KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Only at Kansas would even more be expected.
• Never mind the Jayhawks are 14-0 since Jan. 25.
• Forget a 15-3 mark against the top 50 or having the No. 2 toughest schedule
• Regular season and conference tournament champ? Been there, won that.
• Kansas will finish the regular season No. 1 in the country in the No. 1 league and these Jayhawks aren’t even close to being epic. Not at their place.
“Two-thousand eight,” Bill Self said amid the Sprint Center confetti Saturday after winning his seventh Big 12 Tournament title. “That team had seven pros on it.”
That reference to KU’s last national championship is the standard, the ideal, the goal. But there’s more to compare after Kansas rolled to an 81-71 win over West Virginia in its latest Big 12 tournament triumph.
This team is streaking but how do you dismiss 2005-06 – Self’s third season at Kansas – when the Jayhawks went into the NCAA Tournament on a 15-1 roll?
The next season KU had won 14 in a row before being beaten by UCLA in the Elite Eight. The 2009-10 team finished the regular season 18-1 and featured multiple future pros itself.
This one merely has the No. 1 overall seed locked up for the second time in Self’s 13 seasons.
“I don’t exactly know if it equates to guaranteed success,” said Self who has coached six total No. 1 seeds at KU. “If our guys can keep playing loose and free and with a purpose I would think that would give us a good chance to be successful.”
What that means in a wild and wacky season across the country has yet to be learned. The general consensus is that in a landscape populated with no clear March Madness favorite, Kansas is the closest.
Seven times in the last 11 seasons, the overall No. 1 has at least made the Final Four. Five made it to the national championship game. Three have won it.
Ah, but three times in that span teams have failed to make it past the Sweet 16. Kansas was one of those in 2010, knocked out in the second round by Northern Iowa.
“Who knows? But what I see, I like,” Self said Saturday. “Their confidence level is pretty high.”
Not so when the Jayhawks lost at Iowa State on Jan. 25. The Jayhawks had lost three of five and were perhaps doubtful to win at least a share of a 12th consecutive conference title.
As late as this weekend, Self was able to share this conversation he had with a game official.
“When we don’t play well we suck,” the coach said of the official he described as well-known.
“Yeah,” the official shot back, “you do.”
Never mind the candor of a supposedly objective official, all of it may be a case of nitpicking. These Jayhawks aren’t basketball bipolar. They’re as solid as they come in this season of parity.
Down the stretch Self has found a reliable rotation with few holes. Post Landen Lucas has become a defensive force on the boards. Freshman Colton Bragg is getting more time off the bench.
At least one member of a solid four-man rotation can be counted on to step up every game – senior Perry Ellis, junior Wayne Selden, Devonte Graham and Frank Mason.
Mason and Graham – two point guards, really – have matured into one of the best pairs in the country.
“Sometimes when you play at a place like Kansas you have to win and that’s their mindset,” Self said. “As opposed to, ‘Let’s just go have fun and play.’ I think those guys are doing a better job of just going and playing.
“Pleasure should exceed pressure. A lot of time that doesn’t happen in sports.”
Graham was the embodiment this week. The former low-level recruit from Raleigh, N.C. was named the Big 12 Tournament’s most outstanding player after tying a career high with 27 points.
It wouldn’t have happened had Graham not played at Brewster Academy out of high school. He signed with Appalachian State but wanted better.
Graham went to the prep school in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire and promptly blew up. He got better competition, played with better talent. That drew big time coaches up to New Hampshire.
“It changed my life,” Graham said after scoring 52 points in the three tournament games here. “It put me in the spot I’m in today. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”
Self often tells the story of how “lucky” he was in signing Graham two years ago. Because Appalachian State didn’t release him from his scholarship, everybody was in the same position when Graham came out of Brewster.
“The timing was perfect,” Self said. “Everybody started recruiting [Graham] on the same day.
“We knew he’d be good. I told him, ‘You’ll own this place. Just try hard and act right.’ I love his personality.”
In two seasons, Graham has been mostly good, but not great. Until lately. Mason is the catalyst as a guy who can shoot the three and create his own shot. But Graham has shown more confidence lately in doing the same thing.
Mason almost didn’t play Saturday because of a bruised foot. That allowed the 6-2 Graham to continue playing with a sort of pure joy.
His 27 points came on only 10 shots. Graham was 5-of-6 from behind the arc.
“He’s one of those guys who actually looks forward to getting up and going to class,” Self said. “His attitude is just a 10 and it’s just rubbed off on others.
“When Devonte and Frank play well, they drive us more than anybody else.”
As for that ultimate measuring stick, there are only a couple of pros on this team that rolls into the first-round of the tournament at 30-4. That would be Ellis and Selden.
That’s a reminder that the Jayhawks go into the tournament with a personality to match their accomplishments. Selden will be as scrutinized as much for his game as for his uncle.
Anthony Pitts Jr. – Uncle Anthony now as far as the tournament goes – showed up again at Sprint adorned with a giant clock around his neck. In the middle of the, uh, chronograph is a picture of his nephew dunking against Baylor.
It’s not like time has stopped for the Jayhawks. Not yet.
“I just hope it’s continuing,” Uncle Anthony said.