LAWRENCE, Kan. — Bill Self reflected on coaching during the COVID-19 pandemic and what the last year taught him as a person and coach in an exclusive interview with 41 Action News.
Self, who has coached the University of Kansas men's basketball team since 2003, also looked forward to the 2021-22 season.
"I know students have to be excited," Self said. "I know our players are excited. We've got a whole new team. They are really good players. I think we will be dangerous; I do. I think we got a chance to be dangerous, but a lot of unknowns."
The pandemic hit college basketball hard, especially Self's team which was atop the polls and positioned for a possible championship run.
"We were in the game," Self said. "We were going to be a tough out. Being in the game could be Elite Eight, being in the game could be Final Four, the championship game. But being in the game could also be one to cut down nets — and we were one of the two or three heavy favorites that would have an opportunity, best change to do that."
Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, leaving the Jayhawks to wonder what might have been.
KU returned to the floor for the 2020-21 season, but it came with new challenges — frequent COVID-19 testing, adjusted schedules and more.
Then, a COVID-19 outbreak forced the Jayhawks to drop out of the Big 12 tourney.
"People talk about, 'How did KU beat Baylor by 13? Everybody said, 'Well, Baylor is coming off COVID,'" Self said. "We weren't coming off of one; we were having it. It was certainly tough, but I was really proud of our guys. I was proud of how our guys handled it last year and I was as proud of how our guys handled a tough situation."
KU wasn't the top team in the country last season, but still earned a No. 3 seed before getting upset by USC in the second round during March Madness.
Dealing with disappointment is part of major college sports, but Self said mental health became an even greater focus for his program during the pandemic.
"Mental health, you can't take for granted because of the isolation, the potential depression, the having awareness of body language, how guys feel at a certain time, how hard you can push them," Self said. "I don't think I pushed the guys as near as hard this past year. I wanted them to have fun and be happy."
Some obstacles related to COVID-19 remain ahead, but things are getting closer to normal again.
"This is the one time that, I think you can do this with any coach in America, when you ask them about their program," Self said. "Well, tell me about camp. Well, we think we are going to have it. I don't think we can have overnight. Tell me about your roster. Well, the portal. You have until July 1. I don't know who is staying in or draft or who is not. Well, what about scheduling? Well, we think we are going to play these teams but we are not quite locked in yet. There is so many what-ifs. I'll be glad when August gets here. There will be far less."
Self, his team, his coaching staff and KU fans expect to be allowed to fill Allen Fieldhouse once again after a year of capacity limits across the country, giving the Jayhawks nation one more thing to get excited about.
"There is something about this place from an energy level that makes this the most fun place to play and best place to coach," Self said.
The Jayhawks open the 2021-22 season with a Nov. 3 exhibition against Emporia State in Lawrence.