Kansas staying focused on pursuit of No. 1 seed as Bill Self’s sudden hospitalization weighs on program


KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Within an hour of it being announced Thursday that Bill Self had been hospitalized overnight, one local sports talk show had already moved on to the real concern: speculating how the absence of the Hall of Fame coach would impact Jayhawks’ seed in the NCAA Tournament.

You know, the real important stuff.

To be clear, the health of the Kansas coach remains the chief concern at the Big 12 Tournament and around college basketball. Still, there are other not-so-parallel issues at hand.

These Jayhawks do have the look of being capable to be the first college basketball team in 15 years to win back-to-back national championships. Earning that No. 1 overall seed is important to that pursuit, given its implications.

“It’s very important” said Big 12 Player of the Year Jalen Wilson following KU’s 78-61 Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal win over West Virginia. “Why not have the opportunity to be able to cut nets in this same gym?”

That was a reference to the Midwest Regional being played in two weeks at the T-Mobile Center in Kansas City, 45 miles from the KU campus. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee might even do the Jayhawks a further solid by placing them three hours from here in Des Moines, Iowa, for the opening two rounds.

At least that’s the guilty pleasure scores of KU fans had to consider while their coach was recovering in a local hospital.

After Thursday’s game, Kansas clarified that Self “underwent a standard procedure that went well” and is “expected to make a full recovery.” It also shot down erroneous reports that Self had suffered a heart attack.

It’s a tribute to what Self has built that the program was set on cruise control against WVU. Veteran assistant Norm Roberts is now 5-0 filling in for Self this season having also coached the first four games. The school self-imposed a suspension of Self during a still-ongoing NCAA investigation.

“Honestly,” said freshman guard Gradey Dick summing up Roberts’ style, “[there was] a little less yelling.”

It doesn’t seem to matter much who is coaching these Jayhawks at the moment. Kansas has earned a No. 1 seed 15 times in its history. Two of Self’s four national championships (2008, 2022) have come from a No. 1 seed. That’s not counting the COVID-19 year of 2020 when the tournament was cancelled and the Jayhawks likely would have been a No. 1.

Now, it seems the only questions are whether Kansas will be a No. 1 or the No. 1 and whether it matters if Self is unavailable beyond the Big 12 Tournament.

You can argue with CBS Sports bracketology expert Jerry Palm where the Jayhawks belong on the No. 1 seed line — he currently has them on top — but being No. 1 overall following Selection Sunday is a real and perceived advantage. That team gets to play close to home. That team has the label from the committee as the best in the country. That team’s path through the bracket is supposedly easier.

Then there is the math: 23 times since the bracket began being seeded in 1979 has a No. 1 seed won the national championship. No. 1 seeds are 147-1 in first-round games.

“Our resume, regardless of how people view it, it’s pretty impressive,” said Self following Wednesday’s pre-tournament shootaround. It was the closest he has come to campaigning.

More than two-thirds of the Jayhawks’ 32 games (22) have come against Quadrant 1 competition. Their 16 Q1 wins lead the country. Self last week clinched his 17 regular-season Big 12 title in his 20 seasons at Kansas.

All of Thursday’s immediate shock rolled off the laid-back Jayhawks. They were notified of Self’s situation at an 11 a.m. team meeting. There was no distraction. Wilson posted another double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Elite point guard Dajuan Harris had one of his better games with 13 points, 8 assists and 5 steals. A couple of alley oops got fans out of their seats in the second half.

“I’m not concerned at all,” senior guard Kevin McCullar Jr. said. “They’ve been giving us a ton of updates. I know he’s a fighter. The main thing for us older guys, we are trying to be there for him and be on-court coaches for him.”

“I know that he’s kind of sad he’s not here, but I know it’s going to make him feel better that we keep winning,” said forward KJ Adams said. “… I don’t really know as much as I want to.”

But this is sports where priorities are sometimes twisted when a championship is at stake. Kansas’ Big 12 Tournament title would be its 10th under Self. KU’s semifinal opponent, Iowa State, will make sure the arena is rocking again in what has become the nation’s best conference tournament inhabited by the nation’s best basketball conference.

“We definitely need him,” Wilson said of Self. “Our motto is kind of, ‘Faces will always change but expectations don’t.’ That’s the key to this tournament no matter who we’re playing, no matter what’s going on we play our game.”

There still has to be a level of uncertainty at Kansas. The truth is we still don’t know exactly what ails Self.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins turned philosophical late Thursday afternoon. In his postgame press conference, the 69-year-old coach recalled suffering a heart attack in 2002. In 2017, he clutched his chest while on the sideline when his defibrillator went off.

“I think it would really be hard for Bill this time of year [to miss games],” Huggins said. “Them trying to make another run for another national championship and him being in the state that he’s in, I would think that would be very difficult.”

Huggins was then asked how he prioritized his own mortality against wanting to be back on the court.

“I’m not a very good listener,” he said. “… I want Bill to come out of there the way he’s always been.”

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