Head Coach Bill Self | Ochai Agbaji | David McCormack
COACH SELF: We’re thrilled to be here and have a chance to play for a championship. Last night was a great night for us, as it was for Carolina also. But it’s time to forget about that and get focused on what’s next.
Q. What was your reaction to how your guys responded after the victory, body language, emotions, things like that? You’ve talked a lot about coming here to win it.
COACH SELF: We were obviously happy. I thought after you win, body language was fantastic. I don’t think we spent a lot of energy in the locker room after the win, though. I think we were thinking, at least the best you can, next play.
And we got right back to the hotel and had dinner around 10:30 or whatever it was, 10:00 or 10:30 and went to bed. So we didn’t start talking about Carolina until this morning. But I thought they responded just the way you should respond.
Q. You talked about this before, but it’s been a while for your program to have won a national championship. And obviously it means a lot to anybody. But specifically for Kansas, for you even, kind of getting back on that horse, what does it mean for you guys?
COACH SELF: Well, it has been. We’ve had some really terrific seasons and some great teams that came up short. And I do think that when you have as many good teams as we’ve had — at most places winning one national championship would be quite an accomplishment — I think as many good teams as we’ve had, one’s not enough.
And so I don’t think that I personally feel pressure that we have to win. But I do know that when you have a chance to coach at a place where you have an opportunity to be in the game most years, you need to take advantage of that more than we have.
Q. You referenced this a bunch of times. But how tough was missing 2020 in that you probably would have been the number one overall seed, could have gotten here, everybody missed it but how tough was that?
COACH SELF: It was tough for everybody. I mean, that was just a tough year all around for everybody, no matter what you did as a profession. Everybody was affected in some way. It was probably maybe our most equipped team to go deep in the tournament, at least going into a tournament.
We had the best big man defensive player in the country. We had the best guard defensive player in the country and we had a second-team All-American on top of that. So that was tough for our guys.
But they handled it well. And probably what made it a little tougher was the year before we got knocked down in the second round the year after we get knocked out in the second round. So getting here is I think pretty sweet for us, in large part because many guys on this team didn’t have a chance to play in it when we had — I don’t know if we had a legitimate shot but it would have taken a pretty good effort to knock us out.
Q. Bobby Pettiford is obviously from our area there. Did you have a chance to talk to him about your opponent for tomorrow and what that might mean for him yet?
COACH SELF: He told me a minute ago, they played on CP3. I believe Leaky is a few years older but they came out of the same program. And Bobby is — people in Carolina don’t know this yet but he’s going to be a terrific player. He’s just been hurt. He hasn’t had a chance to play, is out for the season. But he has told us some. I know that he’s excited about it even though it’s in a limited role.
Q. You didn’t necessarily need Remy to go off last night, and that’s maybe the beauty of having a player like that on your team. You sort of mentioned that was a team you wanted to add. Curious if you wanted to walk us through the changing transfer roles and this extra year of eligibility that COVID gave everyone kind of change the way you could go about roster building, given that you’re not just looking to high schoolers or people willing to sit out a year?
COACH SELF: I think in the power conference programs, I still think you want to build with your high school kids. I think it’s real important that you have a good November, early signing period, and try to attract the best players you can.
But what the transfer portal does, it allows you not to take a step back whenever you have unexpected things happen during the season. So, for instance, that happens a lot whether it be another guy transfer or where there be a guy or two declare for the draft and have a good year that’s maybe ahead of what your schedule was for him. Those sorts of things.
You can’t get a freshman in the spring like that because they’re already taken. So the transfer portal allows you to fill in the gaps, which allows programs to stay at the level that they’re presently operating at. And there won’t be as many dips like this because of the portal. And what was your second question?
Q. The extra year of eligibility that COVID gave everybody.
COACH SELF: I think it’s great. I think this year, in particular, you have older teams. I don’t know that, to me, that the teams were a lot better early in the season. But after everyone got acclimated through the portal and everything, I think there were more solid and good teams late in the season than there was a year prior.
