Somebody's got to be No. 1: Why not Kansas?
JAN 26, 2013 9:23p ET
Reporter: "Coach, do you have any thoughts about being No. 1, potentially, on Monday . . . "
Self: "No. No way are we deserving. Somebody's got to be it, though."
And there's the rub, kids. The top of the college basketball poll has become a race of attrition, and, at the moment, every ship leaks. Duke went to Miami and woke up in Havana, shirtless and bruised. Syracuse got ambushed in Philly. Arizona was jumped by UCLA in the Wildcats' backyard. Louisville's spent the week hydroplaning down the eastern seaboard.
Which leaves you with 18-1 Michigan (No. 2 in the AP Poll and No. 3 in the coaches). Or 18-1 Kansas (No. 3 and No. 2 respectively), winner of 17 straight.
The Wolverines visit mercurial Illinois (15-5) on Sunday night. The Jayhawks on Saturday toppled Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse, 67-54, but they didn't win any style points in the process.
Kansas was smothering defensively, as per usual; Jeff Withey (13 points, nine rebounds, four blocks) scared everyone within eight feet of the rim, same as every week.
"(He) always bothers people," Sooners forward Romero Osby noted. "But I think I kind of let it get in my head that I'd missed a couple of shots."
The hosts weren't exactly razor-sharp themselves, noggin-wise. Kansas turned the ball over 14 times (compared to 11 for the Sooners), shot 43.6 percent from the floor and sank just 12-of-19 free throws. It was three parts workmanlike and four parts sloppy.
"We're too casual," Self groused, and justifiably.
On the flip side, it says something when a team can trot out a C-plus effort against another salty bunch — Oklahoma came into town with an RPI ranking of 22 and a 4-1 league mark — and still never really feel threatened over the final, oh, 35 minutes.
Sure, the Jayhawks didn't put the hammer down until late, when an 11-4 run pushed their lead to 54-39 at the 5:13 mark of the second half, and yes, point guard Elijah Johnson (eight points, four turnovers) is kind of all over the place. But the Sooners spent most of the afternoon safely at arm's length.
"Yeah, I think they're great," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger allowed. "They've got terrific athletes on the perimeter, (a) big shot-blocker inside. Guys are very unselfish. They play the way it's supposed to be played . . . they are deserving. Yeah. I hope they are No. 1."
The Jayhawks haven't landed atop the AP poll for roughly two years, having last cracked the ceiling on Valentine's Day 2011, a season in which they'd danced on or near the No. 1 spot for much of the winter. Last season — with its lowered expectations and pre-conference setbacks — was different, a bunch that didn't climb back into the top-5 discussion until league play was well under way.
Twenty-three months ago, it was expected. This time around, Self admitted, it's something of a surprise. And yet the Jayhawks' joy at the prospect, to borrow a phrase from Dorothy Parker, ran the gamut from A to B.
Senior guard Travis Releford: "Being No. 1 right now, this early in the season, does not matter. We're just focused onto the next game. We're not really worried about who's going to be No. 1 Monday. We're just trying to get better as a team."
Withey: "I mean, it doesn't matter to us. I think we still have a lot to prove."
Johnson: "Yeah, I pay it some mind, but not for public reasons. Just for us. We always felt like we could be one of the best teams in the country and right now, we have a chance to do it."
Still, Johnson also admitted, straight-up: He'll be watching Michigan-Illinois on Sunday night.
Curiosity? Something else?
"I mean, yeah," he replied. "Just because I think that's going to be a good game, but not because of other reasons."
OK, so the Jayhawks aren't exactly talking like a No. 1 team. But they seem to have no trouble walking like one.
Even if Kansas doesn't always pass the eye test, its resume stacks up with anybody's in the high-rent club. The Jayhawks head to West Virginia on Monday with a 7-1 record against teams in the RPI Top 50, a better mark than Duke (4-2), Arizona (5-2), Michigan (3-1), Louisville, (3-3), Florida (3-2), or Indiana (3-1).
While the Big 12 is deeper than you think, it's deep in potential 6 through 11 seeds, the Sooners (13-5) included. There's the Jayhawks, and then — well, there's everybody else. It's hard to find more than three losses, on paper, over the rest of Kansas' regular-season slate.
"You know, if we are No. 1, that's good, but it shouldn't really change what our focus is on the court," point guard Naadir Tharpe allowed. "Even if we're not No. 1 or No. 2, I feel like, no matter what, everybody's still going to come out and give us their best shot. So being No. 1 is a good thing . . . it would be great for us, but it's not the end of the world. It's just a ranking."
And, like the man said, somebody's got to be it.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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