Bill Self, Remy Martin made compromise crucial to KU title


KU commemoration: What it took to win a championship

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Outside the Kansas locker room early Tuesday morning at the Superdome, KU coach Bill Self sought the right words to frame the Remy Martin Experience — a microcosm of which enabled the Jayhawks’ national title run.

“He’s an amazing guy,” Self said, “because I don’t know that there are many out there that can flip a switch like he potentially can.”

Smiling, he started to say something he appeared to reconsider and thus maybe mirroring how he’d recently reappraised Martin.

“Guys, he wasn’t any …” Self said, before seeming to catch himself and pivoting to simply say, “He didn’t contribute much.”

While Self acknowledged the knee injury that had kept Martin out and then stifled him for weeks, that switch to flip reflected a philosophical disconnect. The former Arizona State star guard surfaced at KU through the transfer portal with another portal to navigate: contouring his game to Self’s design.

Self perhaps best expressed the dilemma at St. John’s on December 3 after Martin scored 12 points with five assists … and five turnovers.

In one seemingly contradictory burst, Self said: “I love him. I love him. To me, he’s a personality. He’s a handful.”

Meaning Self found him irresistible but confounding. But within that paradox, the ever-unyielding coach hinted he understood that for Martin to ultimately thrive he might have to let go some himself.

“He doesn’t see the game the same way I see it a good portion of the time. But I don’t think that’s all bad either,” Self said that night, later adding, “I think he brings some things out in me that maybe I could adjust a little bit to. Because I’m not going to control him. But I can maybe corral him a little bit. And I think he’s working towards that.”

So, it turned out, was the coach in a way that few could have seen coming better than The Star’s Jesse Newell put it then: Self, he wrote, was realizing “that an attempt to take away Martin’s flair would be asking to take a piece of the player himself. So Self’s new goal appears to be aiming for co-existence from Martin rather than subservience.”

Over time, Self indeed gravitated to what might be considered a harmonious sweet spot with Martin, an exception to more typical relationships with point guards cultivated over time.

That fascinating dynamic between them would emerge as crucial to KU’s late-season surge. Just after the team had lost three out of seven, it was reset with the unexpected catalyst it had to have.

As staunch as this team was all along, as much as every component had improved (and was healthier) from the group that was blasted 85-51 by USC in the second round a year before, Martin became the only new element among the seven players at the core of this.

Even if his true arrival was delayed, it was abundantly worth the wait for a unique cog Self liked to say could make a play “when you really don’t have anything going.”

Just in time.

“He told me all along, ‘Just wait til March,’” Self said outside the locker room after KU fended off North Carolina 72-69, adding that he had scoffed, “‘So you expect me to trust you in March when you haven’t showed us (much) all year long?’ …

“(But) he sure enough delivered on what he said.”

Earlier, Self had stood in the locker room and told that same story to the team, compelling the animated Martin to get up and shimmy and maybe gyrate in a way that Self wouldn’t likely have drawn up but nonetheless surely enjoyed.

Much like plenty of moments on the court these last few weeks, during which Martin was named most outstanding player in the Midwest Regional in Chicago and was vital down the stretch for the Jayhawks against the Tar Heels.

Fittingly, it capped a weekend that was a snapshot and parallel of Martin’s season.

Like the preseason, it began with a heap of hype for him when he came alive in March … only for him to have a subdued national semifinal game against Villanova (three points, five rebounds) … and sputter in the first half against Carolina (making just one of five field goals, with the one an inadvertently banked three, and seeming out of sync).

But with the score tied 57-57 at the television timeout with 7 minutes 48 seconds to play, Martin stoked KU’s stretch run.

It started with his steal from Brady Manek, leading to Martin’s three-pointer with 7:19 left. Then came a Martin rebound of a Manek miss and, a possession later, his assist on a Jalen Wilson trey that made it 63-59.

Then, off a David McCormack screen, he blurred his way through three Tar Heels to the hoop to make it 65-61 with 4:13 left.

And after his turnover and foul helped UNC tie it at 65-65, Martin made a play that both embodied what he brought to this KU team and persuaded Self to accept an appealing middle ground.

With the shot clock fading below 10 seconds, the 5-foot-10-ish Martin whirled free past another McCormack screen to find himself in front of the KU bench … and launching a fadeaway three as UNC’s 6-10 Armando Bacot was descending on him.

If he’d have fallen any farther back on the unorthodox and decidedly freelance move that might be surmised wasn’t scripted that way, he practically would have landed on Self.

That might have made for a lingering symbol if it missed.

But he swished it in to start KU’s 7-4 seizing of the title, to which Martin also contributed with the sort of defense Self lives for when he blocked Caleb Love’s driving layup with just under a minute left.

By the time it was all over, Martin had scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half and outscored the UNC bench (11 points) by himself.

In a game that will forever be remembered for KU overcoming the largest deficit (16 points) in title game history, there was symmetry in Martin being at the epicenter.

Because this was an improbable late revival of his own and an unlikely synergy with Self — whose makeup and history suggest he’d have been more likely to meddle than meld with Martin.

Between Final Four games on Sunday, we asked a few KU players about how much they’ve seen Self make concessions or bend.

“I would say Coach Self is more of a ‘you come to me’ person,” forward Mitch Lightfoot said, smiling.

Wilson had the same notion, though allowing as how Martin is a “great example” of Self being “always able to adjust what’s best for the team that he has.”

Asked if he thought Self had come to the point of saying “let Remy be Remy,” Martin just smiled and said, “I guess.” But he promptly added that Self “stands for what I stand for” in the game and that he feels connected to him and even this:

“I think I was meant to be here.”

Self never quite said it so directly. But as Martin’s minutes increased in the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA play it was evident he came to appreciate the broader package even with its flourishes and occasional excesses.

“We’ve said all along that we had a chance to be a much better team than what we displayed, even though we had a really good year, just because of him,” Self said in Chicago. “But not knowing what ‘him’ really was.”

We all came to find out what that was in such a way as to remind us all that compromises don’t have to be lose-lose propositions where nobody’s happy.

Last week, Martin said that Self “brings something out of me that a lot
of coaches don’t know how to do.”

As it happens, Martin brought something out of Self that a lot of players haven’t been able to do, too.

“Coach Self had tremendous trust in me, and I had tremendous trust in him,” he said after the game Monday. “I could say it all worked out.”

This story was originally published April 7, 2022 5:00 AM.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.