And we have a sixth-year senior, a seventh-year senior. And even though it will never be like that again probably, but having those kids go out in a way that every other class has been able to go out I think has been great for all of them.
Q. You’ve been at this a while. We know who has retired the last couple years, in Roy and Mike Krzyzewski. What role or responsibility you see yourself in speaking about the game, about the state of college basketball because you’ve been at it long and you’re at a prominent program?
COACH SELF: We’ve lost some icons due to retirement that have been the pillars of our profession for a while. And I think that all coaches my age — I don’t think that you’re going to see any one person step into a role like Coach K’s had or anything like that. But I think collectively I think we can do a good job of having a voice because our game is great, but our game needs changes, too.
And everything that you work in or whatever you do, it never stays just status quo. So we need to keep evolving. And I think there’s numerous coaches out there, including myself, that need to have a voice and be active and responsible in helping those changes occur.
Q. I know it’s a different team, a different scheme, but Brady Manek, you’ve had some pretty good success against him when he was at Oklahoma. What do you do to stop him? How do you stop him? How have you stopped him in the past. And what makes it different this challenge coming into tomorrow night?
COACH SELF: I think Brady has obviously been unbelievable. He and Caleb have arguably been the two best players in the tournament. It’s shocking to me — and I just noticed this this morning looking at stats — we’ve shot 91 3s as a team in the tournament. Manek and Love have shot 90 by themselves it’s amazing. And to have a guy 6’10” that has that quick a release, he’s playing with freedom.
He was a threat always at OU. But Hubert’s given him a mind, a free mind that he feels like that anytime he’s got any separation at all he needs to let it fly. And that’s a compliment to his coach and their staff, but also he’s such a good player. He’s got such a quick release. It’s a high release.
And playing him at OU, you had you to defend him probably a little more at the post. And now obviously with Mando in the game he’s playing primarily on the perimeter.
Q. How happy are you for your seniors and how special a class has that been maybe compared to some others at Kansas?
COACH SELF: I’m thrilled for them. When we recruited the senior class the headliners were not David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji. They were Devon Dodson were Quentin Grimes. And we coached Quinton for one year and he transferred to Houston, and we coached Dot for two.
I’m extremely happy for those guys and what they’ve given us. And they’ve been great ambassadors and role models for our school and our community. And they both put in the time to gave us a chance to be here, so I’m happy they got to experience what this is all about.
Q. This time of year is always about staying locked in, having a short-term memory. For you, how is it that your team has been able to stay locked in through the whole year?
COACH SELF: You know, I don’t know that you can stay locked in for five months or four months. I think there’s dips in that. But this team has probably stayed as locked in as any that I’ve ever had. And they like each other. And that’s a coach-speak term. But these guys legitimately like each other. I mean, they’re brothers.
They want to do everything together. They spend all their time together. They love each other. They’re involved in their lives off the court. And I think that has certainly allowed us to stay more locked in.
But I would say, going back to when we got beat at TCU a while back, which knocked us probably out of a chance to win the league outright and then the pressure was on us to go win two in a row to get a piece of it, we’ve been as locked in as any team that I can remember. And we are right now too.
And Carolina is as well. But this is a focused group we’ve got right now.
Q. This time of year turns you kind of reflective. And this team has been together for a few years. I wonder, is there pride in the fact that what you’ve built with this core, your starting five last night? You’ve coached them for a while. And as she talked about, it turns over a lot in college basketball with the transfers and stuff, but is there pride, if you could speak to what it’s like to see a group grow up?
COACH SELF: I think when you recruit really well, a lot of times the players you recruit at the highest level aren’t going to be there for four years. And the thing about it is you are connected to your one-and-dones or your two-and-dones or whatever it is. You’re connected to them. And you care for them and love them just as much as anybody else.
But there’s something about being able to see a player grow up right in front of your eyes. And sometimes nine or ten months isn’t enough time to grow up. And I think that we actually have this here.
