One year later, Bill Self knows it was a mistake.
It was last February, in the moments after Kansas’ loss to Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse, and Self had slipped into Rip Mode during his postgame news conference. He groused about not having a point guard. He called his players soft. In the span of nearly 10 minutes, his frustration turned into an honest evisceration of his veteran-laden team.
So when the Oklahoma State defeat dovetailed into a three-game losing spell, Self did a little soul-searching. The Jayhawks had started 7-0 in the conference before losing that game to Oklahoma State. Maybe he had overreacted.
“If I learned anything, it would be: It’s a long season, and not to make too much out of a loss,” Self said. “Because we weren’t going to run the table. We lost to the second-place team in our league.”
These words came on Saturday evening, as Self and his Jayhawks prepared to load onto the team bus after a 81-69 loss at Texas. Once again, KU had started 7-0 in the Big 12 before losing. This time, Self took an almost optimistic posture.
“I’m not leaving out of here happy by any stretch,” Self said. “But it’s more important to get ready for Baylor than it is to dwell on this one, and I probably didn’t do that last year.”
Business as usual. That was the message. That was also the script on a baseball cap worn by junior guard Naadir Tharpe, although that appeared to be coincidence. KU had lost on the road, and sometimes that happens. Now the Jayhawks will try to dust themselves off before heading to Baylor, 14-7 and 2-6 in the Big 12, for another Texas road test at 6 p.m. Tuesday.
“It’s certainly not the end of earth,” Self said, repeating a message he told his players on Saturday. “What you do is, you put yourself in a position where there’s less margin for error. But everything is still possible.”
For Kansas, that means winning a 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title and earning a top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks, 16-5 and 7-1, still hold a one-game lead over Texas, a team that still has to travel to Allen Fieldhouse. On Tuesday, Kansas will look to get back on track against a Baylor squad that recorded a surprising upset at Oklahoma State on Saturday.
And really, Self says, securing a Big 12 regular-season crown is not supposed to be easy.
“I feel like we’ll just come together,” KU freshmen wing Brannen Greene said. “And we’ll be ever stronger; we know what we got to do.”
The most discussed number in Big 12 basketball circles may be nine — as in nine straight Big 12 titles for Kansas. But as the titles have piled up, the passage of time has a way of obscuring some of the struggles during those seasons.
The Jayhawks have shared four of their nine regular-season titles (2005, 2006, 2008 and 2013) and three more were won by a one-game margin. This is why Self isn’t necessarily sand-bagging when he suggests that the Big 12 race will come down to the final week.
“It’ll come down to the last week,” Self said, before repeating the words for emphasis. “It’ll come down to the last week Texas has a hard schedule left in front of them, and certainly we do, too.”
Self says he wants his players to know that all their goals are still attainable. But there is one area that could use some midseason renovation.
After Kansas’ loss to Texas, the Jayhawks dropped to 39th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com. The statistic, which takes into account points allowed per possession, can be a solid predictor of NCAA Tournament success. Six of the last 10 NCAA champions have ranked in the top 10 — and the lowest-ranked champion in the last decade (North Carolina in 2009) was ranked 21st. So as good as Kansas’ offense has been during Big 12 play, the Jayhawks still need to make progress on defense.
That process continued during a light practice on Sunday.
“Even though you want to kill them, you can’t,” Self said. “Because we play on Tuesday.”