LAWRENCE — The coronavirus has thrust the sports world into a period of uncertainty, and the same could be said of virtually all walks of life.
Still, when it comes to the premature end of what was shaping up to be a special season for Kansas men’s basketball, coach Bill Self is sure of at least two things.
"I do think it hit everybody hard," said Self, speaking on a Monday teleconference with reporters. "I do think this team thought, and I actually agree, that they were built for this."
The Jayhawks finished with a 28-3 record, winners of an outright Big 12 regular-season championship and 16 straight contests to conclude a campaign that ended unexpectedly in Lubbock, Texas — the NCAA last Thursday announced the cancellations of its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments as well as other championship events, with spring sports paused indefinitely.
"I think this team was built on the things that you have to have to win in March, and that is toughness, handling pressure and dealing with distractions because there are so many that creep up. I think our players really believed that this was special," Self said. "Now that doesn’t guarantee success, but I think we were as prepared as we possibly could’ve been going into the tournament playing our best and then those other three categories I just described."
The nation’s top-ranked team — that status was reinforced Monday with the release of the final USA Today coaches poll — KU was preparing to enter March Madness with a No. 1-overall seed and the best odds of any squad to win the national championship, a potential three-week path that would’ve gone through Omaha, Neb., Houston and Atlanta.
Instead, there’s simply a feeling of emptiness. That, and a desire from Self and his staff to make sure what this group did accomplish is not forgotten to time.
"For this team to bring so much positive attention in a year where we desperately needed positive attention, and to operate under pressure and to operate with expectations and operate in a way where there were distractions, I mean, this team deserves as much credit as any team that I’ve ever coached. And to think that it could kind of get lost is very disappointing," Self said. "We’ve got to find a way to make sure that doesn’t happen."
Collegiate athletics’ immediate future remains murky, and the same could be said for KU.
Every Jayhawk player other than senior center Udoka Azubuike and junior forward Silvio De Sousa has returned home to families, with the hope that they can return to campus by early April. Athletics offices on campus have been locked down until next Monday, with "a ton" of steps still needed before there can be a return to "normalcy," Self said.
Azubuike, fellow senior Isaiah Moss and sophomore guard Devon Dotson are all candidates to leave the program this offseason. That’s true regardless of whether the NCAA decides to offer an extra year of eligibility to impacted winter sports athletes, a measure Self supports but one he said may run into snags when it comes to conforming to NCAA bylaws.
As far as commemorating this Jayhawk team, the subject has come up at multiple staff meetings since the NCAA Tournament cancellation, Self said, though those involved remain unsure of how to best pull that off.
"That’s got to be something key for us to do," Self said. "There’s a ton of things that need to be done short-term and long-term, but the one thing that can’t be forgotten is, how do you memorialize a season that was probably, and everybody can make their own case for their own season, but nobody in America had a better season than we did. …
"How do you give credit to that effort and have it be recognized? I don’t know exactly how we do it. I don’t know that we do it within our own fan base. I don’t know if you do it through different podcasts or whatnot. But whatever we come up with so far pales in comparison to the accolades that they actually deserve."
The only accolade of meaning, then, would be a national championship itself.
So, would Self be satisfied in the hypothetical world where the NCAA declares champions in men’s and women’s basketball as chosen by consensus rankings in the top polls?
"Well, this would be the one particular year I’m all for it, without question," Self said. "But you know, I don’t even put any wishful thinking into that because that’s not the way this is all intended to be. Coaches prepare their teams a certain way, to peak at the right time and this and that."
After stating his pride in how his players performed this season, in particular across the last two months, Self reiterated that he doesn’t believe the NCAA will declare champions through that hypothetical process — "Even if that occurred, which I don’t believe it will, there would be a huge asterisk on both sides of it, and I would be the first to admit that," he argued.
Self and other coaches he spoke with Thursday initially disagreed with the NCAA’s decision to cancel its tournaments, instead advocating for postponement until more information could be determined. The pandemic only escalated over the next four days, however, with Self on Monday reflecting that "the only decision that could be made was made."
"It’s just one of those unfortunate things in time that we have to be a part of. It certainly affects everybody that follows college basketball and affects the players more than anybody else," Self said. "But the health of our country and society and the responsibilities of a citizen, which I’ve watched a lot of on a lot of news outlets and things like that, definitely takes precedence over an NCAA Tournament, which to me in my world and to many others is so important, but it still doesn’t trump that."
For now, Self will work from home. With new restrictions put on the world of recruiting, just what can be accomplished at the moment has been greatly limited — "I’ve been told I’m going to clean out the garage and my closet, so that will take a couple of days right there," Self quipped.
Given how everything has unfolded over the last two weeks, there’s perhaps a third certainty that’s become clear.
"One life lesson is no matter what we’ve got going on or no matter who we think we are, there’s always something more important than us actually taking place and what we’re doing," Self said. "To me one life lesson is everything is relative. Sometimes we get caught up in our own world so much that we think that what we’re doing is actually more important and affects more people than what it actually does. Maybe that’s something that can be taught."