final Four of his career and relieved some of the pressure associated with a complicated coaching legacy. Despite a slew of regular season successes, including the longest streak of regular season conference titles in college basketball history, the 55-year old entered Sunday with just a 2-7 record in Elite Eight games.

“I think about it all the time,” he said following the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 win. “[Devonte’ Graham’s] not won the last two, but there’s seven that I haven’t won when I’ve been the head coach. Certainly it’s etched in the back of my brain.” 

Kansas’ regional triumph should assuage some concerns about Self’s long-term career legacy, but it raised a new, more positive, question. Is this his best coaching job at Kansas to date?

Answering that is complicated. From recruiting and roster management to game planning to the X’s and O’s, there are a lot of factors comprise coaching college basketball. Then, there’s the actual measuring stick itself.

Are the best coached seasons the ones with the best teams? Or are they the ones where a team outperforms expectations? How far does a team have to go in the NCAA Tournament to qualify? And are there other outside factors worth considering?

These questions define things like the National Coach of the Year race, one of the more complicated awards doled out each season. We’ll use them to try to figure out where Self’s 2017-18 season stacks up on his resume.

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If the best coached seasons involve the best teams, then 2017-18 certainly isn’t Self’s best coaching job at Kansas. Although these Jayhawks still have an opportunity to cut down the nets, they have a long ways to go from a performance perspective to top Self’s 2007-08 national title team.

Here’s a look at how all of Self’s Kansas rosters shake out in terms of adjusted efficiency, a metric designed to measure points per 100 possessions and adjusted for game location and opponent quality. The best teams in terms of margin (offense minus defense) get the biggest Jayhawks.

Self’s 2017-18 outfit is the definition of Jekyll and Hyde. It is one of the two best offensive teams of his tenure, but by far his worst defensive unit. These Jayhawks have struggled to stop opposing teams from scoring all season. They don’t force turnovers often, defend the interior worse than prior Kansas rosters and often fail to clean up the defensive boards. Yet, they keep winning.

This season’s team also doesn’t qualify as the most improved roster of Self’s Kansas career. KenPom maintains an archive of prior ratings that allows access to preseason projections and mid-season numbers dating back to the beginning of the 2011-12 season.

To help define Self’s most improved teams — the ones that most exceeded expectations from an efficiency standpoint — I pulled four adjusted efficiency margin data points from each available season, including preseason projections, pre-Big 12 margin, pre-NCAA Tournament margin and the team’s final margin. Here’s how each roster shook out:

By this metric, Self’s best work was done in the 2011-12 and 2015-16 seasons when his teams exceeded their preseason projections by 6.23 and 7.48 points per 100 possessions, respectively. In 2012, the Jayhawks unexpectedly made the national title game and in 2016, they lost to the eventual national champion, Villanova, in the Elite Eight.

The argument, then, that this is Self’s best coached season hinges heavily on doing more with less in a different way. Although this team rates out as below average from an adjusted efficiency margin standpoint for Self and hasn’t improved at the rate of prior Kansas rosters over the course of the season, it’s just one of his three Final Four teams and that matters.

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Ask any neutral observer to run through a list of college basketball’s top coaches and you’ll probably hear names like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo and John Calipari. It’s no coincidence those four own the most Final Fours among active coaches. There’s a lot of downside in placing undue emphasis on a single elimination tournament, but March Madness performance is often how college basketball’s best are remembered.

That leaves three Self coaching jobs worth looking at — 2007-08, 2011-12, and 2017-18. If you wanted to make an argument for his 2015-16 work, I’d listen, too.

Weight recruiting, team quality and outcome heaviest and it’s a runaway for the 2007-08 squad. Self’s rotation was comprised almost exclusively of top 50 high school recruits, rates out as the second best team in terms of adjusted efficiency margin in the KenPom era and won a national title. Awarding him a best coaching sticker for the season feels akin to rewarding the NASCAR driver who entered the race with a better engine than the field.

That leaves two contenders for Self’s best coaching trophy, the 2011-12 team that made the title game and this roster, which is headed to San Antonio. In both seasons, the Jayhawks exceeded expectations despite high seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

The most common argument made in favor of the 2017-18 squad is that it’s Self’s least talented roster, but it’s a tricky claim to verify. Yes, this Kansas team spent much of the season regularly playing non-RSCI top 100 recruit Mitch Lightfoot significant minutes and no, it doesn’t have a guaranteed first round NBA Draft pick on the roster, but the 2011-12 group had its own talent struggles.

Kevin Young, a Loyola Marymount transfer who was described in high school by ESPN as someone who “could be a nice prospect for possibly the Big West,” and Conner Teahan, a former walk-on, both averaged double-digit minutes for the Jayhawks that season. On the NBA side, Thomas Robinson stands out as the differentiator. He was selected with the No. 5 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. However, he lasted just five seasons in the league and now plays in Russia. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see a prospect from the 2017-18 roster exceed those NBA results.

