Kansas’ basketball team is about ready to begin Big 12 Conference play, which means it’s time to discuss … the streak, what else?
“I love the conference championship streak. It may bring a little pressure, but it also brings a lot of pride and motivation,” KU coach Bill Self said. His squad begins its quest for its 13th straight regular-season Big 12 title on Dec. 30 at TCU.
“When you have that carrot out there and the motivation that you can do something special if everybody stays focused through it, I think that will help you get through the dog days in our league, the tough times,” Self added.
If the Jayhawks win their 13th straight league title, they would tie UCLA for the longest string of conference championships in NCAA history.
UCLA won 13 straight Pac-10 titles under coaches John Wooden, Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham from 1967 to 1979. KU is at 12 and counting under the direction of Self.
“I think it is pretty special,” Self said of the stretch of league titles. The Jayhawks have also won seven Big 12 postseason tourney crowns so far in the Self-era (14 seasons).
“Every team in the country has a goal of winning its league. Don’t let anybody kid you. There are bigger things like trying to win a national championship. But up until that, there’s nothing bigger than winning your conference during your season. We emphasize it. We don’t emphasize the number (13), we emphasize winning one,” noted Self, who wants each individual KU team to concentrate only on the task at hand.
Self does not want his 2016-17 players to feel unduly burdened by the streak.
That’s why it’s the one title at a time approach.
“There’s pressure everywhere,” Self said. “If you are .500, there’s pressure to be above .500. If you are fighting for a job, there’s pressure to keep your job. There’s always pressure in sports at the collegiate level, where the stakes are high and money is big. I think our guys operate under more pressure than a vast majority of teams do. It’s stressful. It’s tiring. You don’t want to be the team that doesn’t do it.
“It’s also good to operate under duress and still perform,” Self added of the regular season that precedes the single-elimination, pressure-packed NCAA Tournament.
The Jayhawk players have been able to exhale — and celebrate — for several hours at least, after winning each of the last 12 league titles. T-shirts and hats, which have been made for the occasion, have been worn with pride. And for many of the years, such as 2015-16, scissors and ladders were used to clip the nets.
“To have 12 straight conference championships is huge,” said junior guard Devonté Graham. “Some people can’t even get one. We feel lucky and fortunate enough, proud to have 12. I don’t think people realize how difficult a conference it is. Night in and night out, facing top 25 programs, the best players in the country.”
Self disagrees with those who say KU’s dominance has been bad for the perception of the Big 12.
“Everybody in our league knows it doesn’t reflect negatively,” Self said. “We’ve had some really good teams that have been high seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Obviously what Oklahoma has done (reaching the Final Four last season), other teams as well.
“I think it (the streak of 12 in row) gives the appearance to people who don’t know our league that the league must not be very good if one team has won or shared it this many times. Sometimes when you have something that’s been won, people talk about, ‘Kansas won it this year again.’ A lot of times there’s a tie and it takes away from the other program’s being a champion as well. That’s happened multiple times. Maybe it takes away but I think people in the know, know better.”
In fact, Texas has tied KU twice, while Kansas State and Oklahoma have shared titles with the Jayhawks once in the 12-year run. Self pinpointed some reasons the Jayhawks are on the verge of history in terms of consecutive crowns.
“We’ve had good players, and the commitment of the players has been great,” Self said. “Also look at our staff and the commitment of the administration and university. They’ve made sure we have everything in place to recruit at a high level … (like) the facilities. It’s been good for us because of everybody’s commitment. We’re all proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a group.”
In 2016-17, there once again figure to be several teams capable of knocking off No. 3-ranked KU.
No. 4-ranked Baylor has defeated Oregon, Michigan State, Louisville and Xavier in the nonconference season and is off to a 12-0 start. West Virginia (11-1) is ranked No. 11 with Oklahoma State (10-2), Iowa State (8-3) and Kansas State (11-1) receiving votes in the AP poll. TCU (11-1) and Texas Tech (11-1) are receiving votes in the USA Today poll.
“The league is going to be a monster,” Self said. “We said all along the league won’t take a step backwards. You lose Buddy (Hield, Oklahoma) and Georges (Niang, Iowa State) and (Devin) Williams at West Virginia and of course Perry (Ellis) and you say, ‘Wow those are the best players on some really good teams. It’s got to take a step backward,’ and it hasn’t.
“Baylor … we knew (Johnathan) Motley was good but we didn’t know he would be this good, but we knew he was good. They have other pieces, great pieces.
“Maybe people thought Bob (Huggins, coach West Virginia) would take a step backwards, but they are better this year than they were last year, and they were really good last year. Certainly, Iowa State (8-3) is not as big inside, but I’ve watched them play, and if they’re on, they can beat anybody. Look what TCU has done. Oklahoma State’s good; K-State’s good, Texas, Texas Tech, OU, you can go down the line.
“The league has gotten so much better from a competitive standpoint than I think it was even a year ago. Now certain teams are going to have to play well, and they may have to go 9-9 or something like that (to make the NCAAs). But there are 10 teams vying for an NCAA tournament spot, and I don’t think there is any other league in the country that could say that.”
KU senior Landen Lucas realizes all games, especially road games, will be physical.
“The league is so tough. You have to get mentally prepared for every game. There are no rest games,” Lucas said. “When it’s tough, it makes winning feel even better.”
If KU wins title No. 13, the Jayhawks will make a lot of people happy, including players from the past who have had a hand in the streak of titles.
“They (former players) talk to us about it a little bit,” Lucas said, “but it’s kind of just known. We kind of have an understanding to represent some streak that has been made by those people who have come before us and been made possible by them. There’s just kind of an understanding there’s something greater than all of us that we have to keep alive. Every time guys are back, in the summer, we do talk to them about it. We understand what is on the line every year.”
“Some of the guys were 7 when it started,” Self said, putting it all in perspective. “It’s important to them, to us, but we will not dwell on the streak. It’s about trying to get as good as you can, getting better every day as opposed to pressure, ‘Are you going to be the team that does not do it?’ ”
He’ll tell his 2016-17 players how satisfying it is to emerge as the last league team standing. KU’s 59 conference titles are the most in NCAA Division I history. Kentucky is second with 53, and Penn is third with 37.
“New kids come in and now they have got to do what the other guys did,” Self said. “Faces have changed, but expectations and results haven’t. That’s the thing that I probably take the most pride in is that the kids, regardless of who you lose, it’s kind of the next man up, and that mantra, they have delivered. So I take great pride in the consistency because it’s hard.
“We know it’s going to be difficult, but it will be a lot of fun, too. Think about it. Everybody in our league has a legitimate chance to go to the NCAA tournament.”