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Clouded by scandal, Bill Self wouldn’t have won his second national title at Kansas without working the transfer portal, which brought Remy Martin and created a template for college basketball’s elite
This time, Kansas was covered in confetti and celebrated by Bill Raftery’s perfect puns. “Nothing like a little Remy late in the evening,’’ the gallivanting broadcast bard said of Remy Martin, smooth as cognac, amid the biggest-ever comeback victory in a national title game. Next year, North Carolina might return to avenge a crushing defeat, once Hubert Davis stops crying.
Or maybe Kentucky rebounds from being spooked by Saint Peter’s. Maybe UCLA finally figures it out. Or perhaps it’s Duke, without Mike Krzyzewski, as Jon Scheyer relies on his new iPad instead of his predecessor’s old-school “madness with all his papers scattered everywhere.’’
Wherever college basketball is headed, into the fog of an NIL future and the inevitability of teenaged stars headed straight to the NBA, you can make one safe bet (an intended gambling reference after a mere $3.1 billion was wagered on the NCAA tournament).
A blueblood will win, as Bill Self did Monday night.
We know this because the new system, much like the previous system, is set up for the sport’s powers to maintain their prominence. Martin was able to fuel a comeback from 16 points down — one-upping the rally of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers, who beat Cincinnati as the first team to start four Black players — only after arriving at Kansas last summer via the 21st-century wonders of the transfer portal. Allowed a fifth year of eligibility when the pandemic disrupted life, the explosive guard from California wanted a shot to win a championship and fled Arizona State for Kansas, the bosom of college hoops, where James Naismith founded the program after inventing the sport, where Wilt Chamberlain dunked and funked, and where Allen Fieldhouse is a holy cathedral. Just the same, Brady Manek fled a murky situation at Oklahoma and needed only one Zoom call with Davis to spend his final season in Chapel Hill, another place that views the hardwood as a religious experience. Call them pioneers. Many will follow their paths.
To the surprise of no one who understands the clout of elitism in this racket, the two transfers dueled down the stretch of another memorable game in an easy-on-the-eyes Final Four. The sport needed compelling games to remind us what we’ve missed, as COVID-19 stole the usual magic the last two years. Still, there was no innocence about any of this, as the business of college hoops took center stage. Thrilling as the game was, with its crazy mood swings, coaches whose teams were eliminated days and weeks ago were on the phone with hundreds of players looking for scenery changes like Martin and Manek. Were they even watching as Kansas stormed back? As Self showcased his coaching chops — doubted in the past when his teams underachieved — demanding more effort on defense while putting 6-7 guard Christian Braun on the low block offensively, opening the way to transition baskets and points in the paint?
“I told them we need to play better, and the lid was going to come off eventually,’’ Self said. “When we saw our own blood, we didn't panic. I was thinking at the 14-minute mark, ‘There’s no way these guys can play defense like this for 20 minutes,’ but they did.’’
“Coach, he obviously challenged us and was amped,’’ Ochai Agbaji said. “But it was a matter of us playing our game.’’
The rivals realize they can win the way Self did, with a weapon by way of Tempe, not that the 72-69 victory reflected the rich tradition of a program that expects championships with a regal touch. What would Dr. Naismith have said about a transfer portal? “I think when you’re the all-time winningest program and when the inventor of the game was your first coach, and the likes of Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith come from Kansas, and Wilt Chamberlain comes from Kansas, the expectations are where being good is OK but it’s not enough,’’ said Self, who won his second title but first since 2008. “Nobody’s ever put pressure on me that we’ve got to win another one, but I think I put pressure on myself knowing that this place deserves more than what we have won. I do feel that as many good teams as we’ve had over time, we could have had more than one. So I actually think this means a lot to me.’’
Forget the traditional toil of sitting in the bleachers at the games of five-star recruits, or selling a program to moms and dads in living rooms. Now it’s largely about bluebloods beating other bluebloods to the coveted transfers. Once the NBA changes its minimum-age requirement to 18, the college game will return to the days when Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Cade Cunningham, Deandre Ayton, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis — hell, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — don’t have to be one-or-two-and-dones. The best will be going directly to the league, as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant did. The coaches who keep good players in the program for multiple years, augmenting them with transfers, will be the ones who climb the ladder with scissors as Self did inside the Superdome.
“I think one of the keys to college basketball is going to be how to get old and how to stay old,” he said. “And we’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to do that the last couple of years.”
