LAWRENCE, Kan. – From mid-October to early March, it never fails.
After each and every practice, the Kansas Jayhawks gather at midcourt at Allen Fieldhouse, put their hands in the middle of a huddle and bark the same battle cry.
“Big 12 Champs!” they yell.
Judging by their trophy case, it’s hardly an empty refrain.
No major conference team in the last 30-plus years has dominated its league quite like Kansas. In 15 seasons of Big 12 play, the Jayhawks have either shared the championship or won it outright 11 times.
Their latest conquest came Wednesday, when Kansas earned at least a piece of the title for the seventh season in a row by defeating Texas A&M 64-51.
The Jayhawks’ seven consecutive championships are the most by a team from a power conference since John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins won 13 straight Pac-8 or Pac-10 crowns from 1967-79.
“We’re not getting to 13,” Self chuckled, and no one really laughed along with him.
It’d be foolish, after all, to doubt the coach whose team extended one of the most impressive streaks in all of college sports on Wednesday. Achieving excellence is one thing. Doing it consistently – especially in today’s climate, with the one-and-done rule – is another.
Just ask some of college basketball’s most tradition-rich schools.
One year after winning the NCAA title in 2009, North Carolina found itself in the NIT. Florida won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007 and then missed the NCAA tournament for two straight years. UCLA went to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 before finishing with a losing record in 2010.
Want more? How about Kentucky, which is just two years removed from the NIT. Indiana is in rebuilding mode. And who could forget four years ago, when Duke finished sixth in the ACC with an 8-8 record and lost to Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Kansas, though, has yet to experience any slippage.
Especially in conference play.
“We focus on winning the Big 12 every year,” senior guard Tyrel Reed said. “Maybe some teams put more focus on winning certain games or bigger games – or winning the national championship or getting to the NCAA tournament.
“But our goal every year is to win the Big 12. Anything less is subpar and below our standards.”
Apparently the Jayhawks get that attitude from Self, who may need a safety deposit box to store the all the rings he’s collected over the years.
In the last 13 seasons, Self has won 11 conference titles. The other two years, his team finished second. Two of Self’s championships came at Tulsa, two were at Illinois and seven have been at Kansas. The only time he didn’t lead the Jayhawks to the trophy was his inaugural season in 2003-04.
“And that year,” Self said, “we went to the Elite Eight.”
The following season Self won his first Big 12 title at Kansas with a cast of players – namely Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford – that he inherited from Roy Williams. The next year he did it with a group of freshmen such as Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright.
No one thought the Jayhawks would win the Big 12 title in 2009 after losing seven of the top eight players from its 2008 national championship squad. But Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich guided Kansas to another Big 12 trophy, and Self was named national coach of the year.
This latest conference championship came despite losing three players from last year’s team (Collins, Aldrich and Xavier Henry) to the NBA. Kansas entered the season picked to finish second in the league behind Kansas State.
“We always felt like we were going to win it,” Brady Morningstar said. “That’s how we feel every year.”
The shame of it all is that, impressive as the feat may be, Kansas will never receive the attention it deserves for its seven straight Big 12 championships. It’s the same way for any school when it comes to league titles.
Even in November, December and January, all fans seem to care about is March. Part of it is the media’s fault. Mock NCAA tournament brackets begin hitting the internet a few weeks into the season. Before conference play ever begins, broadcasters are discussing “bubble teams” and potential seeds.
Meanwhile schools across the country are toiling away in heated, physical games against conference rivals on the road.
Ask Connecticut or Villanova or West Virginia which is tougher: Winning four games and making the Final Four – or winning the Big East. Ask Michigan State, who has three Final Four berths and two conference titles in the last six years, about the effort it takes to win the Big Ten.
At Kansas, Big 12 trophies are nice and all, but they’re forgotten forever the minute the Jayhawks lose in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Former Kansas and NBA coach Larry Brown knows that all too well. Brown, who is close friends with Self, attended Wednesday’s game and noticed the Jayhawks hardly celebrated their accomplishment.
“They’re keeping things in perspective,” Brown said as he exited the locker room. “They’ve got bigger goals, but they shouldn’t take this for granted. A [league title] – more than anything – speaks to your entire body of work. What they’ve done here is hard to believe. It’s phenomenal.”
Even though the Big 12 sent the championship trophy to Lawrence on Wednesday, the Jayhawks didn’t bring it onto the court for a postgame celebration. Instead the crystal bowl with a black, marble base sat on the floor of Kansas’ locker room as players changed into their street clothes before leaving the arena.
Forward Marcus Morris was handed a t-shirt commemorating Kansas’ latest championship as he walked off the court, but moments after putting it on, Morris was told by a staff member to remove it as he walked into a postgame media session.
“They don’t want us to get too big-headed,” Morris said. “We’ve got to keep working. It’s not over yet.”
Indeed, pleased as they are to own a share of the Big 12 championship, Kansas’ players said they won’t be satisfied unless they win it outright. For that to happen the Jayhawks (13-2) need to either beat Missouri in Saturday’s regular-season finale or hope that Texas (12-3) loses at Baylor.
“We still have business to take care of,” Morningstar said. “We don’t like sharing.”
Self agreed and even describe the evening as “anticlimactic.” It was certainly understandable. After seven years, the Jayhawks are used to this by now.
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