We’ve got an old team. But with the COVID year we could have all five starters back. Technically, that will never happen. But it’s been fun to watch.
And when we won it in ’08, going way back to what Dana was talking about, that team lost in the first round. That team came up short the next year and finally put it all together.
I think there’s a natural progression progress with guys that aren’t first-round picks or lottery picks that it takes time. And you get a chance to see the Ochais and the Davids and the Christians develop. And then by the time they get developed, they develop, they’re the equals of the talents that are coming into the game. It’s been fun to coach them and fun to watch.
Q. With everything that you’ve had to deal with with the investigation over the past five years and not being able to recruit at a high level, was there a point when you thought you might not get back here?
COACH SELF: No. No. You know, it’s common knowledge. We’ve been dealing with some stuff off the court for a while. But there was never a doubt that we didn’t have the potential to get back here because two out of the last three years we’ve been arguably as good as anybody, but it’s been different playing with older kids as opposed to playing with young kids.
And so we’ve had some success at Kansas over the years, but the backbones of all of our teams have been our experience. It hasn’t been our young kids. Even though I’ve always thought, man, if your foundation is your juniors and seniors but your best player was your freshman, you’ve got something special. That could be something special.
And that hasn’t been the case with us the last few years. But the way this is going, I think one of the keys to college basketball is going to be how to get old and how to stay old. And we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to do that the last couple of years.
Q. Last year, after the USC game, you said you needed to get more athletic, longer, get bigger. You didn’t that in the portal but your five starters —
COACH SELF: Same guys.
Q. What changed in the last year to allow you guys to be on this stage?
COACH SELF: I think we are more athletic. And it’s the same guys. They deserve the credit. Remy obviously gives us a burst of speed and he’s the quickest guy on our roster that we need. He can make a basket or make a play when you really don’t have anything going. But I think we have gotten that way in large part just because our players have gotten better and developed.
Q. We talked to you about Coach K. You’ve had many conversations with him. He’s broken many coaches’ hearts over the years when he’s up against other teams. What has he meant to the sport? And what will the coaching fraternity miss by having someone like him no longer in the active coaching ranks, you feel?
COACH SELF: In my time, since I’ve been involved as a coach, when I first got involved, Coach Smith and Coach Thompson were the two pillars. But as that mantel has shifted, basically in my coaching career he’s been the standard since I’ve been doing this.
I’ve been coaching while he’s won all five national championships. I was a graduate assistant on the Kansas staff when he went to his first Final Four. I’ve been able to see it even though I was young.
But he’s meant as much to our sport as anybody in our sport has ever been. And he will be missed. I think to someone’s point earlier, I don’t think they’ll ever replace him. But I do think collectively there’s a lot of guys out there that can collectively carry the mantel, not individually that he has.
But I’m hopeful for this — you know, we talked about college basketball a little bit ago. The best way to help college basketball is to get ideas and have people involved that understand college basketball. And a lot of times it can’t be from within the profession.
So you have a couple of recently retired guys that have been as good at this at anybody that’s ever done it. I could see them playing a big role in us moving forward in a positive way.
Q. You mentioned you talked to your dad a bit this week when there have been moments on the court. I was just wondering if yesterday you said anything to him and what he would have said to you?
COACH SELF: I’ve talked to him a lot. He used to get on me a lot because he’d say, well, thanks for calling, haven’t heard from you in a while. I’m like dad, you have a phone too. They dial out both ways. No, you’re busy, whenever you’ve got any free time, have enough time for me give me a call.
I actually probably have talked to him more in the last couple of months than I probably did when he was still living.
So I don’t know there’s any specific things. I know when we get in a bind, all right, what do you think? What do we need to do here. Stuff like that.
But everybody goes through stuff. And certainly my stuff isn’t bigger than anybody else’s. But it’s been a situation for myself and my family that I probably have taken more pride in this than I have ever before, that maybe at times I’ve taken for granted because I know exactly how much he would be enjoying this right now.
