LAWRENCE, Kan. - Bill James has spent his life asking questions. He’s most famous for his baseball questions, of course – How do teams score runs? What is the best way to measure defense? What was baseball really like in the 19th century? – but, in truth, he questions everything. Was Lizzie Borden guilty? Would politicians connect more with people if they were more honest? Is “The Wizard of Oz” the most referenced movie in American history? Why were there so many great playwrights in England during the Elizabethan Era?
He asks the questions, and then in his own ways chips away at them. He might invent a formula. He might devise a chart. He will consider various possibilities. Then, finally, he will come to some sort of answer. He readily admits it might not be the right answer. But it’s an answer that speaks to him.
There’s one question, though, that Bill James finds impenetrable. He’s thought about it for years now, thought about it, worked on it, attacked it. He admits to spending much more time on it than he should. But he can’t let go of it. He can’t let go because he can’t find an answer that makes sense to him.
“I watch every Kansas basketball game,” he says. “And every year, it’s the same thing. They will be on the road, losing by three or four late in the game, this happens often. You would expect them to lose those games sometimes. But they almost never do. They almost always make a few big plays down the stretch and win the toughest games, even when they’re playing poorly.”
Bill James looks down and shakes his head, as if he’s trying once again to figure out the puzzle. “How does Bill Self do it?’” he asks. “I cannot for the life of me come up with the answer.”
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Consider the puzzle: For nine straight years, Kansas has held at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship. How impressive is this? No team has done that in a BCS conference since UCLA in the 1970s. Bob Knight never did it. Mike Krzyzewski never did it. Dean Smith … Roy Williams … Rick Pitino … Jim Calhoun … Nolan Richardson … none of them ever won nine conference championships in a row.
Consider the puzzle: Kansas’ defense is always great. Every year. The Jayhawks get players, they lose players, they get new players – they’re big, then small, they’re fast, then muscular – but the defense always dominates. In nine of the Self’s 10 seasons at Kansas, the Jayhawks have finished in the top eight in the country in field goal percentage defense. This year, they led the nation in field goal defense at 35.8 percent. The one year the Jayhawks finished out of the top eight, they finished 13th. So … same thing, really. (For you tempo-free fans, Kansas' adjusted defensive efficiency ranks fifth on kenpom.com and is a top-five mainstay the last few years.)
Consider the puzzle: Kansas won the national championship in 2008. The Jayhawks lost their top six players. The next year, they won the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16.
In 2010, they won the Big 12 and won 33 games. They lost two consensus All-Americans. The next season, they won the Big 12 and reached the regional final. They lost another consensus All-American, Marcus Morris, and also his twin brother, Markieff, who actually went one spot higher in the NBA Draft. The next season – now we are up to 2012 – the Jayhawks won the Big 12 and reached the national championship game. They lost their top two players, including consensus All-American Thomas Robinson.
This year? They won the Big 12 again, they won 18 in a row, they will probably be a No. 1 or 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They are a legitimate national championship contender with four seniors who are playing a bigger role than they ever have before (only one of them is a 1,000 point scorer for his career) and a freshman phenom named Ben McLemore, who most project as the first pick in the NBA draft this year.
How do you make sense of this? College basketball is a game of volatility, now more than ever. Kentucky won the national championship last year and is on the bubble just to make the tournament this year. North Carolina has its ups and downs. Indiana … UCLA … Syracuse … even Duke has the occasional bump. But not Kansas. Not Bill Self.
“So,” I say to Bill Self, “Bill James has this question. How do you do it?”
Self laughs a little and ponders the question. Here’s something that is true of Bill Self. He will always try to answer the question.
“Well, I, I, uh, you know,” he says. “I guess it comes down to three things.”
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Thing 1: “We have to convince them how to play.”
Bill Self had no plans to become a basketball coach, you know. It’s a pretty famous story how it happened. Self was a decent player at Oklahoma State, a grinder, an overachiever, and he expected to go into some kind of business and make some money. But then he was helping out at Larry Brown’s basketball camp – back when Brown was coach at Kansas – and he fell, seemingly wrecking his knee.
“If there’s anything I can ever do for you …” Brown told him in a somewhat panicked voice.
“Well,” Self instantly said, “you could make me a graduate assistant coach.”
Brown may or may not have acknowledged the request then, but in that moment of clarity Self saw his future. His knee was fine, and he played his senior year, and every few weeks he would write a letter to Larry Brown that made clear how excited he was to coach at Kansas. He never got one letter or response. He would regularly check in with his friend R.C. Buford – now the longtime GM of the San Antonio Spurs – who was coaching at Kansas. “Does Larry ever mention me?” he would ask. “No,” Buford would say. “Never.”
