It is that time of year again. No, not a birthday for one of my girls. Although it may as well be. Time for my annual “KU Won the Big 12 (Again)” post. Feel free to skip if you’re sick of these. I’ll probably end up repeating myself from the last 11 anyway.
Even I will admit that is dumb. It should not happen. It can not happen. This isn’t some hoops giant stuck in a league with a bunch of schools that consider basketball an afterthought. This is a league that, every year during KU’s streak, has been among the strongest in the country when measured by RPI. Most years the league has been #1 or #2. Mathematically, KU’s streak is impossible.
KU basketball scoffs at your math. Thus, 2016 is going to be inscribed on the Big 12 Champions banner that hangs from the Allen Fieldhouse rafters.
Why does this keep happening? Talent, yes. Coaching, sure. Allen Fieldhouse, of course.
But here’s the thing: the rest of the Big 12 always seems to get out of KU’s way when crunch time rolls around in February. Three years ago, when KU lost three-straight in the league and it seemed like the streak would end, no one was good enough to step up and stop it. Kevin Durant’s Texas team once had a two-game lead on the Jayhawks. They didn’t win the league, KU did. Every year KU would go on the road and win more often than night while each of the other contenders would slip up multiple times.
This year is no different. A month ago, when KU sat at 5–3 and seemed to be falling apart, Oklahoma appeared to be the team that would roar through the back-half of the schedule and win the league. Turned out it was the Sooners who fell apart, going 3–4 down the stretch, just as KU was getting its shit together. West Virginia, Iowa State, Baylor, and Texas were all in the mix a month ago. All of those teams are at least two games behind KU today, and West Virginia must sweep its final two games and hope that KU losses its final two just to force a tie in the final standings.
Every year it happens. There’s some kind of devil magic when it comes to KU and the rest of the league that goes beyond talent and history and coaching and The Phog.
That said, it should be noted that this team made incredible strides over the past month. Their struggles during that stretch where they lost three of five were probably over-stated. Two of the losses were to pretty good teams. But since all three were blowout losses in which KU completely fell apart in the second halves, there was justification for concern. When KU was 5–3, I seriously thought the best case scenario was for them to finish 12–6. And I figured 11–7 or even 10–8 was more likely.
But they got their shit together. Bill Self made some adjustments on defense that helped the team to ramp up its game on that end of the court. Devonte Graham took a leap in his level of play. Landon Lucas has played the best basketball of his life and solidified both the front court and the rotation.
The biggest factors, though, are how the team has A) developed toughness and B) turned into a collection of guys where someone is always able and ready to step up.
Winning in Norman, after being down 5 with 3:00 to play, was a huge moment. The crowd was roaring, Isaiah Cousins was woofing, Buddy Hield was draining threes and waving to the crowd. Frank Mason had just fouled out. That game was over. But Graham hit a couple huge threes, the Jayhawks got a couple massive defensive stops, Lucas grabbed every rebound, and as the final seconds ticked off, Oklahoma looked like a thoroughly defeated team. Same in Waco last week, when KU absolutely destroyed Baylor over the final 2:30. A month ago did anyone think this squad was capable of being the mentally tough group that imposed its will late in road games against other contenders? I sure as hell didn’t.
Every night it’s a different guy who steps up. During their nine-game winning streak, Graham, Lucas, Perry Ellis, Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk have each had games where they were the man and made the biggest plays of the night. That, inevitably, leads to the dreaded “Who’s their go-to guy?” questions on talk radio. But it also gives the team a sense of confidence. If Ellis isn’t hitting shots on a given night, someone else will.
This is a crazy-ass year in college hoops. There isn’t a dominant team. Just when a team seems to have made the case as the nation’s finest, they stumble. KU will take over the #1 spot in both polls this afternoon. A few hours later Texas has a great shot to end KU’s winning streak. The NCAA tournament could be the most wide-open and unpredictable in recent memory.
But one constant remains. Kansas as Big 12 champions.
Rock Chalk, bitches.
- Someone should do a master’s thesis on how poorly Scott Drew coached that game. He called his final timeout of the game with just under 7:00 to play in the second half. When his team had the lead. And the ball. It might have been the single worst timeout call in the history of college basketball. ↩