Blair Kerkhoff

Devonté Graham's the man as Kansas captures record Big 12 title No. 14

Devonté Graham wanted to return for his senior season. After last season, there was talk that Graham could follow national player of the year Frank Mason in a shot at the pros, leaving Kansas to rebuild its entire backcourt.

KU coach Bill Self even encouraged Graham, as he does for all of his players, to explore the possibility, test the waters. But Self said he received a call from Graham’s mother, Dewanna King. She said Graham wanted to return.

“I said, ‘You don’t even think he should test?’” Self said. “I talked to him after that and he said, ‘Coach, I need to be here.’”

Saturday, the day of the Jayhawks’ 74-72 triumph at Texas Tech, is why Graham returned. With a 14th consecutive Big 12 championship on the line, Graham took over the contest. Eighteen of his 26 points came after halftime, some in incredible fashion.

A deep spinning three-pointer beat the shot clock and bailed out the Jayhawks, giving them an eight-point lead with about 8 1/2 remaining, and if KU had maintained the distance, that would have been the game’s singular highlight.

But the Red Raiders have battled all season under Chris Beard, and they fought back to 68-68. For the first time, Kansas didn’t lead. Graham hit a deep two, and after a KU stop, his awkward drive into the paint and shot through defenders dropped through the bucket with 34 seconds remaining.

“Just trying to be aggressive,” Graham said.

That may have been the shot and this could be the game that makes Graham Big 12 player of the year and perhaps a first-team All-American. He deserves strong consideration for both, although Self already has made up his mind.

“He’s the Big 12 player of the year,” Self said. “You can talk about stats, but there has to be a value put on winning.”

Later, Self couldn’t come up with a player who came up bigger in pivotal game. Graham said all the right things about not wanting this to be the team, in his senior year, to end the streak. For a few weeks this season it appeared the 2017-18 Jayhawks would finish ring-less.

“Everybody thought we were going to lose it,” Graham said.

The self-placed shoulder chip is a staple of athletes these days and Graham was guilty of it there. Plenty believed the Jayhawks would emerge on top, even as late as Valentine’s Day, when Kansas trailed Tech in the Big 12 standings with the game in Lubbock looming.

Some years, Kansas goes wire-to-wire. In others, a fierce challenger will emerge, but the Jayhawks bring their best effort down the stretch while others wobble under the strain.

Tech had won all 16 home games entering Saturday. The atmosphere in United Supermarkets Arena, where students engaged in a blackout, was superb. ESPN’s traveling pregame show, "College GameDay," parked its bus in Lubbock for the first time.

A Tech victory would have tied the Big 12 standings, but with a season sweep — the Red Raiders manhandled Kansas in Lawrence —Tech would have gone into the final week with momentum and the tie-breaker.

But the Red Raiders lugged a big disadvantage. A foot injury to standout Keenan Evans had slowed Tech’s attack, and Saturday’s loss was their third straight.

Technically, the Big 12 can finish in a deadlock. It would take Kansas losing Monday at home to Texas and at Oklahoma State next Saturday, and the Red Raiders sweeping the week.

But Kansas celebrated after this one. Championship hats with “14” sat on players’ heads. A league trophy found its way into the locker room.

This streak is insane. No. 14 means there has been nothing like it in college basketball history. UCLA had won 13 conference titles in a row, with players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Marques Johnson and many more stars, a run that ended in 1979. Eight of those teams won NCAA titles.

The eras aren’t comparable. Those Bruins teams were part of the game’s greatest dynasty but some programs hadn’t even integrated when UCLA’s streak started. Still, the number was there for the Jayhawks to reach.

And the moment didn’t seem spoiled by the recent revelations that have stunned college basketball. Kansas was one of several schools that showed up in FBI documents obtained by Yahoo Sports and published on Friday. The mother of former KU star Josh Jackson was linked to loans provided by an agent and also was alleged to have received money from Adidas.

Self spent about three minutes addressing the issue to reporters in the hallway outside the KU locker room.

“Obviously, it’s a concern of everybody involved in college basketball and it will get the proper attention,” Self said. “From a sport perspective, we’re all concern. It didn’t have anything to with us today.

“I coach in our business. Certainly it’s impacted me from a negative standpoint, but I don’t think it’s impacted me a way I can’t focus on what’s important right now and that’s our team … I don’t think our guys are distracted at all.”

It didn’t seem that way as they headed to the bus, in championship hats.

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