The gift of Martin, along with the sixth-year exemption of inside force David McCormack, allowed Self to thrust a fist in the air with tears in his eyes. He didn’t entirely deserve the moment, with Kansas still awaiting punishment as one of the big-name hoops factories nailed by the FBI in the sport’s biggest scandal ever. Only an appeal through a dawdling mechanism — the Independent Accountability Resolutions Process — enabled Kansas to delay its fate and play in the tournament. Assuming the Jayhawks are hit by significant sanctions, this will be a tarnished championship, worthy of an asterisk if not a vacated blank space.
“We’ve been dealing with some stuff off the court for a while,” Self had to acknowledge. “But there was never a doubt that we didn’t have the potential to get back here because two of the last three years we’ve been arguably as good as anybody.”
In a nausea-inducing irony, the blue-chippers who usually found their way to Lawrence, for one reason or another, were scared off by the FBI probe and NCAA shadow. Self had no choice but to tap the transfer portal. His desperation led to Martin and the coach’s second national title, which will prompt KU fans to elevate him into the all-time coaching pantheon but only raise the eyebrows of those who smell a rat. NCAA president Mark Emmert only indicted himself last weekend when he condemned the IARP for its lack of movement on what has been a five-year probe.
“It’s just been really slow in getting through that new independent process that’s wound up reinvestigating the entire case,” Emmert said. Maybe disgust led him to reference KU as the “Kansas City Jayhawks” in a blunder during the trophy ceremony.
Yet when asked his opinion on Kansas rewarding Self with a lifetime contract, despite the toxic cloud, Emmert put away his pistol. “I’ll leave it to the school to make decisions about their coaches’ contracts,” he said. “That’s their business, obviously. They can do that as they see fit.”
Thus, Self was able to hug Martin after his late barrage — a three-pointer that gave Kansas its first lead, another three that stymied a Carolina rally, then a drive and layup off the glass that extended the lead to 65-61 and prompted Raftery’s poetry. As one who compares his swagger to that of Kobe and Russell Westbrook, Martin was too busy having fun to sweat. At one juncture, after banking in a trey, he looked at Jim Nantz on TV row with one finger in the air. Why? “I told him yesterday, ‘You have, in your career at Arizona State and at Kansas, 1,999 points,’ ” Nantz said. “He said, ‘You mean I gotta get one point?’ Yeah, you need one point. And he looked over at pointed at us with one finger in the air.”
Afterward, Martin expressed thanks for the chance, quirky as it was. “I realized I got an opportunity to do something special,’’ he said. “I knew the guys that were coming back and the pieces we had. Coach Self had trust in me, and I had trust in him. I’m so happy I could help this team win a national championship. I can say it all worked out.’’ Except for the rebuke from Self in the final seconds, when Martin prematurely celebrated by pointing to fans and incurred the coach’s foul-mouthed wrath. It wasn’t an easy season for Martin, with injuries and a sixth-man role, but he and Self used each other for the common goal in the end.
It didn’t quite work out for Davis and Manek. Was it me, or did every past image of Carolina basketball conjure memories of Big Tobacco? Dean Smith, Roy Williams and R.J. Reynolds? I know, Michael Jordan came through Chapel Hill, with James Worthy and Vince Carter and all the rest, including Kenny Smith, who will not shut up until Charles Barkley repeats his criminal history and throws him through a plate-glass window.
But Carolina Blue always reeked of arrogance, white privilege and good-old-boyism, of natives blowing deep drags of Camels and Pall Malls toward national championships and lung cancer.
The perception officially changed in this tournament. It’s when the Tar Heels abandoned Tobacco Road once and for all and became likable, not just in the way they rejected the pomp of Krzyzewski’s farewell tour — and I contributed to it — but in the image of a ball-of-fire coach who averted what could have been an emotional hangover by addressing it head-on. In his first season, in a Final Four that included Self and Coach K and Jay Wright and their (now nine) collective titles, Davis refused to be satisfied with sending Krzyzewski into retirement via a heartbreak double-whammy.
There was no hangover, as he barked into a microphone held by sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson. “We’re competing out there! It’s live action, Tracy! It’s live action out there!’’ he shouted in the first half.
Two hours later, after his team missed 29 of 40 shots in the second half, he was exhausted after a month-long joyride no one saw coming — except Davis. “I am filled with so much pride,’’ he said.
So, with a sip of the good stuff, the college basketball world can study and replicate what now will be known as the Remy Martin template. Is it good for the sport? Only if you’re a blueblood.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.