In the days before Kansas was scheduled to board a plane for road game at TCU, senior forward Tarik Black hopped on a bus on the KU campus.
These are the moments where college sports can feel less like a billion-dollar enterprise and more like a cozy fabric of campus life. On Wednesday, Black simply wanted to escape the biting cold like any other student. And the kid sitting next to him on the bus wanted to talk basketball — mostly about that night at TCU in early 2013.
Black, a senior transfer from Memphis, wasn’t around the KU program last year, so the student filled him in.
Missed layups. Atrocious offense. The Jayhawks missing 19 of their first 22 shots. It was a bizarro night of basketball culminating in a 62-55 loss at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum in Fort Worth, Texas. And by most metrics, it was an all-time upset, a team that finished the year ranked 264th in KenPom.com’s computer rankings toppled a team that would finish in the top 10.
“From what I’ve heard,” Black says, “that seems like a crazy first half, like ridiculous.”
Ridiculous is one way to put it. And Kansas coach Bill Self would probably agree. In the moments after the game, Self walked into a side room and uttered a line that would soon add a little mystique to the night.
“I think (Dr. Naismith) had some bad teams when he lost to Topeka YMCA and things like that in the first couple years,” Self said. “But for the first half, there hasn’t been a team play worse than that.”
One year later, Kansas only returns two players who played significant minutes against TCU: Junior guard Naadir Tharpe and sophomore forward Perry Ellis. In college basketball terms, memories can be fleeting. So earlier this week, Self cued up some clips from the game, including the scene of the TCU students flooding onto the court after game.
Publicly, Self will say he doesn’t like to put too much emphasis on one game — or lean too heavily on the idea of payback or revenge. But after Kansas’ 5-0 start in the Big 12, the importance of this game at TCU on Saturday night can be defined in one sentence.
“Last year,” Self said, “you win the league outright if you take care of business in Fort Worth.”
Instead, the Jayhawks shared their ninth straight title, with Kansas State.
This time, they can lay the groundwork for a 10th straight title — and an outright title — by handling business at TCU. If Kansas wins, the Jayhawks will have at least a two-game lead over K-State, Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State with 12 games to play. In other words, the Jayhawks could go 8-4 over their last 12 games — and one of those teams would have to go 10-2 to even split the title with Kansas.
For now, Self says he rarely even looks at the conference standings. But yes, sometimes he does.
“I’m not going to lie and say I don’t look at it,” Self said. “There’s times where maybe I pull for certain teams more than I pull for others. But it’s up to us. It doesn’t matter what everybody else does as long as we do what we want to do.”
Last season, a veteran KU team suffered through a three-game losing streak in the middle of the Big 12 season and still managed to win the Big 12 title and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Those benchmarks are still the goal for Kansas, and a No. 1 seed again feels attainable despite four nonconference losses. But KU can’t afford any bizarre nights in conference play.
Earlier this week, Self was telling a story about the days after KU’s loss to San Diego State on Jan. 5. His team was 9-4, and was about to face a five-game stretch against teams now ranked in the top 25.
“I don’t know if I meant this but I said it,” Self said. “We’ve got a better chance of going 0-5 than we do 5-0. I didn’t tell the players that, but I told our staff that. They’re like, no, we don’t. I’m going, yeah, did you not just watch what I saw?”
Nearly three weeks later, Kansas heads to TCU with a flawless Big 12 record. But just in case KU starts feeling that a Big 12 title is now its birthright, Black suggests another film session with clips from last year’s game at TCU.
“It might not be a bad thing,” Black said. “Just to watch and see what happened. Just to get a feel for, ‘OK we need to go down there and change things.’”
• Kansas freshmen Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins on Friday were chosen to the Wayman Tisdale Award midseason list for the outstanding freshman of the year, the U.S. basketball writers announced. The honor came a day after both were selected to the Oscar Robertson Trophy Watch list, the award for the basketball writers’ national player of the year.