When Self graduated, he had not received an offer from Brown … or even a hint of an offer. So he did what anyone would do: He got a job at a financial company and … no, wait, he didn’t do that. He actually loaded up the car with everything he owned and drove up to Lawrence with an invitation. He showed up at the basketball office, saw Larry Brown, and said: “OK, I’m here. What do you want me to do?” When Self tells this story, he does a great impression of Brown’s shocked look. But finally, Brown said: “Well, just sit at that desk and start working.”
This is pretty typical of the Bill Self style of coaching. He is unyielding and irrepressible. He wears down players with his energy, his force of will, his constant and high expectations. I remember a late-season practice three years ago, where Self just unloaded on two freshmen he believed were not giving full effort. Neither was a particularly important player at that point in the season. One was an athletic looking forward who lacked confidence and averaged barely two points a game. The other was a tall and gangly 7-footer who averaged three minutes a game and nobody seemed too sure how much he even liked basketball. Self just pounded on them and pounded on them, pushed them and prodded them, insulted them and motivated them.
The former turned out to be Thomas Robinson, who became a starter as a junior and then an All-American, led Kansas to that NCAA Tournament runner-up spot last year and was the fifth pick in the NBA draft.
The latter turned out to be Jeff Withey, an All-America candidate this year who already has been named the Big 12 defensive player of the year. Last year, he set an NCAA tournament record with 31 blocked shots. “He’s the greatest shot blocker I’ve ever coached,” Self says.
So this is the first step – and notice Self does not say “TEACH them how to play,” but, instead, “CONVINCE them how to play.” Self is not a controlling coach. He doesn’t preside over every possession. He doesn’t go crazy sketching offensive plays, doesn’t push his players into some rigid system, doesn’t call a lot of timeouts so he can play on the chalkboard. Instead, he and his staff CONVINCE the players to stay in the moment, to play their roles, and more than anything to play tough.
Yes, that’s Self’s big idea: Be tough, Self sometimes refers to this in the negative: “You just can’t be soft.” It’s a theme that, for Self, fits every occasion. When a player gives a great scorer one step, a single step, Self says that’s a form of softness. When a team takes a rushed and bad shot when the crowd gets loud and the other team is on a run, that’s a form of softness. When a team falls in love with its high ranking and stops working, when a team allows the outside criticism to cripple its confidence, when a team passes the ball around the perimeter and settles for a long shot rather than attack, yes, all of those are a form softness too.
Self abhors softness of any kind – in sports or in life. Softness torments him. Once, six or seven years ago, Self’s Kansas was playing Oklahoma, and for a moment the Jayhawks unleashed a full-court press, just to change things up. It was devastating. Oklahoma’s players had no idea what to do. After the game, we asked Self why his teams don’t press more often, and he kind of dodged the question for a couple of moments, which is unlike Self.
Finally, though, he answered it. “When you play that style, you will give up some easy baskets,” he said. “And I just cannot STAND giving up easy baskets.”
So, this is step one – convince the Jayhawks to be all kinds of tough. Mentally tough. Physically tough. Emotionally tough. Most of the players, when they first get to Kansas, have no idea what any of this is about. He yells at them pushes them, drives them, and most don’t like it at all. But they toughen up anyway because Self is so relentless, so dogged, they cannot resist him.
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Thing 2: “We have to convince our players that if we play the way we’re supposed to play, we’re going to be really good.”
Maybe you’ve heard the story of how Bill Self got his first real assistant coaching job. Leonard Hamilton was coaching at Oklahoma State then, and Self interviewed for an assistant’s job. Self was a former Oklahoma State player, so he thought he might have an inside line at the job. But during the interview, he noticed that Hamilton did not seem especially moved by anything he was saying. He actually looked kind of bored. Self has always had a gift for reading people.
“I’ll tell you what, Coach,” Self said. “If you hire me, I’ll get you a point guard for next year and you won’t even have to give up a scholarship.”
“You’ll get me a point guard?” Hamilton asked.
“And I won’t have to give up a scholarship?” Hamilton asked.
Hamilton agreed to the strange deal. And sure enough, a player named Jay Davis just showed up, out of nowhere, as a walk on. He was instantly the best point guard on the team. He had double the assists of anyone else, he led the team in steals, he played 32.4 minutes a game. The team was terrible, but Self was on the bench coaching.
Who was Jay Davis? Yep, he was Bill Self’s best friend. He had been a terrific high school basketball player but he had a lot more interest in living the college life than playing ball. “You’ve got to play on the team,” Self told him. Davis declined.
“You’ve GOT to play on the team,” Self told him. Davis declined again.
“YOU’VE GOT TO PLAY ON THE TEAM,” Self told him. Davis played on the team. He, better than anyone, knew that he wasn’t going to beat Bill Self at this game. Later, Davis was the best man at Self’s wedding, and vice versa.’
