Elijah Johnson stood in the middle of the party, a raucous and jubilant celebration on the floor of the Sprint Center. First he had danced, and then he had smiled, and then he had made his way toward the end of the floor, where the Kansas Jayhawks were climbing a ladder and taking little snips at a white nylon net.
Johnson would say that this game needed to be played. For the state of Kansas. And the fans. And most importantly, his collection of teammates.
“I could talk all day,” Johnson said while wearing a “Big 12 champions” hat on his head. “But I gotta go cut this net down.”
Just 10 minutes earlier, the Jayhawks had completed a 70-54 manhandling of in-state rival Kansas State, a 40-minute confirmation in front of a standing room-only crowd at the Sprint Center on Saturday night in the Big 12 tournament title game.
“We did business this weekend,” said senior center Jeff Withey, who was chosen most outstanding player of the tournament after finishing with 17 points and nine rebounds against the Wildcats.
For Johnson and Withey, it all felt so different. Just one week ago, inside a room at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas, Kansas coach Bill Self had let his team know the stakes. The Jayhawks had just been blitzed by Baylor in their regular-season finale, a bitter loss that allowed the Wildcats to grab a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.
Earlier that day, the Jayhawks had clinched their share of the Big 12 title, their ninth straight. But it didn’t feel like it. The players sulked, and the plane trip back to Lawrence was absent of any sign of celebration.
But if there was any question about how Kansas would respond, Self laid it out in plain terms.
“Now we get a chance to go to Kansas City,” Self said then, “ … and see who the best team is.”
By Saturday, there may have been another motivating factor at play as well. Earlier in the week, at the Wildcats’ rally for their piece of the title, K-State coach Bruce Weber said that he had hoped to celebrate sooner, if some officiating hadn’t gotten in the way.
He was referencing some questionable calls in the final seconds of KU’s victory at Iowa State. And while Self said he never brought those comments up to the team, he was pretty sure his players had heard those words.
On Saturday night, the seventh-ranked Jayhawks left no doubt.
“It really came down to a championship game,” Johnson said, “and I feel like it needed to be played.”
Kansas clinched its sixth Big 12 tournament title under Self, bolstering its case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in the process. But in three days in Kansas City, the Jayhawks did more than claim conference bragging rights on the eve of Selection Sunday.
They did it in a way that didn’t even seem possible one week ago. Who had freshman Perry Ellis turning into an inside beast, averaging 17.5 points in his last two games and making the all-tournament team? Who had freshman Ben McLemore being held to a season-low five points in a third battle with Kansas State — and the Jayhawks still chalking up a double-digit victory? Who had sophomore Naadir Tharpe knocking down four three-pointers and keying a 7-0 run in the second half with a perfect 45-foot bounce pass to Travis Releford in transition?
“I saw it coming,” said Releford, who led a defense that limited K-State to just six field goals in the first half.
The Jayhawks entered Saturday night’s title game after taking care of No. 9 seed Texas Tech and No. 5 Iowa State in convincing fashion. But this was more than your usual conference tournament — a four-day event that is usually forgotten by the first week of the NCAA Tournament.
Self said this game had a different feel. He knew that, at the end of the day, his team would move on to bigger things. Heck, the Jayhawks had already beaten K-State twice, and a loss wouldn’t have been devastating. But still, Self had told his players: Prove that you’re the best team. On Saturday night, they did.
“I was really glad personally we got to play K-State,” Self said. “Because even though we tied … we left little doubt leaving out of here beating them three times that we were pretty good.”
Now they will find out if they’re good enough for a No. 1 seed. On Saturday, Self said his team’s seeding didn’t matter. It’s more about matchups. But what does matter, he said, is the Jayhawks will likely be back next weekend to play their first two NCAA Tournament games at the Sprint Center. In the midst of a celebration, Self was already thinking about the next chapter.
“And hopefully,” Self said, “we’re even better next weekend.”