The Big 12 is considered to be one of the best conferences in college basketball. Loaded from top to bottom with teams that contend annually for the NCAA tournament, the coaches who lead the squads also boast impressive resumes.
This list ranks the coaches based on one question of criteria: If I was choosing a Big 12 coach to hire for my team today, combining all factors such as experience, tournament success, age, etc., how would I rank the 10 coaches I have to choose from?
1. Bill Self, Kansas
352-78 (.819) in 12 years at Kansas, 559-183 (.753) in 22 years overall
Regarded as the conference’s best coach by all measures, Bill Self’s .819 winning percentage at Kansas is the highest of any college coach at their current schools excluding Kentucky’s John Calipari. He is the only coach in college basketball history to win 11 consecutive regular-season titles. He has won a regular season title in a staggering 15 of his last 17 overall coaching seasons. He’s not only the best coach in the conference, but also one of the five best in the entire country.
Yet year after year, fans make ridiculous claims about Self. He’s been called “overrated” and a “choke artist.” Every year, a few Kansas fans even make the ridiculous proposal that he should be fired. While the disappointment of early NCAA tournament exits is very real, things shouldn’t have to be put in perspective to remember how great of a coach Self is. — make this something like “Self doesn’t have to be put into perspective to recognize his greatness.”
As a reminder that all great head coaches start somewhere, Bill Self’s first coaching job took place at Oral Roberts, and the Golden Eagles were an abysmal 6-21 in his first year. He spent four seasons there before moving on to Tulsa and then Illinois, posting a combined .778 winning percentage in six seasons. When Roy Williams left KU for the North Carolina job in 2003, Self was hired as the next head coach of the Jayhawks.
His performance in 12 years in Lawrence has been an overwhelming success. Self has won 352 games since he arrived at Kansas in 2003, more than any other head coach in that 12-year window. His NCAA tournament seed hasn’t been lower #4, and in eight of the last nine years, Kansas has been either a #1 or a #2. His 2008 team won the national championship and is regarded as one of the best teams in NCAA history. His 2012 team went on an improbable run to reach the national title game. His run of 11 straight Big 12 titles has been his most well-known accomplishment. His ability to reload and continue to win a power conference year after year is truly an incredible feat. Making that streak more incredible is the fact that Self has lost his entire starting lineup three times and still managed to win the league. He was the 2009 AP coach of the year and has won Big 12 coach of the year six different times. If the stats are any indication, he’s undeniably the best regular-season coach in college basketball.
Making Self even more dangerous, he’s seemed to figure out how to recruit elite prospects in the past few seasons. Disappointing 2011 and 2012 classes caused doubt about his ability to recruit top high school talent. Self responded by assembling a 2013 class that included three of ESPN’s top 12 players. Included in that class was Andrew Wiggins, who went on to become the #1 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. Prior to last year, the lack of NBA stars that Self had produced was also a concern, but considering the rookie season that Wiggins is having in the NBA, that complaint has been quieted. Not only is Self one of the best coaches in the country at developing talent, but he’s getting prime high school players to buy in and sign with the Jayhawks.
The biggest (and only valid) knock on Bill Self is his tendency to struggle in the NCAA tournament, but his 37-16 (.698) tournament winning percentage still ranks eighth out of all active coaches. (Click here to read more about Self’s tournament struggles and how his resume compares to the other elite college coaches.) In 17 seasons, Self has made 10 Sweet 16’s (58%), seven Elite Eights (39%), and two Final Fours (12%). Of the six “elite” coaches in the sport (Self, Mike Krzyewski, John Calipari, Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, and Tom Izzo), Self has reached the Sweet 16, Elight Eight, and Final Four round fewer than the others. He has lost to a team seeded at least five spots lower than his own a whopping six times (Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, VCU, Stanford, Wichita State) in his 12 years at KU. When you’re a top-two seed in eight of the last nine years, upsets are bound to happen, but Self’s teams have been more prone to early exits than others.
“Coach K’s teams would have never choked like that,” said a KU fan on Twitter. That person must have forgotten the fact that Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke teams lost in the opening round in two of three years before its 2015 championship run. Just two years ago, John Calipari took Kentucky from preseason #3 to the NIT, while Self has maintained Kansas’ streak of 26 straight NCAA tournament appearances, which is the most in the country. Tom Izzo has made seven Final Fours, but has just one national title – the same number as Self. When 67 of 68 teams lose their last game, winning just one national title is such a terrific accomplishment, and that’s exactly what Self did.
Self’s 2008 national championship nails down his legacy as one of the best coaches in the NCAA, and the future remains extremely bright for Kansas fans. At the age of 52, it is possible that Self will win 1,000 games at the collegiate level. Self’s teams have been consistently ranked in the top 10 in nine straight seasons and in 14 of the last 15 years. Each and every year, he manages to reload his team to become one of the best squads in the country. Every year, Kansas wins the Big 12 and becomes a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament. As long as Self continues to do that, he will undeniably be the best coach in the Big 12, as well as one of the top coaches in the entire country.