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Bill Self Goes Home Again

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Raising the question: How should we evaluate these coaches?

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I wonder if it's time for a reevaluation of Bill Self.

Once again, one of his top-rated seeds has fallen far short of the goal. It's not just that his Kansas teams don't win it. It's that his teams seem to lose too early in the tournament, given their seedings, in upsets to generally inferior teams.

I think it's relevant to Big Blue Nation because of the same evaluation applied to all coaches, including John Calipari. There's no question that Cal has revived the Kentucky program, elevating it to heights it hasn't enjoyed since Rick Pitino's days. And Cal's accomplishments have gone even beyond Pitino's, because Pitino left prematurely, bequeathing Tubby Smith a national champion but largely leaving the feeling of an uncompleted job.

Cal, too, picked up a Kentucky program that was gathering dust in the corner. Billy Clyde Gillispie had disrespected the tradition, and Tubby had let it get under his skin. Neither one seemed able or willing to bear the pressure. Cal pours pressure on his pancakes.

In Cal's seven seasons here, he's gone to four Final Fours and won a national championship. One team was left standing in the Elite Eight, another team didn't get out of the second round and a third team didn't even make the tournament, losing in the first round of the NIT.

But there is that national championship. And more than that, there's the feeling that many of his Kentucky teams outperformed in the tournament, going much further than anyone expected them to. (Must have been the coaching.) Even the one that fell short won 38 straight games, which will forever be regarded as an astounding accomplishment far beyond the failure to win it all.

In short, Cal is revered. So much so that his most celebrated recruit right now is his son, who provides the hoped-for insurance that Cal will remain in Kentucky at least another four years. (Maybe the kid will go to grad school here, too!)

Listen to the analysts gathered around the desks in the TV studios – Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg, Jay Williams, Doug Gottlieb, Charles Barkley and the others. Whenever Kentucky comes up, it's almost always discussed in terms of John Calipari.

I'm not sure Bill Self is always part of the same conversation about Kansas. And yet, he's among the nation's elite coaches, up there currently in the pantheon with Krzyzewski, Pitino, Izzo, Roy Williams and Calipari.

He came to Kansas 13 seasons ago, when Williams left for North Carolina. Kansas is one of the four or five elite college basketball programs. As in Lexington, Chapel Hill, Durham and Bloomington, 30-win seasons are a given, Final Fours are expected and a national championship only adds to the collection.

His 2015-16 team won 33 games and came into this tournament the overall Number One seed. And bowed out, in the Elite Eight, to a lower seed. That's been a recurring pattern. In 13 seasons, five of his six top-seeded teams have lost prematurely – one in the second round, one in the third round, three in the Elite Eight. The sixth won the 2008 national championship (beating Calipari's Memphis State team).

Twice in a row his teams lost in the first round, in consecutive seasons to Bucknell (a 14 seed) in 2005 and Bradley (a 13 seed) in 2006.

In 2010, a 33-3 team lost in the second round to Northern Iowa. The following year, a 35-3 team lost in the Elite Eight to Shaka Smart's Virginia Commonwealth team.

His 13 Kansas teams have gone into the tournaments with six Number One seeds and three Number Two seeds. They've never been lower than a Number Four, and there's been only one as low as Number Three in the last 10 years. Yet, they've lost to a 14 seed, a 13 seed, an 11 seed, a 10 seed, a 9 seed and a 7 seed.

It's not easy being a college basketball coach these days. In the mid-60s, once you recruited Lew Alcindor, you knew you had him and his buddies for three seasons. And then Alcindor would beget Sidney Wicks, who would beget Bill Walton, who would beget Marques Johnson. The trick was in the recruiting. The success came from the continuity. The success also bolstered the recruiting. And, of course, there was some coaching to be done. I'm certainly not minimizing the coaching and teaching John Wooden, Bobby Knight, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and John Thompson had to do to keep their teams on top.

But today, the continuity lasts just long enough for a player to find his way around campus. Every year, today's top coaches – not just Calipari – have to begin over. Sometimes, you have a top player stay four years, like Perry Ellis on this year's Kansas team. But mostly, you're rebuilding, reinventing and, yes, re-tweaking.

So back to Bill Self. Does he deserve credit for winning an astounding 82 percent of his games at Kansas, and a national championship? Should his record be the unending streak of Big 12 championships? The endless streak of nationally ranked 30-win teams? Or is his legacy, in the end, the constantly disappointing premature ends to promising championship-level teams?

Once, you know, it would hardly be an issue. Once, a big-time coaching position was a sinecure. Adolph Rupp kept his job through a betting scandal that disqualified some teams from even entering the tournament, and more teams that failed in the tournament than those that succeeded. In 1958, he famously lost out on the country's top high school recruit, Jerry Lucas of Middletown, Ohio, by being obnoxious and overly aggressive in his recruiting. (Lucas says that the day Rupp showed up at his high school demanding to see him is the day Lucas decided on Ohio State). But there was no hint of a movement by the school's directors or alumni that Rupp be replaced.

Both Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski went long stretches when people wondered if they'd ever win the title. A few of John Thompson's Georgetown teams lost championships most people felt they should have won, but nobody ever called for Thompson's head. Lou Henson's 1989 Illinois team was the best team in the country that year, but after it lost to Michigan in the NCAA semifinals, Henson remained at Illinois for another seven seasons and left on his own terms. Last summer, they named the court after him.

And maybe Bill Self enjoys the same job security. It depends on how you evaluate success.