They came for the party, and by now they’ve been through enough of these to know the rhythms.
“Enjoy the clinch,” the guy checking parking passes in Lot 90 says.
Inside, the whole thing played out a bit like that same movie you’ve watched, oh, 10 times now. Brain-rattling noise in the beginning, talented opponent plays well enough to stay close for a while, then, blammo, a three-pointer here and an alley-oop there and No. 8 Kansas is finishing off an 83-75 win over Oklahoma and another Big 12 championship to a Rock Chalk Chant soundtrack at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We talked about it,” coach Bill Self said of a 10th straight title. “But we didn’t make a big deal out of it.”
Self has done this enough now that he has a few rules, one of which is that nobody can celebrate with the trophy until it’s won outright, which means Saturday in Stillwater at the earliest. And even then, they only celebrate with the understanding that bigger things are ahead.
Which is another way of saying this had everything that drives fans at other schools furious about this place and the people here treating it like something just short of a religious experience.
The Sooners were within two points with 6 minutes left. In a lot of places, that means stress, and maybe the volume on complaining about the referees went up a tick, but mostly this was the feel of a tailgate, like the celebration in front of a national television crowd was inevitable.
And let’s be honest.
It sure has felt inevitable for 10 consecutive years now.
“Every year,” point guard Naadir Tharpe says. “That’s what we say when we bring it in at the start of summer, all the way through the conference season: ‘Big 12 champs.’ Past teams have done the same thing, so we’re glad we were able to do it as well.”
Sixty-eight players have been part of what might be the most incredible streak in college sports. Sixty-eight players over 10 years, against 13 different teams coached by 32 different men.
Rick Barnes and Scott Drew are the only coaches in the league when Kansas started this streak, way back in 2005 on Wayne Simien’s senior night. Freshmen on that team who didn’t play much ended up being the nucleus of the 2008 national championship team. That’s how it’s been for Self’s teams. Stars play right away. Everyone else waits their turn.
The streak has included bit players you probably don’t remember with names like Rio Adams and Nick Bahe and Quintrell Thomas, and first-round draft picks like Ben McLemore and Thomas Robinson and the Morris twins.
The streak is long enough that Mario Chalmers wasn’t here for the beginning of it, but now has his jersey hanging in the rafters. The streak started when Andrew Wiggins was 10 years old, and Joel Embiid was some seven years from playing his first organized basketball game.
What have you done for 10 consecutive years? Most people don’t work the same job for that long. Most marriages don’t last this long. Or bands. Kansas has been winning Big 12 championships for so long that Self got sick of looking at the uniforms and ordered some throwbacks. If they keep this up much longer, they’ll be wearing throwbacks from when the streak started.
This has been going on so long that arguments like whether the Jayhawks really get favored treatment by the officials, or how they’d do in a more consistent league, or whether their dominance is good or bad for the national perception have been created and talked about long enough to become cliché.
There is a natural distaste around the conference for a fan base that treats this kind of success as a birthright, but, you know, it’s been going on long enough that it soon will qualify as a birthright.
Not that there hasn’t been some luck or close calls. They caught a break when Blake Griffin got hurt his sophomore year. KU has shared the regular season title four times, including with Texas in 2006, the year the Longhorns beat KU by 25 in their only regular-season meeting (though KU beat Texas in the conference tournament final).
But the problem with a streak like this is that rooting interests mean so much time defending and poking holes that you begin to lose grip on just how rare something like this is.
Only four men’s basketball programs have won this many conference titles in a row. John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty is the only one to do it in a major conference and, well, if you talk about KU not having enough competition in the Big 12, you might not realize that UCLA’s conference streak started when they called it the Athletic Association of Western Universities.
Heck, Pat Summit’s Tennessee women’s basketball dynasty never won 10 conference titles in a row. Neither did Bobby Bowden’s Florida State football powers in the ACC.
Then, the UConn women won 11 in a row.
Somebody’s always the showoff.
If anything, the celebration here was a bit understated. A few signs in the crowd, Naadir Tharpe and Jamari Traylor held up 10 fingers after the game. More people than usual waited around until Self was done with a postgame interview that amounted to a nationally televised marketing pitch.
When he finished, he waved up at the people still there, smiling, holding up those 10 fingers.
In a college basketball world where success is typically judged on the NCAA Tournament, Self probably emphasizes the conference season more than most other coaches.
He’s always seen the conference season as a test of toughness, and there is nothing that Self enjoys more than tests of toughness. Win the Big 12, Self likes to say, and you have a chance at winning the national championship.
“It’s something you know coming in,” freshman Wayne Selden says. “When you commit here, that’s the standard.
But there is still an inherent understanding here that winning the league has long been something that’s more expected than celebrated.
Self has more conference titles than losses at home at Kansas. That’s an astounding fact that doubles as a simple explanation about why fans storm the court when their teams beat KU but the players here seem to digest conference championships like morning raisin bran. There’s nothing wrong with raisin bran, but you don’t want that to be the highlight of your day.
That’s why the celebrations here tend not to peak as high, and fade faster than the next one that will occur in someone else’s gym. Beating Oklahoma is nice, and another Big 12 championship is an accomplishment they’ll put on a banner above the court and the rings that players will have after the season.
But when they get back to practice this week, Self will remind them that they still don’t play enough defense, still give away too many possessions and still have so much room to improve. The Jayhawks may have played as well as they could in demolishing Texas on Saturday, then just good enough to beat Oklahoma on Monday. Those are the kinds of inconsistencies he’ll use as talking points in practices and video work.
Self likes to say that you can have a good season by winning the league, regardless of what happens in the NCAA Tournament, but you can’t have a great season without advancing in the NCAA Tournament.
A decade into this, people around here aren’t satisfied with good.