Instead, what seems to set this season apart for Self can’t necessarily be captured by efficiency margins, recruiting rankings or NBA Draft picks. Sometimes statistics require context and this season has been a whirlwind for the Jayhawks.

“We didn’t even know who was going to finish the season with our roster a couple of months ago,” Self reminded the media after the Duke win. 

Indeed, Kansas expected to spend the season playing in Self’s traditional high-low offense with two bigs up front. 5-star freshman Billy Preston would slot into the power forward role next to sophomore Udoka Azubuike. A car wreck, and subsequent investigation into the financial picture of the vehicle, cut Preston’s college career short. With no answer seemingly on the horizon from the NCAA, he turned pro and signed with a Bosnian team in January.

Preston’s absence left the Jayhawks with just two bigs on a depleted roster. 6-foot-5 walk-on Clay Young occasionally played center for them during the non-conference schedule. In December, Kansas added 4-star freshman Silvio De Sousa, a high schooler who received the appropriate test scores at the last minute. The 19-year old played double figure minutes just once before March started. He’s topped the 10-minute mark in seven of the team’s eight games this month, including 26 minutes against the Blue Devils in the Elite Eight.

Self’s adjustments haven’t just been limited to roster fluctuations. He’s also willingly changed the team’s style of play. After using a 4-out, 1-in offense for the first time last season, Kansas has played it almost exclusively in 2017-18 while embracing 3-pointers at a rate unheard of for Self:

Remember, this is the head coach who once called his team’s 3-point makes “fool’s gold.” Now, the Jayhawks ranked 80th nationally in percentage of total field goal attempts taken from behind the arc. They also shoot better than 40.0 percent on those shots. The 3-point revolution is almost assuredly part of the reason for the team’s offensive improvements.

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From an X’s and O’s perspective, it’s hard to argue against this season being Self’s best if the Elite Eight game was an exemplar. Self’s emotional outburst came at the conclusion of a 45 minute masterclass in basketball coaching against one of the sport’s all-time greats.

Krzyzewski found the template for his Duke team’s success earlier in the season, switching from a mix of man-to-man and zone defenses to a full-time embrace of a 2-3 zone similar to what Jim Boeheim has played for years at Syracuse. The Blue Devils entered the Elite Eight matchup with a top 10 defense based on adjusted efficiency and as heavy favorites. But it was Self, not Krzyzewski, who pushed the right buttons on Sunday.

Self and his staff, led by assistant coach Norm Roberts’ scouting report, attacked the 2-3 zone in a way the Blue Devils’ hadn’t seen this season. Instead of always positioning a playmaker in the middle of the zone at the free throw line, Kansas often opted to slide that player — generally Lagerald Vick — down into the short corner along the baseline across from the team’s big man, Azubuike.

Duke’s zone tends to elevate the wings on the backline further up the court to take away opposing 3-pointers, so as the Jayhawks worked ball to Vick, they were able to create 2-on-1 looks at the rim, Vick and Azubuike against whichever Blue Devil was in the center.

Krzyzewski switched Duke into a 1-3-1 zone early in the second half seemingly to provide some extra cover in the middle of the floor. Self counterpunched by sending his shooters to the corners. The Kansas offense kept rolling. The Jayhawks averaged 1.09 points per possession in the contest, the highest number the Blue Devils had allowed since switching into the 2-3 zone full-time.

On the defensive end, Self’s adjustments made an impact, too. He signaled early on the Jayhawks were willing to let Trevon Duval beat them from the 3-point line by using his man to double team Marvin Bagley III. Duval, a 29.0 percent 3-point shooter, took three or more 3s in 20 games this season. Duke lost six of them. The Blue Devils were 15-2 when he attempted two or fewer. He shot six against Kansas.

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The truth is measuring out a coach’s best season might be impossible. Limiting the seasons by results helps, but weighting all of the relevant statistical inputs and lumping in additional contextual factors requires a high amount of subjective judgment. Placing Self’s 2017-18 work at the top of his resume is certainly justifiable, but there’s a cogent argument for what he did in 2011-12 as well. And maybe even for 2015-16.

The “best coaching job” narrative born out of the Jayhawks’ Elite Eight win is at its best as a storytelling tool, a slightly hyperbolic messaging move designed to emphasize Self’s accomplishments in an easily digestible format for what is much more difficult question.

College basketball’s coaching legacies, though, aren’t built on single season successes or individual Final Four runs, but on the accumulation of them. 2-7 Elite Eight records tend to hang over your head no matter what you accomplish in the regular season.

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Self will say all the right things about his end of game emotions. He’s proud of what this means for his staff, the school and particularly the players, but it’s not hard to imagine he knows what the win meant for himself. He said as much before the contest, the Elite Eight losses etched in the back of his brain.

Now, he’s got one of the best coaching jobs of his career to thank for replacing those tough memories with some happier ones, building on a still budding coaching legacy.