LAWRENCE — It's safe to say Bill Self doesn’t have the fondest of memories when it comes to some of his past matchups with Villanova.
That’s particularly true of his Kansas basketball team’s last clash with the Wildcats in the City of Brotherly Love.
“Yeah,” Self recalled Thursday, “it was not a good trip.”
On Jan. 22, 2005, Self led then-No. 2 KU into Philadelphia and Wells Fargo Center, where unranked Villanova put together an 83-62 beatdown to put an end to the Jayhawks’ hopes at an undefeated season. The Wildcats reeled off a 31-5 run to start the second half and went 12 of 19 from 3-point range for the game, handing Self what was at the time his most lopsided defeat midway through his second season at KU.
“I think there was one walking call I disagreed with that totally changed the game,” Self deadpanned. “That’s a joke. There were a lot of things that changed it.”
Worse yet, Philadelphia was dealing with blizzard-like conditions after its first snowstorm of the year, keeping KU grounded and in a somewhat awkward situation just a few weeks after the holidays.
“It was a terrible weather deal. We got snowed in,” Self said. “We went back to the hotel, went back there and had an unpleasant Ebenezer Scrooge-type Christmas time together.”
Nearly 15 years later, Self is hoping there won’t be a repeat performance.
The No. 1-ranked Jayhawks (9-1) will square off with the No. 18 Wildcats (8-2) at 11 a.m. Saturday inside Wells Fargo Center, the eighth matchup between KU and Villanova since Self’s arrival in Lawrence. Jay Wright’s squad holds a 4-3 advantage in the head-to-head in that time period, with a 2-1 record in NCAA Tournament tilts. Wright’s team went on to win the national championship in both years it downed the Jayhawks in March Madness (2016, ’18).
Villanova won 165 games from 2013-18, the most in the history of the sport for any program over a five-year period.
“Somebody asked me (Thursday) if Jay is looked at differently now that he’s won national championships. I think coaches would beg to differ on that, because coaches have always known,” Self said. “He’s good. I mean, he’s good. He’s tough. His guys play the right way. They compete. They play hard. We’ll get an unbelievable effort Saturday.
“We can brag about what we did over a five-year period where at the time I think we won the most games in the history of the NCAA. Well, what they did in their period exceeded that. ... And they’re going to continue to be good, as they should be. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be. They’ll continue to be good as long as the same people are in place.”
So what does Self admire about Wright?
For starters, he observed that the Wildcats play as hard as anybody. They guard. They fly around, they don’t beat themselves, and they’re the best Self says he has ever seen at forcing bad closeouts.
Rewatching the most recent contest between the two teams — a 74-71 home victory for the Jayhawks on Dec. 15, 2018 — something else stood out.
“What I think they do the best job of is not running plays but allowing players to be players,” Self said. “They do a great job of footwork. They do a great job of pivoting. They do an unbelievable job of doing things that maybe people stress, but not at the level that they do. The way that they play and all five being threats, it forces them all to be players. ...
“That’s what that team they had in ’18 did so well. They had five guys you had to guard everywhere. I think that’s something that they do as good a job as anybody as far as all five spots being basketball players. Like with us, if they had Doke (Azubuike) they wouldn’t play that way probably. But with us, we can’t play to that extreme way."
Versatility, it seems, has been the biggest key to the Wildcats’ consistency.
“All their guards post. All their guards can drive it. All their bigs can shoot 3s,” Self said. “I mean, they do a good job of flipping the floor in a way that makes you guard everywhere.”
Another player who doesn't exactly have the best of memories from past Wildcat encounters would confirm that observation.
Azubuike, KU's senior center and Big 12 preseason player of the year, was part of the Jayhawk team that two years ago fell 95-79 to Villanova in a Final Four clash in San Antonio. Villanova raced out to a 47-32 halftime lead, and when it was all over, the Wildcats had gone 18 for 40 on 3-point tries. Starting bigs Eric Paschall and Omari Spellman more than pitched in there, going a combined 7 for 14 from beyond the arc.
While Azubuike hadn’t seen film of this year’s Villanova team as of Thursday afternoon, memories of that lopsided loss on a national stage remain fresh in his mind.
“It was hard because all of them could shoot basically from the 3-point line. They even had guys post up too in the paint,” Azubuike said. “It was hard to play help defense against them because sometimes you play help defense and there’s a man wide-open for a 3. And when we played them, they couldn’t miss.”