The question was posed innocently enough, straightforward and to the point. It was Monday afternoon at Allen Fieldhouse, Bill Self answering questions just two days before No. 12 Kansas would begin its Big 12 schedule at No. 21 Baylor at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
As Self prepared to close out his weekly news conference, a reporter pointed out that Kansas has won 23 straight Big 12 openers, dating back to the 1991-92 season. We know, of course, that the Jayhawks have won at least a share of 10 straight Big 12 regular season titles. So perhaps the yearly success in the opener serves as a sort of harbinger for the rest of the conference schedule.
“Thanks,” Self said, dryly.
Yes, even after 10 straight Big 12 championships, Self is not above the simple rules of superstition. The first rule of a streak, of course, is do not talk about the streak.
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“It’s a long season,” Self said. “Eighteen games is a long time, but I really appreciate you pointing that out, though.”
In truth, it’s hard to talk about anything but streaks these days in Lawrence. From the front door of Allen Fieldhouse to the front porch of the Wheel, the focus around Kansas is on the Jayhawks’ historic streak of 10 straight Big 12 titles — and whether this latest version can keep the streak alive.
“We’re going for 11 straight,” freshman wing Kelly Oubre said last week, “So we’re kind of amping up practices a little bit — just getting self-motivated to play our best in league play.”
While the big-picture focus remains on the Jayhawks’ conference championship streak, Self has spent the past few weeks quietly making adjustments to a Kansas team that has struggled in areas at which the program normally excels. By now, of course, you know that the Jayhawks, 11-2, struggle to convert in the paint. For the better part of a decade, the Jayhawks have leaned on an assembly line of forwards and centers who would grow into NBA first-round picks, from Darrell Arthur and Cole Aldrich to the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson. This year, the Jayhawks’ three best big men — Perry Ellis, Jamari Traylor and Cliff Alexander — are shooting a combined 45 percent from the field.
So, the first tweak: Self has tried to free up Ellis and Traylor by providing them more opportunities to drive from the perimeter. He has also empowered them to push the ball up in transition, hoping to speed up an offense that has sometimes plodded along with just one healthy point guard in Frank Mason.
Self also remains hopeful that Alexander, the former top-five recruit and potential one-and-done prospect, is close to a breakout.
“We need him to be that guy,” Self said, emphasizing his words to make a point. “And even if he’s not starting, at least the way it’s going right now, he’s still our best low-post physical presence, and certainly we need him to play to that.”
The second tweak is just as subtle: After 13 games, the Jayhawks rank just 288th in the country at forcing turnovers. So in an attempt to create more havoc on defense, Self re-tooled the way the Jayhawks guard ball screens, using more traps and pressure to create turnovers.
“That’s my fault,” Self said. “But we changed how we guard ball screens this year a little bit, and it took away some aggressiveness, I think. We need to get back to being who we’ve been in the past and become much more aggressive.”
The Jayhawks showcased the faster, more aggressive style in their last two games, and the tweaks led to a season-high 19 points in transition in each game. Now the goal is to translate the re-fashioned style — and the success — into Big 12 play. After the Big 12 opener at Baylor, the Jayhawks will return home to face Texas Tech and Oklahoma State at Allen Fieldhouse. And then another brutal stretch beckons.
Kansas will sandwich road games at No. 17 Iowa State (Jan. 17) and No. 10 Texas (Jan. 24) around a Big Monday matchup with No. 16 Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 19. So in recent days, KU’s veterans have spent time trying to prepare the Jayhawks’ freshmen for the reality of an unforgiving Big 12 schedule.
“Don’t let them go in blind,” sophomore guard Wayne Selden said. “Some of us, we went in blind last year. [So] don’t let them go in blind.”
For Kansas, as conference season begins, that’s one rule. The other rule is just as simple: For the moment, don’t talk too much about the streak.
“Every game means something now,” Traylor said. “Big 12 is going to be a different feel for everybody.”
Conference championship streaks
If Kansas can clinch at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, the Jayhawks will match Gonzaga for the second-longest conference title streak in NCAA Division I history. The standard: UCLA won 13 straight Pac-10 titles during 1967-79.