Kansas is ranked second in the nation, and despite some nuisance lapses the Jayhawks won their 18th straight game on Saturday when they stiff-armed Texas 79-67 at Allen Fieldhouse.
They’re in the pole position to seize a 13th straight Big 12 title, which will be four more of those than losses at home since Bill Self took over in 2003.
But none of it will have more resonance than the NCAA Tournament, the most revealing and enduring measure of the season.
And Self is entirely right when he says KU remains a gear away from what it can be — and likely must be — to make this a season to remember instead of another that sputters out amid great anticipation primed by the regular season.
“I still think there’s another big step,” he said. “I don’t think we’re all quite on the same page yet like championship-caliber teams have to be in order to have success late.”
Self is 30-12 in the tournament at KU, and he guided the Jayhawks to the 2008 national title.
Kansas has only been back to the Final Four once since, though, and it’s only advanced past the Sweet 16 once in the last four years.
This is success many would be envious of, of course, so maybe that warps the standard for what would be considered a fulfilling season.
Just the same, that’s the way it is.
And that brings us to the latest chapter on the pivotal point of where this all goes: freshman Josh Jackson, so immensely talented he likely will be a top-five NBA draft pick in a few months no matter how he plays the rest of the way.
There are other variables for KU, naturally, from staying healthy overall to defending better to developing a killer instinct that sometimes seems to be lacking.
But as Kansas enters a thorny stretch with games at West Virginia and Kentucky in the week ahead, followed by a return home against Baylor and Iowa State before traveling to Kansas State, Jackson is the key.
And he remains more a work in progress than a pillar.
On Saturday, he had 15 points and five rebounds and four steals. He even made two of five three-point attempts after entering the game two of 12 in Big 12 play to leave Texas virtually conceding his long-range attempts.
After his second open make gave KU a 66-55 lead, Texas coach Shaka Smart was left shaking his head and smiling.
But Jackson made just six of 14 field goals, turned the ball over six times and had a stake in a largely ineffective effort against Texas’ Jarrett Allen (22 points and 19 rebounds).
Though Jackson didn’t approach doing anything to draw his fourth technical foul of the season, he also continues to allowing himself to be distracted by officiating calls:
Once, he paused after going down to glare at a ref before getting up to go upcourt, and another time he chastised a ref for not calling a foul that was less than blatant.
That sort of griping is minor in one sense, but it speaks to a notion that Jackson can be distracted and expend energy on the wrong things.
And maybe in some way it helps explain how he can go off-kilter the way Self felt he did Saturday.
“He tried to make great plays when great plays aren’t there,” Self said, noting Jackson driving the ball back into help defense and trying to get fancy with a simple layup and later adding, “Josh is going to be a player who takes chances, and we want him to.
“But the thing about it with him is I don’t think he’s picking his spots — or didn’t today.”
How Jackson comes to pick his spots, and pick up his defense, will have a lot of sway in where KU lands when all is said and done.
Chances are, that’s a very good thing for this to hinge on: His talent and motor make him a special player with massive upside.
If he can refine his sense of where he is, if he can come to realize that the only good three-point shot for him is a wide-open one, he has the capacity to make his short time here last forever.
That’s why this is the perfect time for Kansas to be facing what Self called five “monster games” ahead.
This crucible will be the next phase in the making of Josh Jackson — and, thus, of KU’s season.
“We’re not in a bad place by any means,” Self said.
Just a place that has room for improvement that Jackson is best-equipped to furnish.