On Saturday, for the first time since the final regular-season game of the 2004 season, Kansas will take the floor without a chance to win a conference men’s basketball championship.
One contest remains on the Jayhawks’ Big 12 schedule and because they lost to Oklahoma 81-68 on Tuesday night, KU is eliminated from the title chase.
For the previous 14 years, that was every other team’s situation, or all but the four that shared the championship with Kansas during that time. For every Big 12 game KU played in that span a title was on the line or already clinched. Nets were to be cut, commemorative caps and T-shirts distributed.
Saturday, while Kansas State and Texas Tech are involved in contests to determine the 2019 championship, the Jayhawks will be about beating Baylor at home, finishing in third place and trying to find the right stuff to take into the postseason the following week.
Or better stuff than what was on display Tuesday. The 13-point final margin was as close as Kansas got since the opening moments of the second half. The deficit once reached 24. Fans at Lloyd Noble Center had plenty of time in the final minutes to chant, “Streak Is Over!”
The Sooners delighted in the outcome, taking down the league’s kingpin and improving their own NCAA Tournament credentials. Plus, OU coach Lon Kruger, the Silver Lake, Kan., native who starred and coached at Kansas State, was happy for the conference as a whole.
“The nine other teams in the league all kind of pull for each other,” Kruger said. “But it speaks well to Kansas and what they’ve done. When you get to that point where the other nine want any one of the other nine to win it’s a compliment to what Kansas has done.”
A KU victory Tuesday may have delayed the inevitable. A piece of a 15th straight championship still would have required a triumph over Baylor on Saturday coupled with losses by the Wildcats, home to the Sooners, and Red Raiders at Iowa State.
But the Jayhawks never gave themselves a chance Tuesday to extend the drama, undone by another road failure.
Kansas completed the away part of the schedule 3-6, the worst mark in the Jayhawks’ Big 12 history. In the streak years, no team had a better league road record than KU. If not for an inexplicable loss at West Virginia, one of the three Mountaineers’ league triumphs to date, the Jayhawks would still be involved in the conference race.
Players didn’t want to talk about the streak or road record.
“I don’t even think about it,” Dedric Lawson said.
There’s another game, the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments ahead, so no reason to look back, the Jayhawks say. No need to discuss the absence of Udoka Azubuike, lost to a season-ending injury, Lagerald Vick to an undisclosed personal issue and never having the service of Silvio De Sousa because of the FBI probe into college basketball. All were major contributors during the Jayhawks’ Final Four run last year.
Adjustments to the lineup and style have been part of the process over the past several weeks. Kansas remained competitive through the changes but it wasn’t the same team that entered the season top-ranked in the major polls.
“I don’t look at that as an excuse,” KU coach Bill Self said. “I know we would certainly be better with a full complement of players but you can say that about a lot teams. The bottom like we haven’t gotten done in the manner we hoped we could.”
Self hasn’t had to express that thought much in the past 15 years, but he did at least one other time — the year the streak began.
In 2005, the Jayhawks dropped four of their final six to fall into a first-place tie with Oklahoma. The team never celebrated the title on the floor, and the season was soon over with the stunning loss to Bucknell in the NCAA Tournament opener.
A more satisfying second championship — KU was blown out by Texas late in the season and wound up in a tie with the Longhorns before defeating them in the conference tournament title game — became a news story for the trophy presentation. Texas was presented one after a victory that clinched at least a share. Kansas wasn’t. The conference later apologized for the oversight.
A couple of stutter steps at the outset, but the amazing streak had begun and it endured through makeovers in Big 12 membership and schedules, and in one of the highest-rated leagues in recent years.
In the history of the streak, the Atlantic Coast Conference has had five different outright regular-season champions. There have been seven different outright champions in the Big Ten, five in the Pac-12, four in the SEC.
In the Big 12…one.
“It’s pretty cool that we hung in there for a substantial amount of time and we’ve taken most everyone’s best shot just about every night,” Self said. “We’ve had teams tough enough to combat that, and talented enough. You can’t do that without talent and we’ve had a ton of talent.”
The Jayhawks appeared to have it this season. But not to the same extent at the end, and for the first time in 15 years, another team will break out championship caps and T-shirts.