Q. You mentioned getting old and staying old. Going back to January of 2019 when Ochai redshirt got pulled, I think his sixth game he scored 24 against Texas. He set a 3-point percentage record in the Final Four last night. Looking back at that time when his redshirt was pulled and special player all along and now an All-American, what have you seen from his growth as a college player?
COACH SELF: First of all I thought I was bright to pull his redshirt because we wouldn’t have coached him for four years after that anyway. I’m glad we maximized it. It’s been awesome to watch him grow up. Just like with Dave. They came in together.
And Och has been terrific. But to see the natural progression that’s taken place and to see him being a guy that’s going to make a lot of money playing this game for a long time when he wasn’t projected to do that, it’s been special to watch. And he deserves all the credit because there’s nobody that works like him.
Q. Going back to the question earlier, is there something to be said for older guys that take their NCAA lumps, not that you want it to go that way, but to break it through? We see it with other teams, they lose, they lose, they lose, then they finally get through it. Is there something to be said about that?
COACH SELF: I don’t know if there’s something. But it seems to me that it happens more times than not happen. I know it has with us. We got on a serious role there for a stretch, but when I first got to Kansas, I think the first year we went to the Elite Eight. And everything was great. And the next two years we lose in the first round. Can I just hang on or do I need to relocate? That’s what I was thinking.
And then to go through it the way we did it and to finally break through I think it is almost a natural progression. I think we could play with five freshmen and play great tomorrow night. But I would rather go into the game with some guys that are battle tested, though.
Q. Obviously getting this far is special enough but having two programs with such a rich basketball history, tradition and ties does it make it more special to be part of this game?
COACH SELF: I think so. I think no matter who we’ll be playing tonight, it would be incredibly special, because both teams are as blue as you can get when you talk about blue bloods.
But to play a Carolina program that’s intertwined with Kansas history, in large part because Coach Smith played at Kansas and won a national championship in ’52 and then he goes on and is thought to be as good a basketball coach that’s ever coached the sport over a period of time.
So I think that’s special. Also with Coach Williams heading our program for 15 years and doing a magnificent job there and then going back to his alma mater and winning three national championships, I think that certainly adds to the interest. So I’m very proud to be a part of this game.
Q. Ochai and David, every kid when they grow up they want to make the NBA. But now you’re in the precipice of a national championship. Go back for me when you were a kid, did you ever have that dream of being a national champion in college? And also now that you’re here, what’s the mentality going into the biggest game of your playing career?
OCHAI AGBAJI: Yes, this is the moment that every kid dreams to be in, to play for a national championship for their school, to represent their school on the highest stage of basketball itself and play in front of all these people.
I think that’s just a dream come true for me and all the guys on my team. So we’re just excited to play tomorrow and everyone’s just ready.
DAVID MCCORMACK: I know for me I remember the days of watching every game in March Madness and watching the finals and you’re raving about it with your friends what team you’re picking. Now I get to play a part in that.
We’ve fought all this way, battled this way to make it to the biggest stage in college basketball. And there’s no better feeling, especially having my family there to support me during the time, and there’s kids back at the same schools that I went to cheering me on. So it doesn’t get any better than that.
Q. Wonder if you could go through what it was like in ’20, having the tournament taken away from you; you weren’t unique in that aspect except you were No. 1, one of the best Kansas teams of all time, I think, at that stage. When did it hit you? How did it hit you? And was there that what-if factor, what could we have done?
OCHAI AGBAJI: There’s always that what-if factor after that 2020 season, especially after the run that we had to close out that season was unbelievable. Just thinking back to that and that feeling of playing on that team, I think it just kind of replicates to how we are now and how this team moves and our confidence on this team. That’s why I keep saying that we’re doing it for them because we just have that same feeling.
DAVID MCCORMACK: Kind of like Ochai but a little different. I don’t think of it as a what-if. I know what we would have done that year. We were just on a positive slope. Everything was kind of going right for us. Everybody was gelling, connecting.
