Kansas begins chase for Big 12 title
LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP)
Kevin Young and Elijah Johnson squeezed behind a table just off the Allen Fieldhouse court and started taking questions after wrapping up non-conference play with a win over Temple.
The pair of seniors for sixth-ranked Kansas was asked whether they were looking forward to the start of the Big 12 grind, an 18-game odyssey that will include match-ups with two newcomers and all the usual pressure, intensity and nerves that come with late-season basketball.
''We're really excited,'' Young said. ''Get to see the new places we get to go to, TCU and West Virginia. I think it'll be fun this year.''
Johnson quickly chimed in: ''It's fun every year'' — probably because they win every year.
They Jayhawks will begin pursuit of a record ninth straight Big 12 title when they welcome Iowa State to the Phog on Wednesday night. The late time they failed to finish first was 2005, when Oklahoma won the title. Otherwise, they've won six outright championships and twice shared the title with Texas, in 2006 and '08, the year the Jayhawks won the national title.
''It is pretty good, and we're proud of it,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. ''We haven't got nine. We've got eight. Nine would be as difficult to win as any other.''
That may not be entirely true.
The conference is considered down this season with No. 18 Kansas State the only other team in the Top 25. The Horned Frogs and Mountaineers have both struggled, while recent departure Missouri is flying high at No. 10 as it begins its first season in the SEC.
So while a handful of schools, including Oklahoma State, Texas and the Cyclones, are capable of beating the Jayhawks (12-1) on any given night, they'll need to prove they can better Kansas over the course of a double-round-robin schedule that doesn't offer much chance of a reprieve.
The Jayhawks' remarkable run is approaching rarified status.
UCLA under John Wooden won 13 consecutive conference championships, a feat sometimes lost amid the Bruins' seven straight national titles. Gonzaga won 11 straight league titles before last season, when St. Mary's edged the `Zags by a game in the West Coast Conference standings.
The trick for Self is to spin the pressure that comes with constantly winning championships into a positive, rather than a negative. He'd prefer his players to think of winning a ninth title as an opportunity, rather than a responsibility.
''We have a chance to do something special. I think we all want to do that,'' Self said. ''But there's also a responsibility that we don't want to get our butts beat, and be the team that doesn't do it. So I think we're motivated both ways, to be quite candid.''
The Jayhawks are once again built for success. They have the nation's top shot-blocker in Jeff Withey, one of the game's dynamic freshman guards in Ben McLemore, and four senior starters — a rarity in the era of early NBA entrants — who played roles in taking the Jayhawks to the national title game last season.
They're starting to click, too. After losing to Michigan State on a neutral floor in early November, the Jayhawks have rattled off 11 consecutive wins, along the way beating Ohio State on the road, routing Pac-12 contender Colorado and fending off a game challenge from Temple.
''I didn't sleep much after watching the Colorado game,'' Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, referring to the 90-54 throttling on Dec. 8. ''They just absolutely ... from the jump ball, it was like there was eight guys on the court.''
Hoiberg should know something about Kansas' dominance. When he played for the Cyclones from 1991-95, the Jayhawks won the regular-season Big Eight title three out of four years.
''They're scary good,'' Hoiberg said. ''They do such a good job of making team uncomfortable, especially early on in games with the way they pressure, with the way they force turnovers, with the way they execute, with the way they get out in transition. It's a difficult team to play.''
Especially at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks have won 30 in a row.
Self understands the value in winning conference titles, but he also knows that Kansas is a place where legacies are defined by national championships. He won his first in 2008 and nearly a second last season, and he'd be more jazzed doing that than winning another eight league crowns.
Or even three in four years, which Alabama just accomplished in football.
''If we're not the best in our league, we don't deserve to be mentioned with the best in the country, is how I look at it,'' Self said. ''I don't think our players in any way, shape or form are ever satisfied, or confident or relaxed, based on the Big 12, because that's just part of the stepping-stone to get where you want to go.''