LAWRENCE — Elijah Johnson is laughing, because thats what you do at a party. You laugh. You smile. You put your arm around Tyler Self because the coachs kid got in the game and passed up an open look with the crowd pleading for him to shoot. Then you run off the floor, high-five a few fans and bask.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
This is Kansas basketball, you know, where they measure success in bushels and banners, and sometimes that perspective is hard to see in the haze. The Jayhawks are No. 6 and rising after a 91-65 blowout win over West Virginia on Saturday. And the remarkable part isnt as much what theyre doing now as it is the absurd pile of consistent accomplishment that has come to define the program under Bill Self.
Two more wins and the Jayhawks will have a ninth consecutive Big 12 championship, something no program has pulled off in a major league since John Wooden was at UCLA. Nobody on this team knows anything but winning the league. Heck, nobody who was around when the current players came on recruiting trips ever knew anything but winning the league.
Not that Johnson, a senior, will admit to spending much time thinking on it.
No, I just do it, he says. I just play, man.
Self turned 50 two months ago, and his 10th season at Kansas is a worthy encore to a run to the national final in what many consider his best coaching job. After all that worry, the three straight losses and the talk about Topeka YMCA and what-the-heck-is-wrong-with-Kansas, we are here, in March, which means the Jayhawks are about to win a league championship. Again.
It is a constant string of success, breeding either pride or contempt depending on your rooting interests, updated with fresher faces.
The pregame video now includes Johnson, who until a few weeks ago was among the most maligned Jayhawks in recent memory, drilling jumpers against Iowa State. For senior night, they might include Ben McLemores twisting, sideways tomahawk dunk against West Virginia. Or any of what seemed like a million alley-oops.
Whatever. The show always ends the same.
Sixty different players have been part of the streak. That includes two pairs of brothers, the sons of at least four Kansas coaches and one NBA general manager, walk-ons like Conner Teahan, All-Americans like Thomas Robinson, Roy Williams recruits like Wayne Simien, nine first-round draft picks and the entire Jayhawk lifetime of Mario Chalmers from overmatched freshman to junior hero to millionaire with a jersey in the rafters.
By the most accepted measures, Kansas hasnt been the most successful program in college basketball during this time. North Carolina and Florida won more national titles. UCLA has been to more Final Fours.
But Kansas has been the most consistent. Relentlessly consistent, really. College basketball, as much as any sport, is structured for extreme highs and lows.
Florida won back-to-back national championships, then missed the NCAA Tournament two years in a row. North Carolina won the 2009 title with one of the best teams in recent history and then lost 17 games the next year. UConn has won one title and been to another Final Four during KUs league streak, just like the Jayhawks, but the Huskies have also finished 12th in the Big East. Twice. John Calipari is Kentuckys third coach since KUs streak began.
We live in the midst of it, so its easy to forget sometimes that what the Jayhawks are doing simply does not happen. Two more wins in games theyll be favored in, and theyll have nine conference titles in nine years. You have to go back to 1998 to count nine conference titles for Kentucky, and 1994 for Duke. Florida has won seven conference titles in its history.
Put another way: How many coaches in different leagues have specific contract bonuses for beating specific teams, the way Bob Huggins can cash in $25,000 if he ever beats Kansas?
There is a common thought that KUs regular-season success is amplified by being in a relatively weak basketball league, and while its true the Big 12 doesnt have another perennial power, its a myth that its a weak conference. In the last nine years, only the ACC (.631) has a higher winning percentage than the Big 12 (.608) in NCAA Tournament games.
This is an astounding run of stubborn championships in a sport that discourages it, and a golden age of success for one of the countrys blueblood programs.
And if it happens the way it looks as if itll happen, then this latest championship will be representative of the eight others.
Kansas won its last game when its best player scored seven points and the opponent hit 29 free throws and 17 three-pointers. They got some help from the officiating, sure, but two games before that they beat the leagues most talented team on the road despite making just one field goal in two overtimes combined.
This is the way a program can win nine consecutive league titles, which may explain why nobodys won nine consecutive league titles since the 1970s: You have to win games that arent there to be won.
The other thing that will come out in spurts and anecdotes from players is the emphasis Self puts on the conference season. In-league success is more important to coaches than fans, but even by those standards, observers of the sport say Self pushes league titles a bit more than most.
Not that he doesnt understand how hes judged.
I believe this: I dont think you can have a special season unless you perform well in the NCAA Tournament, he says. Weve had 35-3, and 33-3, and those are great years. You cant take that away. But were they special? Well, we didnt quite get done what we thought we could get done.
You can have a special year and not win the conference. I dont think you can have a special year and not do good in the tournament. Thats the way I look at it.
Self always keeps close watch on the league standings. Even in the beginning, when the Jayhawks won their first seven conference games, Self told friends he expected a close race. This is important to him, even if the run of titles has created something Self sometimes jokingly calls Kansas math, where a program loses more than it returns but is expected to be better anyway. So far, a decade into the job, hes making the math work.
However its happening, what Kansas is doing really might be the most remarkable long-term accomplishment since Wooden left UCLA.
Its just not the one we care the most about.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.