One game back in the Big 12 standings with six to play is not where 13-time defending league champion Kansas wants to be at this point of the college basketball season.
“We’ve put ourselves in a situation where we probably have as tough as schedule left as anybody in the league, so if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to do it the hard way, but it’ll mean more when it gets done if we’re able to do it,” KU coach Bill Self said Monday.
He was speaking in advance of second-place KU’s (19-6, 8-4) game against last-place Iowa State (13-11, 4-8), set for a 6 p.m. tipoff Tuesday at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, Iowa. It will be shown live on ESPN2.
Self, whose 13th-ranked Jayhawks could fall two games behind Texas Tech if KU loses and Tech (21-4, 9-3) beats Oklahoma on Tuesday in Lubbock, Texas, actually would like his team to forget about the chase for a 14th-straight league crown.
“Whether we have done it consciously or subconsciously, we probably think about the league race too much,” said Self. “We just need to get better. We just need to go to Ames, play with a fresh mind and let it ride.”
Of course, it’s impossible for the Jayhawks to escape talk about their quest to win a 14th straight league title — one that would give KU the most consecutive conference crowns of any team in history. UCLA also won 13 in a row from 1967 to 1979.
Self offered a lighthearted response when a media member told him some KU fans were “scared to death” that the Jayhawks are one back as the season hits the home stretch.
“Whether our fans do that (worry) or not, hey, ‘Welcome to the real world,’ ” Self said. “I mean good gosh. Hey, Duke feels the same way. North Carolina feels the same way. That’s life.”
KU has won or shared the league title every year since Self’s first season in 2003-04, when the Jayhawks tied for second.
“This is what’s unbelievable to me with our fan base because I love them and they’re great, but for 13 years we’ve got a T-shirt whenever we win the league,” Self said. “I mean is (it) that big a deal that we get a T-shirt? And now that we’re a game behind it’s the heavens are falling because we are a game behind? I certainly understand that and I get that and we deserve to be a game behind because we haven’t played well enough to be better.”
Self amended his statement to say he realizes, “We get more than a T-shirt (a league title ring) but basically on that game night (of clinching) we get a T-shirt and if we’re lucky we have enough to give to our family. Our fan base … if this is how they are feeling, then they should understand that they should appreciate all the emotions fans should have to go through because it’s going to be a struggle this year.
“It doesn’t mean it’s over,” Self continued. “It’s definitely going to be a struggle. We probably need them (fans) more than we ever have needed them. They have to rally around that as well.”
Even with two losses in three games and four in league play, KU on Sunday was accorded a No. 2 seed in the 2018 NCAA Tournament according to an early bracket projection by the NCAA.
“From a fan-base standpoint, that would be awful to be a No. 2 seed,” Self said jokingly.
Back to the conference, Self acknowledged that Tech’s Red Raiders are “the obvious favorite. If you really look at our league, everybody else is puttering around. Tech is the one team — you take away maybe their game at Iowa State (a 70-52 loss on Jan. 20 in Ames) — of their 12 league games they’ve been probably good in about 11 of them. They’ve been by far the most consistent.
“There’s only one team in our league happy now. Nobody else is happy. Maybe Oklahoma State. They’re playing great now. Maybe Iowa State. Maybe Baylor because they won three in a row. There’s some teams on an uptick. I don’t think there’s anybody ecstatic on where their team is at this point in time with the exception of the Red Raiders.”
It’s possible there will be a lineup change for the third game in a row Tuesday in Ames. Self said he’s been pleased with the work of Lagerald Vick, who has come off the bench the last two games with forward Mitch Lightfoot getting the opening call.
“I haven’t really decided yet,” Self said. “What’s best for our team is having our five best players out there playing the vast majority of the minutes. It hasn’t played out that way in league play consistently. Hopefully we’ll get (it) together.
“I can be quite negative at times. I don’t need to be with this team. The approach is to keep stressing things we know that win over time and the culture. We need to keep doing that. We don’t need to back off that at all. (But) we need to realize they are operating under some duress. Everybody undergoes some personal things. When you only have five guys scoring all the points it’s a little bit different than when you have eight or nine. We need to get those five guys, our primary scorers, back to being confident and playing well together.”
He ostensibly was referring to Devonté Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Malik Newman, Vick and Udoka Azubuike.
Self said Mykhailiuk’s swollen right eye was OK. Mykhailiuk was hit in the face accidentally by Marcus Garrett during a layup line before Saturday’s loss at Baylor. X-rays taken in Lawrence after the game showed no structural damage.
“When you get hit in the eye you can’t stop it from watering. He said, ‘Coach every time I ran and bounced, it was blurry,’ ” Self said of Mykhailiuk’s condition on Saturday. “It messed with his head. He has to be tougher to play through that. (But) I would think that would mess with anybody who bases their game on being a marksman. It probably was a little blurry shooting the ball.”
Self was candid about sophomore center Azubuike’s foul trouble Saturday. Azubuike played 19 minutes.
“We’ve gotten some calls, too. I’m not saying we haven’t benefited from some whistles. But that was one of the biggest flops I’ve ever seen. The guy fell down a full second after supposedly there was contact,” Self said of Azubuike’s first foul, a charging call into Baylor’s Jo Lual-Acuil.
“The whole deal is everybody knows he is going to lead with his left shoulder when he’s on the left block. He has to be smarter.”
Self did stress that, “I’m not saying they were bad calls, I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying it’s just a little bit unfortunate in that particular game. You can see what a dropoff it is (with Azubuike out). Attacking the zone you have no inside presence. We need him in the game the vast majority of the minutes.”
After the Iowa State game, KU returns home to play West Virginia on Saturday and Oklahoma on Monday night.