LAWRENCE — The numbers are visible on a locker-room bulletin board, counting down to certain dates. The Big 12 Tournament. The NCAA Tournament. The Final Four.
If one of KU’s seniors is curious about how much precious time he has left, he can stop in the locker room and see the official clock.
“We all know it’s coming,” Kansas senior forward Kevin Young said.
There is, of course, a difference between knowing something and understanding it. And for Young and the rest of the Jayhawks’ four-man senior class, sometimes ignorance can be bliss. In a few weeks, for better or for worse, the ride will be over. But to think in those terms, Young said, means forsaking the steps that could help them to their ultimate goal: Another Final Four run, and hopefully, another crack at an NCAA title.
“We see it,” Young said, “but we don’t really pay too much attention to it.”
If any senior class in America would be qualified to speak on the merits of patience and process, it would almost certainly be Kansas’ — a group of transfers, redshirts and former benchwarmers who bided their time, waited their turn and blossomed into starters and stars.
“I think our struggles to get to where we are, it definitely helps the way we play,” said senior guard Travis Releford, the original member of this piecemeal class.
The oft-told story of this senior class goes something like this. They all came in separately, starting with Releford in the 2008-09 recruiting class. Senior Jeff Withey showed up a semester later, a transfer from Arizona who had to gorge on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches just to be a competent practice player in his first years. The following year brought Elijah Johnson, an athletic guard who was buried beneath a guard rotation that included Tyshawn Taylor, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry.
But Releford redshirted, Johnson waited and Withey kept getting stronger. And when Young, a transfer from Loyola Marymount, showed up last season, all four players played important roles in the Jayhawks’ run to the NCAA title game.
By official count, the Jayhawks are 125-17 in the last four seasons, with Johnson being the only player eligible during the entire span. That leaves this senior class just seven victories shy of the school record for a four-year period. (The 2010-11 senior class finished with a 132-17 mark in four years.)
The seniors can add to their total tonight, when No. 6 Kansas plays host to Texas Tech at 6 at Allen Fieldhouse. By KU tradition, all four players will take the floor after the game and give a speech. In some ways, there hasn’t been a more unlikely group of speakers since Self arrived at Kansas.
And with freshman guard Ben McLemore potentially making his last run through the tunnel as well, Kansas’ seniors only have so many more chances to leave on their own terms.
“When you’re young, you don’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Self said. “And now, it’s on you. It’s getting ready to hit you. So I think there’s no question, there’s a sense of urgency with those guys.”
The conventional answer would be that the struggles made KU’s seniors stronger; that all the skin-of-their-teeth victories over the last two years were the product of some sort of intangible toughness. That view, though, would gloss over their talent. Withey and Johnson were both top-40 recruits, and Releford was a top-75 recruit who drew interest from other blue-blood programs.
But while teammates kept leaving early for the NBA Draft, all four players kept coming back, leading this current KU squad to within two regular-season victories of a ninth straight Big 12 title.
“We all understand what it means to sit out,” Young said, “and just sit there waiting for your turn, and waiting for your turn, and now it’s our turn.”
Self said on Sunday that he was putting a soft three-minute limit on his seniors’ post-game speeches. Of course, he wasn’t quite sure if that would be necessary.
“I’ve heard them all talk for four years,” Self said. “And I don’t know if any of them can talk long enough.”
In other, more important ways, the Jayhawks are keeping a close eye on the time they have left.
“Their whole focus is leaving a legacy,” Self said. “You can ask them that. I think they want to be the team that has done something special because there are so many special teams that have been there before them, and that’s how they’ll be judged over time.”
Time can be a funny thing. When Releford showed up on campus in 2008, the Jayhawks were just a few months removed from a national title. Someday, he thought, he’d be going through a senior day with some combination of the Morris twins, Tyshawn Taylor and the now departed Quintrell Thomas. It didn’t work out. But after nearly five years on campus — and five years of games in Allen Fieldhouse — Releford found some kindred souls in this unlikely group.
“You can’t describe that,” Releford said. “I know I get the chills every time, running out of the tunnel and seeing the intro video to the games. That was before I played here, and on to my last game.”
Wiggins on visit —
High school swingman Andrew Wiggins, a 6-foot-7 senior from Huntington Prep (W.Va.), was slated to take an official visit to Kansas starting on Sunday. He’s reportedly scheduled to stay in town for Monday night’s game. Wiggins, a native of Thornhill, Ontario, also is considering Kentucky, Florida State and North Carolina.