LAWRENCE, Kan. — Some believe this might be Bill Self's best coaching job since he arrived at Kansas nine years ago.
This was the season the Jayhawks' string of seven consecutive conference titles supposedly was in jeopardy, but KU sits atop the Big 12 men's basketball standings heading into Wednesday night's game against Oklahoma.
“When all eyes were on unbeaten Baylor and Missouri, that they might be the Big 12's two best teams, I still felt it would be Kansas at the end,” said Steve Wieberg of USA Today. “That's not about talent. It's not remotely about tradition. It's about coaching.
“We've seen Tyshawn Taylor go from enigma to All-America caliber and Thomas Robinson from sixth man to (national) Player of the Year contender and KU to the top of the Big 12 after a roster makeover. That's coaching.”
In addition to losing four starters and six of the top eight scorers off a 35-3 team, Kansas had two key freshmen ruled ineligible before the season.
Mike Decourcy, the national college basketball writer for The Sporting News, said Kansas always has talent. This season is no different. Robinson might be one of the top five players selected in the NBA Draft.
“Finding a way to get Tyshawn Taylor to take his game to another level has been the most impressive thing so far,” Decourcy said. “It's been a four-year process. It's not just this season, but the work Bill has done with Tyshawn Taylor since he arrived there.”
Self, who was The Oklahoman's Player of the Year his senior year at Edmond Memorial, ranks among the nation's top coaches.
After starting his career 22 games below .500 following two seasons at Oral Roberts, Self, 49, is one of only three coaches to lead three different schools to the Elite Eight.
Self has compiled 13 consecutive 23-win seasons, a streak that should go to 14 this season. Owning a 461-155 career record, Self could record his 500th career win as early as next season.
Blair Kerkhoff, of the Kansas City Star, said this season reminds him of the year the Jayhawks won the Big 12 the year after KU won the 2008 national title.
“This is one of Bill's better coaching jobs because he's getting the most from players who hadn't been asked to give as much before this season,” Kerkhoff said. “Four new starters, and a short rotation, improvement made since the loss to Davidson is noticeable.”
Is Self pleased with this team's progress considering the challenges?
“Absolutely,” Self said. “I thought all along Tyshawn Taylor was as talented as any guard around and Thomas Robinson had a level nobody had seen before. When other guys fill their roles we're a pretty good team. When we don't we're pretty average because we don't have as much as depth as the past.”
During KU's seven-year streak, the Jayhawks have won the title outright four times. Kansas tied for the league crown with Texas in 2006 and 2008 and also OU in 2005.
Despite a 7-0 league start, Kansas still faces major hurdles to run the streak to eight. The Jayhawks' three most challenging road games — Missouri, Baylor and Kansas State — are left on the schedule.
Missouri, one game behind Kansas, hosts the Jayhawks Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. The Tigers, ranked No. 4 nationally, already have played and won in Waco and Ames, in addition to a loss at Kansas State.
“It's a coin toss,” Self said. “You could make a case we're in pretty good shape, but we still have to play at really hard places. Baylor and Missouri are right there. Missouri probably has played as hard a schedule as anybody so far.”
Kansas, though, has a viable shot at keeping the streak alive despite a thin rotation and losing the Morris twins and Josh Selby to the NBA.
“Bill doesn't have anything to prove with the resume he's put together,” said Jim O'Connell, AP's national college basketball writer. “But if he can put together another Big 12 title and a deep NCAA run with lower expectations it would be very impressive.”