As officials announced the cancellation of the NCAA tournament one month ago due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Bill Self sat at a hotel in Kansas City, Kansas, still regrouping hours after league officials announced the cancellation of the Big 12 tournament. As the unprecedented sequence unfolded, Self had little time to reflect on the impact on the No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks, a program that likely would have secured the top overall seed in the field on Selection Sunday and a possible path to the veteran coach's second national title.
Kansas won 16 consecutive games entering the Big 12 tournament. Udoka Azubuike (13.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.6 BPG) and Devon Dotson (18.1 PPG, 4.0 APG) both ended the year as Wooden Award candidates who had elevated their respective positions in this year's NBA draft class following remarkable seasons. Marcus Garrett secured the Naismith Men's Defensive Player of the Year award.
But the team's potential run through the NCAA tournament quickly became secondary to the idea of an uncertain sports landscape and future -- the latter a reality for Self since last summer, when NCAA officials filed a notice of allegations against him and the program in the wake of the FBI's investigation of college basketball. The result could be severe penalties for Self and the program.
Self recently talked to ESPN about life in quarantine, the uncertainty ahead and the potential for a Kansas team that likely would have entered the NCAA tournament as the favorite.
How did you learn that the NCAA tournament had been canceled, and what was your initial reaction and response?
Self: It was kind of screwy for us. We found out, obviously, in Kansas City before we left [for our Big 12 tournament game]. It wasn't like we were at the arena. We were at a hotel there. On the ride home, all the buses have television. We saw a report that Kansas and Duke had pulled out of the [NCAA] tournament, which wasn't accurate. But the way the press release was written, you could maybe get that out of it. So now we're in a mode of "How do you correct that?" Because that wasn't the case at all. How do you fight it? Our players saw it, and they were disappointed.
By the time we got home, based on my inside sources, I told them that "this is not over yet." Even if it means reducing the field, there is still a chance, guys, a good chance. I asked them, "You guys want to practice or play an intrasquad scrimmage game tonight?" They all said, "Coach, let's do it tomorrow." So we planned on practicing Friday. Then I found out through text. Somebody texted me: "They've just canceled the NCAA tournament."
Then it was trying to move players around with school and tutors. How do we fly them home? Social distancing. So many things to talk about. But it kinda took away from the fact that we don't get the chance [to officially send them off]. It was hard. There wasn't really a right time to do it. It wasn't a big hug and cry. It wasn't anything like that. In Lawrence, we talked about how much we appreciated their efforts. We also talked about, this isn't the end of the world, even though we'll look back at this as a missed opportunity, as many people will. They all said, "Coach, we hate it, but we understand."
The one I feel worst for is Doke [Udoka Azubuike]. Doke never played in a Big 12 championship [due to injury]. He was never healthy enough to play in a Big 12 championship tournament.
When we look back years later, how do you think we'll view the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Self: I think this is like 9/11, but it has impacted everybody. It has impacted our country and impacted how we do business moving forward. Sept. 11, it was obviously so sad, and we lost so many people. Even with that situation, as awful as it was, it didn't affect everyone. Everybody didn't personally know somebody who had been affected. It drew us together. With this, we've all been touched by it in an unbelievable way.
I hate to say this, but this is like cancer in that everybody has been affected by that, directly or indirectly. This will be the same way -- the same way plus some. It's sad. It certainly puts things in perspective.
How have you handled social distancing with your program and staff?
Self: We're trying to abide by social distancing and all that stuff. We did have one staff meeting at my house [in mid-March]. We haven't met in the office or anything. They've been closed. We group text a ton -- a ton. But we haven't had the video deal. We could video Facetime. Today, we did a Zoom deal where you can watch other people looking at you working. We've done quite a bit of that. It's not the same.
What were the keys to your team's success in 2019-20?
Self: We guarded, and even though we were very inconsistent offensively, we could make sure others were inconsistent as well. We had one of the best lead guards [Devon Dotson], without question, one of the best two or three lead guards in the country. Without question, we had the best defending big and presence in Doke. His defensive presence and his being able to help us recover from mistakes and just the intimidating factor. And then we had arguably the best perimeter defender in the country in [Marcus Garrett]. The other thing, I thought we were tough. A lot of teams can lay claim to that. But we operated under pressure. We were prepared for that.
Part of the NCAA tournament is dealing with distractions. They were mature enough and handled that better [during the regular season] than any team I've ever been around.
You mentioned distractions, and you talked about being motivated after the NCAA hit you with a notice of allegations that could lead to stiff penalties for you and the program. How much did you think about that throughout the season?
Self: We obviously have the NCAA case looming. It's an inexact science. It hasn't left my mind in 12 months. I don't think our players ever thought about it. I never brought it up to them. I just told them that this is what we need to do and to put blinders on. I don't think it affected our players negatively at all. But I think about it all the time. As a coach, I don't think I've thought about it to where it took away from coaching the team. But I've thought about it to the point where hours in the day have been longer.
What's one thing that scared you with this team?
Self: Scoring at the end of the clock -- and just the ability to make open shots. When you play everybody in your league twice, it's hard to score that second game. I did think things we did, in the postseason, would work better because other teams had not seen it. I thought that could really help us, getting away from the Big 12. But scoring late in the shot clock and making sure [opponents] played inside the arc. If you played inside the arc against us, we were going to win most of those battles with Doke, so making sure teams played inside the arc and we were consistent.
In most years, you would be preparing your players for the NBA draft right now. How has the pandemic changed that?
Self: We know we have to address this. The reality is ... what do you tell them? How can there be a combine? How can you fly guys in for visits? There are so many things right now that maybe doesn't look very good or [looks] pretty bleak as far as guys testing. We'll go through the underclassman advisory board. Other than that, we can't work out in town. They can't use our facilities. With social distancing, it's about who has access to a court or a trainer. It's just messed up for everybody.
Amid all the chaos, what kind of squad do you expect to have next season?
Self: If our players return that we expect to return -- and of course, that won't be with [Dotson] -- but if everybody returns, we've got a foundation with recruits we have. We recruited pretty well, and we've got depth on the perimeter, and we've got four big guys we can certainly play. The team has a chance to be pretty good. You don't know if transfers can be eligible immediately. There are a lot of things we don't know.