The reason behind Bill Self's wild celebration following KU's win over West Virginia
By Jesse Newell firstname.lastname@example.org
As Devonté Graham dribbled out the final seconds in Kansas' 81-70 Big 12 title game victory Saturday, Bill Self was roaring on the bench a few steps behind him.
The KU coach was pulling out a signature — yet rarely used — move. He hoisted both hands above his head while screaming to the air, repeating the motion twice and a third time for good measure.
This was a once-in-a-few-years type of elation. And Self's players certainly noticed.
"I heard when he does the two fists, it's a big win for him," Malik Newman said with a smile.
"I know he rarely does that," Silvio De Sousa said.
"To see Coach Self happy, everybody's happy," Mitch Lightfoot said. "It's kind of like, 'Happy wife, happy life.'"
So why this passion now? What about this particular game brought out that type of fire in Self?
I asked the players their thoughts. They'd been a part of 27 wins this year, but none had prompted a response like this.
Two main beliefs emerged.
The first was this: KU didn't back down. After West Virginia's Sagaba Konate threw down a dunk 90 seconds in, he talked some trash, looked into the camera, then became tangled with KU guard Devonté Graham before the officials stopped play.
Though Konate might have been trying to motivate his team, he also ended up inspiring the opponent. Newman said Konate's actions were "kind of like a punch in the face."
"Every dog that barks don't bite," Newman said. " ... You just have to keep taking it at them. Sooner or later, they'll fall back."
The Jayhawks responded. They were better on the glass in the second half. They quickly made up an eight-point deficit with help from good shooting and strong ball security. And whatever additional verbal barbs were thrown their way — mostly coming from Konate and teammate Daxter Miles — were met with improved focus.
"They're going to come out and try to punk you, bully you, be physical. If you're not ready for that, you're basically going to get punked the whole game," Graham said. "We knew that's what they were going to do, and that's our whole thing: We're not going for none of that."
KU's players also guessed Self might have been happy for another reason: because this team had overcome yet another bit of adversity late in the season.
When the coach announced Wednesday that Udoka Azubuike would sit out this week's games because of a knee injury, many Jayhawks sensed they were no longer considered the favorites for the Big 12 Tournament.
"It's been the story the whole year," Lightfoot said. "They've all been saying, 'We can't do this. We can't do that. Doke's out. The house is burning down.' We need Doke, but we performed without him."
Before this weekend, KU had won by double digits in only three Big 12 games. So naturally, without one of the team's best players, the Jayhawks went on to win each of their three games in Kansas City by at least 11 points.
"We just validated why we won the Big 12 regular season," Graham said. "That's what we wanted to do."
So what was the actual answer? Why was Self so pumped?
He answered that question in the hallway just before returning to his team's locker room after postgame interviews. He said he loved watching the contest from the sideline, saying it was the best Big 12 Tournament game his team had played since its 2008 championship matchup against Texas.
"Remember that game? It was unbelievable," Self said.
He was most proud, though, of his guys' effort. There have been times this team hasn't shown the same activity as others. There have been moments when he's begged and pleaded for players to perform with the same effort and enthusiasm as years past.
None of that was a problem Saturday.
"I thought we competed our butts off," Self said.
And for this team, there might not be a better compliment.