LAWRENCE — We’re getting way ahead of ourselves, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self says, shaking his head. You can’t crown a conference champion in the second weekend of January.
It’s too early, he says, to be measuring the Jayhawks’ trophy case for more Big 12 crystal or wondering how many victories will be needed to secure another league title.
“We haven’t even played a game yet,” Self said.
But such are the problems when you are Self, the engineer of an unheard of Big 12 title streak, a run that reached eight straight regular-season championships last year. On Tuesday afternoon, the Jayhawks took the practice floor just more than 24 hours before beginning their quest for another title. The path starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday against Iowa State at Allen Fieldhouse.
If Self and Kansas face a daunting challenge on their way to another ring, it may have less to do with the Big 12 and more to do with the Jayhawks themselves. The No. 6 Jayhawks are 12-1 and an overwhelming favorite to comfortably win their ninth straight Big 12 title. Kansas State, ranked No. 18, is the only other Big 12 team in the Associated Press top 25 poll, and according to conference RPI rankings, the Big 12 grades out as the sixth toughest league in the country — behind the Mountain West and Pac-12.
For a team like Kansas, that can leave another conference title feeling more like a responsibility or burden than an opportunity.
“I hate to say this,” Self said. “I think it’s probably more a responsibility.”
Last season, the Jayhawks finished 16-2 in the Big 12 — the first year of the 18-game double round-robin schedule. KU won the league by two games over Missouri. The year before, KU finished 14-2 and won the league by a game over Texas.
In the KU locker room, the streak has been passed down from class to class, each new group motivated by a simple and fear-laden mantra:
“It can’t be us,” sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe said. “It can’t be us.”
When Tharpe arrived at Kansas, he heard the same thing from the Jayhawks’ veterans, including then senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, and now he’s among those passing along the message.
“Everybody always talks about not being that team,” Tharpe said.
“You don’t want to be that team, the one that messes up the streak. How would that look?”
On Tuesday, when Self was asked about the Jayhawks’ ongoing streak, he turned the question into an opportunity to talk about Alabama football and coach Nick Saban, who won their third national title in four seasons on Monday night in the BCS National Championship Game.
For Self, it all made sense.
“That humbles you a little bit,” Self said. “To win three (national titles) in four years is a remarkable feat. So no matter what we’ve done here, locally — on the national scene, there’s a lot more to be done if we want to be considered elite.”
So, yes, there was a reason Self took a moment on Monday to marvel at the making of a football dynasty. And it’s not because Alabama keeps getting the best players, or finding ways to win titles. Instead, Self says, it’s the way Saban — or any coach — finds a way to keep his team from being satisfied, or worse, entitled.
“The thing about it is,” Self said, “it’s hard not to take the foot off the gas just a little bit. I mean, it’s a natural reaction.”
A moment later, Self attempted to downplay the Big 12 streak’s significance. It’s not that he doesn’t put a premium on winning league titles; he does. But it’s more that league titles are only the first step to bigger stages. Then, Self allowed himself to ponder a dream scenario — what would it be like to deal with Saban’s problems.
“I’d be more concerned,” he said, “if we cut down nets a couple years in a row; that would be a great problem I’d love to have. But that would be a real challenge to get the next team to not feel entitled.”
Earlier this week, Self was running his team through a film session. When they finally concluded with the tape of the victory over Temple on Sunday, Self could sense a new excitement in the room. It was conference season, finally, and the Jayhawks were ready to move forward.
“They say everything counts right now,” freshman guard Ben McLemore said. “Eight in a row is great; it won’t hurt to get another Big 12 championship ring.”