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At last, NCAA title puts Self first

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — When all was lost, he sat down in his chair.

When things looked bleak, he shook his head with a sly grin.

And when the confetti began to hit the floor, Bill Self was already shaking the hands of his opponents.

If there is one thing the Kansas coach understands, it is that the journey is long. He has waited — at times it seemed like forever — and he has suffered.

But on a Monday night, in one of the most amazing NCAA championship games in memory, Self finally arrived where he had been expected long ago.

On top of a ladder, and on top of the world.

Kansas wiped out a nine-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation and then stormed past Memphis 75-68 in overtime to earn Self his first NCAA title.

For the Jayhawks, the end was just as it should be. With the praise spread around, and with heroes everywhere you look.

There was a steal and a 3-point shot by Sherron Collins with 1:47 in regulation, that made a large Memphis lead somehow seem manageable. There was another steal by Collins and the dish to Brandon Rush that sent Kansas on its way at the beginning of overtime.

And the shot that will live forever in Kansas — the 3-pointer by Mario Chalmers to tie the game in the final seconds of regulation — after he had missed four of his first five shots from that range.

"I dropped to my knees," Memphis senior Joey Dorsey said. "I was like, 'Man, I cannot believe he hit that shot.'  "

This is what you should remember about Kansas in 2008. That its stars were not the brightest, but that there were too many to manage.

UCLA had Kevin Love, North Carolina had Tyler Hansbrough, Memphis had Chris Douglas-Roberts. Yup, the other Final Four participants all had a first-team All-American. The Jayhawks had no one on the first team. Nor the second team. Nor the third.

Yet it was Kansas that became the first No. 1 seed in history to beat two other No. 1s on the way to the title. And, while everyone was talking about Memphis being the first team in history to reach 38 victories, the Jayhawks were right behind at 37-3.

"Kansas is an outstanding team," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "They have great size, great speed. They can shoot 3s, they can pound you inside. They are an outstanding team. But, having said that, we had our chances to win the game."

Kansas is a team in the same way Florida was the past two seasons. The Jayhawks were talented, but they were also tenacious. They were skilled, but they were also relentless.

In short, they were the embodiment of their coach.

The guy who, eight days ago, was considered somehow a lesser man because he had never made the Final Four. Four times he had gotten to the Elite Eight, and four times he had lost.

Self was in that ridiculous category of the greatest coach to have never accomplished something. And that, as much as anything, made Monday night's finish special.

"Coach Self did a great job in the huddle," senior guard Russell Robinson said. "He kept telling us to believe and to keep playing hard. We were able to make plays when we had to."

There was a moment, midway through the first half, that said much about Self's style. Kansas was about to take its first lead when Sasha Kaun was called for traveling as he moved in for a dunk.

Kaun had his hands spread wide and was wearing a look of exasperation as he headed for the bench. That was when he saw Self grinning at him, and a smile spread across Kaun's face.

The scene had nothing to do with the game, and everything to do with Self's personality. He is not the salesman Calipari is. He is not the CEO Mike Krzyzewski is, or the tyrant Bob Knight is.

Self, 45, is as close to a regular guy as you will find in the head coach's office of a major college program. His players do not fear him, nor are they in awe of him. They like and respect him. They also respond to him.

Remember, this was the team that was supposed to be crippled by distractions. First, there was the rematch with the old Jayhawks coach. Then there was the possibility of losing the current coach.

Yet the Jayhawks were the ones with the most focus. They played with leads, they played from behind. In neither case did they stray far from what they do best.

And that, dear friends, is what a good coach offers.

Someday soon, Self might want to take the time to write this all down.

For this is a story of vindication. Of exhilaration. It is a prelude to what will potentially be the largest contract a college basketball coach has ever received. Yup, there is a book in there somewhere.

The ultimate Self help book.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

At last, NCAA title puts Self first 04/08/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 9:42am]

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