LAWRENCE, Kan. - Bill James has spent his life asking questions. He’s most famous for his baseball questions, of course – How do teams score runs? What is the best way to measure defense? What was baseball really like in the 19th century? – but, in truth, he questions everything. Was Lizzie Borden guilty? Would politicians connect more with people if they were more honest? Is “The Wizard of Oz” the most referenced movie in American history? Why were there so many great playwrights in England during the Elizabethan Era?
He asks the questions, and then in his own ways chips away at them. He might invent a formula. He might devise a chart. He will consider various possibilities. Then, finally, he will come to some sort of answer. He readily admits it might not be the right answer. But it’s an answer that speaks to him.
There’s one question, though, that Bill James finds impenetrable. He’s thought about it for years now, thought about it, worked on it, attacked it. He admits to spending much more time on it than he should. But he can’t let go of it. He can’t let go because he can’t find an answer that makes sense to him.
“I watch every Kansas basketball game,” he says. “And every year, it’s the same thing. They will be on the road, losing by three or four late in the game, this happens often. You would expect them to lose those games sometimes. But they almost never do. They almost always make a few big plays down the stretch and win the toughest games, even when they’re playing poorly.”
Bill James looks down and shakes his head, as if he’s trying once again to figure out the puzzle. “How does Bill Self do it?’” he asks. “I cannot for the life of me come up with the answer.”
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Consider the puzzle: For nine straight years, Kansas has held at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season championship. How impressive is this? No team has done that in a BCS conference since UCLA in the 1970s. Bob Knight never did it. Mike Krzyzewski never did it. Dean Smith … Roy Williams … Rick Pitino … Jim Calhoun … Nolan Richardson … none of them ever won nine conference championships in a row.
Consider the puzzle: Kansas’ defense is always great. Every year. The Jayhawks get players, they lose players, they get new players – they’re big, then small, they’re fast, then muscular – but the defense always dominates. In nine of the Self’s 10 seasons at Kansas, the Jayhawks have finished in the top eight in the country in field goal percentage defense. This year, they led the nation in field goal defense at 35.8 percent. The one year the Jayhawks finished out of the top eight, they finished 13th. So … same thing, really. (For you tempo-free fans, Kansas' adjusted defensive efficiency ranks fifth on kenpom.com and is a top-five mainstay the last few years.)
Consider the puzzle: Kansas won the national championship in 2008. The Jayhawks lost their top six players. The next year, they won the Big 12 and reached the Sweet 16.
In 2010, they won the Big 12 and won 33 games. They lost two consensus All-Americans. The next season, they won the Big 12 and reached the regional final. They lost another consensus All-American, Marcus Morris, and also his twin brother, Markieff, who actually went one spot higher in the NBA Draft. The next season – now we are up to 2012 – the Jayhawks won the Big 12 and reached the national championship game. They lost their top two players, including consensus All-American Thomas Robinson.
Joe Robbins / Getty Images
Bill Self has helped turn redshirt freshman Ben McLemore into a player who could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
How do you make sense of this? College basketball is a game of volatility, now more than ever. Kentucky won the national championship last year and is on the bubble just to make the tournament this year. North Carolina has its ups and downs. Indiana … UCLA … Syracuse … even Duke has the occasional bump. But not Kansas. Not Bill Self.
“So,” I say to Bill Self, “Bill James has this question. How do you do it?”
Self laughs a little and ponders the question. Here’s something that is true of Bill Self. He will always try to answer the question.
“Well, I, I, uh, you know,” he says. “I guess it comes down to three things.”
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Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
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