LAWRENCE — Kansas coach Bill Self likes to refer to this time of year as the “third season”, the weeks on the calendar where a good season can become great, or a great season can become special.
Self, of course, is not the first coach to divide seasons into segment, and his are pretty simple. There’s the first season: the non-conference schedule. Season two: the conference season. And now there’s the third: the postseason.
Then again, maybe the next week should really be considered something closer to Season 2 ½, the awkward warmup for madness.
The fourth-ranked Jayhawks will bus to Kansas City for the Big 12 tournament, where they’ll open in the quarterfinals on Thursday against the winner of No. 8 West Virginia and No. 9 Texas Tech.
Kansas can gain a few things this week, seeding for instance. After Saturday’s loss at Baylor, the Jayhawks are probably a few lengths back in the clumsy national dash for a No. 1 seed. Most likely: They're leaning toward a No. 2. Win three games at Sprint Center, and the Jayhawks should be a lock for the second line — with an outside shot at a No. 1. But lose early, and KU will risk sliding toward a No. 3.
“The bottom line is our second season is done,” Self said on Saturday in Waco. “And now the third season starts, and everybody’s starting fresh, and I can’t imagine that we wouldn’t be fresh and excited and confident moving forward.”
This is to say, this week is significant, but not necessarily vital.
In some circles, you may hear wisdom that suggests an early loss in the conference tournament can be healthy for a top team such as Kansas. They'll get a few more days of rest. There’s less pressure entering the tourney. There’s a fresh chip on the shoulder.
In other circles, you may hear the exact opposite. And that’s the thing with conference tournaments. They are not without meaning. But nobody’s exactly sure what that is.
That’s how it’s been for Kansas during Self's time, anyway.
In the five seasons Kansas has won the Big 12 tournament, the Jayhawks have averaged 2.6 victories in the NCAA Tournament. The finishes read like this, a crap-shoot of success and failure: First-round loss. Elite Eight. Title. Second-round loss. Elite Eight.
In the four years KU has left the conference tourney early, the success rate is nearly identical. They’ve averaged 2.5 wins in the NCAA Tourney. They’ve lost in the first round (2005); they’ve lost in the title game (2012).
If you’re really reaching for conclusions, you may have noticed this: During KU’s last seven Final Four runs, the Jayhawks only won the league tournament during one of those seasons (2008). By pure logic, it may indeed be easier to win six straight games than it is to win, say, 11, which is what you would have to do if you enter the NCAA tourney on a five-game winning streak.
But in the end, there’s nothing to suggest that conference tourney success is beneficial or detrimental, positive or negative. So onto the third season. But first, a stop at the Sprint Center.
Biggest losses in the Self era
The final score might have been a bit misleading — KU trailed just 61-55 late in the second half — but Saturday’s 81-58 loss at Baylor was one of the worst defeats in the Bill Self era. In fact, the Jayhawks hadn’t lost a game by 20-plus points in more than seven years.
1. 25 points, at Texas, Feb. 26, 2006
2. 23 points, at Baylor, March 9, 2013
3. 21 points, at Villanova, Jan. 22, 2005
4. 20 points, at Oklahoma State, Feb. 9, 2004
One more Self stat
There are a lot of numbers out there that illustrate Bill Self’s relentless, year-over-year success. He’s won league titles in 13 of his last 15 seasons. He’s still pacing to win 30 games for the fourth straight year, something that’s never been done at Kansas. (The lengthened scheduled certainly helps.)
And entering this season, it was en vogue to mention that Self had more league titles (eight) than home losses (seven) at Kansas. That statistic went away after KU dropped a home game to Oklahoma State in February. But on Saturday, it returned. Self now has nine league titles, and eight home losses, and he'll be able to hold onto that one for the summer.
Here’s another peculiar number to track. We're not exactly sure what it means, but it's, well ... interesting. In his first nine seasons, Self had the same number of NCAA wins (23) as he did conference losses. It was an impressive feat. The Jayhawks have averaged close to four NCAA tourney wins per season, while dropping the same number of Big 12 games.
It also means this: After Kansas finished 14-4 in the Big 12 regular season, Self will need another Final Four appearance to keep pace.