LAWRENCE — Let’s get this out of the way. It’s more than 20 minutes after Kansas’ 67-54 victory over Oklahoma on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, another workmanlike afternoon, and now Bill Self is sitting in front of a microphone. His team played well, but wasn’t dominant. He’s satisfied, but not quite pleased. And now a reporter is wondering if his team is ready to be ranked No. 1 in the country.
“No!” Self says, his voice raising to something just a below a shout. “Nor do we deserve to be.”
Fair enough. There you have it. That settles it, right? (Maybe not.)
For the better part of a month, KU has been impressive without being a juggernaut, persistent winners without much style. Now, after the third-ranked Jayhawks (18-1, 6-0 Big 12) extended their winning streak to 17 games, these poll questions are only natural.
All across America all week top-10 teams were dropping like flies. No. 1 Duke. Co-No. 3 Syracuse. No. 5 Louisville.
The Jayhawks, meanwhile, have been college basketball’s answer to a relentless machine, bland and mechanical. In the last five games, opponents are averaging 51.6 points per game, a feat that hasn’t been equaled in the Self era at Kansas.
When the new polls are released on Monday Kansas will likely find itself in the top two in both major polls, and perhaps No. 1 in the coaches poll, where it already sits in the second position.
“We always felt like we could be one of the best teams in the country,” senior guard Elijah Johnson said, “and right now we get a chance to do it. That’s the only reason I pay it mind, not because of somebody’s opinion to put us No. 1.”
To get to this point, the Jayhawks first had to handle a surprisingly solid Oklahoma squad, a team that entered with a 4-1 Big 12 record in coach Lon Kruger’s second season in Norman. And with two superior athletes — Romero Osby and Amath M’Baye — in the frontcourt, the Sooners tried to turn the matchup into a physical slugfest.
But the inside battle seemed perfectly suited for Kansas center Jeff Withey, who finished with 13 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. Withey’s defensive presence totally locked up Osby, Oklahoma’s leading scorer, who shot 4 for 16, and helped Kansas hold the Sooners to 35.6 percent shooting.
“He always bothers people,” Osby said of the 7-foot Withey, “but I think I kind of let it get in my head a little bit.”
Earlier this week, Self said KU’s defense needed to create more opportunities to run. Of course, he probably wasn’t expecting Withey to be the one picking up a steal and leading the break, as he did on Saturday.
“I can think of better options then him leading the break,” Self said. “But the way we played today, he may have been as good as our guards.”
On Saturday, Johnson and Naadir Tharpe combined for four field goals and six turnovers. Self twice yanked Tharpe out of the game in the first half, and Johnson picked up two early fouls on what Self referred to as “wasted plays.”
And it wasn’t until midway through the second half, when Tharpe and Ben McLemore hit back-to-back three-pointers, that Kansas finally opened up a 14-point lead and seemed to take total control. Once again, it was only pretty in spurts, mostly when Withey’s blocks were turning into dunks on the other end.
“We didn’t really do much offensively at all,” Self said, “but we got easy baskets off of his defense.”
The Jayhawks will travel to West Virginia for a Big Monday game in Morgantown, a quick turnaround for a team trying to stay perfect in the Big 12. By tipoff on Monday, the Jayhawks may even be the top-ranked team in the land.
That’s a reality that Self isn’t exactly comfortable with. This team still loses focus from time to time, he says, and that can’t continue.
“This team has less a margin-for-error,” Self said, “so that’s why it disappoints me. Because they know. We’ve had seven NBA players on one team. And if those guys didn’t have their ‘A’ game, then their ‘B’ game or ‘C’ game focus-wise could still be OK. We’re not like that now.”
Maybe not. But as the rest of America lost, Kansas found another way to win.