When you’re the head coach of a dynastic college basketball program, just about every move you make is going to be under a microscope. Peering through the eyepiece are innumerable alumni, millions of television viewers, campus administrators, and the know-it-alls from TV, radio, and sports publications.
So you lead carefully, knowing that every word is subject to criticism and misinterpretation.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no room for subtlety in your leadership style. A year ago, after the worst NCAA tournament loss in its history—a 34-point spanking by Southern Cal—Coach Bill Self planted the seed for a 2022 national championship with a comment that some saw as a slight against his team.
“For us to be a team that really has a chance to be a national contender,” he said, “we need to get a little bit more athletic. We do. We need to get a little longer and bigger and those sorts of things.”
The unspoken message was that his players either A) weren’t good enough or B) weren’t sufficiently motivated to be good enough, or perhaps both. But the five players who started this year’s national title game against North Carolina heard it loud and clear and went to work—in the gym, honing their shooting skills; in the weight room, getting stronger.
Their mental toughness improved somewhere along the way: KU trailed by 16 points against North Carolina but stormed back out of the locker room after halftime. In less than nine minutes of clock time, the game was tied at 50.
It was a level of grit that had been on display frequently this season from Ochai Agbaji, Christian Braun, Dajuan Harris, David McCormack, and Jalen Wilson, the five players who felt some of the sting of Self’s post-USC assessment. They responded in emphatic fashion with a 34-6 record that included a share of the Big XII regular-season championship, the conference’s post-season tournament championship, and heck: They might even lay claim to the Big East championship, having dispatched three of that conference’s top four teams during the six-game blitz through the NCAAs.
While the record-setting aspect of the NCAA title was impressive enough, the recovery from a 16-point deficit wasn’t even KU’s biggest comeback success this season. They fell behind by 18 against Kansas State in Manhattan and relied on much the same formula as they did against North Carolina to pull that one out at the end. That assured KU of a share of the Big XII crown, along with Baylor, at 14-4,
Gratifying as that experience was, there was an even greater measure of satisfaction about the year-over-year reversal. A bit of karma might have also been involved. KU, ranked No. 1 nationally in March of 2020, was a solid favorite to sweep the title. The Jayhawks had nearly navigated the conference schedule—17-1—and were 28-3 overall. Then COVID-19 brought college basketball to a screaming halt on the first day of the Big XII post-season tournament.
Their first national title since 2008 would have to wait.
“It was tough for everybody, no matter your profession,” Self said, reflecting back on this year’s tournament. “But it was probably our most equipped team to go into the tournament. … So getting here now is pretty sweet because many guys on this team didn’t get a chance” in 2020. “I don’t know if we had a legitimate shot then, but it would have taken a pretty good effort to knock us out.”
After the 2021 season-ending loss, Self’s comments set the stage for this year’s success and showed that when a leader uses every tool in his motivational kit, good things can happen. With that type of leadership, those who underachieve today may reach the pinnacle of success tomorrow.
“We had to meet that challenge,” said KU forward Mitch Lightfoot, who leaves the program with two Final Four appearances. “I think we did.”