Why Kansas’ title streak is one of the greatest feats in NCAA basketball history
The Kansas Jayhawks clinched at least a share of the Big 12 title on Wednesday night, the team’s 13th straight regular-season conference championship under Bill Self. That ties a record with John Wooden’s dynastic UCLA teams of the ’60s and ’70s, and makes for one of the great feats in college basketball history – better than Duke’s title/Final Four runs, North Carolina’s ACC dominance under Dean Smith and UCLA’s similar streak. And it’s almost as good, if not as good, as the record generally accepted to be the best in the history of the sport: Those Bruins winning 10 national titles in 12 years.
That sounds like sacrilege. Those UCLA teams are the pinnacle of college basketball success, never to be approached, let alone matched. (How crazy is 10 in 12 years? Even Geno Auriemma’s historically dominant UConn women haven’t come close to doing that and they’re the most impressive team in modern sports.) No one will argue that a conference championship is anywhere near a national title. Surely, Bill Self would give back all 13 regular-season titles if it meant getting a second tournament title. (KU has one during this 13-year run.) Championships and Final Fours are the only measuring sticks used for coaches.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t feats to be won outside the final two weekends of the college basketball season. Kansas has won 13 straight Big 12 titles in the deepest and most complicated era college basketball has ever seen, when even the greatest teams have down years, players leaving early for the draft make reloading an unknown quantity and recruiting is more tenacious than ever. The quicker shot clock and the constant improvement of 3-point shooting lead to more upsets. There’s more depth than ever thanks to television and the pervasive impact of online media. Players have no problem going to start for, say, Wichita State rather than being the first guy off the bench at Kansas. Success can be found anywhere and often is. Nine (9!) different schools from the Big 12 have been a top-three seed at the NCAA Tournament during the Kansas run: Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas State, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Iowa State and West Virginia. None, not even in its hottest year, could beat Kansas over that year’s stretch of conference games.
Need examples? Look no further than other how the power-conference teams fare over the same period: John Calipari’s longest streak at Kentucky is two. Mike Krzyzewski once won five ACC titles in a row, but in this 13-year stretch he has two – total. North Carolina’s longest streak since 2005 is three. Smith, who ruled the ACC like no coach before or after, had a career-long streak of four regular-season championships. Granted, the current Big 12 is not the David Thompson, Len Bias, Ralph Sampson ACC of yesteryear or even the ACC of today, but it’s still been a top-three conference over the 13 years of KU’s run. Criticism that the Jayhawks are doing this with a soft schedule is off-base. (Gonzaga, whose 11 straight WCC titles were impressive in their own right, obviously suffers by comparison given the quality of each conference.) We can agree on this: Kansas wouldn’t have won 13 straight titles in the ACC. But neither Duke nor Carolina nor Kentucky would have won 13 straight in the Big 12.
It’s the one-and-done era that makes KU’s achievement most impressive. When players are coming and going so freely, it’s only natural that teams are due for a down year every now and then, especially when you have unexpected departures. Yes, Self could prepare for Andrew Wiggins leaving after his freshman year. Nobody figured he’d be around for year No. 2. But when Joel Embiid turns into a top-three pick during the season or Thomas Robinson goes from okay sophomore to superstar junior, KU is left scrambling for recruits to fill a position that didn’t figure to be empty. That’s why Kentucky missed the tournament altogether in 2013 and Duke has lost in the first round in two of the past five years. It’s impossible to sustain greatness.
How does it happen then? It’s a two-pronged effect. Self is able to recruit both kinds of players – the superstars who will barely set foot in Lawrence before the draft takes them to Sacramento, Portland or Atlanta and the guys who come to college without the talent to go pro as freshmen but steadily improve over the years and develop into some of the best in the game. (In the second category, you have guys such as Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, the Morris twins, Mario Chalmers or Wayne Simien. This year, those roles are played by Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham.) Then you combine their talent and familiarity with the system with the explosiveness of one-and-done guys (Xavier Henry, Josh Selby, Ben McLemore, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, and Cheick Diallo and, this year, Josh Jackson) and you stay atop the sport. The superstars matter, but KU isn’t winning 13 straight because of Wiggins, Embiid and Jackson. It’s winning because of the players who complement them during their brief college flybys.
The 13 straight titles are just one of dozens of stats to show the Kansas dominance over nearly 15 years. Bill Self is 219-10 at Allen Fieldhouse, meaning he has three more conference titles than home losses. This is KU’s 17th Big 12 championship since the conference was created in 1997. The rest of the conference has eight, combined. (Remember, teams can share titles, which is why the math looks funky there.) And when Kansas shares its titles (four times in these 13 years), it has amazingly gone on to win the conference tournament or at least outlast their co-champion in each of those years. No one gets the best of these Jayhawks.
Just over two weeks from now, Kansas will be seeded No. 1 or No. 2 in the NCAA Tournament and be favored to advance to the Final Four. The naysayers will come out. “They’ve only made two Final Fours in the last 12 years! They always lose to a lower seed! They’re twice as likely to lose on the first weekend than play in the last one.” That’s all true. Kansas’s regular-season dominance has not precipitated tournament success. It’s a fact.
So is this though: Winning 13 straight regular-season championships in what’s been one of the toughest conferences in college basketball is a feat separate from national championships, Final Fours or Sweet 16s. It’s a validation of the steadiness, coolness and dominance of the best college basketball team of its era and one of the best runs the sport has ever seen.