So, this is the second Bill Self gift – this ability to convince people of just about anything. Self knows he can convince the Kansas players to play tough through motivation and inspiration and quite a bit of yelling. But that’s only the first step. To make it work, he has to convince them that if they DO play tough, they will be a great team.
“It’s like there’s a dual motivation,” he says. “One motivation is to kick butt. But another motivation is to not be the team that doesn’t kick butt. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you ask, what drives me? Is it wanting to win? Or is it not wanting to lose? And if I’m honest with myself, I know it’s a little bit of both.
“We’ve been lucky at Kansas. We talk about it all the time – faces change but the results stay the same. I think everybody works hard to get that message across, but I think we are really good at getting it across. They want to keep the tradition going. But they also don’t want to be the team that breaks the tradition.”
Kansas’ consistently dominant defense is a pretty good indicator of this. Self says the Jayhawks probably spend 75 to 80 percent of their time practicing offense. But it’s their defense that stands out – every single year under Self, the Jayhawks have held their opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. This is in part because the Jayhawks usually have great athletes. This is in part because Self spends so much effort toughening them up. This is in part because Self’s smothering man-to-man defense is tightly designed and coached, and the players almost always recognize how to adjust to any offense.
More than anything, though, the Jayhawks play good defense because they believe it will make them a great team.
* * *
Thing 3: “We have to convince our players that this is what we do.”
This is the most opaque of Bill Self’s three things. What does it even mean? Let’s face it, every coach in one way or another tries to teach his team to play a certain way and tries to persuade them that if they play that certain way, they will win.
But this third one – we have to convince our players that this is what we do – is a bit more ambiguous and unclear and interesting.
You should know that Bill Self once hit three game-winning shots in one high school basketball tournament. You should know that he took over at Oral Roberts when the program was wreckage, and he showed up and gave a speech so rousing that Oral Roberts himself said amen at the end. In his fourth year, Oral Roberts won 21 games and made its first postseason tournament in 14 years.
You should know that he then went to Tulsa, and in his third year he took the team to the Elite Eight – something even Nolan Richardson and Tubby Smith couldn’t do. He then went to Illinois and led them to the Big 10 championship and the Elite Eight.
And then, of course, there’s all the winning at Kansas.
And, while Self is as plainspoken as anyone you will meet in sports, there is a spiritual side to his coaching. He will talk often to his players about making plays – and he is often no more specific than that. In the final minutes of Kansas’ stunning comeback against Memphis in the 2008 national championship game, Self yelled again and again “You’ve got to believe.” At practices, he is known to shout, “Are you ready for the moment?”
The moment. That’s what Bill James was talking about. Down four in Stillwater with five minutes to go. Tie game in the Sweet 16, and they’ve got the ball. Down nine in the national championship game. These are the moments. “We don’t always win those games, you know,” Self is quick to say. But they do win them most of the time.
See, in the end, Self believes that it won’t always be the better team that wins those games. Sometimes it will be the tougher team. Sometimes it will be the luckier team. Sometimes it will the healthier team. And sometimes, yes, it will be the team that was just a little bit more ready for the moment.
“If you play well, and you have good players, you should win,” Self says. “That’s true for every single team in the country. Heck, if you have good players and you play pretty good, you should still win.
“But how are you going to win when you don’t play well? That’s the key to having great seasons.”
This year’s Jayhawks team has been on both sides. When they’re playing well, they’re ridiculously good. McLemore is probably the most talented player Self has ever coached – “He just floats,” Self says in wonder. Withey dominates on the defensive side and has become a pretty good offensive player. Three other seniors start – Travis Relaford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young – and they have spent their entire time at Kansas winning. This team won 18 games in a row from mid-November to late January.
But when they’re bad … they’re really bad. The Jayhawks lost three games in a row this year – first time they’d lost even two in a row in seven years – and this included a humiliating loss at TCU, where Kansas scored just three first-half baskets. After that game, Self said no Kansas team had played a half that poor since James’ Naismith’s Kansas team lost to a team from the Topeka YMCA (actually, the Topeka YMCA beat Kansas four times between 1900 and 1904). This year's Kansas team righted things after the loss to TCU, but just when it seemed to be getting comfortable, a middle-of-the-pack Baylor team blistered the Jayhawks by 23 at the end of the regular season.
“If we can play great every game in the tournament, we have a shot,” Self says. “Like I say, we’re good enough to play with anybody. But let’s be realistic: You never play great every game. Nobody does. So, there will come a time when we will have to find a way to win when we’re not at our best.”
“Will you?” I ask him.
“I don’t know,” he says. But you get the sense he does know. You get the sense that Bill Self knows something that every coach, and perhaps every business person, would like to know. “We have to convince our players that this is what we do,” he says. I think the word “this” simply means “winning.”
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.