Enjoying the fruits of his labor during his ninth season with the Kansas Jayhawks, head coach Bill Self is no stranger to the pressures of performing in the NCAA Tournament.
Since landing in Lawrence ahead of the 2003-04 campaign, Self has guided the Jayhawks to the postseason each time out and all nine of those appearances have been in the Big Dance. In fact, dating back to his days when he was the top man at Tulsa in the last 1990's, the coach has been a fixture in the event for 14 consecutive years, so very little is new to him.
However, while the situations might feel somewhat similar year after year, an ever-changing roster has made each tourney a unique experience in itself, this for a man who took Kansas to the pinnacle of the college basketball world with a 75-68 overtime victory against Memphis in the national title game back in 2008. During that run, the Jayhawks defeated a pair of top-seeded programs (Memphis and North Carolina), and ironically enough the team took out the top- seeded Tar Heels in the Midwest Regional Final last weekend in order to draw even more parallels to that championship season.
During that title run, Self had his squad outscoring the competition by 19.0 ppg, yet he didn't have a single player averaging more than the 13.3 ppg (Brandon Rush). A balanced group for sure, the Jayhawks also took care of the opposition on the glass by an average of 7.9 rpg, but not a single player was responsible for more than 6.7 rpg (Darnell Jackson). Perhaps the only name from that particular roster that even came close to being a household name was Mario Chalmers (12.8 ppg, 169 assists, 97 steals), and that recognition may not have been all for his exploits on the basketball court.
Fast forward to 2011-12 and, while the margins in both scoring and rebounding may not be as great for the Jayhawks as they were four years ago, the good news is that they may not have to be in order for Kansas to hoist another trophy.
Claiming much of the spotlight for this year's group is junior forward Thomas Robinson, the Big 12 Conference Player of the Year and the first unanimous selection to the Associated Press All-America First Team since Oklahoma's Blake Griffin was so named in 2009.
"I'm not surprised at all," Self said of the recognition and high praise for Robinson. "I mean, how cool is that? What's just as cool to me as him being a First Team All-American is Tyshawn (Taylor) being Third Team. To me, that's the First Team for Ty (Taylor). That's unbelievable to me, how well those guys have done."
A finalist for the Naismith Men's College Player of the Year Award as well, Robinson was the only player in the conference to average a double-double with his 17.7 points and 11.8 caroms per contest. The Midwest Region's Most Outstanding Player, Robinson has averaged 15.8 points and 12.5 rebounds during the four outings in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Not to be ignored is Taylor, a senior guard who averaged 16.7 ppg and handed out a team-best 174 assists in just over 33 minutes of action per outing in order to give defenders someone else other than Robinson to worry about each time down the floor. When taking on nationally-ranked opponents he raised his game by pouring in 19.1 ppg, handing out close to five assists per game and shooting 48.0 percent from the field.
Asked what he thought might happen if the 2008 Kansas squad and this year's roster was pitted against each other, Self hedged a bit and went the political route for the most part.
"The '08 Final Four team would be favored, but I'm not sure the '12 Final Four team would buy into that at all. It's unbelievable to me how much these guys enjoy competing. The longer they compete with each other, the more they like each other. This is a close team. We've had some close teams in the past, but I don't think we've had a team this close." Self continued, "That '08 team was so unselfish to have so many good players and still sacrificed and guarded. But there is something about this team and how they get on each other and hold each other accountable; only teams that really care about each other do those things. It sounds easy in theory, but unless you really love your brother next to you, you're not going to jump his butt when he does wrong. These guys hold each other pretty accountable."
That accountability could be put to the test this weekend as the Jayhawks take on Ohio State in New Orleans, where the team also went to a Final Four back in 2003 when it defeated Marquette in the semifinals before losing to Syracuse in the title tilt (81-78) in what was the final game for head coach Roy Williams before he accepted the same position at North Carolina.
The Jayhawks have to be careful not to read their own press clippings or live off the fact that they already defeated the Buckeyes this season, claiming a 78-67 decision at home on Dec. 10 when OSU was ranked second in the nation. If Taylor's views on the impending matchup is any indication, Kansas is taking all the right steps to prepare for the biggest game of the season.
"Ohio State is a great team and they have been proving it all year. They kind of had some ups and downs. They started real high in the rankings and dropped some spots, but have been pretty consistent all year. They have players who can do it from everywhere; from the point guard, to the wing, to the post, they are talented. We really have our work cut out for us and I'm sure they feel the same way. It's going to be really exciting and I'm excited for this."