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Tom Keegan: Calm coach and cool players win national title for Kansas (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Seriously, now, you didn’t really think that this Kansas basketball team of destiny was going to let a little thing like the fact that no team ever had overcome a 15-point deficit at halftime in a title game make it sweat, did you?

Late, great Marquette coach Al McGuire famously said, “A team should be an extension of a coach’s personality. My teams are arrogant and obnoxious.”

And Self’s teams are cocksure and oh-so calm under pressure. Self has a knack for turning negatives into positives, and in turn, so do his players.

Listen to what David McCormack said after the 72-69 Kansas victory over North Carolina to sideline reporter extraordinaire Tracy Wolfson when she asked about halftime: “I was in the locker room. I was smiling to my teammates. They thought I was crazy. And I said, ‘Yo, we just come out here, we have fun, and we do what we was born to do.’”

What they were born to do was smile while the other team gloated and then smile again when the other team sweated. The Jayhawks had that confidence going for them, and they had Caleb Love going for them. When Love isn’t shooting his team to victory by making wild shots, he’s shooting the other team to victory by missing wild shots. He’s not the player you want when protecting a lead.

Carolina had its way inside in the first half to build a 40-25 lead, thanks to an 18-2 advantage on second-half points. Whatever needed to happen during halftime to keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass in the first 20 minutes happened.

Remy Martin (14 points, 4 for 6 from 3-point range) caught fire from outside. Christian Braun (12 points, 12 rebounds) took it to the hoop like a man possessed. Jalen Wilson (15 points) had another productive night flying under the radar.

And David McCormack, taken to task by halftime analysts for not having what it took to hang with North Carolina’s big men after abusing Villanova’s shorter players, followed his 25-point, 9-rebound performance against ’Nova with 15 points and 10 rebounds vs. Carolina and scored two huge buckets at the end.

In an upset, McCormack was not named MVP, the award instead going to Ochai Agbaji.

Kansas outscored the Tar Heels 47-29 in the second half. In the regional final vs. Miami, the Jayhawks trailed at halftime and won the second half, 47-15, an unheard-of turnaround.

Perhaps because the sanctity of the locker room is drilled into them and they are conditioned to keep what’s said in there to themselves, athletes seldom are very good at recounting halftime talks from coaches. Whatever was said, this team did a great job of listening and executing the plan.

This was the Jayhawks’ fourth national title. Can we please all agree that the ex post facto titles awarded by the Helms Foundation for the years before the 1939 birth of the NCAA tournament don’t count? Yes? Thank you. Glad we don’t have to hear anything about those ever again.

This one stood apart from the first three titles because it represented the first one won by a Kansas coach who already had won one (2008).

So Bill Self not only ranks with past Kansas coaching giants Phog Allen and Larry Brown, he ranks at the top of that list and ranks No. 1 among active college basketball coaches, He joins Villanova’s Jay Wright, and Iona’s Rick Pitino, who won one at Kentucky, one at Louisville, as the only active coaches with multiple titles. Self’s other accomplishments, including nine Elite Eight appearances, push him to the top.

Other coaches with mutliple titles who were on the job during Self’s 19 seasons at Kansas have moved on. Billy Donovan won two titles at Florida and moved to the NBA. Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams retired with three national titles apiece. Mike Kzryzewski won five titles at Duke and lost his last game, to North Carolina, Saturday at the Final Four.

Self, 59, has a lot of miles left in his coaching passion, and he’ll spend them all in Lawrence, making everyone who meets him for the first time feel as though they have known him since birth.

That quality comes in handy on the recruiting trails, but in the early years of the ongoing NCAA investigation, in the years before color TV, the cellphone and electric cars were invented, it hurt Self’s recruiting. There is an upside to that. It means teams like the one that just won a national title play together longer. Their shared memories include comebacks, so deficits such as Monday’s don’t seem so daunting.

The longer a great coach can keep a group together, even if it doesn’t have as much blow-you-away talent, the better the chance that amazing things can be accomplished.

Speaking after the game on ESPN, former college basketball coach Seth Greenberg did a nice job of capturing what makes Self so successful.

“Bill Self is a world-class coach,” Greenberg said. “Bill Self’s one of those guys you say he can take his team and beat you, he can take your team and beat you. He has a gift to communicate. His guys compete. They play hard. He’s a great defensive coach. … To me, he doesn’t overreact.”

Consequently, his teams play great defense and his players don’t overreact to things like big deficits. They don’t sweat. Their coach is a cool customer under difficult circumstances. For example, has Self ever let anyone see him sweat over an NCAA investigation that has been lingering like the 877-KARS4KIDS jingle does in the mind? It seems as if it’s been going on for 40 years and might be reaching the midway point any day now. He’ll be 99 by the time it has reached its conclusion, so what does he care?

McCormack and Braun, Agbaji and Wilson, Self and Martin, delivered a night that won’t ever be forgotten by those who made it to New Orleans, those who watched from Allen Fieldhouse, KU revelers who emptied onto Bourbon Street and Mass Street.

Sixty-five years from now, a student who was at the game will be able to recall the details of the night with the clarity that retired KU professor Joe Reitz is able to relive the 1957 national title game between the same schools.

North Carolina won that one at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, 54-53 in triple overtime, denying Wilt Chamberlain what would have been his only national title. Reitz, who lives in Lawrence, was a freshman then. The most New Orleans man of all time spent that night in Lawrence.

(By the way, the game announcing crew picked the perfect time to talk about the 1957 game. The score was tied, 57-57, when they did.)

“Carolina played Hack-a-Wilt, who was a poor free-throw shooter,” Reitz recalled. “UNC won on two free throws in the final seconds. Louie Armstrong was playing in the Student Union ballroom that night. By the time we got back from the game, it was after midnight and the band was still playing. I think he and his band must have played from 8 p.m. ’til 1 a.m. He was a big fan and a great showman.”

The Final Four wasn’t the event then that it is now. The game didn’t sell out. But the game never was forgotten by those with a rooting interest on both sides.

This one had way more people, and although it was settled in regulation, had plenty of excitement.

After taking a 7-0 lead, KU was outscored 40-18 the rest of the first half and for much of that half looked as lifeless as a poor soul ordering his final meal on death row.

Did you really think Self was going to sweat? This is a guy who has made it all the way back from an 18-game losing streak early in his first head coaching job, at Oral Roberts, to the top of his profession. You need more than a 15-point halftime deficit against the hottest basketball team March had to offer to make this guy shake like Barney Fife. One cool customer just coached one cool Kansas basketball team to another national title.

— Tom Keegan, who wrote columns on the Jayhawks and lived in Lawrence for 13 years, and wife Angie live in Michigan City, Indiana. Tom is sports editor of the Chesterton Tribune in Chesterton, Indiana.

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