Bill Self’s Kansas Teams Underachieve in the NCAA Tournament

“Bill Self is a few 2008 Memphis free throws away from having a lot of explaining to do.” – College Basketball Journalist Rick Bozich on Twitter

It’s no secret that Kansas has been known for some early-round upsets in recent years. Sunday’s loss to Wichita State was the sixth time that the Jayhawks were bounced from the tournament on the first weekend as a top-two seed, which is the most of any NCAA school. Bill Self has been the head coach of three of those early-exit KU teams, with all three of those losses coming in the last six seasons.

Many fans question how much the NCAA tournament should determine a head coach’s legacy. When you win as much as Kansas does, anything short of a national championship is typically viewed as a disappointment. Has Bill Self ultimately lost too many times early in the tournament, or should he be excused for the disappointments in light of his successes?

Since Bill Self arrived in Lawrence in April 2003, no Division I men’s basketball program has won more games than Kansas. Self’s teams are 352-78, good for a nation-best winning percentage of 82%. The Jayhawks have won 11 consecutive Big 12 regular season championships, making an argument for Self as the best regular-season coach in college basketball. He’s also won six Big 12 tournament titles, most of any coach since the tournament began in 1997.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]They’ve overachieved three times in 12 years, met expectations once (2009), and underachieved eight times.[/su_pullquote]

There is no reason to question Bill Self’s regular-season resume. The NCAA tournament, however, is a different debate. In 12 seasons at Kansas, Self has posted a tournament record of 27-11 (71%). Only seven active NCAA coaches have a higher winning percentage in postseason play. However, only seven active coaches have made more NCAA tournaments. Self has made the big dance all 12 years he’s been at KU, which shows off the incredible regular-season consistency that he has brought to Kansas.

Mike Krzyzewski has lost in the opening round in two of the last four seasons, which is as many first-round losses as Self has in his whole tenure. Both Coach K and Tom Izzo have made only one Final Four since 2005; Self has two in the same timeframe. John Calipari’s Kentucky team lost in the first round of the NIT just two years ago, while Self has never been worse than a four seed in any of his 12 NCAA tournament berths at Kansas. Roy Williams has won two national titles at North Carolina, but he’s 0-3 against Self head-to-head in the tournament. These are the other coaches that Self has been compared negatively to, and despite the criticism of Self’s tournament resume, Self’s numbers are competitive with them in March.

The most negative stats against Self’s resume include that he has the fewest Final Fours of any of the top eight active coaches in the sport. There are 10 men that have made at least three Final Four appearances, and four of them have participated in fewer tournaments than Bill Self. Self has made two Final Fours in 17 years, which is a rate of 12%. Out of all 12 coaches with multiple Final Four berths, Self’s rate is the second lowest after Bob Huggins’ 2/21 mark of 10%. If you put Self 11th in any head coach power ranking system, fans would be in disbelief, and rightfully so. However, his NCAA tournament resume is inferior to many of his competitors.

Bill Self won a national championship in 2008, and it wasn’t just an ordinary title. It snapped KU’s drought of 20 years without claiming college basketball’s most-coveted prize, and it came through the only Final Four to feature all four #1 seeds. Self’s 2008 Kansas team was exceptional. His 2012 team overcame huge odds to advance to the national championship game, coming up short in a loss to Kentucky. In 12 years with KU, he’s made seven Sweet Sixteens and five Elite Eights. Here’s his career rates compare to other top NCAA coaches:

Coach (Tournaments) Sweet Sixteens Elite Eights Final Fours
Bill Self (17) 10 (58%) 7 (39%) 2 (12%)
Mike Krzyzewski (31) 21 (68%) 12 (39%) 11 (35%)
John Calipari (16) 11 (69%) 8 (50%) 5 (31%)
Rick Pitino (20) 13 (65%) 11 (55%) 7 (35%)
Roy Williams (25) 16 (64%) 11 (44%) 7 (28%)
Tom Izzo (18) 13 (72%) 8 (44%) 6 (33%)
Billy Donovan (14) 8 (57%) 7 (50%) 4 (28%)

During his 12 years at KU, Self has been a top-two seed nine times. Kansas has been a #1 seed five times, yet has only two Final Fours. Based on the simple wins/seed chalk formula (#1 seed should equal 4 wins for a Final Four berth, a #2 seed should equal 3 wins for an Elite Eight, etc.), Self’s average seed of 2.1 should average 3.1 tournament wins per season. The Jayhawks have actually averaged 2.25 wins per tournament. That’s underachieving by nearly a full win per postseason. Some years, the Jayhawks have underachieved by much more than one game, including five first-weekend thuds as a top-four seed. With the exception of 2004, 2008 and 2012, Self’s Jayhawks have never won more games than their seed is projected to, at least according to this formula. They’ve overachieved three times in 12 years, met expectations once (2009), and underachieved eight times.

Bill Self is an outstanding coach, but his resume is easily the weakest of any of the seven coaches listed above. He’s won 11 straight Big 12 titles, been to two Final Fours, and won a national championship, but there have been too many early exits in the NCAA tournament in respect to his regular-season success. Maybe Self is still learning how to win in March, and it’d be shocking if more Final Fours and national titles weren’t on their way to Self and his Jayhawks. Kansas is annually one of the best teams in college basketball, and as long as Self is at the controls, it always will be.

Regular-season success aside, if a few Memphis free throws went in during the 2008 championship game against Memphis, we be pointing a lot more fingers at Bill Self.

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Ryan Landreth

I’m a recent graduate of MidAmerica Nazarene University. In addition to writing for Rock Chalk Blog, I host the Inside the Paint podcast that covers KU basketball, and I write for Royals Review in the summer. My grandma has had season tickets to Jayhawk basketball for 30 years, and I have the privilege of going to most games with her.

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