I went on record a couple months ago saying that KU’s conference championship streak would end this year.
As always, that was a good reminder not to take anything I write here as basis for betting your monthly mortgage payment.
I don’t know that this year’s title is the most improbable of the streak. I don’t know that it’s the most fortunate of the streak. I think 2009 is probably the answer to both of those, when a bunch of guys who played limited minutes the previous year, or who were new to the program, surrounded Sherron Collins and turned into a pretty solid team while Blake Griffin missed a handful of games for Oklahoma that opened the door for KU to sneak in another title.
But, despite assertions that I was sandbagging, this one is still kind of hard to believe.
The conventional wisdom was that KU was too small, lacked proven scorers, and had too many question marks in the backcourt to navigate the toughest conference in the nation.
Texas, with its massive front line and lightning quick guards was the most obvious pick to supplant KU. And then there was Iowa State, who finally had a big man who could protect the rim along with a bunch of dudes who could shoot it and run. And Oklahoma, whose best player boldly proclaimed over the summer that the Sooners would be Big 12 champions this year. And West Virginia, who had the pre-season conference player of the year and a new style that promised to give other teams fits.
Sure, each of those teams had question marks and holes of their own. But it seemed like the field was finally deep enough and KU down enough where the math had changed.
And then KU ran out to an 8-1 start, forcing writers to frantically crank out columns stating that the race was over, wondering why they ever doubted Bill Self, asserting the only givens in life are death, taxes, and Kansas winning the Big 12, etc.
So KU promptly lost three of five, Iowa State got hot, and KU fans looked at the remaining schedules glumly and just hoped that the Jayhawks could win out at home and the Cyclones could somehow slip up and the teams would finish tied.
“Iowa State isn’t losing again, and no way do we win in Norman. I think the streak is over,” is the conversation I had with several people.
But Iowa State did lose again. Twice. The math abruptly swung back in KU’s favor. When Iowa State beat Oklahoma on Monday, KU clinched no worse than a tie for the conference title. Beating West Virginia, who would be playing without its best player and another starter, would just be a formality before KU snipped the nets down at home on senior night.
Given how this season has gone, with its mood/momentum/math swings, it should not be a surprise how Tuesday night’s game played out.
It took a furious comeback and overtime, but the same team that got pounded by a decent but unspectacular Temple team right before Christmas had won the Big 12 title again. And outright.
Eleven in a row. Nutty. I was not yet a father the last time KU did not win the Big 12.
I believe I’ve tried to put this streak into context each year when I’ve written this post. This year, it feels like the focus should be on the players.
Perry Ellis, who is frustrating because he’s not emotional and hangs his head sometimes, and is asked to play without another big man to draw defenders, has been steady all year. Until he injured his knee Tuesday, he even seemed to be morphing into Nick Collison, “Either help me or get out of my way” mode, playing the best basketball of his KU career.
Frank Mason, a recruiting afterthought who only ended up at KU because he flunked a class as a high school senior and could not attend Towson where he had committed, became the most valuable player in the Big 12. Late in every game, he was the steadying force who inevitably made a big driving layup (or two) and knocked down clinching free throws.
Kelly Oubre looked like a complete bust for the first two months of the season. But he found his confidence and has played like a man since the Big 12 season began. For a team that doesn’t rebound well or force many steals, he’s the one guy who can rip a rebound out of traffic and straight-up take the ball out of a dribbler’s hand.
The rest of the roster has struggled at times. But every player has had moments where they made huge contributions.
There’s no college superstar on this team. There’s no future NBA All-Star. I don’t know that there’s even a KU All-Time great on the roster, although Ellis may move into the level if he has a strong senior year.
In a tournament against the previous ten KU Big 12 title teams, I think this team would finish last, or next-to-last, more often than not.
But they still found a way to win the nation’s toughest, deepest conference.
As we get older, I think a lot of us are too tough on our favorite teams. We see the flaws more than we did when we were younger. We focus on the negative, “Yeah, we won, but we were lucky. Our offense was horrible…” We don’t savor the beautiful moments as much as we once did.
Given all the flaws I’ve pointed out, Perry Ellis’ potentially balky knee, and Cliff Alexander’s eligibility issues, this is a year that I’m flat out expecting an early NCAA exit.
All the more reason to celebrate and appreciate this latest conference championship just a little extra. And then ten that came before it.
To close, one crazy, personally focused, number.
I began college in 1989-90. In the last year of an epic four-year run when the Big 8 was as good as any conference in the country, KU finished tied for second with Oklahoma, a game behind champs Missouri. There were two bitter losses to Mizzou, both when KU was ranked #1 in the country, that made the difference in the race.
Despite that bitterness, that was a pretty great start to my college career, especially since KU was picked by many to finish in the second half of the conference.
In the 25 seasons since then, KU has won the conference 21 times. In those four other years, they’ve finished third, second, fifth, second, and second.
That’s not a bad little run.