Bill Self hunkered down at his office until close to 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, looking over scouting reports, organizing game plans, and worrying about the little details that can keep a coach’s mind occupied in late February.
As the night pressed on, he flipped on the television. He watched a little of the Duke-Virginia Tech game. He toggled to another game on another network. He checked college basketball scores on his iPhone.
Back at the Jayhawker Tower apartments, a short three-minute walk from Allen Fieldhouse, sophomore guard Frank Mason was glued to the second half of Iowa State’s home game against Baylor — a contest with major implications in the Big 12 race.
Back at the KU basketball office, Self couldn’t bring himself to turn on the game.
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“If I watch it,” Self explained on Thursday afternoon, “I’ll be nervous and all that stuff. I didn’t watch one play.”
If Self had watched, he would have seen No. 19 Baylor cut down No. 12 Iowa State 79-70 at Hilton Coliseum. He would have seen the Bears drill seven straight three-pointers in the second half. He would have seen a result that cracks open the door for Kansas to claim a piece of an 11th straight Big 12 championship on its own home floor.
“It doesn’t matter unless we take care of business ourselves moving forward,” Self said. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that (on Wednesday night) I was definitely a Baylor Bear fan.”
Just three days earlier, Self and Kansas had walked out of Bramlage Coliseum and boarded a bus after a 70-63 loss to in-state rival K-State. The night generated national headlines for the chaotic postgame scene at Bramlage, but on the Kansas bus, the real concern was the conference race. The Jayhawks’ lead had shrunk to just a half game over second-place Iowa State, and the Cyclones, with a favorable schedule remaining, were positioned to claim a share of the Big 12 — and maybe threaten the Jayhawks’ streak of titles.
Then came Wednesday night, and a lifeline from Baylor coach Scott Drew and the Bears, who won for the first time ever at Hilton Coliseum and became the first team (other than Kansas) to win in Ames since 2012.
“They helped us out a lot,” Mason said.
In simple terms, the result means this: No. 8 Kansas, which sits at 11-4 in the Big 12, retained a one-game lead and can clinch a share of the Big 12 title with home victories over Texas on Saturday and No. 20 West Virginia on Tuesday. The Jayhawks still have to travel to No. 16 Oklahoma next Saturday, and the Sooners, 10-5, still control their own destiny in terms of grabbing a piece of the title. But if Kansas can protect its home floor, it will collect another ring.
West Virginia, which travels to Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday, also sits at 10-5 and controls its own destiny. But the Mountaineers must travel to Baylor and Kansas before playing host to Oklahoma State. Iowa State, meanwhile, needs some help. The Cyclones, 10-5, play at K-State on Saturday before playing host to Oklahoma on March 2. To win a share, Iowa State needs to make up one game on Kansas during the season’s final three games — most likely by winning out and having KU drop its finale at Oklahoma.
“Our league, it’s hard,” Self said. “I mean, you really look at it, you’ve got four teams going into the last eight days of the season that can all win the league.”
Self added: “It’s pretty high drama.”
On Thursday, Self conceded that the Iowa State loss provided his team a few volts of energy in an otherwise frustrating week. On Monday night, Kansas lost for the third time in six games, and in the moments after the game, sophomore wing Brannen Greene spoke of a team that needed to find itself.
“We got to figure out what’s wrong,” Greene said.
One night later, Perry Ellis and Wayne Selden called a players-only meeting at the Jayhawker Towers. It was an opportunity, Mason said, to clear the air and get everyone back on the same page. It was not overly dramatic or overly thought-out — and it did not include a trip to Henry T’s, like the famed team meeting that may or may not have helped the 2008 KU team win the NCAA title. But as Mason said on Thursday, it was a chance to refocus.
“We don’t want to be the team that messes up the Big 12 streak,” Mason said.
Three days earlier, it appeared the Jayhawks would have little margin for error as they prepared for a three-game finishing stretch. Now they remain in pole position, two home victories away from the goal, two wins from No. 11.
“It’s a tough league,” Self said. (It) certainly deserves to come down to the wire based on how tough it’s been all year long.”
KU assistant returns
KU assistant coach Jerrance Howard quietly returned to work on Thursday after serving a two-week suspension away from the program. Howard was suspended two weeks after Self learned earlier this month that Howard was fined for possession of marijuana last summer in his hometown of Peoria, Ill.
“We haven’t made a big deal about that,” Self said, after confirming that Howard was back. “Of course, he’s happy to be back at work, without question.”