LAWRENCE, Kan. — Every year, Kansas coach Bill Self insists the league is the toughest it has ever been, that there is better balance top to bottom and anybody can beat anybody on any given day.
They’re all cliches. Maybe they’re all true, too.
But here is something that is also true: The Jayhawks always end up on top in the end.
Self’s bunch begins pursuit of its 12th straight regular-season championship when the league gets rolling with a full slate of games Saturday. That would break a tie for second-most in college hoops with Gonzaga, and trail only the UCLA teams from 1967-79 for most titles in a row.
"It should be a fun time," Self said. "It will be an unbelievable league again, just like it has been, maybe as good this year as it ever has been. So whoever is fortunate enough to be the last one standings will have to be very consistent and play very well for a long time."
That’s because the Big 12 puts its teams through a double-round robin schedule, with everybody playing everybody else at home and away. So while teams may get away with playing a heavyweight just once in some leagues, every team has to face mighty Kansas at home and inside Allen Fieldhouse.
They may stop the Jayhawks once. Very few have stopped them twice.
The result has been a nearly unparalleled stretch of success. The only time Self’s teams have failed to win or tie for the league title was his first season in 2003-04, when Oklahoma State finished alone in first and the Jayhawks tied for second. Otherwise, the Jayhawks have seven outright titles and tied for four others, the last of those shared championships coming three years ago.
But the rest of the league is hardly rolling over.
Oklahoma is off to an 11-0 start with notable wins over Villanova and in the Diamond Head Classic, while Iowa State and West Virginia are expected to contend for conference supremacy.
"Expectations are different this year," Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. "These guys have never really been in this position before. But they’ll handle it well. They understand how they have to work every day, focus every day. They know how tough this league is, they know what lies ahead."
The opening three days of the conference schedule should offer a good early barometer.
The Jayhawks face Baylor and Oklahoma gets Iowa State on Saturday, then Kansas plays the Sooners two days later. West Virginia opens against Kansas State, TCU plays Oklahoma State and Texas faces Texas Tech.
As the Big 12 begins play, here are a few key storylines:
SHAKA’S SURPRISE: Texas dropped early games to Washington, Texas A&M and Michigan while adapting to new coach Shaka Smart’s style. But the Longhorns have knocked off North Carolina and Stanford in recent weeks, and now set their sights on returning to conference prominence. "He’s really brought a positive attitude to this program," Longhorns guard Isaiah Taylor said of the former VCU coach. "I think that’s something we really needed."
ENIGMATIC CYCLONES: Steve Prohm inherited a Final Four-caliber team when Fred Hoiberg bolted for the NBA. But while Iowa State has been impressive at times, near-defeats against Colorado and Iowa and a loss to Northern Iowa have some wondering if Prohm has things clicking yet in Ames.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS: The league’s coaches picked West Virginia to finish sixth, but so far coach Bob Huggins’ bunch has only lost to Virginia. "I think that’s a good thing that we were picked sixth in the league. I respect that," Mountaineers star Devin Williams said. "It’s going to allow us to stay humble, get us back to our roots."
WHO IS K-STATE: With an almost entirely new roster, the Wildcats picked up non-conference wins over Georgia and Colorado State and nearly beat the Tar Heels. But the conference season should prove whether coach Bruce Weber has enough talent to make another run to the NCAA Tournament.
MARCH MADNESS: Speaking of the tournament, will the Big 12 be able to live up to expectations when it rolls around? The league was universally considered the best in college hoops last season, then melted down in March. Iowa State lost to 14-seed UAB, about an hour before fellow No. 3 seed Baylor was beaten by Georgia State, while Kansas was ousted by Wichita State as the league went 5-7 in the dance.
"You talk about rosters, we return a lot of the top players from the league last year — the top three teams, two-thirds of those return," Kruger said. "Leading scorers, leading rebounders, they return, so down the line it seems like it’s a league that not only has talent, but it’s older talent, which will make everyone tougher."