Kansas got the reminder it never wanted — life without Bill Self ain’t easy

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There was a moment or two Saturday here in Des Moines — he didn’t provide the specifics — when Kansas forward Kevin McCullar looked toward his bench. And while more than a dozen people sat there in folding chairs, the first thought that popped into his mind was who wasn’t standing over there.

The guy who was instead watching from a nearby hotel.

The guy who, turns out, KU needed here at Wells Fargo Arena.

Kansas got its first glimpse in two decades of life without head coach Bill Self — at least you’d hope it’s only a glimpse — and, well, the kindest way to put it is that you noticed. And not just if you happened to look toward that bench.

The Jayhawks allowed a double-digit lead to slip away — and their hopes of repeating as national champions along with it — in a 72-71 upset loss to Arkansas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

It is a jarring end for a No. 1 seed, but what’s most jarring is how it ended — because it is the exact type of game KU so routinely wins. There have been hundreds of these games involving the Jayhawks over the past decade alone, but infrequently does the curtain close with them on this side of it.

For more than a decade, the Jayhawks have turned a stat that many consider a stroke of good luck — winning close games — into more of an art form. But on Saturday evening, their Pablo Picasso was confined to a hotel suite.

It’s a Hall of Fame coach relegated to a spectator. Even as his coaching staff covered adequately for a week, it had to matter at some point.

Self has not coached in a game since spending four nights last week in a hospital after having two stents placed to treat blocked arteries. He joined the team in Des Moines this week, though he traveled separately and said he mostly sat and observed the early week practice sessions. The prevailing thought is he might return next week if KU could survive just one more game.

It did not.

There a lot of reasons why the ending arrived so abruptly, including their All-American going the final 17 minutes without a bucket, but during an Arkansas comeback in the second half, Kansas could not calm to the chaos.

KU was just plain bad at the little things, enough that the little things became a really big thing. A 10-second violation despite the absence of pressure in the backcourt; a failed box-out during the run of play; another off of a free-throw miss. These things happen. They don’t happen often to KU, and particularly not often in the significance these moments offered.

Once they lost the momentum — and a 12-point second-half lead, too — the Jayhawks seemed utterly powerless to grab it back.

Actually, they did have one option, but he sat on that bench next to interim coach Norm Roberts.

And sat.

And sat.

KJ Adams, often the only big in KU’s lineup, picked up his fourth foul with 18:11 left in the game. He remained out of the game for the next 9 minutes, 49 seconds. By the time he re-entered, the Razorbacks held their first lead since 2-0.

Too late.

“Our offense runs through KJ,” Roberts said after the game in explaining the difficulty of playing without Adams.

While Roberts saved Adams’ minutes for late in the game, though, he voluntarily kept him off the floor for the game’s most important minutes. The minutes in which the tide of the game forever flipped.

We tend to magnify late-game plays, but this is the very stretch that will keep Kansas in Lawrence next week as Arkansas travels to Las Vegas.

And Roberts turned to a combination of Zach Clemence, who had played in just six minutes in the previous 13 games, and Zuby Ejiofor, who had played six minutes in the previous nine. That went about as you’d probably expect. Scratch that, not entirely as you’d expect. KU tried zone defense, and that went about as you’d expect — a couple of Arkansas layups before the trial ended.

Roberts’ hands were tied by the foul trouble — big man Ernest Udeh also had four fouls — though only to a certain extent. Adams finished the game with four fouls, by the way. So did Udeh. Can’t take the fifth home with them.

Notably, Wilson was absent during the consequential run, though his absence was only figurative. He did score 20, to be fair, but he did not make a bucket in the final 17:05 and went scoreless for a stretch of 16:26, with Arkansas freshman Jordan Walsh locked on him. Heck, he attempted only two shots in that span.

“We didn’t do a good enough job maybe screening for him,” Roberts acknowledged.

KU missed open looks. It most glaringly missed too many free throws. That has little to do with whomever might or might not be standing on the sideline.

But Arkansas dictated how the second half would be played, even as it trailed by 12 points, providing a reminder no one needed of a Hall of Fame coach’s value. In a survey of 33 head coaches earlier this month conducted by The Athletic, 15 said they considered Self the best big-game coach in America. No other coach received even five votes.

In other words, nearly half the coaches in America think there would be a drop-off from Bill Self to literally anybody. That’s the point.

KU did not have the talent of a No. 1 seed this year. The metrics did not like the Jayhawks as much as the win-loss record did. They played above their means, because Self so routinely coaches above the mean. He wins 9% more close games than any of his counterparts, per this study from a Reddit user two years ago. It is statistical evidence that debunks the thought that games like this are a coin flip, even if they are not the best indicator of quality.

We got the anecdotal version Saturday.

“I mean, there won’t be any excuses,” Wilson said, “We can’t blame (that) — but it just the presence (Self) has. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. He brings a lot for us. He’s our leader.”

“It’s different for sure,” McCullar said. “... You know, that’s part of it. But he had us prepared for the game, and Coach Norm did a great job as well.”

Thwre was praise for Roberts and the remainder of the staff littered throughout the post-me locker room. But they were aware too of who they were missing.

And that will undoubtedly be more painful given the magnitude.

And the uncertainty that awaits.