So I just see this year as an avengement to that team and what they likely deserve. And now it’s just our year to go get it. I think we would have went all the way, just the way Marcus was playing, Doke was playing, Isaiah, Dotson, Och — and the way we were coming off the bench, me, Silvio, CB — everybody was just kind of playing their best ball at that time.
Q. Last circle of the moon, another year today, looking back as a reflection, when you first started to where you are now, where the game is going, recruiting, and you having players like Andrew Wiggins, (indiscernible), the players you have now, how has that made you a better coach, especially with your experience in the Final Four and the national championship game, gets you prepared for tomorrow night’s game?
COACH SELF: Well, you know, preparation is important, but let’s not kid ourselves. We’re going to practice for 30 minutes today and Carolina is going to practice for 30 minutes today. And you’re not going to change a lot what you’re doing just for this one game. You may change, tweak something.
But I think that when you talk about our game, our game has evolved in so many ways in the last — I’ve been doing it as head coach 29 years — it’s involved in so many ways.
One of the biggest things I think is coaches — a lot of coaches — and I’ve worked for Eddie Sutton for a long time — I wouldn’t call him a control freak, but he did like to know where every shot was coming from and what time of the clock it was coming.
And so you go from being taught that, saying I’d like to control, to now it’s, like, I need to let the players play. And that’s an evolvement that I think a lot of coaches have gone through. It used to be how do we get shots off the catch. Now it’s how do we create opportunities to score off the bounce.
There’s many things like that, and the clock has changed it, the arc has changed it, obviously. But I think it’s still basketball, though. And it’s still being sound. It’s still getting one or more good shots each possession and giving up one or less shot each possession. And how you get there changes and evolves, but that’s still the core philosophy of what we try to do.
Q. I was hoping you could speak to what Hubert’s been able to do at North Carolina and get this team to play with such confidence as a first-year coach?
COACH SELF: It’s incredible. All teams go through blips, but obviously they had a great year but they were a bubble team six weeks ago, which is incredible to me. But the way — I’ll tell you, I coached Mando on the U.S.A. Team, when he was coming out of high school. He was going to be a senior. And I coached him. So I got to know him a little bit. Obviously we spent 17 or 21 days together, whatever.
And we saw their team at Del Frisco in Fort Worth because we were both in that subregional when we got there that first night, we both were eating there at the same time.
And I went up to Armando and said, Congratulations; are you having fun? And the first thing he said, I love playing for Coach Davis. That’s the first thing he said to me.
So I think that right there is a testament to how good he is, how special, and the relationship he has with his guys. It’s not surprising at all when you have talented guys that when they do gel they gel in a big way, if they have the same common theme and they believe in the way they’re playing.
So I don’t think it’s uncommon. But to get them to play at this level, that game last night was a big-time high-level game, that’s as about as good as you can see and his guys played with so much confidence; it’s just a testament to him.
Q. Ochai, I don’t know if you know your high school tomorrow is having Och Park Day in dedication to you. They’re all wearing the North Kansas City School District. Och Park Day, that’s what they’re calling it. They’re all wearing red and blue, the whole North Kansas City School District. What does it mean to you knowing that they’re doing that? And second part, I spoke to your sister, who has also been to a Final Four in volleyball and a national championship. Wondering what advice she gave you.
OCHAI AGBAJI: Och Park, that was a nickname I had in high school, other schools would call our school instead of just Oak Park, they’d call us Och Park, because everyone knew just me.
It’s really special. It’s actually huge motivation, seeing all those people and all the support that I get from my high school and Kansas City area. It’s special. Obviously my sister was in the Final Four national championship game, and I think it was after the Sweet 16 or after the Elite Eight in Chicago, I was like, I’m trying to catch up with you, I’m trying to get on your level.
But yesterday in the hotel, after the game, she was like, yeah, don’t get on my level because she lost in the national championship game. So I was like, I gotta surpass you on that. So it’s all love. But I’ve seen her in that moment, and I’m just trying to follow her lead.
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Head Coach Bill Self | Ochai Agbaji | David McCormack