KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The last time Kansas didn’t win the Big 12 Conference championship in men’s basketball:
- The Big 12 had its original 12 members.
- George W. Bush was in his first term as POTUS.
- Twitter was two years from being launched.
- Usher’s “Yeah” was the No. 1 song on the Billboard charts.
- Donald Trump told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “In many cases, I probably identify more as Democrat.”
Now, here we are in world where much has changed and Kansas is favored to win its 13th consecutive Big 12 regular-season title. If it can accomplish that – with a talented, veteran team that features one of the nation’s top freshmen – the Jayhawks will match John Wooden and UCLA, which won 13 straight Pac-8 titles when that league and college basketball were much different than it is today.
“There’s nothing like this. I mean, to win it 12 years in a row and what Kansas has done, it’s unheard of,” first-year TCU coach Jamie Dixon said.
“That’s really crazy, hard to imagine,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said Tuesday at the Big 12’s basketball media day at the Sprint Center. “In any league it’s hard to do and the Big 12 is one of the best leagues in the country and that makes it that much more remarkable.”
What’s also remarkable is that KU has won the title outright eight times. When the Big 12 shrunk to 10 teams and went to an 18-game round-robin schedule, the Jayhawks continued to thrive. Last season, Kruger’s Sooners had the player of the year in Buddy Hield and a team that reached the Final Four but OU went 12-6 and finished third behind West Virginia.
The Mountaineers are picked by the coaches to finish second and are in a pack of teams chasing Kansas.
Kansas’ dominance comes down to three things:
“They’ve got a great coach, they’ve got great players, and they never lose at home,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.
The Jayhawks are 206-9 with Bill Self as the coach – yep, more Big 12 titles than home losses. During the dozen years of finishing on top of the league, they’ve lost four Big 12 games at Allen Fieldhouse.
Many have said that Kansas knows it starts every season knowing it will be assured of nine Big 12 wins because of its home-court edge.
“I don’t think they think like that,” Iowa State senior guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long said. “I honestly believe coach Self has them in a mindset where they take it one game at a time. That’s their approach. It’s easy to slip up and everybody does it but they don’t ever seem to lose at home.”
Nice theory, but not accurate according to Kansas senior forward Landen Lucas.
“We don’t assume winning at home as far as not playing hard or taking it easy,” he said.
Even champions can have doubts. After a late January loss at Iowa State last season, the Jayhawks had lost three of five Big 12 games and was 5-3 in the Big 12. It was a long bus ride home from Ames.
“I remember vividly thinking that ‘Oh, crap, this might be the year,’” Lucas said. “The whole way, we were wondering what we were going to do.”
The answer was to win its last 10 Big 12 games to finish 15-3.
The Jayhawks were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and lost to eventual national champion Villanova in a regional final. Three-year starters Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden – last season’s top two scorers – are gone.
For other teams – like Oklahoma and Iowa State – losing two talented players would constitute a season of reloading if not rebuilding. Simply put, the Jayhawks are always loaded.
Senior Frank Mason III and junior Devonte’ Graham make up one of the top guard combos in the nation. Lucas, whose move into the starting lineup as a defender and rebounder sparked last year’s streak, is back for his senior season. Carlton Bragg Jr., a 6-foot-10 sophomore, is expected to be a force.
And for good measure, KU landed Josh Jackson. The 6-foot-8 freshman was considered the nation’s top recruit and is projected as the top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft if he spends just one season in Lawrence.
Winning a 13th consecutive Big 12 title is considered a given; returning to the Final Four for the first time since 2012 is expected and capturing the school’s first national championship since 2008 is possible.
“I don’t know that we spend a lot of time trying to temper the expectations,” Self said. “If anything, I think we use the expectations as motivation to perform or to prepare to perform. I do think with the expectations comes pressure, and even though we don’t talk about that, I think that’s something that naturally comes on the players.
“They know our only goal should be to play as close to our ceiling as they possibly can. If we’re able to do that, you can live with whatever happens.”
What will eventually happen at some point is that Kansas’ streak will end. Crazy things can happen during an 18-game Big 12 schedule. But for now, heading into the 2016-17 season, all hail the Jayhawks.
“You’ve got to be honest and say that’s historic,” Mitrou-Long said. “In any league, that’s domination. That’s the honest truth. But I’m worried about Iowa State and we want to be the team that breaks that streak. When their name comes up, we’re gonna play ‘em and take care of business.”